At a walkathon last year, the American Cancer Society raised $41,000, with 1,200 people joining in on the walk.

The fund-raising march did not take place in a town or suburb and was not organised by a school or community organisation. The walkers were avatars and the event took place in virtual reality on Second Life, the fast-growing online 3D digital world – providing a powerful demonstration of how new media websites can be deployed by charities and non-profit organisations.

As growing numbers of users flock to sites such as Second Life, MySpace and YouTube, all kinds of organisations – from advertising agencies to universities – have established an online presence.

Second Life has proved a particular attraction among corporations, with companies such as IBM setting up virtual headquarters, hotel chains such as Starwood building properties, and retailers such as Reebok and American Apparel opening virtual stores on the site.

However, while businesses have experienced something of a backlash against their virtual activities – with the Second Life Liberation Army staging anti-corporate protests in cyberspace – philanthropic organisations, which are generally working to redress social and economic ills or promote art, research and science, are less prone to such attacks.

For charities and non-profit organisations, the opportunities of a presence online are manifold. For a start, new media websites are powerful communication and educational tools. Organisations can engage people in a cause through blog discussions or social networking initiatives such as Greenpeace’s MySpace page or events in virtual communities such as the American Cancer Society walkathon.

Lessons can be learnt from politics. In the three weeks after Democratic senator Barack Obama created his exploratory presidential committee on January 16, more than 240,000 members had enlisted in an online community supporting him on Facebook, the social networking website.

Mr Obama’s campaign, which has included a presence on sites such as YouTube and MySpace, has drawn comparisons with Howard Dean’s 2004 pioneering internet-driven campaign.

The ability of such communities to mobilise around a cause has important implications for charities and non-profit organisations trying to increase both membership and funding. “It’s going to be incumbent upon philanthropic organisations in these environments to tell their story in a powerful and compelling way,” says Rob Key, chief executive of Converseon, a digital communications company that, with Plant-It 2020, has launched an initiative on Second Life designed to promote reforestation.

Plant-It 2020, a non-profit organisation founded by the late singer John Denver, has launched an island on Second Life on which residents can pay 300 lindens – the site’s currency, with each linden being worth about a dollar – to plant a tree from among a list of endangered species. For every tree planted on Second Life, Plant-It 2020 will plant the same species of the tree in the real-world rainforest to which it is indigenous.

“Instead of sending $25 to plant 25 trees, they’re choosing the type of tree to plant,” Mr Key says. “As they’re going through the experience, there is information they can click on to learn about deforestation and about the tree – and physically planting it in an area is a much more immersive experience.”

This ability for supporters of a cause to participate in 3D virtual events is what Mr Key and others believe holds great potential for charities. The UK-based charity Comic Relief, whose mission is to eradicate poverty, took its annual Red Nose Day campaign – a huge televised event in the UK featuring many of the nation’s most popular comedians – on to Second Life, offering virtual red noses avatars and T-shirts for 550 lindens.

Mr Key says that the alternative nature of online communities means they are responsive to these sorts of socially responsible and philanthropic initiatives. “Social media in some ways are subversive and the content creation is in the hands of individuals,” he says. “And it has the ability to bring people together around ideas, purposes and good works.”

Because online communities are growing so rapidly, fund-raising activities conducted on them are able to attract surprisingly large numbers of people, as the American Cancer Society has demonstrated with its “Second Life Relay For Life” initiative. In 2007, the society expects 2,500 people to participate in the July event on Second Life and aims to raise $75,000.

Yet because of the interactive nature of the internet, non-profit executives stress the need to approach web communities thoughtfully. “You can’t just go out and say: ‘Here’s our online giving portal – feed it’. It’s got to be a conversation,” says Robin Murphy, vice-president of communications at the World Resources Institute, which has established a blog site called Next Billion to facilitate discussions on how business can contribute to eradicating poverty.

Mr Moss agrees. “Second Life is a community first and foremost and you enter it as you would enter and engage any community,” he says. “You can’t walk up to the mountain, plant your flag and declare you’re here. It doesn’t work like that – you need to find existing supporters and people who care about your cause and then work with them.”

Moreover, if charities and non-profit organisations can use the internet to raise both awareness and funds, the technology also affords their donors far greater transparency for their activities. Today, the stakeholders or philanthropic organisations – whether donors, beneficiaries, trustees or board members – have a far greater ability to scrutinise the activities of these organisations and assess the impact of their grant-making than in the past.

Just as corporations have been exposed by internet campaigns for their sweatshop practices, the ease and speed with which information can be exchanged online is shaking up the traditional command-and-control approach to the way organisations communicate with their constituents.

“The other implication [of new media] for non-profits or foundations to understand is the whole notion of demonstrating the impact of their investments and a level of scrutiny and demand for greater transparency,” says Chris Deri, head of the corporate responsibility practice at Edelman, the public relations firm. “And that’s going to require them to operate differently in the context of new media.”

Indeed there are barely any limits on the possibilities. Unlike events in the real world, what can be done on Second Life is only limited by human imagination. In another event that would have been impossible to stage in the real world, Adventure Ecology, another UK-based charity, flooded parts of Second Life to spread knowledge of the potential damage created by global warming.

“There are things you can do in Second Life you can’t do in real life,” says Randal Moss of the American Cancer Society. “We set up a sailboat course in the middle of the relay track in 2005 and 2006. You can’t do that in a real relay, so it really opens up a tremendous unbound world.”

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