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Typing for a good cause

You collect pledges and stretch the distance for a good cause. This time, though, it’s on the Web, and the endurance test is 24 hours of nonstop blogging. MSNBC’s Jon Bonne reports on Blogathon 2003.
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Time for an annual charity event. You collect pledges and stretch the distance, all for a good cause. This time, though, it’s all on the Web, and your endurance test is a 24-hour spell of nonstop blogging. That’s the premise of the Blogathon, returning for its third year on Saturday.

Like a walk-a-thon, participants in Blogathon 2003 are soliciting donors to sponsor them, either with a straight donation to the charity of the blogger’s choice, or by the hour. Each volunteer owner of a blog, the now-ubiquitous Web journal that verges on a new literary form, must then post a new entry every half-hour, beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday. The goal is to continue for 24 hours straight, or as long as they can keep going, spurred by caffeine and perhaps a sense of doing good.

OK, so it’s not a 10K run, but organizers were looking for a way to take what people were already doing and use it to do some good.

“I’m not a runner, I’m not a biker,” says Cat Connor, the Portland, Ore., blogger who originally conceived the Blogathon. “I wanted to take my skills I already had and put them to use.”

Entries are coming from all over the United States and overseas. The project even attracted a member of British Parliament, Tom Watson, who will send in posts from a Labor Party barbecue.

Many entrants will simply offer up whatever pops into their head. But some are providing live webcam updates, and others are planning their entries around a theme, for example, Incoherent Babblings of Me, will feature dispatches from a graveyard.

Jonas Luster, who writes The Book of FSCK, plans to take his PC and digital camera on a wireless tour through the mostly unwired side of Silicon Valley — spending time with everyone from emergency room nurses to prostitutes and drug addicts.

Personal connections
Luster, who spends part of his days working for a dot-com and the rest lending his skills as a criminologist to various nonprofits, is raising money for Doctors Without Borders. More than two dozen bloggers have chosen the group, which provides medical care in war-torn areas. Luster says he worked with Doctors Without Borders while serving as a U.N. peacekeeper as a member of the German military.

Rather than stay at home, he wanted to get out and break a sweat during this year’s Blogathon.

“When people think about the Silicon Valley, they think about Lycos, Yahoo, Google. They don’t think about that we do have homeless here and do have battered women here,” he says. “What better than to just go out and for 24 hours, work my butt off. If I’m just sitting in front of my computer, it’s what I do every day.”

For Luster, the value of blogging for charity is that the format offers a more personal connection for donors. It was a lesson he learned when his blog entries during the Kosovo crisis turned into an impromptu blanket drive.

“If you watch TV turn on the radio, its pretty sterile,” he says. “The blog — people actually talking to you with their opinions — that increases proximity to the event.”

Other entrants are soliciting audience participation, such as Tara Liloia, who will pen “Ten Cent Shower,” a choose-your-own-adventure novella, with readers voting on what they want to happen next.

Some bloggers are planning musical entries, such as Blogathon spokesman Peter Marinari, who will upload files of himself performing songs on his blog, Crushing Krisis. (He’s threatening to post an all-clarinet version of Dave Matthews’ “Satellite.”)

“One of the really inherent challenges to Blogathon is to be true to my own voice while also engaging people who are visiting my page for the first — and maybe only — time,” Marinari says.

The list of charities is just as diverse as the bloggers themselves, from the National Film Preservation Foundation to Heifer International, which donates farm animals to hunger-stricken regions. More than a dozen bloggers are backing cancer support group Gilda’s Club and several participants have already raised $6,000 toward a new ambulance for Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the American Red Cross.

No Unicef boxes here
Unlike most fund-raising events, Blogathon relies on the donors to send in their pledges to the charities themselves. Donors will get notices at the end of the Blogathon with information on how to do so; most will be able to give online.

Blogathon 2003 has already raised nearly $50,000 in pledges — as much as last year’s total — and organizers hope to hit $80,000 total.

The Blogathon is an original twist on online fundraising, but not the first. Individual charities have used the ease of e-commerce to collect donations, and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean has gotten a major boost from Web efforts, in part because many smaller donors find it easier to give online.

Luster sees potential for nonprofits to use blogs as a way to deliver constant updates from the field. And with potential donors coming back to keep reading, it could create the same voyeuristic bond between charity and donor as exists between blogger and reader. As a format, Connor says, blogging is “wonderfully sticky.”

Connor, who works for Portland’s federal probation office as “one of their geeks,” will be blogging for Modest Needs, a Web-based charity that gives small grants to those who need short-term financial help. For her theme this year, she plans to take readers of her blog on a tour of museums on the Web.

So how does she plan to make it for the long haul?

“Lots of cold water. Don’t drink alcoholic beverages,” she says. “That sounds like a no-brainer, but last year we had a guy whose blog was to drink a beer every half-hour.”

Many bloggers also invite friends over to keep them company, or even throw a party. Beer, presumably, is optional.