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How charities harness social media for a social impact

Networkers shift from sharing info to linking up to effect change.

Ushahidi, an online service, brings attention to underreported events such as rural polling in Afghanistan, election protests in Kenya, voting in India, and water shortages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (pictured).

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Scott Harrison’s new media revolution started by accident.

Mr. Harrison is the founder of Charity: Water, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing clean water to impoverished villages in Africa. In January, he got an e-mail from a British woman who wanted to test Twitter as a fundraising tool. Amanda Rose thought the microblogging site, with its 30 million users, might have some cash power, and if it did, she wanted to put the cash in Harrison’s wells.

Ms. Rose organized the first-ever “Twestival,” an event whose name blends “Twitter” and “festival.” Using this instant-messaging power, Rose organized a series of 200 off-line charity events around the globe, from concerts in New York to knitting groups in Brussels, that raised a combined $250,000 from 10,000 new donors. The Twestival became a media meme, but what Harrison did next launched Charity: Water’s reputation as a social-media colossus in its own right.

“We orchestrated a live drill for them in Ethiopia. We drilled the first Twestival well live, broadcast it via satellite to the 202 cities,” Harrison says. “We actually allowed people to tweet in questions” for the well drillers.

Harrison’s nonprofit is one of many using social media in surprising new ways. As the Internet comes of age, social media has changed the way nonprofits do business. They’ve advanced beyond getting the word out on Facebook and raising money with Twitter to find a unique overlap between the mission of nonprofits and the methods of new media.

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