Arlington nonprofit competes for $1 million on Facebook

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jan-Michael Sacharko looked desperate.

He felt dizzy. His mouth was dry. He was pleading with Georgetown University students to vote for his homeless advocacy group on Facebook so it could win $1 million. "Do you have 10 seconds to help the homeless?" he cried out. But the money was slipping away with every student who waved him off, "I'm late for class," and strutted by on the way out of the school's Leavey Center.

Sacharko's group, the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network, needed to rally. It was down big early Wednesday, 66th out of 100 small, nonprofit organizations, with only three days of voting remaining to win the Chase Community Giving award. In the 9 a.m. count, A-SPAN, with 2,354 votes, was far behind the suicide prevention group To Write Love On Her Arms (55,633), the Uganda children's assistance group Invisible Children (53,036), the transformation through yoga group Isha (35,279), and even the breast cancer awareness group Feel Your Boobies (18,504).

"It's not over," Sacharko said. After all, A-SPAN didn't win the $25,000 award that qualified it for the million-dollar competition by throwing up its hands.

Like so many nonprofit agencies, A-SPAN could use the money. Executive Director Kathleen Sibert has dreams of finding better facilities for the homeless people she serves. Those dreams won't be realized with donations that have declined with the struggling economy.

She and Sacharko also don't want to let down the groups they recruited to help drive online votes: Doorways for Women and Families, the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless, Borromeo Housing, the Arlington Food Assistance Center, Arlington Meeting Emergency Needs, and Offender Aid and Restoration. But win or lose, A-SPAN has learned a lesson about how small, local nonprofit organizations can harness the power of social-networking media. Six months ago, the organization didn't have a Facebook page. Within that time, it has garnered more than 550 fans, some of whom have donated a total of about $2,000 and many of whom have inquired about becoming volunteers.

Invisible Children tapped into Facebook several years ago and now has more than 188,000 fans, whose votes are propelling it to the top of the Chase challenge, said Cameron Woodward, the group's social media and recurring donations manager.

Fans like the group's back story: Three filmmakers went to the Sudan looking for a story in 2003. Finding nothing, they went to northern Uganda and encountered hundreds of children running from rebels who were abducting boys to fight and girls to rape. The harrowing tale became three full-length documentaries and 100 podcasts.

In Wednesday's 9 p.m. count, Invisible Children had 69,138 votes, overtaking To Write Love On Her Arms, which had 62,229 votes. A-SPAN moved up a spot to 65th, with 2,841 votes. The voting ends at midnight Friday. Invisible Children has vowed to give $100,000 to the relief effort in Haiti if it wins, Woodward said.

At Georgetown, the heart of Sacharko's long-shot strategy to overtake the front-runners was to pull in students already registered on Facebook to vote instantly, but the students were unwittingly tearing that heart out.

Sacharko set up voting stations at American University, two campuses of George Mason University and his alma mater, Georgetown. His ace in the hole was the popular Alpha Phi Omega co-ed service fraternity, of which he is a member. Manning a folding table near the Leavey Center's door Wednesday were six fraternity members.

"Free T-shirt," shouted Jenny Devine, 22. But students breezed by as if she were a homeless person standing on a corner, asking for money.


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