Water.org Launches the Giving Network, Answers Tough Qs!

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Water.org launched The Giving Network today. This new social portal empowers nonprofits to connect people more directly with the issues/causes they’re passionate about through via platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Well, I have to be frank, I had some serious doubts when I got wind of this, yet another nonprofit offering. So I asked Mike McCamon (above), chief community officer of Water.org, some questions I think many people inside the space may have. He graciously responded with some very thoughtful answers. So here it is the interview, and a big welcome to Water.org’s The Giving Network.

Q: How often will Matt Damon and Gary White make appearances in The Giving Network?

MM: Interesting question: probably never. The primary purpose of this work is NOT to connect supporters online around a cause with other supporters, but rather to directly engage supporters with real work in the field and then ultimately with beneficiaries. As the barriers to entry continue to fall around standing up a fund-raising non-profit (a website, clever gimmick or maybe only a Facebook Page or Cause) we feel a tool like the Giving Network would help both supporters and non-profits.

Non-profits like Water.org work toward sector change and are intimately involved in researching, defining, piloting, funding, scaling, delivering, and monitoring proven and speculative approaches to an issue – in our case access to water and sanitation in the developing world. The Giving Network allows us to help tell this more complete story. For supporters we believe it will help them to better understand an issue, what’s involved in affecting change, and overtime how they can help. All this which we believe in the long run will provide deeper meaning and connectedness.

Concerning Matt Damon; someday I may look back on these times and regret the strategy, but we deliberately under-promote Matt’s connection with our cause. It’s there, but one of several other messages. We, and Matt supports the idea, want to make our stories about those we help.

Q: Who do you anticipate will be the primary stakeholder? Current Water.org donors and volunteers?

Short answer: supporters and donors. But let me expand the notion of a donor here as well. There are so many great causes out there and I believe it’s important these days to give people a low barrier to entry to “donate” to a cause. In fact we’ve been aggressively building tools (like this one) that allow people to “donate their voice”. A good example of that is at RT.Water.org where we allow people to “donate their Twitter status” and we every so often tweet something on behalf of our donors.

We are living in an attention economy and for many of us, just to stop, notice and then decide to learn more is a big investment. Just to prove our intentions, we deliberately decided to go with a “no charge for admission” to this tool – you can be a casual lurker never donate and and see what’s going on. We even designed a public page system as well. Visit http://our.Water.org/mccamon and see one of my public pages or http://our.water.org/project/mia-gunado/1/ to see a village.

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Q: Why do we need another social network when we already have Care2, Change.org, Network for Good, NetSquared as well as majors like Facebook which has cause pages?

MM: One of the reasons we chose to name this a “giving” network is because it is not a “social” network. Our thinking is private social networks are generally ghost towns. Our tool makes it easy for someone to login (say using Facebook – they don’t even create a new account on our site), pick a few villages and come back when they’d like to share content out of the tool. In fact we designed it for this type of use so if there’s activity set for your villages this coming week we send you an email (like LinkedIn) to keep you updated. Of course, the email includes quick links back to the site so you can share what’s going on with others – and again to share out on Facebook and Twitter.

I left tech just over a year ago (Apple, Intel, Bluetooth SIG, Sprint, etc) and I believe there is a great deal of green space in using technology to connect supporters directly with beneficiaries – and I would also argue these connections are not only more moving but actually is one thing people crave. This is our first effort to chart out this green space.

One comment I should make is some might confuse what we are doing with Kiva’s work. Kiva is a great organization doing incredible work but we are different here as well. Kiva’s reporting has long latency (like in some cases six months) and we are building a system to make it possible for us to post WEEKLY updates from the field. Longer story; but this part of the system was the biggest learnings for us.

Q: Beyond Twitter and Facebook integration — which most networks already have — will The Giving Network have any unique features to differentiate it?

MM: Hopefully I’ve gotten into that already but just for summary:

(1) It’s an open source project. Once we finish our beta we plan to release it for other nonprofits to use for their own work. When you think about it, what large nonprofit (Red Cross, WWF, CARE, etc) that does field work allow ANYONE to follow the work in real-time on the ground? I’ll tell you: not one, unless you’re a huge well-connected donor. Transparency is the new currency of trust. The GN will allow nonprofits to do this — with a tool that will be build in the open as well.

(2) We support Facebook and Twitter APIs (Connect and OAuth respectively). We are not just including a quick link button, but have integrated at the API level. This gives us nice friend invite features and simplified signon while giving us a good deal more headroom for planned features. The goal with supporting these APIs was to decrease the friction of getting some news from our site to someone’s personal online network.

(3) Timely reporting. This first beta is loaded with sample data. We are on track to re-launch with live reporting from our work later this year. Weekly updates from the field.

(4) Public and XML access to content. If you visit http://our.water.org/project/mia-gunado you will see the same content you get from XML feed http://our.water.org/project/feeds/story-region-updates/mai-alekti/4/. Both are publicly accessible pages just like you can do for individual users as well.

(5) Open Integration. While still in its infancy, we are already spec’ing out how we integrate and deploy content from mobile, and other sources in the futures.

Q: Your PR says “bottom line” business management. How will that make a difference to affecting change?

MM: Not mentioned in the release is that this work is in part funded by a Silicon Valley incumbent’s grant. They like to support work that helps the nonprofit community (they liked open source strategy) while also improving management efficiency. The project was designed to contemplate three user scenarios: (1) admins, (2) reporters and (3) followers.

What you see today at our.Water.org is the manifestation of one UI for followers. We have already talked about using the same underlying data and reporting for exception reporting on our local partners (a region of one country) for a foundation grant (one project category for an entire country) or for management here at HQ to make sure projects are on schedule. Just to prove how crazy we are we’ve already started to think how we might build out the reporter UX as well. For instance in the future, why not let actual beneficiaries “report” on project work in the field?

Longer term we’d even like to stand up an instance of this tool for the entire water sector. A not often reported fact is that water projects funded by US charities can fall prey to fraud since there is no overall oversight. A tool like this over time could help identify risk areas and help reduce business bottom-line.

At the end of the day technology enables transparency and transparency is the currency of trust. We are trying to build tools that will allow us to behave in a transparent way thereby building interest and affinity for our cause.

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