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How Might the Internet Foster Generosity?

It’s fashionable to say, “The Internet has changed everything.” But unlike most fashionable sayings, this is actually true. From how we read, to how we travel, to how we talk to grandma — there are few aspects of our lives that haven’t been changed over the last 20 years or so. The Internet and social media have also affected generosity in ways big and small.

In this essay, we’ll make the case that the Internet has made the world more generous, while also changing our traditional understanding of generosity itself.

Generosity and Money

Traditionally, generosity has been mainly about money, starting with various religions encouraging and expecting donations to houses of worship and other charities. And while generosity has always been seen as a selfless, noble virtue, there has always been a subtext that you might get something back in the long run.

Proverbs 19:17 captures this idea of giving — and getting — well: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

For those not wanting to wait to see if a higher power will be doing some repaying one day, generosity has evolved to mean more immediate rewards, such as a nice tote bag for your donation to your local PBS or NPR station, as well as tax deductions.

Today, monetary generosity is a critical part of U.S. economy. Statistics from 2011 show that Americans gave almost $300 billion to charities, about two percent of GDP (and increase of four percent from 2010 – all in the middle of a recession). Individuals gave about 73 percent of that, with corporations giving just five percent of total giving (looks like we need to make US companies more generous, but that’s another essay).

Technology has played a major role in the way people donate money. Thanks to the web, there is now more information and transparency about charities than ever before. Not just because of their own sites, but also because online tools CharityNavigator and GuideStar are highlighting data about how charities work. This increased openness has made big charities more accountable and has given small charities more visibility and funding.

Like e-commerce’s impact on shopping, the ability to donate easily online has revolutionized how and when people give money. But it’s the more recent ability to donate via text message that has turned the generosity impulse into the equivalent of an impulse buy.

We first saw this on a mass scale with the Haiti earthquake in 2010, with donations – more than $30 million worth – pouring in via mobile phones. People who have learned to buy ringtones, songs and ebooks on the run now have a way to give on the run as well, say, $10 at a time.

Another aspect of how the Internet raises money is that it’s become a two-way conversation. No longer do you send money to a big organization and hope it does some good. You can pick the specific projects to support and then expect to hear back about impact. Here’s an example, involving the hyper-social-media-aware  Charity: Water:

Just received a letter from @charitywater saying that the money I raised on my Bday were (sic) sent to the field. Boy, does that feel great. (Tweeted by Ekaterina Alexeeva).

Generosity and Time

In the same way that the Internet has helped loosen more pockets, its never ending listings of volunteer opportunities down the street and across the world have meant that those who wish to help out in substantive ways can actually do so. Looking for something low-impact at a local community center? You can find that easily. Looking to spend a summer building houses in a developing country? You can find that easily, too. Such opportunities have always existed, but it’s the availability of information, testimonials and transparency that gets people to give their time.

Generosity and Attention

Even as the Internet has affected how we give money and time, it’s even more interesting to look at how the Internet has affected how we give an even more valuable resource: human attention.

We live in a world where successful businesses, nonprofits and politicians are the ones who can capture people’s attention. You don’t need to be the biggest and the richest – though that helps. What you need to know is how to capture a sliver of attention so more people know about what you do and what you stand for.  The new ways in which we communicate: Facebook, Twitter, email, all lend themselves to quick ways to get people’s attention. And, it turns out, if you can’t give money and you can’t give time, then you can give attention to a cause that might interest you.

A Gift of 40

Social media empowers individual users to draw attention to causes they care about. I’ve had first-hand experience with this.

For my 40th birthday, I gathered some other folks turning 40 and built a little project called Gift of 40 to raise money for health projects in the country of Lesotho. While we complain about turning 40 in most countries, in that African nation, life expectancy is under 40. Forty there isn’t “the new 30” (the way people tried to reassure me as I approached my milestone), but it is the new 80. We were able to raise about $13,500 from about 230 people. It’s a tiny amount in what’s needed to improve things in Lesotho. But at least a couple of hundred people engaged, however lightly, with the idea that turning 40 is a gift, not a curse.

This generosity of attention had an unintended benefit. Hundreds of us learned that we were mispronouncing the name of Lesotho, the world’s only country completely surrounded by another (in this case, South Africa). It’s “Lesutu.” Again, getting a bunch of westerners to say the name right won’t improve the lives of those suffering there, but, surely, even a little awareness can’t hurt.

Hitting forward on an email appeal, letting others use your wall for a Facebook Cause or retweeting a fundraising request all have come in for praise and criticism in recent years.  Some feel that these are lazy actions that make you feel good, but have no real impact. This idea of “slacktivism” is easy to mock.  But it’s important to keep in mind that having even some attention, no matter how fleeting or faint, is better than no attention at all. You never know how the awareness of a particular issue will manifest itself at a later point and what impact that can have.

