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Salzman: Local Is The New Global

Monday, 16 Mar 2009 | 12:11 PM ET

Here we are, more than a year into a recession, and the idea of getting connected with our neighbors and weaving a fabric of community is feeling more and more relevant. Potluck dinners and backyard gatherings are the stylish night out, taking over from tasting menus and wine bars, which feel sort of gauche. Now it’s our community that feeds us—soul food that offsets the lack of Japanese mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes on our plates.

But this isn’t just about our social lives.

Local is the new global, and by that I mean that we are making the causes we care about local and intimate to us, too. We are more active as individuals, and social media has jump-started our power to create our own networks for change—ones that are wide-reaching and up close and personal at the same time.

Grassroots civic involvement is really on the rise—just look at the localized mobilization that worked so well for the Obama campaign. New media channels provide boundless potential for reaching out and educating ourselves on a global level, then bringing it all back home for changes right in our own communities. During the Presidential campaign, people were empowered by exceedingly well organized grassroots efforts; they were ensured that their individual voices and individual dollars had power. And indeed half of the funds raised came from donations of less than $200! The takeaway? We have seen proof positive that mountains can be moved with a million small forklifts. And though person-by-person giving is far from a new concept, it’s fresher than ever—and online tools give it exponential potential. Where once upon a time I might have rolled my eyes dismissively at my mother’s involvement in the local school board, today I realize the importance of every hour donated toward making each municipality better. I’m even growing to understand the value of those serving on my local sewer commission. But let me not digress.

Among those young people coming of age today, we can see a shift in goals from just a few years ago. Gifting is creative and local and charitable—kids donating their big events (bar mitzvahs, Quinceañeras, sweet 16s) for causes rather than spending on lavish parties. There’s less desire among graduates to plunge into big-money-making endeavors (finance, commercial real estate)—rather, there is genuine interest in giving back. For example, this year, an unprecedented 19,000 graduates applied to Teach for America, making the nonprofit one of the largest hirers of college seniors—eclipsing big names like Microsoft, Procter & Gamble and Accenture. At my own alma mater, Brown University, entry-level roles at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs are passed over in favor of making a difference in the classroom or a job as a community organizer, both increasingly popular.

Some people worry that the recent downward spiral of big business will mean the loss of big donations, equalling bad news for charity. But really the source of the vast majority of charitable giving has always been the personal donor. A study by philanthropy foundation Giving USA says that in 2007, 75 percent of charitable contributions came from individuals, and only 5 percent from corporate contributions. And I predict the individual donation will only become a more popular notion, despite our financial struggles, as the Web and social media provide more avenues for cause networking. Not only does size not matter, here’s one place where small and steady can make a broad difference.

We’re seeing the rise of the $104 giver.

It’s the new philanthropy, put in the hands of you and me. It’s the power to make real moves via laptop or Blackberry or iPhone—and via small donations of a couple of dollars per week that gain strength from the momentum of massive virtual networks. These givers are involved 52 weeks a year, blogging and tweeting about the causes they care about. They delight in daily debates with those who share their passion (or don’t). They relish the satisfaction of constantly connecting with their community, of seeing instant results of their efforts, whether it’s organizing a rally via Twitter, spreading awareness by recruiting new members on Facebook, or watching their donation tote up the tally another notch.

Social media is a real spark here. Witness last month’s twestival: Live events in 202 cities around the world in a single day raised $250,000 for charity: water, which translates to the funding of clean water for more than 17,000 people in Ethiopia, India and Uganda. And the entire event was organized via Twitter, a free, fast, totally simple way to connect with like-minded people across the globe.

This week Porter Novellihosts a panel called Social Media for Social Good at the South by Southwest Interactive Festivalin Austin, brainstorming and debating where we can go next and how to keep innovating for our communities. There we’ll also join ReMIND.orgin launching Tweet to ReMIND. ReMIND, founded by ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff and his wife, Lee, funds localized resources and support for injured U.S. service members who are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and reintegrating into their families and towns. The Tweet to ReMIND project aims to mobilize 400,000 Twitter users to raise $1.65 million over Memorial Day Weekend. That number represents the 1.65 million service members who have been deployed since 9/11. With just $5 per donor, ReMIND can meet its goal. What a small but powerful individual gesture that, when combined with the strength and momentum of social networking, can breed a giant change in people’s lives. Also at SXSW we’ll see change agent Stacey Monk launch TweetLuck, a St. Patrick’s Day–themed Twitter project raising money and awareness for a children’s school in Tanzania.

Almost 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy told us to ask what we could do for our country. Today, that legacy of service lives on. As Senator John Kerry eloquently put it, “It’s time we framed every question—every issue—not in terms of what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for all of us?”

This is the way people are thinking.

Now more than ever, we rise to meet serious challenges by coming together. Empowered by a new era of communication and inspired by the incredible results that can come from the small actions of many people working for a common goal, the people of the world—young and old, rich and poor, men and women of all races and nationalities—are redefining what it means to be a community and what it means to give back.

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Marian Salzman is the Chief Marketing Officer at Porter Novelli, a global PR company. She is one of the industry’s best-known trend spotters and branding experts. You can find her popular blog at www.pnintelligentdialogue.com

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