Beth Kanter remembers it as the year that Yahoo ruined the holidays. In was late 2006. The Boston-based Kanter had already notched lots of successes in fundraising for her Cambodian charity, the Sharing Foundation. But when Yahoo (YHOO) offered $50,000 to the do-gooder who could enlist the most contributors, Kanter shifted into overdrive.
"I showed the people on the [charity's] board how to send the e-mails pointing people to the site. I made my husband go to work. I went totally nuts. We were starting to get gifts that were second or third degree out. (That's social networking lingo for friends of friends.) On New Year's Eve, we were watching the ball drop and suddenly donations went up $15,000 from someone we didn't know. We raised $53,000 and won the $50,000. And we doubled our donor list."
A Social Media Pioneer
Ask Kanter about fundraising, and her strategy quickly becomes clear. She reaches for every tool that can connect with people, and she works them tirelessly. Each birthday is a fundraising occasion. ("In lieu of cards or gifts…" she tells her network.) For one fundraiser, she promoted a "naked picture of me." Those who clicked landed on a Flickr site with her baby picture—and a pitch to donate.
Each friend in Kanter's world is a potentially powerful ally. And in her circles, some are prodigious. New media consultant Chris Brogan, to name one, has 38,300 followers on Twitter, and Kanter makes sure they're in the loop. Through her work, Kanter has not only built a supportive community around the Sharing Foundation; she has also become a fount of lessons and connections for charities and nonprofits worldwide.
Kanter, 52, was a pioneer in social media. Trained as a musician and a longtime employee of the Boston Symphony, she plunged into the Internet in the early '90s. She learned how to code. She was active on early social networks like The Well. She remembers helping to organize cyberspace, as a so-called "Gopher mistress," when "you could sit down with a bottle of beer on a Saturday afternoon and go through the whole Internet."
In 2000, Kanter was adopting two children from Cambodia and was blogging her experience. "My blog started out just for me. I needed a place to write and to learn," she says. "I was shocked when I got my first comment, and it was from a Cambodian blogger."
At that point she started to catalog the bloggers in Cambodia. That got her started, first helping the bloggers, and then moving to the rest of their country. In 2005, she was raising money to sponsor the college education of a single Cambodian woman. She stared with the "couple hundred readers" she had on her blog. She raised $800. Not bad.
But in Kanter's social networking world, numbers tend to expand exponentially. It was only a year later that she was raising tens of thousands of dollars. And again, she uses every trick. Last August, she found herself speaking at the Gnomedex technology conference, sponsored by Chris Pirillo. &qout;I looked up and I saw that I had 300 hard-wired geeks in there." So she challenged them to a live fundraising experiment. "I put it out there. It lit up Twitter." The result: $2,500 more for her charity in 90 minutes.
Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York .