Nonprofits Getting A Lease In Second Life

A shot of American Cancer Society’s virtual headquarters in Second Life, created by virtual-world developer Infinite Vision Media.

America’s Second Harvest (A2H) added another location to its coalition of more than 200 food banks and food-rescue organizations. But unlike the other operations, this one won’t be stateside. In fact, donors will have to log on to enter its doors.

The Chicago-based food bank is the latest in a growing number of nonprofits joining the cyberspace community known as Second Life (SL). Some of the third sector neighbors include Fund for Animal Welfare (situated on Progressive Island), Reporters Without Borders (Hangflame), Save the Children (Midnight City), World Vision (Kiwa Northwest), and the Southern California chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which launched the virtual “MS Fly” fundraising event this past June.

Another 32 nonprofits are housed on SL’s new Nonprofit Commons space, which TechSoup officially launched this past August. There were two simultaneous grand opening celebrations, one in SL and the second “in-world” event in San Francisco. The nonprofits-only space was donated by the world’s first virtual millionaire, Anshe Chung, and managed by TechSoup. (See sidebar on page 4.)

Since opening to the public in 2003, SL, created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, has experienced explosive growth. In April 2004, SL had around 6,000 residents. Just over three years later, that number surpassed 9 million (as of August 21), growing by nearly 3 million this past summer alone.

One of Nonprofit Commons’ first tenants, A2H first landed on SL this past May, when the charity took part in a virtual ribbon-cutting for the grand opening of the online community’s inaugural supermarket. The presence of A2H was unmistakable, via billboards displaying the A2H brand, posters touting its cause, along with the virtual presence of the charity’s president.

Phil’s Supermarket, named for Today Show Food Editor and Contributor Phil Lempert, officially launched on May 7 both online in SL and offline at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) conference held in Chicago. As part of the cyberstore’s grand opening, the virtual counterpart for Dave Brearton, executive vice president, global business services and strategy at Kraft Foods Inc., presented “city girl” avatar, or rather, A2H President and CEO Vicki Escarra, with a donation of $450,000 for the charity’s Community Nutrition Program.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) established its presence in the Web community during 2005 when the charity launched the cyber version of its popular Relay for Life event. ACS pre-empted this year’s third annual SL Relay for Life, held July 27-28, with the creation of a virtual headquarters on June 1. Although they’re not housed in the Nonprofit Commons space, according to Susan Tenby, online community manager at TechSoup, ACS has a presence there and is invited to all the events.

“It’s a great push into another arena to bring awareness and fundraising opportunities to hunger,” said Karen Paciero, director of individual giving at A2H. While it’s still too early to determine the benefits of a presence in SL, she noted she’s well aware of the scope and reach of the online community.

“It stunned me when I discovered the Second Life demographic,” said Paciero, who said informal research has led her to believe SL reaches, on average, people in their 30s and 40s. The charity’s mean age range is 55-65, “so this is still reaching a relatively younger group, which is a great opportunity for us.”

Myriad for-profit businesses have already established themselves in the Web space, including BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Microsoft, IBM, Calvin Klein, Playboy Magazine, MTV, BBC Radio, The Weather Channel and Reuters. Additionally, the SL economy is a real economy, with millions of Linden Dollars – with an exchange rate of 270 Lindens for $1 USD – changing hands each month.

“Second Life is composed of people from all seven continents,” explained Randy Moss, manager, futuring and innovation-based strategies for ACS. Moss said users implement translator programs to speak across languages, and thus SL is a 24/7, persistent, collaborative, and real-time environment. According to Moss, when he suggested ACS launch an SL version of its already successful Relay for Life event, the overwhelming response was, “What’s the point?” Moss’ argument: “Because for these people (SL residents), this is their community. And we are a community-based organization.”

One big leap of faith later, ACS launched the SL Relay for Life during 2005 and raised more than $5,000. The following year, the event brought in $41,000. This year the event raised nearly $115,000 (or 32 million Linden dollars), eclipsing its original goal of $41,000.

Moss said he manages the ACS presence in SL, which now includes a virtual ACS headquarters. He unveiled the first public showing of the new headquarters at the inaugural Run Walk Ride Fundraising Conference held in New York City this past May.

Real costs Building the space in SL would have run ACS between $35,000 and $150,000 per region, however the virtual office was donated and created by Infinite Vision Media (IVM), a Boston-based media firm that works exclusively in the SL “Metaverse.”  The costs to ACS are thus relatively minor, including the standard land rental/ownership fees for a nonprofit, approximately $1,900 down and a $175-per-month maintenance fee. For last year’s SL Relay for Life, ACS incurred only the $10/day fee for each of the 12 squares of land. All other costs were underwritten by SL residents and ACS supporters, many of whom also build out the space.

“Second Life is an incredible laboratory for human behavior,” said Moss, who said Linden Lab has hinted that its SL demographics are “older and more rural than you’d think, a lot of suburban moms who don’t work, skews slightly male.” For now, awareness seems to be the most obvious benefit of being on SL. “We are able to reach a whole new audience with our health awareness messaging and offer our services to a plethora of new constituents.”

Just as Phil’s Supermarket is a source of information about food and not an actual retail operation, A2H’s food bank will be a vehicle to disseminate information about the organization and its mission. And as with the market, Second Lifers will also be able to donate to A2H via the food bank.

“Really, the benefits are unknown,” said Paciero. “There is just such a limited presence and understanding of what the opportunities are in Second Life for nonprofits. At a minimum, it’s great awareness about hunger and the relationship that Kraft has with the hunger community.”

According to Paciero, Kraft, a 20-year supporter of A2H that has donated more than $23 million to A2H food banks, approached the charity with the idea of establishing a presence on SL. Kraft and Lempert provided the funds and man hours required to create the billboards, avatars — SL characters — and signs representing A2H during the virtual check presentation and opening of the market. A2H simply created a landing page on its Web site for SL members to link.

Amina Dickerson, senior director of corporate community involvement for Kraft, said the company approached A2H because it saw a great opportunity on SL, in both awareness and fundraising. “There’s something like 30,000 people at any one time who are on Second Life,” said Dickerson. “And there’s just an amazing amount of money that is exchanged. It’s our hope that if they go see Kraft, they’re going to go see our partner, America’s Second Harvest.”  NPT