TORONTO - Faisal Sethi had long been attuned to social issues, causes and environmental initiatives, but lamented not being more actively involved.
Now he is spearheading a web-based effort to support noteworthy organizations and causes, and inviting others sharing the sentiment to do the same.
But those looking to jump on board might be surprised that giving back won't require them to dip into their bank accounts - they just have to fire up their web browsers and start surfing.
Sethi is co-founder of Ottawa-based DoGood Headquarters, which is among a growing number of organizations tapping into the multi-faceted possibilities of the web and social media to raise awareness and dollars for notable causes.
In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, mobile technology, the Internet and social media have played key roles in disseminating information about developments on the ground, and they've helped in fundraising efforts.
In the case of DoGood Headquarters, the company is fusing technology and philanthropy in an altogether different way with its development of the DoGooder, a free browser plug-in for PC or Mac users of Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari.
Once it's installed, users browsing the web will see online ads related to social issues, green initiatives and non-profits instead of generic billboards.
But it's not just ads for products and charities that will occupy real estate on sites visited by DoGooder users. Those who install the plug-in will also see tips on sustainable living, like reducing energy consumption, and statistics on social issues.
DoGood Headquarters donates 50 per cent of profits from the ad revenue back to charities and green initiatives. The donations aren't contingent on individuals clicking on the ads. There also isn't necessarily a direct correlation between the media buyer and the organization receiving a portion of the profits, Sethi said, noting the goal is to donate on a monthly basis to a variety of organizations.
What's more, users can still opt to see original site ads, or suggest causes for the organization to support. As of Tuesday, the site had more than 4,400 downloads.
Sethi said with people spending more and more time online, the Internet seemed like a natural place to start to have an impact.
"People are surfing the web today anyway, so let's work within the context of that framework and have something that is completely unobtrusive and allows you to do what you're doing anyway and allows you to do good," he said.
Sethi said he hopes the process transforms end users into activists as they gather information about products and causes. Just by taking the initiative to choose to see online advertising of ads in the genre of sustainability, green initiatives and social causes already shows a certain level of engagement and involvement, he said.
The Association Resource Centre, a consulting firm, conducted a survey of 81 Canadian not-for-profit organizations focusing on social media use. Among those surveyed, 86 per cent indicated they currently have a social media presence or expected to within the next three years.
In an increasingly wired world, social media are also being used to organize charitable events that are offline.
Rebecca Bollwitt organized two separate Twestival (or Twitter Festival) events in Vancouver last year. Twestival involves individuals in cities around the world meeting up in person with 100 per cent of ticket sales and donations going directly to support charitable causes.
Last February, about 200 people met up in Vancouver for the Twestival Global event, raising about $4,000 for Charity: Water. In September, Twestival Local brought together about 150 individuals in the city who helped raise about $3,000 for B.C. Children's Hospital. The next Twestival Global event is slated for March 25.
"With 140 characters, all you need is a date, a time, a cause and a link and people can spread the word really quickly through retweeting," said Bollwitt, who also organizes local tweetups and has participated in blogathons to raise funds and awareness for charities.
Allison Fine, co-author of the upcoming book "The Networked Nonprofit," said part of what social media does best is link individuals to information and causes through people in their own networks.
"We now have a mechanism for people to connect with one another in a real authentic way, and that's what people want, that's what they expect, and when it doesn't happen, it's really jarring now," she said in a phone interview from just outside of New York City.
"When you get direct mail, when you get mass email, we turn off from that. But when your friend sends you an email and says, `Here's a cause I'm really excited about, will you give $10 to it? You say, `Sure. There's my friend. I know her, I trust her, and I'll give to that."'
Through social media, everyone now has "the power of a newspaper, the power of a communications company," she added.
"The power that only institutions had before, every individual has now. And that changes everything."
Fine, who hosts the monthly podcast "Social Good" for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, said she sees initiatives both on and offline working hand in hand.
"One is not more important than the other. The key for every organization is to find the balance between the two," she said. "Every organization is going to have to figure out ways to connect to their supporters online and ways to raise money online as well that will augment whatever else that they're doing on land."
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