- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Peter Corbett keeps tabs on his faraway friends via social media outlets such as Twitter.com and Facebook.com.

When he saw a buddy based in Boston using his Twitter account to raise money for charity, Mr. Corbett quickly did the same. Every time a new person signed up to follow Mr. Corbett on Twitter, he would donate 50 cents for a noble cause.

“It becomes a race to the top, a competitive sprint to do good things,” says Mr. Corbett, chief executive of District-based iStrategyLabs, a group that offers interactive marketing tips to businesses.

Social media sites can do more than reunite old friends or help them swap the latest news updates. They give charitably minded souls another avenue to give back, raise money and spread the word about good causes.

Running a marathon to raise money for a favorite charity? Go on Facebook and let everyone in your social media circle know how to chip in. Want to inspire friends and colleagues with your good deeds? Post your favorite charities on your Linkedin.com home page.

Mr. Corbett ended up donating $2,500 to Greater D.C. Cares, an organization that arranges volunteers for a variety of causes, and the rest to Share Our Strength, a group dedicated to wiping out child hunger.

He wasn’t alone. Two other friends on Twitter made similar offers to their online pals and raised thousands more.

Word-of-mouth marketing is one thing, but the Web offers asynchronous word of mouth, he says.

“I can say it once, and people can read it a day later, or a year later, or pass it around. It has a life to it,” Mr. Corbett says. Plus, sometimes an Internet user need only click a button to help a cause.

“It’s a small amount of engagement,” he says.

Jay Vilar, a District-based philanthropic entrepreneur, gives new meaning to the simple process of clicking through a Web page. He set up www. altruisticventures.org, a travel portal that lets people book flights and other trips while raising money for charity.

“You get the same products and services through my site, …but those purchases get kicked back to supporting nonprofits,” Mr. Vilar says. “It opens up a tidal wave of connections that wouldn’t have been possible before.”

Social media sites benefit from the culture’s increased comfort with online transactions, he says.

Other sites are taking advantage of the Web’s social strengths.

This month, Tributes.com, a site where people can post obituaries and tributes to loved ones who have died, is running its Light a Candle program. Visitors to the site can opt for a free online memorial candle or purchase one, with all proceeds this month going to the American Heart Association.

Elaine Haney, president of Tributes.com, says the online gifts, similar to ones seen on Facebook, enable people to stay connected “without time or geographic barriers.”

Ms. Haney says online obituaries boast a viral nature that traditional print media can’t match.

“The information tends to get passed along,” she says.

That opens the door not just to fond remembrances, but to ways people can raise money online to help conquer the disease that may have taken the life of the person in question.

Emily Starnes of Capitol Hill ran the ING Miami Half Marathon Jan. 25, raising $7,000 in the process to go toward battling pancreatic cancer. The disease took her father nearly four years ago.

She wouldn’t have raised so much cash without Facebook.

Her Facebook outreach raised roughly $500 on its own, but she also used the site to remind friends who she previously had e-mailed about her fundraising mission. One casual acquaintance contributed $100 thanks to her Facebook outreach, though she admits she never would have e-mailed the person directly.

“I would definitely use it again. Now I have more friends on there. … Every week you get a few more friends. It can only grow from here,” Ms. Starnes says.

Sarah Repking, director of marketing and communications with Greater D.C. Cares, says her organization started using Facebook more than a year ago to spike interest in the group’s projects.

“The best thing about it is the instant communication, the viral nature of it,” Ms. Repking says.

The pace of sites like Facebook can be dizzying, which means groups must stay on top of their social media outreach.

“It’s amazing when you go on Facebook, [users] are writing what they’re doing every minute of the day. You almost have to keep up with that pace to keep them engaged,” she says. “If we’re going to be able to stay a dynamic and interesting option for people, we’re going to have to adapt.”

Ms. Repking says her group hasn’t fully embraced Twitter just yet, and it might take a full-time employee to tap all the benefits available via social media.

Social media outlets aren’t perfect. Spammers occasionally get in the way of the best-laid online plans, and benevolent types always run the risk of pushing too much, too often.

Mr. Vilar says using the Web to enable charitable work is paramount.

“Looking at the economic times and climate that we’re in, there’s an immense amount of work to be done,” he says.

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