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Eric Ferguson: Donate digitally

By Eric Ferguson, Columnist
Published December 10, 2012

As the semester winds down and the holiday season approaches, the spirit of giving is in the air. Advertising exhorting the public to buy Christmas gifts can be found all over the TV and Internet — since Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend, The Salvation Army’s bell rings outside of grocery stores, malls and other retail outlets. Anyone walking up State Street by Nickels Arcade will hear it as well, accompanied as always by a bundled-up volunteer and a red bucket with a slit in the top for donations.

If you plan on donating to the Salvation Army or another charity, you’re not alone. In 2011, 81 percent of people in the United States made a charitable donation, and the total amount of money donated by individuals, foundations and corporations totaled nearly $300 billion. Many students at the University share a desire for making a difference in the community through charity, but donating money can be difficult to justify when students pay for tuition, rent, food and all the other expenses of college life. But thanks to the Internet, giving to charity is now so easy that you don’t even have to spend any of your own money.

You can do this by hopping on YouTube on Dec. 17 and 18 for the Project For Awesome on Hank and John’s channel. Inaugurated in 2007, the P4A is a yearly event where thousands of people upload videos supporting charitable organizations. Award-winning author John Green and his web-entrepreneur brother Hank run the P4A, and more than 843,000 subscribers to the brothers’ YouTube channel provide a massive base for participation. They and all YouTube visitor's are encouraged to view, “like” and comment on all of the videos under the P4A hashtag in order to promote charitable causes. On the P4A’s website, which goes live on Dec. 17, the public can vote for their favorite cause and donate to the P4A fund. Every dollar in the fund is split between the five charities that receive the most votes. The fund already has $15,000 and anonymous donors have offered to match contributions up to $50,000.

This campaign is more modern than the Salvation Army bell ringer. The P4A leverages the power of the world’s largest video-sharing community to make the work of charities all over the world available for free to anyone with an Internet connection. Many of the videos are extremely well produced, and there’s no lack of charities to pick from. It’s an extremely democratic process, and doing anything beyond watching the videos is obviously voluntary. Even those charities that don’t place in the top five benefit — they gain exposure to a public that would have been difficult to otherwise reach. Moreover, viewers don’t have to go through the P4A in order to donate — many participants solicit direct donations to their charity during their video.

In previous years, people navigating to the main page of YouTube on the days of the P4A have been greeted not with trending videos of erratic cat behavior and pop music videos, but with videos supporting the microfinance site Kiva, a Bangladeshi orphanage and thousands of other causes. It acts as a small suggestion for all YouTube users to postpone their entertainment or how-to video for a moment and be exposed to organizations that they would have never come into contact with otherwise. In this way, the project’s impact is far larger than the amount of cash doled out to the top five charities.

So take some time out of studying for finals and watch a few of the P4A videos on Dec. 17. Throw in a vote while you’re there, and if a charity particularly moves you, send a few dollars its way. The top five charities in 2011 each received $14,269, and the top five this year may get even more than that. When making a difference is this easy, why would anyone pass up the chance?

Eric Ferguson can be reached at ericff@umich.edu.