Saturday, July 11, 2009

Members Only

Ning isn't new. But more organizations and causes are starting to use this fast-growing niche social network to build private, invitation-only communities online for their supporters and the people they serve.

Since February 2007, Ning has registered more than 27 million members. Cofounder Gina Bianchini says there have been nearly 1.3 million social networks created so far on Ning, with some 40 percent of them built as private networks. Bianchini told attendees of the recent 2009 Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan that "these types of social networks make your [nonprofit's] purpose immediately obvious."

Because the Net has taken out the middleman in many transactions, many charities are scrambling to reinvent themselves as community aggregators. Creating tight-knit online groups of donors—or those in need of their aid—can help a charity reclaim its relevancy and reassure donors of its impact. The more exclusive and qualified the community, the greater its social capital—and the more credible a nonprofit's claims of effectiveness.

So what’s different about a private Ning? No uninvited guests—no childhood freinds, as on Facebook. No distant cousins. No former employees tracking you down. No mom.

Not everyone likes the idea of a gated digital enclave, especially for social causes. Some charity leaders say a nonprofit’s tax-exempt status obligates it to offer open public access, always. But others argue that donors and recipients of philanthropy, alike, should be given a private place to share personal stories and get help—without fear of being stalked, ridiculed, or exploited by digital strangers. “Privacy is back in vogue online when it comes to some of these social networks," says Bianchini—especially among younger philanthropists looking to connect without exposing themselves to solicitation.

Here are some private, nonprofit Nings gaining in visibility:, launched on June 29 at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum by the nonprofit, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (IAVA). Though less than a month old, this Ning has close to 1,000 members who use the network’s members-only policy to get help for such health issues as insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sure, IAVA’s public site works hard to woo philanthropists of all stripes to its cause. But it’s IAVA’s link to its private Ning that makes its mission immediately clear and credible to anyone visiting the site for the first time, Bianchini says.

The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. This nonprofit has two social networks on Ning. There is a semi-private site called Netroots, which enables Americans to connect with Iraqi allies now living in the States. [“Visitors to the site can see where the Iraqis who live closest to them are located and then reach out to us to make connections,” says founder Kirk Johnson. "One Iraqi man found an American who taught his daughter how to drive."] The nonprofit also has a private Ning that Johnson describes as “a place strictly for Iraqis who have been resettled to collectivize their knowledge and share what they’re been going through." Many resettled Iraqis face the same issues, he says, like how to figure out Medicaid and how to reconfigure resumes for an American audience. Having both networks, says Johnson, helps donors come together to "put a face" on the need for their dollars.

NeighborsForNeighbors, or NFN. This nonprofit was founded by former Boston police officer Joseph Porcelli, to fight crime in his Jamaica Plains neighborhood of Boston. Once simply a neighborhood watch site, this months-old, semi-private social network of Boston community organizers now serves as a catalyst for everything from bottle recycling drives, anti-war demonstrations, and women’s-only bike rides through the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. Members are qualified for residency; no outsiders or commercial interlopers allowed. Porcelli says the site serves as a “soundboard for voices and a springboard for action. It’s where Boston works together online.”

Connected Peace Corps This private Ning has 13,000 members, “all former or current members of the Peace Corps who are using the network to share their knowledge and experiences across the generational divide,” says Bianchini.

Does your favorite cause offer supporters a private social network? Let us know. And tell us how effective you think these networks can be when it comes to raising funds and visibility.

—Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration: Eight Friends by Pahel_L for

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