Abu Dhabi // The social networking website Facebook has become an unexpected but invaluable tool for charity groups seeking volunteers and trying to get their message through. When Lola Lopez founded Aid in Motion, a Dubai-based NGO, last year to collect and donate clothes to poor rural communities in Kenya, Myanmar and Pakistan, she needed help. She turned to Facebook, where she created a group called Volunteer in Dubai, hoping to get a handful of interested people. Before she knew it, 3,000 volunteers had joined in the first month, and Ms Lopez collected 100,000kg of clothes for her organisation.
"I didn't expect it," she said. "It was amazing to see that the citizens of this city showed me how much they wanted to help." Her Facebook group now has more than 4,500 members, and many local organisations, such as the Dubai Autism Centre and the Canine Friends, turn to her when they do not know where to get volunteers. Ms Lopez sends messages to her Facebook group members almost daily, seeking volunteers for such things as cleaning up beaches and accompanying blind people around the city.
"What I found out is that you don't have to be a large organisation to find the manpower we can offer," she said. "We are trying to support any good deed, to change community culture, and to teach people that volunteering can be fun." She recalls once needing to move 800kg of clothing from Al Quoz district to Mirdiff. It would have cost about Dh500 (US$136) to rent a vehicle to do the job. Instead, she sent a message to Volunteer in Dubai members.
"I expected to get a message from one person willing to offer a pickup lorry that is used for his business," she said. What she got were more than 80 e-mails that same day, from people willing to provide their 4x4s. "It was really a sight, to see 24 4x4s with their owners driving in convoy to move all this stuff," she said. The biggest and most active demographic group within Volunteer in Dubai are young men aged 22 to 28. "People view Dubai as a place of materialism, but really, I have found out through this group that there is a powerful movement of soulful people here," Ms Lopez said.
Facebook was a useful tool for organising last-minute vigils and charity events during the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Young people turned to the website to organise their Gaza-related events and advertise others. Facebook is the seventh-most visited website in the UAE, according to the site tracker Alexa. It is no wonder, then, that it has attracted not only established local NGOs, such as Dubai Cares, dedicated to educating people in poor countries, and Takatof, a voluntary youth-employment organisation, but also international ones, such as the Dubai chapter of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund.
It has turned to Facebook to find host families and volunteers willing to help Iraqi and Palestinian children being treated in this country. Dubai Cares has more than eight groups on Facebook. The most professional of them was created by Mona Kattan, who is not employed by the organisation. "I actually created the Dubai Cares group when I first heard about the organisation," Ms Kattan said. "I wanted to spread the word the fastest way possible, to let people know how simple it is to contribute and help."
She was later contacted by a representative of the organisation, thanking her for her initiative. Dubai Cares said the group she set up had been instrumental in recruiting volunteers, especially for "emergency action" requests. One of the most important last-minute events, the Volunteer for Gaza initiative, attracted more than 8,500 volunteers over eight days in January to assemble 100,000 school and hygiene kits for the children of the Palestinian territory.
Meanwhile, Volunteer in Dubai has a potential problem: Facebook limits mass e-mails to 5,000 members of a group. Ms Lopez is therefore hoping to switch to a separate website next month. email@example.com