Each day in the philanthropy blogosphere, somebody spills some digital ink covering the emergence of new platforms for social action. Online communities such as Facebook Causes, DonorsChoose, Kiva, Change.org, and SixDegrees are the most frequently cited harbingers of change in the way philanthropy happens.
The attention lavished on these platforms is a net gain for micro-philanthropy. With each blog post, more people find innovative ways to support grassroots initiatives. Recently, even mainstream media outlets such as MSNBC (Facebook Causes), Oprah (Kiva), Steven Colbert (DonorsChoose), The Wall Street Journal (Change.org), and CNN (SixDegrees) are covering micro-philanthropy.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement that surrounds these initiatives. But maintaining a critical lens is equally important. I am concerned that few, if any, social action platforms are currently leveraging the self-organizing potential of social media to address the root causes that make online social activism necessary in the first place.
As food for thought, here are two excerpts from Wikipedia’s entry for “root causes”:
- “Solving a problem by addressing root causes is ultimately more effective than merely addressing symptoms or direct causes.”
- “An issue closely related to solving an existing problem is [how] to foster learning that will embed knowledge (within a person, group, or organization) that may help prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.”
As legions of digital natives start to self-identify as citizen philanthropists, they should be given online tools that permit them to do more than donate to an existing organization or recruit friends to a cause.
Instead, micro-philanthropists should be as respected as large-scale philanthropists. They should be treated in a way that implies that they can address the root causes of a problem and spread the knowledge required to resolve similar problems.
The following exemplify deeper level corrective actions that social action platforms could facilitate:
- Creating feedback mechanisms where individuals and beneficiaries of nonprofit programs can immediately inform the program staff whether a service is having the desired effect;
- Pioneering innovative models for philanthropy where individuals can coalesce into collective grant-making bodies that fund community-level social change projects;
- Building a tax-deductable open marketplace for funding outstanding individuals and informal projects;
- Using constituent and donor pressure to bring about new forms of collaboration among nonprofit groups and foundations.
Will platforms like Facebook Causes, DonorsChoose, Kiva, Change.org, and SixDegrees render top-down organizations obsolete? Do they bypass old-school methods of fundraising and grant-making? Have they planted the seeds for a society composed of highly motivated micro-philanthropists?
When the millions of active users on these platforms are busy addressing root causes instead of symptoms, then my answer to these questions will most certainly be, “yes, yes, and yes.”
Peter Deitz is a micro-philanthropy consultant and the founder of Social Actions, a website that helps individuals and organizations use social media to plan, implement, and support peer-to-peer social change campaigns so that grassroots solutions to local and global problems can flourish. He also writes a blog about micro-philanthropy.