Online innovation by non-profits: The missing link

Yesterday, a very interesting conference took place in Athens, the “Social Media and Communication” event organized by the Institute of Communications.  All in all, it was exciting to watch a true “culture clash” between the “old” (marketing/advertising community) and the “new” (web2.0 and e-gov/e-politics people), two worlds that rarely coexist in the same room!

But once more, as in the case of past Interactive Marketing Conferences organized by the IAB, a glaring oversight was evident once more:  The – almost – complete lack (barring G700 and Yanis Larios’s excellent presentation) of speakers and themes around the non-profit sector, one of the most innovative and early adopting sectors worldwide.

This of course reflects on the state of things in Greece where the non-profit sector itself is underdeveloped but is no excuse for the well informed social media and communication people who are an information collection maniacs bunch of people.

The undisputed fact that non-profits are early adopters of innovations in the online world (the most brilliant ones are called “social entrepreneurs”) is a result of very rational and simple facts:

  • They are not bound by the straitjacket, the inflexibilities and introversion of the business sector
  • They possess a unique capacity to attract talent and young creative people who find ample room for experimentation (before they move on to the private sector to make some money)
  • They don’t have the budgets for conventional marketing tactics, so the web as a tool for communication, collaboration, marketing, fundraising etc, is almost a one-way road for them with respect to cost/benefit constraints
  • Their objectives are varied – its not only customer acquisition or sales, but “impact” – so the uses of new technologies and online media have to serve more complicated goals, uses that constantly need fresh thinking.
  • They need to overcome the indifference of people by being creative: they have no other way to grab attention (their “currency”)
  • The “larger” ones address the widest target group of all: Everybody, and this is a marketing challenge
  • They need to manage, organize, collaborate, persuade, mobilize, disseminate, campaign, fundraise ….all at the same time! (…someone recognizes  different “platforms” behind those words?)
  • …the list could go on…

So, it is a pity that what international organizations, think-tanks, digital agencies, some academics etc acknowledge, the local business community is oblivious to it, losing valuable insights from innovative case studies and projects around the world. Some examples:

Amnesty International (with their Crisis Prevention and Response Center (CPRC)), put up the “Eyes on Darfur” amazing project which monitors 12 distraught villages in Darfur, through a combination of novel tracking techniques using satellite imagery and geospatial data. The result is satellite photos of villages before and after various hardships suffered (that was back in 2007). The site allows for mobilization around the issue via various methods. By the way, the design merits of the website itself would be the envy of many business web sites.


Amnesty International has also launched, another beautiful site, aiming to “tear down Guantanamo and end illegal U.S. detentions one pixel at a time”.


Way back at the end of 2006, Asociación Mensajeros de la Paz (Messengers of Peace), a humanitarian organization which seeks to fight poverty and improve the situation of vulnerable people around the world, through a Second Life awareness campaign featuring a homeless avatar, raised enough money to provide a month of healthcare and education for a real-life child. Second Life is also used for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life event which has run for 4 years and raised virtually more than $118,000 in 2007.

Of course, one of the largest grass-roots mobilizations in the world, the GCAP (Global Call to Action Against Poverty) campaign and especially its UK counterpart MakePovertyHistory, implemented such a sophisticated online campaign which will take years for the Unilevers and P&Gs of this world to copy with any success….and all that back in 2005! 

You can also read a Times article from 2007 about charities using Facebook and MySpace deploying various applications. Also read here about others, like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) or the JustGiving application in Facebook which allows you to donate and raise money for 3000+ UK registered charities and has reached 100,000 installations.
And of course the latest Twestival, the twitter event for Charity:Water which raises money to provide safe, clean water to people around the world, should also give some ideas on how to use the latest buzz-tool.

The examples are numerous but lastly, it’s worth remembering that TakingITGlobal and OneWorld, have long been true and sophisticated community sites that go back before the Facebook/MySpace era (they were not called “social media” back then).

The non-profit sector has truly amazing cases to show, way before any marketing executive catches on with the latest buzzwords and trends (which by then are yesterday’s trends).

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