Who's Your Mayor? Philanthropy Meets Foursquare

Blanketing BART stations in San Francisco since mid-June are public service ads urging passers-by to use their cell phones to "drill the oil industry." Another Twitter campaign? Guess again. Think Foursquare, the new mobile social network which a number of nonprofits are using to drum up some money and a crowd of supporters -- online and off.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm in the Bay Area, is asking BART riders to "check in" with them on Foursquare. For every check-in, one of Earthustice's major donors is pledging $10 to help the nonprofit's attorneys fight environmental pollution. So far, so good. The campaign, in just a few weeks, has raised more than $10,000 for the cause, says Ray Wan, the marketing manager for Earthjustice. "We're really getting some amazing buzz from this," he says. "It's an easy way for people to help us work for a better environment."

It's not the first nonprofit to think about using Foursquare to raise funds and awareness.

At the Brooklyn Museum, chief technology officer and social media maven Shelley Bernstein has begun using the mobile social network to boost the personal dialogue between the museum's staff and the people who visit the museum, live in the neighborhood, and patronize the site. On Foursquare, people leave "tips" at venues they like -- bits of advice so that other people know what to expect when they go there. "Many of our staff are essentially local experts, so we've queried them to compile tips to the wealth of options that exist in our local neighborhood, Prospect Heights," Bernstein says on the museum's Foursquare page. "So now, as people explore our area, the Brooklyn Museum staff help them along in their journey pointing out the joys of pancakes at Tom's Restaurant or the killer wine selection at Abigail's."

Bernstein is working to establish venue pages for the museum's exhibitions and permanent collections. "People could check in at the galleries they visit -- American Identities, The Dinner Party, Egypt Reborn, etc., and become the mayor of not just the museum but of their favorite installation within the greater whole." The goal, of course, is to get more people to visit the museum -- via a Brooklyn Museum "badge" that gets unlocked after a certain number of visits, rewarding people for multiple visits. Writes Bernstein: "As simply as I can put this, Foursquare is about place and identifying yourself through that. it is a celebration of the visitor--the people who crossed the river, who made it in the door and decided to identify themselves with us, right here."

Another nonprofit, Naperville, Ill.-based Big Love Little Hearts, which works to help children born with congenital heart defects, also has been experimenting successfully with Foursquare. Last April, the nonprofit's volunteers were asked to add the following "tip" to 600 Foursquare locations: "1 in 100 children are born w/ a heart defect. Pulse-Ox screening saves lives - you can too! Check in with the hashtag #100x100." Organizers embedded a link in that "tip" on Foursquare that drove people to the nonprofit's Web site.

Seven hours into the campaign, a donor said she would contribute $1 for every person who checked in. Within 12 hours of launching the campaign, the hashtag had been used 11,703 times, and the donor was so impressed, she ended up giving the nonprofit $25,000. The nonprofit used Foursquare again as part of a campaign to get supporters to check in (or contact) their Illinois lawmakers to push for legislation to help people with congenital heart defects. "And one last nugget," says chief organizer Estrella Rosenberg, "is that this was all free."

How is your nonprofit or social enterprise using Foursquare to raise awareness, boost patronage, or raise money for a cause? Let us hear from you about what works and what doesn't so far.