Charity uses widgets to provide accountability to donors

Technology shows donors where money goes, helps them to raise funds from others

A children's charity is using widget technology -- traditionally used with a single purpose application like updating weather or news on a Web site -- to help it show donors how their money is being used.

Operation Kids, which accepts directed and unrestricted donations from individuals and businesses, was formed in 1999 to assemble a worldwide stable of charities that deal with the most pressing needs of children. The agency reviews the finances, programs and operations of potential charities and gives a seal of approval to those that meet its criteria.

The Operation Kids selection process allows donors to be assured that their money is actually benefiting children, said Rick Larsen, president and co-founder of the Salt Lake City-based organization.

The company is constantly looking for better ways to measure accountability, a policy that became even more important after teaming with Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, to raise money to aid in Hurricane Katrina relief projects, he said. Because of the well-publicized problems with donations to hurricane relief in the past, the organization wanted to clearly show donors how the money was used.

In June, Operation Kids began using widgets -- small, single purpose Web applications -- to provide streaming video and photos of its New Orleans projects and an explanation of each project's goals. The first widget, which was jointly developed by technology firms MediaForge and Cobalt Communications Group, can be used by viewers to donate to Operation Kids.

Users can also download the widget and embed it in their own Web site or social network to raise money for the charity. The video features the voice of actor Dennis Haystert.

"With our mission, we've put quite a burden on ourselves with this level of accountability and efficiency," Larsen said. "We can use the technology both as a donation solicitor and a fully interactive communication process to say, 'Here is where your money went, and here is streaming video or a picture of the people you affected.' People can become their own fundraisers -- they can set a fund-raising goal in their online community."

The organization plans to use the widgets to provide before and after photos of the various projects it has undertaken in New Orleans. They include the repair of a damaged day care center and a decimated playground at a charter school of science and math. "Now these kids have somewhere to go on their break times; before they seriously risked getting hurt because there was so much debris [on the playground]," Larsen added.

While the organization is using New Orleans as a testbed for the widget, its use of the technology has already gone so well that it already plans to apply it to other projects to help provide accountability craved by donors, Larsen added.

"Only one in 10 Americans has complete confidence in charitable organizations because they don't know where their money goes," he said. "This [technology] is the future of that missing link between accountability between charities and donors. This is going to be the new standard for how people give."

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