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Internet groups forging a community of charity

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  • Internet increasingly being used by local communities to help themselves
  • South Korean Web site honored for its public service work
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By Steve Mollman
For CNN
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(CNN) -- South Korea has long enjoyed some of the fastest and most widely available broadband Internet access on the planet. Top online gamers are bona-fide TV celebrities, and long before MySpace, there was South Korea's Cyworld, a social networking site launched back in 1999.

"A lot of the Internet services are much, much more sophisticated and mature in terms of usage and business models than what you can see in the West," says Benjamin Joffe, CEO of +8*, a mobile and Internet consultancy that focuses on the South Korean market.

Ultimately, such services and business models stem from Korean citizens weaving the Internet so thoroughly into their lives. The Korean lifestyle has changed dramatically from 10 years ago to accommodate the Net, to a degree rarely seen in other countries.

But the online shift has had less noticed effects. One example of this is the Beautiful Foundation, a nonprofit that, relying almost entirely on tiny Internet donations, is helping rekindle a sense of philanthropy among South Koreans.

As the country has become saturated with e-commerce, an opportunity arose for the Beautiful Foundation (www.beautifulfund.org). Its launch in 2000 was perfectly timed to tap the changes taking place in Korean society.

The Beautiful Foundation is a "community foundation," which is generally defined as a public charity created by and for the people in a local area. Elsewhere in the world, this often means impoverished communities collecting tiny donations from within to help improve the lives of members.

A typical example is the Ahmedabad Community Foundation in India (www.acfindia.org). Others can be found in the Philippines, Thailand and other countries. They represent an important trend in philanthropy -- communities helping themselves, and later, possibly, others.

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The Beautiful Foundation was inspired partly by the community foundation of North Carolina's high-tech Research Triangle Park, which founder Park Won-soon visited about 10 years ago.

It's difficult to imagine the Beautiful Foundation existing before South Koreans became so entwined in the Internet. Nearly every donation received by the foundation -- more than 90 percent -- comes through its Web site. And most of those donations are given in tiny amounts, by individuals.

Donations have steadily risen. This year it's raised some $11 million, compared to about $600,000 in its first year. The foundation stresses that just 1 percent of one's income is a sufficient contribution, as opposed to the 10 percent figure stipulated by some groups in the West.

"From the beginning I thought it's our main mission not to make much money, but to expand the idea of philanthropy to Korean society," explains 52-year-old Park.

Internet helps transparency

The most important use of the Web, he says, has been to make the foundation's finances transparent -- essential in a conservative society that had grown unaccustomed to philanthropy. (Park's former high-profile roles fighting against corruption in the government also help.) Every accounting detail, including staff salaries, is posted on the site.

Online visitors are given an array of options for donating. Tens of thousands of people have opted to have tiny amounts automatically withdrawn from their bank accounts each month. Others have set up cell-phone-based payments, or used their credit cards to make small donations.

Leveraging the Web, Park "has been able to make the Beautiful Foundation so effective with the Korean public," says Rory F. Tolentino, executive director of the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium. Last year Park was awarded the Asia-wide Ramon Magasay Award for Public Service.

So far, most of the money collected has gone to charitable projects within South Korea. But as it continues to grow, the foundation plans to make its presence felt on a greater global scale.

One of its projects, in partnership with Oxfam, involves building barricades along the Ganges River in Nepal, India and Pakistan. The idea is to give the hundreds of thousands of people living near the river a better chance of surviving and coping with the flood waters every year.

The Foundation has also set up second-hand stores, somewhat akin to Salvation Army stores in the United States, but with more elaborate interiors.

With about 90 outlets across the country, they also sell fair trade products, such as coffee from Nepal and handicrafts from Southeast Asia. The Beautiful Stores, as they're called, tallied about $7 million in sales last year, with about 20 percent of the profits going to charity.

The success of the Beautiful Foundation could inspire others. Visitors from Japan have recently been studying the organization to see what lessons might apply back home.

It remains to be seen, though, how relevant one key lesson is outside of South Korea: "The Web site," says Park, "is very important to organize the participation of the people." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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