The internet isn't all enewsletters and webpages. Charities are finding new, creative and often free ways to connect with service users and supporters.

Not only does this mean they can expand their geographic reach, but often that they can deliver more services to more people at less cost than ever before. Sometimes even for free.

Here’s five inspirational examples of lives being changed by a little technology and a lot of good-old-fashioned creativity. What could your organisation be doing with the web?Get in touch if you’d like to talk about it.

Give voices to the unheard

If you’re a Twitter user, you’ll be used to reading an endless stream of joy, interest and frustrations flowing from colleagues, friends and celebs. It’s great to hear more from the people you know. But what about the people you don’t?

The Underheard in New York project gave mobile phones to four homeless people in New York, and showed them the basics of Twitter. At its peak, tens of thousands of followers found something new in their twitter streams – amongst the complaints of late trains and workplace frustrations – a glimpse into the lives of the homeless.

Twitter even helped reunite 58 year old Daniel Morales (@putodanny) with his daughter, after his 140 character appeal led to a phone call from her the next day…

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Help people help each other

As the web makes it easier to share information with more and more people, it’s inevitable that this power will be misused by those looking to bully and harass people.

Yet with the vast majority of young people using the web every day, how can any one charity provide the massive numbers of people required to support young victims of online bullying?

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Cyber Mentors thinks the answer lies with the young people themselves. A project of Beatbullying, the Cyber Mentors site puts young victims of bullying in touch with trained young people for support in a safe, monitored, online chat environment.

Volunteers can log on whenever they like and start advising and supporting service users from anywhere they have an Internet connection.

Break international barriers

India’s population is booming. Yet more and more kids means bigger and bigger classroom sizes – for those lucky enough to have a local school at all. How can the web provide an answer?

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, wondered if you needed teachers at all.

He installed hole-in-the-wall style computers in rural villages in India, and studied how local children interacted with them. He found that just through play, children were not only learning computer skills but also English, the language of the computer’s interfaces.

One thing that was lacking, though, was positive re-enforcement. He called this the ‘Granny factor’ – someone to watch the achievements of the children and say “Wow! That’s amazing, I could never do that! How did you learn this?”.

 

What he did next was inspired. Reaching out to retired grandmothers across the UK (“the Granny Cloud”), he organised video link lessons for the children, through the wall computers and in schools. This provided a 20% boost in the amount of teaching time each child received. The grandmothers can volunteer from home, and it takes just an hour a week.

These lessons are now being applied to schools in England, where children are assigned ‘impossible questions’ and work together in teams to find the answer online, with the Granny effect coming from the teacher.

It sounds simple, but web skills really can profoundly change the course of young people’s lives…

“A child wanted to be a footballer when he grew up he watched eight TED videos and changed his mind to Leonardo Di Vinci” – Sugata Mitra.

You can see more about this project from Sugata’s excellent TED talk.

Reach out to those at risk

Lots of charities use outreach workers to deliver help and advice to their service users, either before an issue arises, or right at the point where it’s needed.

Yet when it comes to the web, many charities expect people to come to their online space. What happens when you take old-fashioned, in person outreach and try and apply it to the web?

Take HIV support charity THT. Their Netreach service places trained advisers in chat rooms on the gay men’s meet-up site, Gaydar. This way they reach a community disproportionately affected by HIV, right at the time when people could be in danger of making the wrong decisions about sexual health, or be thinking about getting tested.

They reach thousands of men per month with free, non-judgemental and confidential advice. People who probably wouldn’t have sought out their services otherwise.

THT continues to innovate, and has also launched a social support site for people living with HIV, appealing to those that are more actively seeking support.

Be there when it counts

Whatever your view on detaining protesters using ‘kettling’, you’d like to think that you could avoid being trapped for hours for protesting peacefully about something important to you.

Anti-student-fee and anti-cut protesters have been making ingenious, collaborative uses of their mobile phones to stay a step ahead of the police.

By using text messages and smart phone apps, they report the movements and tactics of the police in real time back to a central team of volunteers. These volunteers then distill the information to produce a map showing which routes to avoid, where kettles are forming or in progress, and the quickest route out of trouble.

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The first few times this happened, it did so very much on an ad-hoc basis, but now efforts are being pooled to create ‘Sukey‘, a set of mobile tools to help peaceful protesters stay informed on marches and demos. It also includes a feature for the police to broadcast messages to protesters in the spirit of co-operation – a feature that the police have yet to use.

In the near future, direct action will be less about numbers and force, and more about who has the most accurate information the quickest. A battle protesters are definitely winning at the moment.

What to do next?

There’s no magic formula for brilliant ways to use the internet to further your mission. But with the inspirational examples you’ve read today, and a bit of creative thinking, you should find at least one way to take what you do to the next level using the web.

Think about what you could change by tapping into more people’s time, collecting information in real time, putting your services in people’s pockets, eliminating barriers to communication, or providing platforms for supporters to self organise.

We created Reason Digital because we love to take the great work charities and social enterprises are doing online, to magnify its impact and reduce its cost. If you want a chat about how the web might be able to help you then call us on 0161 660 7949 or get in touch via e-mail.

If you’d like more inspiration and advice about social good on the web, sign up for our newsletter now.

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