Building a nation of citizen philanthropists

If you are bored with reading about how the social web is changing philanthropy and civil society, then I’d hit the back button at this point. But if not, you might want to find out about Citizen Effect, and their goal of turning more people into citizen philanthropists. In short, the site is one of an increasing number of ‘peer-to-peer’ type sites that connects the donor directly to the cause, in this case projects in developing countries. It uses the web to really effectively implement ideas that we talk about – building long-term relationships, really demonstrating impact.

In fact, I think their approach to demonstrating and reporting impact is simply brilliant. And that’s not just impact on the cause, its also impact of the donor.

But rather than me say what it does, here is their own words and pictures:

Citizen Effect is driven by the idea that anyone can make a real and significant impact in the world. It is our mission to provide everyday citizens the tools and networks they need to work directly with communities in need around the world. We give Citizen Philanthropists the ability to choose their project, leverage their social networks, and communicate directly with their partner community. We are also providing our field partners the tools they need to actively manage their projects so they can seamlessly share information with Citizen Philanthropists and directly report on the impact projects are having on the ground.

Citizen Philanthropists are powerful community builders. They help their partners across the world build more self-reliant and sustainable communities. But they also build stronger communities here at home by bringing people together for a common cause and promoting civic engagement. We believe giving and community building should be a central part of everyone’s life, not something left to weekends or annual drives.


What seems new and different to me about Citizen Effect is the attribution of action ‘here’ to impact ‘there’: the site allows the recipient projects to post photos or films of the work that is done with the donation. Just as importantly, it shows the impact of the donor/fundraiser – so Carolyn knows that her current project has had a direct impact on 240 lives. I think this is impressive stuff. I came across Citizen Effect via Social Earth, where you will find an interview with the CEO.

Just another piece of whizzy technology, or indicative of a broader social change? Amy Carol Wolff of Social Earth is definitely of the latter review: she argues this stuff is doing no less than ‘reinventing’ philanthropy. If it is, then we in the sector need to think a bit more about how, something we are currently doing for NCVO’s Funding Commission. Here’s a few ideas for starters, based on some thinking a group of futures people did. First, the web is faciliating ‘disintermediation’. In other words, these sort of peer to peer sites – Kiva is another, but for social lending – are going to enable more direct relationships between donors and causes, removing the organisation (ie us!) that has ‘mediated’ the relationship. (I should note here that Kiva has had some criticism)

Second, I wonder if the social web is also ‘democratising’ giving? Micro-payment systems like paypal mean causes will be able to aggregate substantial sums from small donors, meaning we take all donors seriously, not just the major donors. Incidentally, these payment systems are also leading to giving being even more ’embedded’ in the day to day financial transactions of our lives (as is currently promoted by ebay for charity). The upshot could be that people will be more likely to take control of their giving – rather than giving when asked. This stuff is really empowering donors and their networks. In fact, there seems to be real impetus around around the whole concept of citizen philanthropists: Alex Sharp argues “Citizen Philanthropy” is more than just a buzz word. It is a way of combining good-hearted people with far-reaching organizations through meaningful social networking.

Third, the social web is really going to ‘level the playing field’ when it comes to small or new organisations trying to build support around a cause. The tools needed to build these things are getting easier to use and cheaper (and not just in the first world), making the formation of new social, cause-related groups or networks ‘ridiculously easy‘. These tools make supporting and then getting feedback from your favourite cause ridiculously easy too.

Sites like Kiva and Citizen Effect are small, but cutting edge. They don’t view donors as fundraising fodder. They are also aimed primarily at US donors. I wonder if someone like the Innovation Exchange could take a look at these ideas and see if we can licence them for the UK, including supporting projects in the UK?

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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