When the going gets tough, the giving gets creative

By Mike Elgan, ITworld |  Personal Tech, acts of kindness, charitable giving

Imagine buying groceries and, just when you're about to pay, being told that your food bill has been paid already. By Yahoo!

That's what happened to hundreds of customers recently at the Mission district Foods Co, a grocery store in San Francisco. Yahoo representatives stood at every cashier station, paying up to $100 for groceries until they had spent a whopping $10,000.

The same thing happened at a nearby UPS store. Yahoo staff paid the shipping charges of people sending holiday packages. And there's more to come. The company plans to pay for people's airline luggage fees on Dec. 23.

What's going on here?

The Sunnyvale-based online giant was paying all these bills to motivate others to give during the holidays using a program called How Good Grows. The idea is to initiate a pay-it-forward chain of goodwill and kindness.

The program is bolstered by a Twitter-like social site where participants can post their holiday good deeds, and others can click to "Like" those posts.

When someone sees a posted "kind act" and is moved to add one of their own, the original post gets a "ripple" or ring around it. The more "ripples," the more people a post has inspired to act. The idea is to make real the phrase "ripple effect" for random acts of holiday kindness. You can literally watch the influence of your random acts of kindness grow.

A participant named Jessica posted that she's "buying all the tickets for my child's class to go see a special holiday play for kids!" Someone call Robyn "did grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor." And a guy named Michael "found someone's bag they left behind in the bathroom stall at the airport and turned it in to lost and found." Each of these posted acts of kindness inspired between three and seven other acts, and many of those inspired others.

The creative and attention-grabbing "How Good Grows" Yahoo initiative is part of an incredible new world of tech-fueled charitable holiday giving. Companies are using social media, mobile devices, viral Web sites and a lot of ingenuity to foster the holiday spirit of giving and break new records in charitable contributions -- even during the economic downturn.

Keeping Tabs on Giving

If you're a web surfing maniac, and you know you are, now you can give during the holidays by simply opening a lot of browser tabs.

Google is now making available a Chrome for a Cause browser extension. Here's how it works. Visit the Chrome for a Cause site and download extension. Once installed, your normal, everyday web surfing results in significant donations by Google. The more tabs you open, the more Google donates.

A Google blog post announcing the program gave the following examples:

10 tabs = 1 tree planted
10 tabs = 1 book published and donated
25 tabs = 1 vaccination treatment provided
100 tabs = 1 square foot of shelter built
200 tabs = 1 person's clean water for a year

It's a great way to give, because it doesn't cost you anything and you can make a difference by simply doing what you were going to do anyway: Surf the web. Because you're spending Google's money instead of your own, even starving students can be generous this year.

If you want to take advantage of Chrome for a Cause, don't wait. The program lasts only until December 19.

The Salvation Army's Social-Networking Salvation

We've all seen Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells on the sidewalk and asking passers by to drop coins and cash into red kettles. It has served the organization well for a long time. But nowadays, it's not enough.

Start your own online kettle

More than 110 years ago, a Salvation Army captain came up with the idea of using a red kettle to gather donations to help feed the poor during the holidays. Since then, the practice has spread internationally.

In recent years, however, those kettles have been coming up short. As people increasingly use credit and debit cards, they tend to carry less cash and change. One solution rolled out a few years ago was to enable bell ringers to accept credit cards. But that still didn't entirely solve the problem.

Technology was killing the Salvation Army's holiday donations. Now technology is saving it.

The Salvation Army is using social networking and smart phones to extend the red kettle program into cyberspace. By simply texting the message "DOGOOD" to the number 90999, you can donate $10 to your local Salvation Army branch.

The organization is now recruiting everyone it can to become "bell ringers" on Facebook and Twitter. Like Yahoo's "How Good Grows" system, the Salvation Army's is designed to let giving spread virally. You can start your own online kettle, set your donation goal and send the link to family and friends. At first, the kettle isn't red, but becomes increasingly so as you approach your goal.

The organization also has a free bellringer app for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. (Search the app store for "bellringer.") It's just a picture of a bell, and it rings when you shake the phone. It also has what you need to accept donations for the Salvation Army. You can also get a bell ringtone by texting "BELL" to 50555.

By creating these online, mobile and social tools, the Salvation Army is showing how giving can be satisfying, easy and even fun.

How Twitter and Facebook Boost Holiday Giving

It turns out that Twitter is a great way to both give, and inspire others to give during the holidays.

A Twitter-oriented ad network called OneRiot together with a Twitter app directory called OneForty are serving up display ads to promote Charity:Water, a nonprofit organization that helps people in developing nations get clean drinking water. The ads will spontaneously appear on a variety of third-party Twitter apps like Seesmic, Tweetcaster, Storify, Twimbo, Qwerly, Accessible Twitter, Blu and others when you type in holiday-oriented words like "holidays" and "Santa" in your tweets.

The ads will simply say: "Give Water." When you click on them, you'll be taken to a donation page.

An organization called HelpAttack uses Twitter to make holiday giving more interesting and fun. The service enables you to choose or add a non-profit charity, then donate a dollar to that cause for every tweet you post for thirty days.

HelpAttack leverages Twitter to publicize your giving, and inspire others to do the same. The service is great for individuals, and even organizations.

Facebook is another great way to give and inspire. Several wireless carriers are working with the American Red Cross and a company called mGive to enable you to donate $25 via text message during the holidays. When you donate, you'll be replied to with a link where you can enable a badge on your Facebook page. The donation is simply added to your wireless bill.

The Facebook badge is a powerful way to share what you've done and motivate others to do the same.

The program was inspired by the Red Cross's successful effort to raise money for Haiti relief and recovery. By using text messages and Facebook badges, the organization was able to raise $33 million, almost entirely with donations of just $10.

Walmart put up a new page on Facebook called End Hunger. The program creates a competition or popularity contest between cities or communities.

Facebook members can click "Like" on the pages of their favorites, and the six most "Liked" will receive donations from Walmart. Each community has a list of local charities that will actually receive the money. First prize is $1 million in donations. The next five most "Liked" will get $100,000 each.

What's great about this is that the program inspires communities and local charities to get creative in publicizing their causes on Facebook. Even those organizations that don't "win" in the end, will still get attention and donations from the publicity.

You've probably seen the "Causes" Facebook application, which enables members to tell friends which organizations, movements or initiatives they support. The company that makes the app is taking holiday giving to a whole new level with special gift cards that support charitable organizations.

You can buy a $25 or $50 prepaid gift card from Safeway and Vons grocery stores that can be spent anywhere, and give them as a holiday gift.

The recipient then chooses from more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, the Sierra Club and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When they spend the money on the card, donations are made to that organization. Best of all, the donation can be displayed automatically on Facebook for all to see.

This year, social media and mobile technology are transforming the act of holiday giving. Even more importantly, they're enabling organizations to inspire a new generation of young people to not only give, but start a chain-reaction of giving that spreads goodwill through social networks, communities and across the world.

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