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Online mobilization magnifies voice

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[Editor’s note: Social media — Do nonprofits get it? What do you think?]

By Rosie Molinary

On the surface, Philadelphia Forward’s reform campaign may have appeared too ambitious.

Established as a nonprofit, non-partisan citizens’ organization promoting Philadelphia as a vibrant place to live, the 2007 local primary elections were of particular importance to the group’s vision.

So it decided to follow its ambition.

How could Philadelphia Forward empower voters to voice what they wanted to see in their local government, and how could it engage candidates in the discussion of these issues?

Years ago, the answer would have been a grassroots door-to-door canvassing campaign complete with a petition drive followed by a poorly attended candidates’ forum.

But these strategies now are making way for new ones in today’s high-speed, wireless world, experts say.

To tap into those new strategies, Philadelphia Forward partnered with Evolve Strategies, a full-service communications firm that uses new media to mobilize issue advocacy, nonprofit support, and political organization

Together the two groups created R.E.F.O.R.M. Philadelphia, a dynamic, interactive web-based reform ballot that steers clear of leaking pens and unanswered doors.

By going virtual, the group bolstered its efforts, says Rob Stuart, president of Evolve Strategies

“We wondered how it would be if we created a process for all citizens to submit specific agenda items about what could be done to achieve reform in Philadelphia,” he says.

Using wiki technology, a process that allows any registered user to edit a site, Evolve created a site where visitors could suggest specific reforms, vote on their top reforms, and ultimately published a reform ballot that showed where candidates stood on the issues.

“We pushed the envelope on technology in several ways,” Stuart says of the process used to create the agenda, the mapping of supporter locations, and the virtual petition and ballot used in the campaign.

Stuart sees these efforts as a necessity, not a luxury, for nonprofits.

“When I first started, we had to convince people to use technology because their fear was that it was just going to isolate people,” he says.  “What has been shown is that technology can actually be very effective at getting people out into the streets because it allows for the passion around the cause to be more effectively and wisely communicated, not just through words, but through pictures and multi-media.”

Leveraging the passion an individual has for a cause is what motivated Richard Waldvogel and Dan Werling to create Giveness.

The online community merges social networking with philanthropy by allowing individuals to shop in the name of a nonprofit, which in turn receives all the commissions on purchased products as a donation.

The site also allows members to link to one another to learn more about the member nonprofits they support.

“A lot of nonprofits don’t have time or resources to take advantage of the technologies coming out,” Waldvogel says about how he came to use software engineering skills to build the network.  “We are trying to be a free service that can help them take advantage of this emerging technology.”

To that end, Giveness soon will launch its latest feature.

Widget technology, which gives the user access to an icon graphic that can be placed on desktops or on multiple sites, will allow a Giveness user to easily access or share personalized content.

Whether trying to create dynamic, multi-media web pages, networking in online social communities, or leveraging the latest wiki and widget tools, nonprofits using technology to engage their supporters are dynamically transforming their capabilities.

“Technology is an area that deserves investment from nonprofits,” says Stuart.  “The possibilities are increasing and the costs are decreasing, so it is a really great formula for innovation and change.”

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