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Philanthropy journal – Online matchmaking – Breaking down barriers

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By Todd Cohen

Charity is about people, fundraising is about relationships and – as any good fundraiser will tell you – there’s no substitute for looking a donor in the face.

Now, philanthropy is using digital technology to tap its human roots in powerful new ways.

Last week, for example, three big tech companies and their foundations launched a new “portal” Web site to serve donors, volunteers, activists and nonprofits.

The goal of the site, Network for Good, is to stimulate philanthropy by involving more people and more nonprofits more effectively in online charitable activity.

In the two years since the AOL Time Warner Foundation launched helping.org – the philanthropic portal that now has been folded into Network for Good – the site has generated $20 million in contributions and helped connect 175,000 volunteers to U.S. charities.

While that may pale in comparison to the nearly $203.5 billion given to charity in the U.S. last year, online charity and volunteering are still in their infancy.

Chris Sinton, president and CEO of Network for Good, says the new site aims to double the donations and volunteering that helping.org has generated – excluding the surge in charity following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

As never before, that surge represents the emergence of online charity as a major force in philanthropy.

The value of digital relationships also is being tested at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which is launching an electronic marketing strategy that will deliver customized content to alumni and other supporters.

In return for content targeted to their interests, the school hopes to cultivate relationships with donors that will produce big contributions over the long term.

The idea, as the school’s consultant says, is to build trust with donors by giving them something of value.

Trust lies at the heart of charity – trust that getting involved can make a difference.

That can be a big leap of faith. Society, its institutions and the problems our communities face are big and complex, and individuals and charities can feel overwhelmed and bypassed by the “gatekeepers” that control wealth and power.

Internet technology can help change that, limiting the role and clout of the gatekeepers, and giving individuals and charities direct access to one another and to people with power.

Network for Good, for example, is designed to give individuals quick access to information about a charity, and make it easy for them to make a gift or volunteer.

The site also lets citizens become online advocates, helping them send email messages to government officials, policymakers and news organizations.

And in addition to making it easy for donors and volunteers to support them, the site provides a broad range of tools and resources for charities.

Technology cannot replace the impulse that prompts people to support charities, but it can make it easier both for charities to reach donors and volunteers, and for donors and volunteers to make a difference.

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