Mitchell Silverman noticed in running his book-trading website, Bookins.com, that even while processing hundreds of thousands of transactions involving people shipping books to others, problems rarely arise. Those who swap books take great care in packaging and shipping them, often sending kind notes to the recipients, who are strangers.
"The insight that I had from that business is that people like to do nice things for each other," Silverman says. He pondered "how to take this idea of one person giving something to another person" and applying that to help nonprofit organizations attract donors of items for people in need.
The result is The Giving Effect, a for-profit website launched in June that now has more than 1,000 organizations registered across the U.S. Potential donors enter their ZIP codes to find nearby organizations that are registered at the site, which also makes ample use of social media to spread the word about The Giving Effect and the results it is achieving. Central to the site is a revolving set of "stories" about organizations and donations they've received, with mechanisms built into the site for easily sharing those stories across social media.
Many nonprofits, particularly smaller ones, are not yet making use of social media, Silverman finds, and so helping them do that more easily is a central aspect of The Giving Effect. While prominently displayed links to Facebook and Twitter are becoming more common, nonprofits don't always fully utilize social media as a key tool to publicize their work. But they can reap enormous benefits from becoming more social-media savvy.
"I heard about it on Twitter," says Blake Raab of how he found out about The Giving Effect, which is based in Brooklyn, New York. Raab is executive director of Bears on Patrol, which is based in Carrollton, Georgia, and supplies free stuffed bears to police departments to give to children in crisis situations. Holding a toy bear has a calming effect on children and so giving kids something to both calm and distract their attentions has become an increasingly used practice by police departments. Bears on Patrol has grown to supply 24 police departments in 19 states with bears. "I saw a tweet about it and so I looked into it," Raab says. "I set us up there right away."
That was soon after The Giving Effect site launched. Since then, one donor has provided bears twice. The group has also received a donation of 20 or so stuffed animals, while others have given four or five bears at a time. "We're fairly small, so The Giving Effect has been a really big thing for us," Raab says. "I think it really levels the playing field for a small nonprofit like us. We're struggling and trying to get out there and it's very helpful. People have things that they don't use anyway and to just have our presence out there [online] makes it that much easier for them to find a place for something they don't need anymore."
While nonprofits as a rule struggle when it comes to fundraising, it's often the case that it's much easier to get people to donate all sorts of things they don't need or want anymore.
"I've been astounded at how relatively easy it is to get people to give their stuff," says Laurie Gross, director of community relations for the Jewish Center for Community Services in Bridgeport, Connecticut. While fundraising is difficult, obtaining donations is not, she says. "You'd think in a down economy that people would be holding on to their stuff a little longer -- au contraire."
Her organization operates a program that takes in clothing for men, women and children, and small household goods -- "anything that you don't need a truck to move" -- and provides those items to needy people in the community who are referred by social service providers.
"This project has grown so that we get over 11,000 visits a year," she says. "We see 9,000 individuals coming through our door."
Silverman, whom she did not know and has not met in person, contacted her to get her to sign up at The Giving Effect. Since then "people have sent us children's clothes and sleeping bags -- all kinds of stuff. To date, everything that has been offered, I've pressed 'accept,'" she says of the site's process.
Gross has not yet gotten into using social media. "That's my next step," she says, adding that her organization has received a grant to bring in a consultant to develop a strategic plan including fundraising and marketing, and developing a social-media presence is part of that.
Meanwhile, Silverman has focused his efforts of late on drumming up interest for the site and its mission during the holiday season. The guiding principle of The Giving Effect -- that people like to do nice things for others -- comes across in both e-mail exchanges and in a telephone conversation with him, and the kindness that he conveys also was noted by Raab and Gross.
Silverman suggests that kindness will beget more kindness, so The Giving Effect also aims to help people show the causes that are important to them. "It's not just sharing on Facebook," he says. "It's all the SEO that is built into the site." Through that search-engine optimization, search results on individuals may display their "kind acts," which helps in "building up that person's brand online."
The site makes money through brand marketing and got its start through venture funding from angel investor Richard Adler and Silverman, who is co-founder and CEO of the business. Although the chief concern has been to get the site up and running, Silverman has a list of future hopes for the effort.
"What I would love to do is to get some businesses who would like to be part of a pilot program to create a page on our site to give donations, and we would aggregate their donations and they could share that on their Facebook page or their Twitter page," he says. Such a pairing would "provide them with free, authentic high-value content [for their social-media sites], which is in the form of a thank you for their donation."
Also on his priority list is finding sponsors to pay shipping costs for promotions to charities. "For example, 10,000 boxes of books to 10,000 kids living below the poverty line. We have many charities that could use the items, and many donors would be happy to give, especially if the postage was paid for by a sponsor," he says in an e-mail.
That links back to another aspect of the notion that people like to do nice things for others, which is that technology can be a great enabler for that. There are likely limitless possibilities. For instance, it's often the case that after a wedding there will be flowers left over that will be thrown away, but "they could improve someone's life somewhere -- they could go to a nursing home and maybe it would just brighten up their day and improve their outlook," Silverman says. Often, it my seem inconvenient to try to connect the flowers with the nursing home, but, in fact, it's also possibly the case that people who work at the nursing home would be willing to pick up the flowers if only they knew about them.
"If we could just connect them through technology," he says, "we could create something special."