Here’s how we can use technology to rebuild communities

Participants of the "Start Up Chile" program work at their headquarters in Santiago, August 10, 2015. Drawn in by equity-free financing and promises of hands-on mentorship, dozens of female entrepreneurs will head to Chile in the coming weeks to participate in what the government says is the world's first state-run start-up program aimed exclusively at women. It's not the first attempt by Chile to catalyze its start-up scene. Since 2010, the government has awarded over $40 million in seed capital to thousands of up-and-coming innovators, according to its own statistics. Picture taken August 10, 2015. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado - GF10000174915

Digital tools can help people find causes they care about, build partnerships, and multiply their impact. Image: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Brian Gallagher
President and Chief Executive Officer, United Way Worldwide
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Latin America

The world moves fast these days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past. In fact, by combining the lessons of history with the technologies of today, we can strengthen our communities at a time when they are more divided than they have been for many years.

I grew up in northwest Indiana in the 1960s and 1970s. It was, at times, a challenging upbringing. I was raised in a turbulent household that went on and off public assistance. I found reasons to stay away from home.

My community came to my rescue. When I needed a job, a family friend helped me get a union card. When I needed a place to stay, friends’ parents opened their doors. If it wasn’t for neighbours, I never would have thought about college – much less graduated or launched a career with United Way.

Today, our society is carving out its middle, and fewer people seem to be lending a hand. As I noted a year ago, globalization has weakened our economic middle. Partisan warfare has eroded the political middle. And now the cultural middle is fraying. In many communities, people aren’t talking, constructively sharing ideas, or building coalitions that help people live better lives.

What’s more, fewer people in the US are giving to charity, and the recent passage of the tax bill isn’t likely to help.

We must rebuild what it means to be a community. That doesn’t mean returning to the 1960s. While I benefited from the support of community leaders and counsellors, many others didn’t. Today’s opportunities must be available to everyone.

Digital technology will be a vital tool in re-creating community connections. Smartphones today have more power than the computers that took us to the moon. They bring information to our fingertips, and people look to their online networks for news and ways to create change.

We need to embrace these empowered individuals. Let’s go where they are to help them find causes they care about, build partnerships, and multiply their impact. Let’s help them not only volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but also tell their friends about it, share thoughts to increase its reach, and advocate to end hunger.

Combining tried-and-true community support with today’s digital technology will accelerate the future of community building.

There’s demand for these efforts. Eighty-one percent of employees consider corporate social responsibility when deciding where to work, according to the Cone Communications Echo Global CSR study. Millennials don’t just want a paycheck from their employers, but also a sense of purpose and easy ways to get involved.

Image: Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study, 2013

It’s up to non-profits, businesses and community leaders to guide people and give them the tools to make a difference. That’s why United Way has partnered with Salesforce.org to launch Philanthropy Cloud. Philanthropy Cloud will be a platform – think of it as an online community – where people can have great experiences making their communities stronger. It will be available to them 24/7 and 365 days a year, and it will be customised to their needs and interests – just like other platforms such as Facebook or Amazon. At its heart, Philanthropy Cloud will marry the innovative technology of Salesforce with the volunteer network and community experience of United Way.

Right now, not far from where you read this, someone is delivering a meal to a person in need. Someone is organizing to change a law or fight for those without a voice. And someone is simply searching for a way to get involved in their community.

The world looks different from when I was growing up decades ago. Communities have changed – their definition expanded and shifted. But what remains the same is the immense difference people make when they come together to help each other live healthier and happier lives.

That’s a power we must harness in 2018 and beyond.

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