When the nonprofit OneVietnam first revved up its outreach efforts with a $5,000 grant, it did something that left supporters stunned.
Charity representatives bought iPods and distributed the then-trendy devices to disabled people in remote villages in Vietnam, urging them to share their stories, their hardships, their views on life in a country that many people had fled during wartime.
"Everyone told us, 'If you give them an iPod, they will sell it to ease their burdens,' " said Uyen Nguyen, a former economic consultant and a co-founder of OneVietnam.
Instead, recipients seemed to understand that it was their moment to let fellow Vietnamese scattered around the globe know that they need their help. Through the iStories, OneVietnam connected donors with the disabled and the desperate, leveraging fundraising through social media.
The San Francisco-based group, started by a trio of friends, re-launched this fall with a network of about 30 groups. It won a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and created its iPod story-sharing effort with $5,000 from Yahoo. The charity also gained a vote of confidence from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who invited the group to do a demonstration at a conference focusing on immigrant populations
"We saw others like Kickstarter.org or Kiva.org emerge and do really well. And they're fantastic, but I see their main focus is on one project at a time," Nguyen said. "Everything now is powered by sustainability."
Participants log onto OneVietnam.org and scroll through a menu of organizations, from the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn. in Santa Ana to Boat People SOS. Would-be donors can connect directly with a person who needs help, whether a refugee still struggling to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina or a person in Vietnam largely out of touch with technology.
By providing a one-click portal for both donor and recipient, OneVietnam seeks to make giving, and receiving, easy.
"Unlike other platforms, this is specific to one community," said donor Erin O'Brien of Los Angeles, who teaches Asian American studies at UC Irvine and the Claremont Colleges. "It's very difficult to donate to people in Vietnam because electronic banking isn't the norm, and online money transfers aren't common. They make it more accessible through their website."
Since September, OneVietnam has collected more than $75,000 for nonprofits through its portal, according to organizers.
While people of Vietnamese descent once had only a vague idea of what their peers were doing in Los Angeles or Sydney or Montreal, OneVietnam allowed them to connect and share social service efforts. Vietnam Talking Points, the news arm of OneVietnam, mixed in news and features about the diaspora's different generations.
"There's a silent majority out there who care about Vietnam, who understand the historical implication of what happened in the past, the plight, the migration," said Paul Pham, another co-founder who studied computer science at UC Santa Cruz.
"But they want to move forward," he said. "They no longer associate it with war but with people — people who need our attention and help to continue with their lives."
Pham, who once engineered Hotmail's bulk mail delivery system, volunteered for years in Vietnam's outlying provinces, crafting huts destroyed by seasonal flooding. He met Nguyen and James Bao, both UC Berkeley graduates, when they came to him in 2009 with the OneVietnam concept.
Diep Vuong, president of the Pacific Links Foundation, working to fight human trafficking along Vietnam's borders, describes OneVietnam as "one more tool" to aid nonprofits in their constant and sometimes desperate search for dollars.
"It's the direction of the times to operate online," she said, "but I worry that the generation who are well-connected on the Internet may not have enough money to give regularly versus some of the older people who have set aside the money to give."
David Teece, who heads the Institute for Business Innovation at UC Berkeley and serves on OneVietnam's board of directors, said he's confident the group will evolve into "something stronger."
"They're really pioneering, with an emphasis on philanthropy and development. Sharing news, sharing events, keeping people in touch with what's going on back home and here is not relevant just to Vietnam," he said. "It's a concept that can be applied to the Philippines, or Indonesia. It's 90% inspiration, 10% best practices, again all for sharing."