Online ecosystem – Network takes shape

By Todd Cohen

Digital philanthropy is evolving quickly from a patchwork of content-based Web sites into a self-organizing online community that can change society, a new report says.

“We’re moving from that sort of fragmented, wonderful bubbling up of innovation to more of an emerging community, emerging ecology, of sharing and learning together,” says Tom Reis, program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and co-author of “e-Philanthropy v2.001: From Entrepreneurial Adventure to an Online Community.”

The report tracks and analyzes 350 Web sites, up from 140 in the initial e-philanthropy survey that Kellogg published early in 2000.

Eighteen months ago, the new report says, the online world for nonprofits and philanthropy “was like a highway with no signs, interchanges, service centers or welcome bureaus,” and consisted mainly of scattered enterprises for giving, volunteering and finding information and people, along with online tools to help nonprofits be more effective.

Now, the report says, a online philanthropic community is taking shape with sophisticated and often interconnected services. This online community helps people give time and money, delivers data and tools to help nonprofits and philanthropic groups do a better job, and offers direct charitable, educational and humanitarian services online.

New services range from news and directories to links and promotions, with many sites offering a broad range of services and linking extensively to other sites. And a new open technology standard, known as OPX, has been developed to make it easier for groups to share data.

Lines that were blurred between for-profit and nonprofit sites have become clearer, the report says, with fundraising sites mainly run by dot-com commercial firms and volunteerism sites mainly run by dot-org nonprofit groups.

Sites focusing on donor services, organizational effectiveness and information services, however, are split among for-profit and nonprofit groups.

The Kellogg report notes some bumps in the e-philanthropy trail, including what its authors say is a reluctance on the part of online entrepreneurs to disclose details involving the ownership, management and effectiveness of their sites.

Nonprofit sites, the report says, tend to be more open about the people and financing behind their operations.

Some sites have failed or continue to struggle because of inadequate investment or philanthropic support, insufficient revenue or poor business plans.

Sites that succeed, the report says, tend to offer multiple services and tap into a healthy offline base of constituents, backers, members and organizational brand.

The report says nonprofit leaders need more tools to be better consumers of the confusing array of online business-to-business services, while nonprofits themselves need more investment in building technology into their operations.

The report also calls for stronger policies for sharing data and intellectual property, greater efforts on the part of Web services to build trust and a big push to make technology more easily accessible to groups and individuals with limited resources.

The report also hints that a “killer app” – a breakthrough technology application or “platform” that will pull together the online philanthropic world into an integrated “ecosystem” – is the focus of talks among large Internet players and philanthropies.

“These discussions are focused on building a nonprofit enterprise-driven technology platform serving the knowledge, practice and giving needs of individuals and the nonprofit sector in general,” the report says.

The report does not identify parties involved in the talks. Potential partners are believed to include AOL Time Warner, Cisco Systems, Yahoo! and a group of large foundations.

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