The global phenomenon that is Facebook is not everybody’s cup of tea. From unwanted adverts muddying content streams, to a plethora of privacy-invasion concerns, the social network behemoth has done plenty to ruffle the feathers of users and detractors the world over.

But the platform has worked hard in recent years to not only grow (to well over a billion users), but to also become a socially useful tool. 

Beyond Zuckerberg’s philanthropic endeavours (he is America’s No.1 donor), the company has established a ‘social good’ team to find ways of helping create positive change in the world. So far, it has pushed out Amber Alerts to help find missing children; Safety Check to help people quickly notify friends and family that they’re safe after a disaster; and a more simple ‘Donate Now’ button used to raise money for good causes. Those impacted by last year’s devastating Nepal earthquake received $10million in Facebook donations from some 700,000 users.

One company Facebook could do well to look at for inspiration is Neighbourly.

Established in 2012 by former ad-agency man Nick Davies, the social network is designed to connect UK businesses that want to support charitable causes, with the community projects and charities in need of help.

In true Kickstarter-stylee, charities can list their project for free, explaining what it is and what sort of help they are looking for. It might be food donations, volunteers to help paint a community centre, or just simple cash support to fund new facilities.

Then, using a simple and straightforward interface, businesses of all shapes and sizes can log on and search for projects that take their fancy. Charities get to meet businesses they would never normally get the chance to talk to; businesses can efficiently and effectively find projects, initiatives or organisations that are aligned to their core values.

“Post the 2008 economic crash, companies had a real trust issue. As they become more global, they find it hard to connect with local customers and communities – something that helps to re-build that trust,” says Davies.

“But to do that is hard. You have to find projects, engage with them and then manage them to evidence you're creating social impact on the ground. Our platform makes it easy to do all of that, at scale.”

Among its major supporters are the likes of Marks & Spencer (M&S), Heineken and Starbucks, brands that are realising the power of the online platform to efficiently and conveniently engage not only with NGOs and charities, but with their customers too.

“We’ve given M&S, for example, the power to choose a local charity to support this year – and then connected every store nationwide with that local charity.

“The company has also used us as a tool for its Spark Something Good initiative, where it visits 24 cities in 24 months. They can find local projects and then, crucially, use the platform to invite their customers to come and join in.” So, if it’s a beach clean-up, it might have four of its staff from a local store taking part and then 17 customers getting stuck in too. “With 34 million customers, they really see the catalytic impact of engaging customers in this way to be huge,” adds Davies.

But Neighbourly doesn’t just want to be a social network to merely bring people together for the sake of it. Davies wants the platform to become a powerful tool that really effect change.

Take food waste, for example. Under pressure from campaign groups and shifting public opinion, most of the big UK supermarket chains have worked hard to find ways of redistributing the enormous piles of food that isn’t sold – food that would have traditionally ended up in the bin at the back of stores everywhere. Now, many have set up partnerships with food bank or poverty charities, like Fareshare or the Trussell Trust.

The trouble is, some food banks receive too much food, while others get too little depending on where they happen to be located in the UK.

Neighbourly is helping to smooth out this process so that companies and charities can make the best possible use of surplus food. M&S has made great use of the social platform, creating donations whenever it has food going spare. Interested charities then receive an alert as to what’s available and can arrange collections.

So far, more than 100 tonnes of surplus food has successfully found a new home.

With more than £2.6 million and 9,700 volunteer days pledged so far in support of over 3,500 projects listed on the site, Neighbourly now wants to break beyond the borders of the UK and help more multinationals that want to support charities closer to home.

“We are building the social network for social good. The goal is to create a collaborative, unifying force around world, that genuinely creates a combined ability to get more done,” says Davies.

Social networks are not new; Facebook turned 12 in February. But as the likes of Neighbourly are proving, the way in which we use technology and apply it to solve specific environmental and social challenges continues to evolve – and with that comes true positive change.

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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