Let’s be real: The nonprofit model is broken. The 20th-century way of guilting people into giving to an opaque, inefficient organization with massive overhead is no longer a viable model. The good news is that a better way of unleashing the charitable spirit in us all is being pioneered by the same geeks who are using the internet to make the world a smaller, more social place.
In 2007, I started Breadpig, a social enterprise that makes things that geeks want and then donates the profits to charity. I describe it as a “Newman’s Own for Nerds,” a hat tip to Paul Newman, the OG of social entrepreneurship. Like Newman, we turned something we love into a way to help causes we care about. So far, Breadpig has raised over $190,000 dollars to build schools in Asia and fund kibble kitchens in San Francisco. (Newman’s enterprise has raised more than $300 million — but they’ve got a quarter-century head start on us!)
I am not being self-congratulatory: Breadpig has worked so well because of a tremendous cultural shift created by open source software and the user-generated revolution it facilitated. Founders discuss building communities as much (or more) than building fortunes. The same developments that have made it possible to make a billion-dollar company out of an investment equal to the cost of a new Ford Focus (see: Airbnb, Dropbox) have also made it possible to build a robust social enterprise with little more than an idea, a laptop, and an internet connection.
If the internet has taught us anything it’s that we can feel a connection to people we only know by their usernames. We routinely see scenes like this bubble up on reddit and feel empathy. We watch total strangers celebrate their wedding and smile along with them. And in an age when we can see photos of a stranger’s breakfasts across the globe, if you’re not creating a connection between those who want support and those who want to give it, you’re doing it wrong.
Fortunately, a new generation of nonprofits forged online has found ways to build a community around giving. DonorsChoose.org lets you pick the classroom project, see the children you’re helping (even get thank-you notes from them) and feel connected with the teacher you’re supporting. Kiva.org makes a microfinance institute in Yerevan feel as real as your bank down the block because you can see its clients and read about its lending history. There aren’t many places online where Christians and secularists can get together in a productive way — but look at the top two Kiva lending teams. The former has been responsible for helping over 6 million students with over $100 million raised while the latter has facilitated over $290 million in loans to help over 700,000 entrepreneurs. Neither is a decade old.
These nonprofits work because they make a $25 donation feel like a $25,000 donation. If we can see photos of someone’s stroopwafel as she’s eating it in Amsterdam, we’d better be able to see where our donation’s going and what kind of impact it’s making. Keep this in mind next Christmas when your mailbox is flooded with requests to send checks off to vague charities and foundations.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. But the era of Sally Struthers poverty porn has thankfully ended. The way forward is by making the giving process more transparent and letting the givers take ownership. Bring on the philanthrogeeks.
If you contribute to a DonorsChoose.org project and use the code “Breadpig,” Alexis will match your donation.