Triggering a snowball effect

Updated: 2012-05-11 08:38

By Wang Jing (China Daily)

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Social media may soon become an integral tool for nonprofit organizations

Anew page was added to the annals of philanthropy in China last year, when noted journalist Deng Fei started the "Free Lunch for Children" campaign on his micro blog. The program aims to provide nutritious lunches to nearly 22,000 school children spread across the poverty-stricken areas of some 14 provinces in China.

What was striking about the campaign was it heralded the arrival of "micro-charity", or programs that use online social media to mobilize individual donors. In a country where citizen philanthropy is still in its infancy, the success of Deng's campaign can be deemed as nothing short of a miracle.

How did a free agent like Deng, who is not affiliated with any nonprofit organization, succeed in spearheading such a large fundraising campaign? Undoubtedly, his success was due to the always on, real-time Web 2.0 technologies that connect millions of social networks of compassionate individuals who may not know each other. What Deng unleashed was the viral effect triggered by micro blogs.

In today's new media environment, if you are a social media influential like Deng Fei, you can easily start a networked fundraising campaign. And if you are a social media savvy company, you can make a direct impact on philanthropy, thereby skipping the foundations and NGOs. Not surprisingly, both the free agent approach and the corporate approach posed a big challenge to Chinese grassroots NGOs, especially those located in the underdeveloped regions.

To the vast majority of these NGOs, digital media is an intimidating concept. How the resource-hungry Chinese NGOs survive the digital era and catch up with the other players in serving the underprivileged is a question that is often asked.

Few outsiders know that nearly 97 percent of China, including the hinterland, is wired. The digital infrastructure is in place, but the knowledge of how to navigate the Web is a challenge to those fighting to overcome the digital divide. A new Microsoft report on "The IT Usage of Chinese NGOs" (2011) revealed that there is a great demand for digital literacy training from NGOs.

So far, IT and software companies like Microsoft and Google have been quite proactive in providing periodic training workshops for a few select nonprofit organizations in the first-tier cities. But the NGOs in the second-, third-, and fourth-tier cities, those who need the resources the most, are often neglected.

Three years ago, together with six partner institutions in China, I launched a social media project called 'NGO2.0' ( Our goal is to provide digital and social media literacy training to small and mid-sized NGOs in western and central China. We teach participants how to use software tools to increase their capability for social innovation and sustainable growth.

The toolkit we developed comprises free, easy-to-use interactive tools that are not limited to Google and Microsoft gadgets. Among the 134 grassroots NGOs trained thus far, more than half are now putting tools like Skype, video production and sharing tools, micro blogs, and other social media tools to good use.

I am optimistic about the future of social media for nonprofit work in China. Several NGOs have followed Deng Fei's footsteps by launching small-scale Weibo campaigns to collect drinking cups for poor kids and mosquito nets for children living in Yunnan's post-earthquake zones. These are modest goals compared with Deng Fei's mission.

But social media is all about triggering a snowball effect, and if carried out persistently, those campaigns will have a long shelf life and create lasting social change incrementally.

The author is a professor of Chinese media and cultural studies and director of New Media Action Lab at MIT.