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Philanthropy must harness the Web

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By Ben Hecht

Talk of Web 2.0 is everywhere you turn.

FaceBook, YouTube and blogs are the poster children for the power of Web 2.0.

Time Magazine recognized as its 2006 Person of the Year the millions of Web 2.0 devotees who “are changing the nature of the information age creators and consumers of user-generated content [that is] transforming art and politics and commerce”.

What we have not heard through the Web 2.0 din, however, is how it will be harnessed to change the world for good.

Why? Because we, in the philanthropic sector, have yet to embrace fully Web 1.0, let alone Web 2.0.

Web 1.0 largely was about the rush for commerce to expand its presence on the World Wide Web.

Web 2.0 is largely about people and their ability to collaborate, share and generate content as never before.

While most businesses had migrated to Web 1.0 by the dot.com bust in 2000, those working for the public good still have not.

We have not used our bully pulpit and grant dollars to force existing “businesses” like government, nonprofits and advocacy organizations to evolve.
Most nonprofits, for example, still use the Web to house their static, online brochures.

By now, Web 1.0 for nonprofits should have meant ubiquitous online, searchable databases of child-care providers, real-time chats for customers with expert staff to build personalized financial or career paths, and virtual health coaches that assist people in managing their long-term diseases.

Similarly, most government Web sites still are relevant only if you need to pay taxes or parking tickets.

By now, Web 1.0 for government should have meant the availability of online training for local living-wage jobs, recertification for public benefits like housing and childcare, and real-time, after-school tutoring of kids in the safety and privacy of their own homes.

Web 2.0 has an even greater potential to transform philanthropy because it is about empowering the individual user.

Imagine a video generated from a cell-phone camera in the hands of someone trapped in Darfur and distributed on a YouTube-type Web site dedicated to human rights.

Imagine 10,000 public-school children in Washington, D.C., forcing school reform by collectively and publicly giving failing ratings to their teachers.

The possibilities are enormous.

What does philanthropy have to realize the potential of Web 2.0?

We must advocate, educate and innovate.

First, we have to make it clear that we expect the sector to move well beyond the use of the Web for online brochures, applications, reporting and fundraising.

Second, we must hold up successful applications of Web 1.0 and 2.0 strategies and help grantmakers to make good decisions through working groups, conferences, newsletters and articles.

Finally, we must make it easier to innovate.

The private sector will ensure that sufficient capital exists to fund Web innovations that result in private inurement.

We must do the same for Web applications that will benefit the underserved.

Some leading foundations like MacArthur, Hewlett and Knight have already begun down that path.

A broader, sector-wide initiative would support greater, long-term innovation.

The hype about Web 2.0 gives us a great opportunity to reflect on where we need to go with the Web to effectuate social change.

We can harness it to change the world and the way the world changes if we intentionally commit ourselves to doing so.


Ben Hecht is president, chief operating officer and co-founder of One Economy Corporation in Washington, D.C.  

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