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KAI RYSSDAL: The government could alter the tax code to give giving a bump, as Mr. Lewis was talking about, but one of the biggest changes to philanthropy has already arrived. Courtesy of that little innovation that's already changed so much about the way we spend money. Non-profits are using the web, things like online auctions and social networks, to increase giving. And they're learning that sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot more.
From the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio, Janet Babin reports.
JANET BABIN: It's hard not to cry at the Animal Protection Society of Durham. Don't get me wrong. The animals get excellent care, but you just know that most of them could bark you a hard luck story. Shelter Director Jennifer Brehler introduced me to a young stray named Solomon.
JENNIFER BREHLER: This is Solomon who is very high energy, is a puppy probably about five months of age.
When I met Solomon, scruffy, Benji-esque, yappy, it didn't look good. But the puppy wrote a Hollywood ending to his story with the help of the Internet. Solomon went home with Buddy Priest who found out about him online.
BUDDY PRIEST: I wanted a dog to be a friend for my dog, and the website's just a logical place to go because it's got the pictures and some stats.
The Animal Protection Society invested $1,500 into its web presence two years ago. It added more info about the animals, and sent out more donor emails. Development Director Sarah Crawford says since then, the non-profit's doubled its budget.
SARAH CRAWFORD: We went from raising about 200,000 to raising 400,000 annually and online donations increased by about 25 percent.
According to the ePhilanthropy Foundation, total online giving in the U.S. last year hit about $6.8 billion. That's an increase of more than 50 percent from 2005, but having a website and accepting online donations -- that's just the beginning. Consultant Ruby Sinreich works for the peace group, Fellowship of Reconciliation. She says to be effective online, charities need to be where their supporters hang out, whether that's the online world Second Life, or social networking sites.
RUBY SINREICH: Increasingly, people are going on the Internet to talk about the issues that they care about, and the organizations that they care about, and they're going to be doing that whether your organization is there with them or not.
Facebook has an application that lets members recruit and donate for causes, then tell their friends about it. JustGive.org is like a dating service that connects people with charities. At Change.org supporters have connected to more than 1,000 non-profits, but while network-centric philanthropy may be the future, it's not quite the present. Just 3 percent of all U.S. donations are made online. Change.org founder Ben Rattray says non-profits have yet to embrace the Internet to make personal connections with supporters.
BEN RATTRAY: Websites replaced brochures, and e-mail replaced direct mail, but the means of communication has remained largely impersonal and one-way.
Being everywhere online has a price of its own -- message control. Once you put the word out on Facebook it can take on a life of its own. Again, Ruby Sinreich, the consultant who's working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
SINREICH: We have been very oriented toward closing off our networks, grabbing supporters and then keeping them, holding a tight reign on them. We do have to give up a little bit of control, and that's hard for us.
But ultimately Sinreich says nonprofits have to trust the people who support them. A canned one-way message she says, is ineffective, compared to all those friends talking you up on Facebook.
I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.
KAI RYSSDAL:You can find more of our philanthropy series on our website -- what a tax code change might mean as well as other stories at Marketplace.org.