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Social Networking for the Socially Minded
Project Agape's Facebook application -- soon to be replicated on MySpace and elsewhere -- shows early signs of success, at least by one measure. Some 10 million people have used it.
An open question is whether this mass of supporters, many of them young, will lead to more giving, said Timothy L. Seiler, director of the fundraising school at the University of Indiana's Center for Philanthropy. "I think people are joining to be part of a group and that's the primary motivation," he said. "The primary motivation isn't to be philanthropic."
On Facebook, the biggest group created through the "Causes" application, benefiting cancer research at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, has attracted nearly 2.9 million members. They've given slightly more than $52,000. A group supporting the Alliance for Climate Protection has generated $17,000 from 1.5 million members.
Another question is whether the for-profit companies can find a sustainable business model.
"People in the public and especially our users are really sensitive to somebody making money," said Matt Flannery, the founder and chief executive of Kiva.
Kiva, a not-for-profit Web site that connects lenders with people in poor countries who need tiny loans to start businesses, has received plaudits from former president Bill Clinton and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. Kiva asks lenders to make a contribution to the site at the end of the lending process, though it is not required.
The for-profit Web sites note that big corporations pay millions to associate with certain causes, opening up possible advertising and sponsorship opportunities. But for now, many claim not to care much about making a lot of money.
"We're not prioritizing revenue. We're prioritizing the product and audience," Traeger said.
Traeger, 33, who came to the Washington area after graduating from Princeton, sold Christianity.com to Salem Communications for $3.6 million in 2005.
A year later, he connected with several like-minded investors who wanted to back a Web site like Razoo. The name is a New Zealand term for a small coin; Traeger likes to say small contributions, when combined, can add up to great value. The site mainly focuses on networking but still needs to integrate fundraising and other functions. With about 20,000 members, the site has yet to achieve critical mass.
"We originally thought, 'We will build it and they will come.' That definitely took too long," Traeger said.
So Razoo has given about $20,000 in grants to charities who assemble the most members on the site.