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Web the new frontier for activism

By Edward Norton, Special to CNN
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Mon October 31, 2011
This map shows the global community of Facebook friendships, displayed as lights on a deep blue background.
This map shows the global community of Facebook friendships, displayed as lights on a deep blue background.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Norton: Technology creating global community with new potential for activism
  • Norton learned grass-roots fundraising on a dedicated website was easy
  • You can make a website for your cause, he says, and friends tell other friends
  • Norton: Fundraising on Internet taps into widespread use of social networks

Editor's note: Edward Norton is an American actor, screenwriter, film director and producer. His commentary is part of CNN Heroes' coverage of "technology for a good cause," one in a series of issues addressed by this year's Top 10 CNN Heroes.

(CNN) -- Technology is obviously expanding, both in its actual reach into our daily lives and in terms of its creative potential. In many ways, this expansion is redefining how we see ourselves as individuals and citizens within our community. But perhaps even more fundamentally, technology is challenging us to equally expand our definition of what constitutes our 'community.'

Within the emerging new reality of truly global connectivity, technology is providing incredible opportunities for people to bridge the barriers of distance, culture and the limits of financial resources and affect the world through their own activism in ways we never could have imagined.

Consider this example: on my crowdsourced fundraising site, CrowdRise, Anthony, who lives in Australia, is backing the efforts of Jen, who lives in America and is fundraising for children's education in Africa. As I typed that last sentence, Ty in England donated $15 to Jen's fundraiser. Ten years ago this kind of interaction would have been extraordinary, now it's commonplace.

Edward Norton
Edward Norton

Over the last few years, I've been inspired by the way philanthropy is advancing -- re-wiring itself for a revolution in giving. My friends and I started CrowdRise because we had eaten too many high-priced rubber chicken dinners to support charities. There had to be an easier way to engage people in raising money for causes they cared about.

The light bulb went on for me when I teamed up with thirty runners to race in the NY Marathon to benefit the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. We started off with traditional ideas, looking for large donors and sponsors. But we wanted to take it further, to break through the formality of such strategies and find a way to engage more people. So we built out a website for the team and engaged in a grassroots, social-network driven campaign to rally a crowd to our effort. We were blown away by what happened. In less than eight weeks, we raised an astonishing 1.2 million dollars.

Until this experience, I was skeptical about social networking. It wasn't something I had found a compelling personal use for. But that marathon campaign changed my mind. Then people started calling us for tips on how to recreate our success. We quickly realized that technically what we had engineered was out of the reach of most individuals and many nonprofits and that most didn't understand the basic game-theory of crowd-sourced fund raising. We saw a need for a platform that empowered people to become activists and philanthropists in 21st Century ways and helped organizations leverage their existing supporters.

So we launched CrowdRise. The platform lets people define what causes they care about, create projects, reach out to their networks, raise money and track their impact over their lifetimes. It works because it's fun, social, creative and easy and it's massively more efficient, both in cost and labor, than traditional fund raising techniques.

An activist-networking platform has the immediate advantage of easily engaging a young generation deeply rooted in the social-networking experience, in a new mode of 'philanthropy,' 'giving back' or 'activism.' It's a space they immediately relate to and feel expert within. But it also strips away a lot of the friction in grassroots efforts familiar to my father's generation too. My dad may not be as likely to Tweet about his giving but he certainly appreciates the efficiency of CrowdRise when he goes to solicit his friends in his charitable efforts.

And there's nothing to indicate that the new internet generation is going to abandon the web as their primary means of interaction with the world as they age. According to a Pew study conducted last year, ("Future of the Internet") 67% of internet experts agreed that by 2020, millennials will continue to share their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities.

So the volume of online giving, bolstered by a host of ways for donors to share information about their giving, is going nowhere but up. The savviest nonprofits won't cross their fingers and hope the next generation finds them, they'll use new tools and new game-theory to reach supporters, quickly leaving behind the gross inefficiencies of expensive dinner-plate events.

Activists in the 21st century, I'm betting, will drive higher levels of individual giving than ever before, and the reach and power of the individual with passion for a cause will be greater than at any time in human history. Like the Japanese-American brothers in Silicon Valley who told CrowdRise they'd match grassroots donations to help stricken victims of the tsunami and had $500,000 pour in within weeks, crowds are going to rise around causes and bind people together in common purpose like never before.

Join in.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Norton.

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