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Online Entrepreneur Craig Newmark on Charity, Collaboration and Being Cranky

Online Entrepreneur Craig Newmark on Charity, Collaboration and Being Cranky
Image credit: Stephanie Canciello, unali artists

Craig Newmark never meant to become a rock star among computer geeks.

He was just a quiet computer programmer when he created Craigslist in the mid '90s as a way to connect to his dotcom peers. His invention went nuclear in 2000, rapidly spreading to more than 50 countries around the world. Newmark found himself thrust into the public eye -- appearing on TV shows from CNN News to The Daily Show. Now, the site gets more than 30 billion page views per month worldwide.

Perhaps because Newmark was already in his 40s when craigslist became a household name, he left the rock star antics to his younger peers like Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker. Instead of flaunting his money, he sought to make good use of it. He started the nonprofit Craigslist Foundation in 2001, with a goal of helping other charities connect to resources that help them build community.

A year ago this month, Newmark took his philanthropy to the next level with the creation of Craigconnects, which showcases hand-picked nonprofits on its home page and includes a directory of other organizations. The site's mission is to feature only "good, effective" organizations that are "socially responsible, self-perpetuating, and replicable."

Newmark, 59, recently talked about his work with SecondAct.com.

SA: It's been a year since you launched Craigconnects. At the time, you said, "I have kind of a bully pulpit -- which I don't need for myself, which I don't need for craigslist. If I shared it with nonprofits who needed to get stuff done, I think that would be a good way to live." Have you found this is, in fact, a good way to live?
CN: It's very much so, feels very right, and people tell me that I'm "moving the needle." People want to help each other out and to feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves.

SA: Are there any single examples of Craigconnects helping a nonprofit that stand out in your mind? Something you're particularly proud of?
CN: There's support for local veterans' groups, like the SF Vets Resource Center, and also the vets' lounge at CCSF. That extends to other local groups like the Women's Building, the Tenderloin Tech Lab and the Salvation Army Harbor Lights shelter. Overseas, I'm helping connect all the vocational schools in the West Bank, with the support of the U.S., Israeli and Palestinian governments.

SA: You've been committed to nonprofits for more than a decade. What spurred you to create a mechanism to help them?
CN: About a year ago, I realized I better get my nonprofits act together and asked a co-worker to list what I thought were 20 to 30 nonprofits and government groups. Turns out the list was almost 100 groups long. I kinda have my act together now.

SA: Did the fact that you're pushing 60 have anything to do with your becoming more fully committed to the philanthropy side?
CN: No, so far the only effect is a growing acceptance of my own crankiness. It used to be that I'd identify with Homer; now it's with Grandpa Simpson.

SA: Are you still as actively involved with customer service as you once were?
CN: I still do real customer service, as I've done every day for over 17 years, but it's not the deep day-to-day stuff that the rest of the team does.

SA: One of Craigconnects' stated purposes is to "identify, connect and protect" organizations. Can you explain how that works?
CN: This is very much a work in progress, in two senses. We support groups that measure the effectiveness and financial soundness of nonprofits, including GuideStar, Charity Navigator and GreatNonprofits.org. Also, I'm doing some related work in voter protection, but it's early in that process.

SA: You're an advocate for nonprofits becoming savvy about using social networking. How can charities help their own cause this way?
CN: All charities need to use whatever social networks they feel are a fit for them, and then they need to email their supporters to promote the charities via Twitter retweets, Facebook and Google Plus shares, and more.

SA: A big part of Craigconnects is to get nonprofits to collaborate more effectively. Has that proven challenging, given that all charities are in competition for the same dollars?
CN: So far, I don't really know how to make it happen, since most groups of all kinds find it hard to work with each other. In specific cases my plan is to quietly prod them into collaboration, nudging them now and then discreetly. Seems like this is a multi-year effort.

SA: Do you anticipate ever retiring?
CN: What is "retiring?" Is it like "relaxation" or "time off"?

SA: What gifts do you think aging offers the average workaholic?
CN: Age-related comedy. (Please see above.)

SA: You've gotten very into bird-watching, which is easy to do from the back deck of your San Francisco home. Why do you think you find birds so appealing?
CN: I wish I knew, but it doesn't matter, I really do love them. However, I just know the ravens are talking about me, plotting...

SA: Of all your career high points -- from being on The Daily Show to doing a TED Talk -- which one is most memorable?
CN: Doing both The Daily Show and Colbert Report were high points. These guys are probably doing the most professional and effective journalism around, fart jokes and all, seriously.

Read more: My Top 10 List: Craig Newmark

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