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NGO 2.0: An Experiment with Web 2.0

What will happen to the children living in a county like Minqin, which is undergoing drastic desertification? Rescue Minqin is a grassroots non-governmental organization (NGO) in Gansu Province, part of China’s underdeveloped wild west where resources are scarce and to which the rest of China and the world pays little attention.

They now face a dilemma typical of mid-sized NGOs. Their website (www.minqin.org) has outlived its usefulness. It cannot provide a platform to engage the public in a creative, participatory manner. In fact, the faster the number of small websites like theirs has mushroomed, the more insulated they have grown from each other, fragmenting the online NGO scene in China.

Then there is Lanzhou Hui Ling, a grassroots organization that helps out children and young people who suffer from learning disabilities and mental retardation in poverty households. Struggling with scant resources and a lack of technological know-how, they cannot even afford a website. They are unable to reach out to audiences beyond those living in the small city of Lanzhou, nearly 2,000 miles away from the more affluent parts of China where people can afford to give gifts to the impoverished and the marginalized.

A 2.0 Solution
NGO 2.0 Project was created to answer the communication needs that Rescue Minqin and Lanzhou Hui Ling face. Funded by the Ford Foundation in Beijing and launched in May 2009 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ogilvy & Mather China, University of Science and Technology of China, NGO Communication Net, Friends of Nature, and Sun Yat-sen University, this project designed a social networking platform for NGOs and holds two training workshops per year for communication capacity building of midsized grassroots NGOs in western provinces. Through these sessions, the project team is able to teach target NGOs how to collaborate with each other via Web 2.0 tools on a new social networking platform it is building.

There are a number of advantages to focusing on Web 2.0. For example, Web 1.0 contains “read-only” materials, its underlying architecture is not open source and its content management system is costly to build and maintain. Web 2.0 has shifted from a content system built on an expensive up-front investment to an ongoing participatory and interactive process.
This enables NGO workers and volunteers to upload, tag, remix and share each other’s content easily. The technological and financial threshold of Web 2.0 is low because such sites can be built by pulling together an assembly of open source codes and systems.

In mid October, the NGO 2.0 Project rolled out the beta version of its social networking platform. Both the NGOs and the communities they serve can sign up on this platform for free. By creating, reusing and sharing all kinds of new media content on the platform, grassroots NGOs can strengthen their organizational capacity, share media-based skills, design innovative events and nurture civic participation and engagement.

Working with Business
What will be of particular interest to the corporate world is a ranking feature embedded in the platform that evaluates NGOs’ organizational transparency and communication capability, generated electronically by platform
users. This will allow corporate donors to leverage the web as a means of enhancing social responsibility programs. This evaluative system is designed to assist corporate donors to identify the NGOs they wish to fund and help them track the financial and communication credibility of each NGO during the grant period and beyond.

Rescue Minqin is currently working with the project team on a Web 2.0 idea: bringing fun-seeking Chinese netizens to plant virtual trees in their desert using Google Map and to track their growth afterwards. As for Lanzhou Hui Ling, they are also in the midst of testing the new 2.0 platform. Furthermore, both organizations will participate in the ranking system. And they hope to gain support from corporate donors to serve the children and other target population in their impoverished townships.

Jing Wang is S. C. Fang Professor of Chinese Language & Culture and director of New Media Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and can be reached at: jing@mit.edu

Mikko Lan is an associate director at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in Beijing.

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