What Michael Birch Did after Selling Bebo and How He Thinks You Should Celebrate Your Birthday

5829624-face90655f61c6e92fc45438760b3cc74a010488-scaledFor all the billions of dollars created here, Silicon Valley is remarkably stingy when it comes to giving. I first wrote about this when I moved here in the great Web 1.0 Internet bubble. Back then, as companies went public all around us, one-third of households earning $100,000 or more gave $1,000 or less to charity—roughly half what the rest of the U.S. gave per dollar earned. And those were the fat times.

I don’t have comparable data to back it up, but anecdotally it seems the Web 2.0 generation is doing a better job at giving. Or at least Bebo founder Michael Birch is.

Birch has spent the last six months working with a team of two other people to build a social giving site for the popular organization, Charity:Water. It launched its beta site today, and with just a Tweet announcing it nearly 400 members have already raised some $3,000.

Charity:Water’s accountability and simplicity of purpose has made it a popular charity in New York, Hollywood and increasingly the Valley.  Here’s the value proposition: One-out-of-six-people on the planet doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. $5,000 buys an African village a well. Every dime you donate, goes to these wells. You can even watch the wells being tapped for the first time via Web video. The non-profit is turning three in a few weeks, and it’s raised more than $10 million over that time—much of it in $20 increments from a base of some 60,000 donors. It was Obama-fundraising-math before that was invented. As a result some 700,000 people in the world now have access to clean drinking water.

It was all started three years ago when Scott Harrison, reformed bad boy and Charity:Water founder, asked people to come to a huge New York party for his September birthday and donate $20 at the door instead of giving him a gift. He raised $15,000 and built six wells in Uganda. (They were cheaper than the wells Charity:Water usually builds because three were shallow wells and three were rehabs of existing wells.) Like any great accidental entrepreneur, Harrison knew he was on to something.

In addition to all kinds of creative fund raising, detailed in the video below, the following year, Harrison opened his birthday to everyone via the Web, asking them to donate $32 dollars, since it was his 32 birthday. That year, he raised $59,000 and other September birthday babies brought the total to $150,000, which went to wells in Kenya. Not bad, but they had to HTML hand-code each participant’s site. Pretty laborious work for a small non-profit.

The next year he got more September babies to “give up” their birthdays, and a company called InspEnv.com built them a site, but it wasn’t hugely social or scalable. Still 800 people “gave up” their birthdays and raised some $965,000 dollars to bring some 50,000 people clean water in Ethiopia.

But Harrison knew that the value of a lot of micro-giving campaigns like Kiva and the popular Facebook application, Causes, is rooted in the ability to make small donations super-easy to solicit and to make via existing online social graphs. He was trying to figure out sites that knew when a huge number of people’s birthdays were and after MySpace and Facebook, he came across Bebo. Early last year, he cold-emailed Bebo founder Michael Birch to ask if he’d be willing to send a note out to his September born users and Birch wrote back that it was “a bad time.” It was actually a great time for Birch—he was selling the company to AOL for $850 million.

Once the deal was done, Birch called Harrison and suggested he build him a site that could help people born in any month instantly “give up their birthdays” for Charity:Water’s mission. It was fitting since Birch’s next project was his pre-Bebo project, a site called Birthday Alarm. Nine months later, Harrison is about to turn 34, Charity:Water is turning three, and Birch has finished the site. For a free project, it’s a pretty nice looking site.

The recession makes this perfect timing. If you’re panicked about money and job loss, giving up your birthday is an easy way to give to those less-fortunate without having to spend a dime yourself. My husband has a September birthday and has already signed up. I plan to sign up for my birthday in December. You can create your own campaign in a matter of moments and with a few clicks, share it via all your existing social networks.

I’m sure the coders who were up until 4 a.m. last night will have mixed feelings about this, but this is one time I really want to see TechCrunch users break a beta site.

[Photo credit: Scott Harrison]


The story of charity: water – The 2009 September Campaign Trailer from charity: water on Vimeo.