In the midst of the frenzied buying and selling of goods and services on the Internet, a new kind of money exchange is taking root. Call it e-philanthropy.
Web sites aimed at promoting charitable giving have been proliferating in recent months. And today, the AOL Foundation--the nonprofit arm of America Online Inc.--unveils Helping.org, an online database of 620,000 charities and 20,000 volunteer opportunities.
"The Internet is the future of charitable giving," said Daniel Langan, director of public information for the National Charities Information Bureau, which is sponsoring a national conference on "E-philanthropy: Technology and the Nonprofit Community" this Friday in Washington. "Anything that makes for a better-informed contributor is excellent."
The charity bureau has its own entry online, at www.give.org, which aims to be a kind of Consumer Reports for giving. Another is GreaterGood.com of Seattle, a site that offers users a chance to buy products from 200 charitable groups. "We're looking to introduce the concept of shopping on behalf of a cause," said Katherine James Schuitemaker, executive vice president of the company.
Operators of such sites say they are making it easier for users to research where they want to donate their time or money. And now consumers also have access to information on how charitable groups handle their finances. This week, for the first time, many of the federal tax forms filed by nonprofit groups and charities became available online, posted at www.guidestar.org, giving users an opportunity to compare how different organizations spend donors' money.
Links to those online tax forms also will be offered at the new AOL Foundation site.
Peter Hall, a researcher at the Yale Divinity School who studies corporate philanthropy, said having charities' finances available online makes the organizations much more accountable to their donors. "The implications of this are just incredible," Hall said.
He said the AOL project illustrates how technology companies are searching for different approaches to philanthropy. He said high-tech firms "are trying to explore and exploit the social change possibilities of technology. . . . Their proclivity is to abandon the model of corporate foundations."
At the same time Helping.org was being developed, AOL was creating a program called The Giving Tree, which helps the company's 12,000 workers start their own foundations and donate to charity through seminars and a corporate intranet. It is estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 AOL employees are millionaires, thanks to stock options.
Among the features on the new AOL Foundation site is a kind of international disaster wire compiled by the Red Cross that runs like a ticker across the main screen. Users of the site can click on news of a train crash or a hurricane, find out more about it and then donate money or clothing to the victims by typing in their credit card information.
Helping.org also is intended to act as a clearinghouse for research on what's called the Digital Divide, the gap between information technology haves and have-nots.
To find a charity on Helping.org, users may search by type of organization, Zip code or the size of the annual budget. Donations can be given electronically by typing in a credit card number. The volunteer channel lets people search by location, time and type of activity. Someone might want to volunteer on Thanksgiving this year, or for a month during a summer vacation.
In addition, charitable groups can use the site to research grant opportunities and nonprofit news.
"We should be able to make giving and service online as easy as e-mail," said David Eisner, who manages the AOL Foundation staff. AOL Foundation Chairman James V. Kimsey said that AOL has spent "many millions" on the site, though he would not give an exact number.
Still, users of Helping.org will have to do their own research on the effectiveness and integrity of the charities. The site simply lists every nonprofit registered with the Internal Revenue Service. "We don't want to be in the vetting business," said Kimsey. "The liability would be horrible."
Prospective donors will be able to follow the links to the charities' online tax forms or visit the groups' own Web sites. In addition, Helping.org provides links to the charity bureau and to the Better Business Bureau, both of which offer research on how well nonprofit groups accomplish their stated missions.
Most of those listed on the AOL site don't know they're on there yet. Eisner said letters and postcards will start going out soon to alert the groups and give them the chance to update their listings.
OFFERING HELP ON GIVING
Among Web sites offering guidance for those who want to contribute:
(AOL's new site)
Allows users to search for charities by location and topic; to find out about volunteering; and donate online via credit card.
Has a searchable database of more than 620,000 nonprofit organizations in the United States; includes postings of U.S. tax form 990, where charities report their finances and operations.
www.bbb.org (home page of the Better Business Bureau; click on "Charity Reports")
Covers the full range of charitable and other nonprofit organizations; typically includes information on the group's background, current programs, governing body, fund-raising practices, tax-exempt status, finances.
Builds, markets and manages "online shopping villages" for not-for-profit partners' sites, where at least 5 percent of every purchase benefits the not-for-profit's cause.
Evaluates thousands of charities and attempts to find the right one for a particular donor.
www.give.org (National Charities Information Bureau)
Publishes comprehensive reports evaluating charities by various criteria. Sample report is available online. Actual copies cost $9.95 each.
Enables users to choose charities, including local ones, that will benefit from the users' online purchases at igive.com mall.