During the lead-up to the Iraq Warfor good reasons, a subject overlooked in conversations about social innovationI found myself marching through the streets of Montreal, New York, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. The people I was protesting alongside had many chants. The one that stirred my emotions every time went, “This is what democracy looks like; this is what democracy feels like.”
Digital natives like me are inclined to cut and paste any number of lofty terms and subject them to the same reality check we challenged democracy to in the lead-up to the Iraq War. The phrase that I belted as loud as I could in 2002-03 passed judgment on more than just the political events of that moment. It confronted directly the television and glossy magazine culture I was born into. In hindsight, it seems to have anticipated the citizen advocacy, citizen journalism, and now citizen philanthropy movements that emerged in the years since.
Before 2002-03, democracy for me was no more than the provider of political entertainment, be it Bill Clinton playing the saxophone or parodies of George H. W. Bush saying “it wouldn’t be prudent.” In practice, it consisted of my parents stepping into a poll booth once every four years, just to cancel out each other’s vote for U.S. president. The emaciated version of democracy in which I grew up asked simply that people vote and laugh. (See Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death for more insights on television and democracy.)
Chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and experiencing what it felt like to say those words with hundreds of other turned-on, concerned citizens created something more authentic and quantifiably better than the democracy I had known. Democracy became an invitation to hit the streets and speak up.
For this reason, the phrase has stayed with me through the crime of aggression that eventually unfolded in Iraq. In the years since, I have seen projects emerge that invite citizens to flip the funnel on broadcast media and agitate for social change. Projects like AskYourLawMaker and Spot.us are showing people what journalism should look like. Initiatives like the Care2 Petition Site, ThePoint, and PledgeBank are demonstrating what advocacy should feel like.
For my part, I have been putting together a network of likeminded people who, if the need ever arose, could hit the streets with signs that read, “This is what philanthropy looks like.” On the citizen philanthropy front, we have a common goal of making the age-old institution of philanthropy more user-friendly and user-generated. Like advocacy and journalism before it, we are transforming philanthropy from a top-down process into an invitation for the grassroots to speak up and make something happen.
The new philanthropy doesn’t require millionaires, corporate social responsibility programs, or large endowments to run. Instead, it runs on the resources and passions of real people. No one owns it, but everyone can participate. Registered 501(c)(3) organizations take note: Citizen philanthropists don’t make grants just to institutions. Through social networks, blogs, text messages, and email, we fund one-off events in our local communities as well as our friends’ projects and outstanding individuals trying to effect positive change on the other side of the world.
Like any movement that has broad appeal, citizen philanthropy has produced strange bedfellows. A contributor to the SSIR opinion blog recently described the phenomenon in terms of online giving markets. This vocabulary of choice in philanthropy borrows heavily from the very free market system that produced the television and glossy magazine culture that some of us citizen philanthropists oppose. I like to describe citizen philanthropy as a direct critique of consumerism, replacing opportunities to consume with opportunities to give back or take action.
Capitalist or anti-capitalist, the television and glossy magazine culture against which I raged in 2003 has no place in the new philanthropy. Foundations and nonprofits are learning that glossy is a bad word among digital natives; that direct mail increases an organization’s ecological footprint; and that TV spots are a waste of time. Citizen philanthropy, as it matures, is touching many hundreds of thousands of people. These people are serving as full partners in the change they want to see in the world. They are helping to fund, implement, and evaluate micro-philanthropic initiatives from start to finish.
Sometimes these initiatives require many people taking a simple action. For instance, the DarfurWall has recruited thousands of people to donate just $1 to combat the crisis in Sudan. At other times, citizen philanthropy initiatives involve just one or two people devoting time and toil to more labor-intensive actions. In 2006, a friend of mine spent six months drawing attention to an individual’s struggle in Nepal and in the process became intimately connected to that person’s life and future. She is now working full-time to advance the citizen philanthropy sector.
For philanthropy to be true to its name—love of humanity—then indeed, this is what it will have to look like.
Peter Deitz is a micro-philanthropy consultant and the founder of Social Actions, a Web site 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.