The Report

Social networks change the ways we change the world

Social networks change the ways we change the world

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Sites like Causora.com, Crowdrise and Causes.com are making it simpler for individuals to donate time, skills and money to favorite charities or causes.

When Hurricane Sandy hit my former and beloved home in New York City, I was distraught seeking ways to help from San Francisco, unable to contribute much financially.

It turns out this conundrum of being compassionate, philanthropic and ready to get involved -- but less-than-wealthy -- is a common one. But some individuals haven't let this be a barrier to their charitable impulses. When a yogi in southern California desperately wanted to help after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she decided to donate her skills to help raise money, offering yoga lessons to benefit victims.

Her ingenuity was the inspiration for Causora.com, a one-year-old startup created with the idea that whatever your qualifications or skills are, you can turn them into charity. “[My friend] raised money by doing what she loved to do, and got new customers for her own business,” says Causora founder Kai Buehler about the aforementioned yogi, who wishes to remain anonymous. “We started looking around at the marketplace for it, and couldn’t find anything.”

Buehler only launched Causora during the 2012 holiday season, but she already has recruited celebrities to help raise awareness for the new platform. In addition to all the yoga, massage, search engine optimization help services and technical support offered on behalf of various causes on the site, Marc Anthony is offering tickets and backstage passes to his benefit concert for Maestro Cares, a non-profit Anthony founded to create safer and healthier environments for Latin American children.

“Right now it’s amazing to see the creativity in the community, including a 'shoulder to cry on' for $5,” Buehler says. “You’re donating your time.”

Causora is focused on providing a service platform for people who want to help, no matter what form that help takes. So far, 150 charities have joined the platform, and the next step for Buehler and the Causora team is implementing a gift card and credit system on the site, so you can donate to your favorite charity and receive a $20 dollar gift card toward services listed on Causora.

New rules for charitable giving

Causora joins an ever-growing space in new media focused on activism, community involvement and philanthropy facilitated by Web sites and social networks. Before platforms like Causora, its unrelated cousins including Fundly, Causes.com, Crowdrise, StartSomeGood and Razoo (among many others) cropped up to address a similar question: what is the best way, or an alternative way, for people to give back, when donating money is the status quo?

Crowdrise, out of Detroit, offers incentive-based giving with a gameification twist: whomever raises the most for their particular cause receives a prize (whatever that might be). It’s their own way of opening up the world of philanthropy for more people. “It’s not just about top donor,” says co-founder Robert Wolfe. “It’s about who tries the hardest. You don’t have to have a million Twitter followers or millions of dollars.”

Unlike a lot of startups, Crowdrise wasn’t trying to fill a gap in the market. Its mission when it emerged two-and-a-half years ago was to make the philanthropic space more fun. This is one key to getting people more involved more often, Wolfe believes.

“If you get an email from one person raising money for cancer research, and another [similar] email from a someone saying they will dye their hair blue when they reach their goal,” he says, “you’re definitely donating to the one who said they’d dye their hair blue.”

Social networks focused on philanthropy or activism also offer a way for people to demonstrate that they live a charitable life. For example, each Crowdrise member gets a profile where he or she can catalog and comment on their various activities.

One of the first startups to enter the social charitable giving space was Causes.com, founded by Sean Parker and Joe Green. It was among the first 10 applications to launch on Facebook and just launched as a standalone platform in 2012.

“The headline for Causes is really that we are the social network for social good,” says Causes.com CEO Matt Mahan. “It’s the world’s largest platform for people to engage in politics, activism and philanthropy.”

Causes focuses on the consumer, the individual person who is passionate about a cause. The primary focus isn't donations, rather it's on raising visibility for a cause by using the best parts of social media to bring people together to learn and take action. The site now supports 185 million users, making it one of the top five largest social networks in the world.

Cultivating grassroots involvement

Given those numbers, it's clear that people want to be involved, and the issues they care about are personal.

“It’s an interesting combination,” Mahan says. “On the one hand it's a basic fact of human nature that people want to be involved and make a difference, but the reason for the explosion now is that technology is rapidly growing and it’s easier and easier to put out an app, a Web site, a platform. Everyone is a publisher and everyone has a voice.”

Fundamentally changing the way people participate in the world around them will take more than just changing the tools they use to take action. Making a difference from the bottom-up is a daunting task, Mahan admits. For now, though, he views the rise of people taking to the Internet to get involved as a great start.

“New tech allows people to get involved who otherwise probably would not, that’s the hopeful side of this,” he says. “In a world dominated by top-down communication and in an ever-growing and complicated world, we feel small and powerless. Newer technology has given a glimmer of hope: I can participate, I can learn more, things are more transparent, and it’s better than getting home to a mailbox full of donation solicitations.”

The ultimate goal for Causes.com is to help people see immediately whether or not what they did is making a difference, or they're likely to be cynical or alienated by this method, too. “If we all get it right,” Mahan says, “it’ll be a great benefit to democracy.”

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure