Social Networking for the Socially Minded
Monday, December 17, 2007
The office of Razoo on Connecticut Avenue blends two distinct cultures common in Washington.
It has the feeling of an Internet start-up, what with programmers clicking away, big flat screens, an espresso machine and funky green carpet. Yet the photos on the walls from Rwanda and other poor countries and the 11 employees, age 23 to 33, suggest it could just as easily be a nongovernmental organization.
The combination is no mistake. Razoo is a company that has built a Web site to connect people with one another, much like social networking giants MySpace and Facebook, but in support of humanitarian objectives such as preventing homelessness in the United States and helping families who live in a Nicaragua trash dump. Users and causes each have their own pages.
"YouTube is transforming TV. Google has transformed advertising," said Razoo founder J. Sebastian Traeger. "The Web will do the same thing for philanthropy."
Traeger, who built and sold a previous online venture, is following in the footsteps of several other Internet entrepreneurs who are trying to reinvent philanthropy. They hope to apply the tools of the digital age -- such as social networking and peer-to-peer and viral marketing -- to an industry long criticized for its slow-moving ways.
It's not the first time tech entrepreneurs or Web sites have gotten involved in directing money and attention toward social causes. What's striking about the current movement, though, is how technology and philanthropy are intersecting with the start-up, for-profit culture of the Internet.
Risks abound. The for-profit companies are operating in a nonprofit world. And it's not clear if the hype surrounding their potential will be met by reality. "While the fusion of commercial values and non-commercial values makes sense and has promise, it's not going to be this magical cure," said Jeff Trexler, a Pace University professor who has studied the phenomenon.
"Like with any movement there's going to be a shakeout," he said.
Last week, AOL founder Steve Case's foundation announced it would award $750,000 in grants to charities selected by Internet users. Part of the contest will be administered through a "Causes" application that lets users of Facebook affiliate with and donate to charities.
The application was built by Project Agape, a venture-backed start-up in Silicon Valley created by Sean Parker, a former Facebook president and founder of the file-sharing service Napster, and Joe Green, the Harvard roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Others take different approaches. The Omidyar Network, started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, invests in for-profits, such as Digg, the social news site, and also backs a wide range of nonprofits. Google created a for-profit company for supporting social causes.
By merging social networks and philanthropy, the idea is that people will be more likely to give money or support to a certain cause if their friends do. The Internet also holds the promise of cutting down on bureaucracy and the high administrative and marketing costs associated with raising money.