Examples of Ways in Which We Are Generous Today

Celebrities

The Internet and social networks have been a boon for people who in the past may have had influence, but not in a way that they could drive visible action.

Here’s an example of pop star Shakira creatively “using” her pregnancy to drive action to support contributions to UNICEF. What you’ll see on the site: “Dear Friends, Having our first baby is such an incredibly happy time for us. That’s why we want to invite you to our baby shower… with a twist. Rather than asking you to give gifts to our new baby, we’re asking you to honor him by supporting Unicef in giving underprivileged babies around the globe a healthy start in life. It would really mean a lot to us.”

An example of a Facebook friend bringing attention to this cause:

Shakira’s baby shower gesture: The singer is Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and requesting fans to buy gifts for some of the world’s poorest babies. (Posted on Facebook by Arlene Chang)

While today’s celebrities are criticized for their obsession with brand-building and charity through social media, we don’t think they are any more vain than some of their predecessors. Why not capitalize on their interest in doing good and exploit it for worthy endeavors?

Crowdfunding

Crowdsourced funding for charity has also resulted in crowdsourced funding for non-charitable projects. While this doesn’t meet the usual definition of generosity, it’s clear that being generous is a major factor in why people participate. Kickstarter, a funding source for creative projects, has raised pledges of almost $400 million for almost 75,000 projects (with a successful-completion rate of around 43%). There are many others that rely on the generosity of strangers to fund projects of all kinds. They include Indiegogo, SmallKnot and others listed in this collection by Mashable.

 Microloans

Kiva is another example of Internet-fueled generosity. Starting as a simple way to give microloans, it has now grown into a global business that has distributed more than $400 million from more than 877,000 lenders. Our pre-teen children have been active lenders, $25 at a time, to all kinds of projects around the world. Watching them respond to the completion of projects, selecting new ones and thinking about helping others has been eye opening for us. With $200 all told, they have demonstrated first-hand how much more generous they are than we ever were as 9-year-olds (or even at double that age).

Conclusion

These trends show that the Internet has increased awareness around potential ways to do good, contribute and be generous. There’s more awareness about the importance of being generous, thanks to our ability to see friends being generous themselves. This awareness is especially high among the young, whose lives are filled and fueled online.

The best part is we are just getting started. Technology is going to improve; the way we connect with each other and our projects is going to improve and we are going to get more data, more openness and more transparency than we can imagine. The resulting ways in which our generosity adapts is going to be better than anything we see today.

This essay was written with input from the author’s wife, Roopa Unnikrishnan, a strategy consultant and innovation expert, who blogs at Center10.us.

Questions for Discussion:

Discussion Summary

We began our essay on this question with the assertion that it is fashionable to say, “The Internet has changed everything.” But unlike most fashionable sayings, we suggested this is actually true when it comes to the Internet’s impact on generosity.

In essence, ease of use is a large part of the picture – like e-commerce’s impact on shopping, the ability to donate easily online and via text messages and other technology-facilitated channels has revolutionized how and when people give money. Additionally, increased access to volunteer opportunities, whether down the street or across the world, has activated larger numbers of volunteers. And finally, there is the ease or organizing and educating – through micro-loan engagement, crowdsourcing, celebrity action, etc. – and non-profits have benefited greatly, as have individual philanthropists.

Big Question readers and those who emailed us directly or engaged with the question on our Twitter and facebook feeds tended to largely agree, often illustrating with their own little case studies.

As we suggested in the essay, we have also seen that the Internet has helped our children understand the meaning of generosity. They are avid users of kiva, and participated, peripherally, in Sandy-related efforts. It has been a sobering, humbling and inspiring experience for them, to know that a similar amount of money that they’d need for their next Lego toy can actually help someone get one step closer to financial independence.

Just as the discussion and comments we received personally indicated that the Internet is affecting generosity in many ways, we continue to see its effect in our lives. On March 10th, we will run a 5-mile race to help a little girl called Rafi who goes to our children’s school. Rafi suffers from Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) or the “Worst Disease You’ve Never Heard of.” The fact that one email from the school linking to the site, could motivate us to try the run, have us post about it on Facebook and Twitter, and in the matter of a few weeks raise $509 is a testament to the Internet’s power to engage, educate, motivate and give back.

Two New Big Questions

1. Some readers wondered about government aid – and we pose that to you as a question to consider some time – “How does the Internet increase or shift the focus of the US government’s aid programs?”

2. How has the Internet changed the way our children contribute philanthropically to society?