Creating a barter/donation culture on a hyperlocal community site

A useful feature I rolled out on the online community site formerly known as MyTopiaCafe.com was called “Helping Hands.” The function was a kind of classified mechanism targeted to the circulation of free stuff to local nonprofits. I’ve been wondering how to adapt such a function to generate revenue for a hyperlocal site.

The idea for “Helping Hands” was to help the nonprofits that were helping our community. Nonprofit organizations could register their “wish lists” of items or volunteers they needed on the site along with an “organization profile,” getting visibility in our online community. Individuals could post their own lists of things they had to donate, along with pictures and a description. Registered nonprofits could see contact information for those donating items and contact them to make the exchange.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, some newspapers used their online space to provide web site development and hosting solutions for nonprofit organizations. In “Digitizing the News,” Pablo Boczkowski provides case studies of these experiments like the New Jersey Online Community Connection. The New Jersey experiment recognized the value of the nonprofit community as an eager and powerful audience for any online community endeavor.

Helping Hands was kind of like a targeted Craigslist or reminiscent of the Freecycle networks found in many communities, with the beneficiaries restricted to nonprofit organizations. Other media organizations had not adopted the donation module on the content management system I used because they couldn’t find ways to monetize the free exchange. So I became the beta tester. But my philosophy on MyTopiaCafe.com was to add functionality and services that helped to sustain conversations in the community — and build relationships.

So “Helping Hands” was born with that “each one, reach one” mentality. But its value extended beyond the goodwill created by the service. Nonprofit organizations were doing great work and sometimes needed the help of the media to showcase their value. Helping Hands gave me a tangible gift I could bring to those nonprofits that encouraged them to post their wish list, but also post photos, stories, events and other items on the site. They became my “power users” as they had often been frustrated by the lack of coverage in the local newspaper.

I ran into an unexpected roadblock in the implementation. Some people who had seen the print ads for the service in the newspaper assumed that Helping Hands was a physical place where they could donate items. Over time, I developed a list of “partner organizations” like Goodwill, homeless shelters and other sites that took donations or would even pick up from locations. I would provide this list to callers asking for addresses.

But had I been innovative and enterprising, I may have been able to create partnerships with local consignment shops, getting revenue from the donated items to add to the bottom line. For a large newspaper, this idea would probably be more time consuming than it’s worth. But for a hyperlocal community site, negotiating drop off sites and relationships with sellers could meet some operating expenses, with a percentage of profits being donated to some local organization. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

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Creating a barter/donation culture on a hyperlocal community site

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