Twitterers in 180 global cities unite to raise $500,000 for clean water

See related story and video: E-giving explosion: For many Canadians charity begins online

The micro-blogging tool Twitter is often viewed as a one-way broadcasting tool for PR flaks to post press releases and firms to flaunt their merchandize.

However, the site’s marketing potential can be harnessed for more altruistic purposes – as many are starting to discover.

For instance, Amanda Rose, a Canadian living in London, England discovered Twitter’s tremendous effectiveness for fund raising last year, quite by chance.

After posting a Twitter message asking for donations to a food bank, she received hundreds of donations.

This led Rose – and her colleague Tony Scott – to realize they could be doing much more.

So they got a group going that -using the power of Twitter’s speaker box alone – managed to mobilize Twitterers in more than 180 cities with the goal of raising $500,000 for charity: water, a non-profit that provides clean and safe drinking water to countries in the global south.

Fundraisers will take place on Feb. 12, 2009 in the form a festival, aptly named a Twestival.

Rose is Twestival’s global architect, while Scott is the global site’s Web master.

More than 175 cities worldwide will be hosting Twestivals, which will bring together Twitter communities for an evening of fun and to raise money and awareness for charity: water.

The Toronto Twestival’s goal is to raise $5,000 by communicating the message of the power of “20,” according to its coordinator Sarah Prevette.

Tickets to the Toronto event at Circa Nightclub are $20, and $20 is enough to provide water to one person for 20 years, she said.

Prevette is CEO and founder RedWire, a Toronto-based outfit that fosters networking between entrepreneurs and the global business community.

She noted that more than 1.1 billion people worldwide (one person in six) don’t have access to clean drinking water, and the cost of building a well ranges from $4 to $12,000.

It’s a huge problem but doesn’t get a lot of attention, Prevette said. “Right now people are talking a lot about the economy – so it’s easy to lose focus on broader issues.”

Lack of access to clean water affects us all, she said, as it spreads diseases, which aren’t restricted to countries in the global south.

A Twestival is taking place on every continent, with several being held in Canadian cities alone, including Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Moncton, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Some cities are choosing more low-key options, such as a documentary screening on water issues in Dallas, and a folk-singing event in San Francisco.

So far the Toronto Twestival group on Twitter has between 700 and 800 followers, and it’s sold out of early bird tickets for their event.

“It’s an incredible testament to the power of social media,” Prevette said. “This is a pure social movement. Everyone realizes they are members of the same community and there’s a growing movement to use that community to enable social change.”

Prevette attributes the popularity of the Twestival events to the power of Twitter and social networking.

“Social media campaigns are both visible and accessible,” she said. “If someone joins our Twestival Facebook group – a link [is created] to their profile for hundreds of their friends to see. This has a chain effect, which is much more effective online than offline.”

But Twitter isn’t the only social media site being used for charitable giving.

Facebook and MySpace are now recognized as excellent channels to promote a charity through widgets that users can place on their profile.

Last year, MySpace teamed up with PayPal to make it easier for more than 100,000 charities to advertise their needs. And celebrities, such as boy band, The Jonas Brothers and Heroes actor Hayden Panettiere use widgets on their personal pages to help support the cause.

Social media has the power to engage more people in a cause and inspire charitable giving, according to founder and executive vice-president of Uplej, Jeff Crane. Hosted from Lehi, Utah, Uplej is an “online giving” service that relies on social networking tools.

Crane noted that the volume of online giving increased 42 per cent between 2007 and 2008.

The “convenience” factor is one big reason for such success, he said.

“People would like to do good, but sometimes life gets in the way – people are busy with other things. These Web sites really make it simple.”

Crane said when a user joins Uplej, it’s usually through a referral from someone they know well. Users can choose to support a friend’s charity or a different one.

The sign-up cost is $4.79 (though you can sign up as an advocate for free), with $1.00 going to your friend’s charity and $1.00 going to the person that referred your friend, and so on.

From there, any other referral you make will guarantee funds for your charity.

Launched in April of 2008, the site already has a few thousand members raising money for their favourite charities by sending messages to their online contact lists.

“Nobody likes to be in the pool or movie theatre alone,” Crane said. “Community is very important to people and when they see someone they know giving to an important cause, they’re inspired to donate.”

He says the under 30 crowd – that are the most avid users of social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace – has tremendous potential to increase their level of charitable giving.

Currently most online charitable donations (70 per cent) are made by people aged 30 to 60.

But as most of who social network are younger than 30, the goal should be to reach out to these users, the Uplej founder said.

The new company president – and big supporter of initiatives that help multiple sclerosis patients – is American Idol’s David Osmond, who he hopes will help draw a younger crowd to the site.

The low cost of providing a donation will is appealing, Crane said.

“It’s the average cost of a fast food meal or a [cup of] gourmet coffee,” he said. “A lot of thought went into the donation amount and we think most people won’t mind spending around four dollars.”

Crane said while the amount may not seem much, “inch by inch, yard by yard, we want users to know that their donations will have a big impact when combined with the power of their network.”

The same thinking enabled Tom Williams, CEO of Give Meaning to raise $2.5 million for non-profit organizations, since 2005. GiveMeaning.com is an online fundraising site that emphasizes creative ideas and channels for charitable donations.

“Not many people wake up and think: where can I donate money to today?” he said. “And very few believe their solitary donation can make a difference to any organization.”

Williams said GiveMeaning.com helps users develop specific goals for donations and follow up to ensure their funds were spent properly.

He has witnessed the power of networking in action. “The original e-mail is sent to 100 and then five may forward to five other people, who would forward to five more people, and so forth.”

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