Nonprofits: Can crowdsourcing become community building?

Social media has great power to connect people within and across communities–geographic communities, communities of practice and interest and communities of faith and belief. How are nonprofit organizations mining these connections to achieve their missions?

Crowdsourcing is often the answer. Ever hear of Kiva, Ushahidi, Kickstarter, or the Crisis Commons? How about Wikipedia or Pepsi Refresh? Given the ubiquity of these programs, most of us have already connected in some way with the power of crowdsourcing. A term coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 Wired magazine article, crowdsourcing is the act of sourcing tasks that are usually performed by individuals to a large group through an open call.

Let’s examine some of the ways that nonprofits are using crowdsourcing.

The first order of business for many nonprofits is raising the money needed to work toward their mission. Crowdsourcing has become a powerful fundraising mechanism, especially for small and start-up projects. Kiva is a widely-known, micro-lending website that allows people anywhere to make loans to entrepreneurs around the world. By tapping into the generosity and investments of donors in developed countries, Kiva is changing the lives of thousands of hardworking men and women in the developing world. It has a 98% repayment rate and makes more than $1 million worth of loans each week to people like Mohannad, a 24-year-old grocer in the Palestinian territories, or Ada Luz, a young mother selling baby clothes and toys in Peru.

Less well-known is Kickstarter.com, through which arts and cultural projects seek funding through crowdsourcing. An example is See Savannah Art Walls (SeeSAW), co-founded by Savannah artists James Zdaniewski and Matt Hebermehl. SeeSAW seeks out artists, neighborhoods and property owners who are willing to work together to create public art. Kickstarter is currently raising money for a “muralcle on 34th street”–a rotating mural on a wall near downtown Savannah. At the time of this article,, it has raised almost $2500 of its $5000 goal from 51 backers.All across the United States, communities are launching special “giving days” or “match days” to draw the power of the crowd into providing funds for nonprofits. Colorado Gives Day raised $12 million in December 2011, and GiveMN has raised over $48 million in the last two years.

Another goal for many organizations is fostering the sharing and aggregation of information. Ushahidi provides a free, open-source program that helps people collect and map information, often related to the effects of natural disasters. “Ushahidi,” which means “testimony” in Swahili, was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Ushahidi received funding from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge. Knight sponsors numerous similar projects, including Safecast.org, which crowdsourced information on radiation levels in Japan after its devastating earthquake and tsunami. Another tool called Crisis Commons offers key resources to first responders in natural disasters.

Crowdsourcing is commonly used in the software development community: developers will often have on-line “hackfests” where they crowdsource the development of a particular software solution. The philanthropic sector is putting this energy to work in the area of healthcare reform. Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsored the Blue Button contest to encourage software developers around the world to create programs that would make medical records available at the touch of a button.

Community development is another place where crowdsourcing is gaining traction. The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham used the Prize2theFuture contest to crowdsource ideas for creating “something cool and vibrant” on one city block in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. It received more than 1,100 submissions from individuals and design teams in 39 countries, vastly exceeding any expectations.

Gathering the “wisdom of the crowd” to select prizewinners gives nonprofits the opportunity to heighten awareness and draw in new supporters. Thousands of nonprofits have raised funds and awareness through the Pepsi Refresh challenge, launched when PepsiCo decided to take the $20 million it would have spent on Super Bowl advertising and invest it in community groups. On a local scale, the Brooklyn Community Foundation sponsored the Do Gooder Awards, which drew 250 nominations of local leaders and 300,000 votes. “The Nobel Prize, Brooklyn-style” will be repeated this year after its huge initial success.

These disparate examples demonstrate how nonprofit organizations and leaders in local communities and across the world are harnessing the incredible power of the social media revolution. Our motivation to gather through new communications technology is the same motivation that used to draw neighbors to a barn raising. The tools we’re using are certainly different–we bring our dollars and voices and smart phones, instead of hammers and saws. And the barn we’re raising might be in Japan or Peru, Savannah or Birmingham, or even a place down the street. Still, we know that if we pull together, the job will get done, and we’ll have a sense of working as a community for something we all value.

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