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How charities harness social media for a social impact

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“We really wanted to make the fellows and their words come alive, and the best way to do that is to hear them and see them,” says Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green.

It also found a way around a major mainstream-media stumbling block: A press release, Galinsky concedes, “isn’t an evergreen story for the media.” A video, on the other hand, has staying power for other audiences. The video announcement was passed along through Twitter several hundred times.

That breakdown is one strength of the tandem revolutions in social media and social change.

“There was once a clear information arbiter, [and] nonprofits broadcast their message to a whole bunch of people and hoped it got to enough that they could do what they needed, whether that was raising money or getting volunteers,” says Nathaniel Whittemore, founder of the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University. “What you have now is a much more symmetrical relationship in which people who are recipients of the message can also become part of the conversation.”

But the best blend of Web 2.0 and social activism may come from innovators who set out to exploit the collaborative potential of media tools. It’s just that potential that Ory Okolloh wanted to tap last year, during the election crisis and communal violence in Kenya. A Harvard University law graduate and a well-known Kenyan blogger, Ms. Okolloh asked readers to use her blog to report on the violence in real time, subverting a government ban on live reporting. “I got overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in,” she remembers. So with the help of some tech-savvy readers who volunteered their time, she set up Ushahidi, an open-source mapping software.

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