First there was online shopping, then banking, then everything from utility payments to theater ticketing. Today Minnesota marks another Internet first as it launches one of the nation's most sophisticated tools to boost "e-philanthropy.''

Called GiveMN, it allows Minnesotans to research more than 36,000 state charities, religious congregations and nonprofits from one website. As donors contribute to favorite causes, GiveMN creates their individual giving portfolios that track contributions by agency, category and dollar value.

GiveMN also offers direct links to Facebook and Twitter, where donors will be encouraged to post comments about their charitable choices.

Minnesotans donate more than $3 billion a year to nonprofit groups, many hard hit by the economic downturn. GiveMN's goal is to give nonprofits an economic boost and give Minnesotans information to make informed choices, organizers said.

In the process, GiveMN is expected to significantly boost Minnesota's electronic philanthropy, or e-philanthropy, which is taking off across the nation.

"We've been watching this (electronic giving) develop and felt it was finally ready to take off,'' said Jennifer Ford Reedy, vice president of strategy and knowledge management at the Minnesota Community Foundation, which developed GiveMN. "We think GiveMN is the breakthrough that will make it work in Minnesota. It marries national technology with the strong sense of community in this state.''

Online philanthropy has grown dramatically in recent years. A survey of the nation's largest nonprofits conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed a 260 percent increase from 2004 to 2008, from $350 million to $1.3 billion.

But online giving still accounts for just 1 percent of giving nationally, said Ford Reedy.

Online donors tend to be younger, with a median age of 38, more tech-savvy and more generous, said Amy Wagner, senior director at MAP for Nonprofits, one of the partners in the project. A recent national survey indicated that 51 percent of wealthy donors prefer Internet giving, she said.

To date, most online giving has focused on big national and international websites, such as Kiva and Donors Choose, which fund international micro grants and classroom projects respectively, Ford Reedy said.

"There hasn't been any good example of local e-philanthropy,'' said Ford Reedy. "We hope to be the gold standard nationally.''

How it works

Donors who click on www.givemn.org can begin searching for charities by name or category, such as sports, arts or environment.

In preparation for the blast of new visitors, state nonprofits have been sprucing up their GiveMN presence, often adding images and video in an attempt to introduce donors to their programs and clients.

Donors perusing the site will find information on charities, schools, neighborhood centers, little league teams and beyond. With one credit card transaction, they can donate to all of their favorite causes.

But GiveMN goes beyond providing information on charities. The home page will feature different charities, different causes. If vandals destroy playground equipment at a grade school, for example, GiveMN could immediately kick off a fundraising drive to replace it.

If Minnesota is hit by a tornado or other natural disaster, the website could coordinate citizen donations, said Dana Nelson, executive director of GiveMN.

Fundraising for the various causes can be creative. An online giving site in New York launched a moustache-growing contest, with the winner getting a cash prize to give to the charity of his choice, said Ford Reedy.

In addition, donors can nominate select charities, as well as direct wedding or birthday gift-givers to the website, said Nelson.

For nonprofits big and small, GiveMN holds the potential of boosting their public profiles and lowering their pricetags for fundraising. To raise a dollar online costs just seven cents, compared with $1.25 for a mailing to a potential customer, said Nelson.

"A website like this, with all the bells and whistles, is out of the scope of what we can do,'' said Mark Miller, executive director of St. Paul Urban Tennis, which serves about 3,000 St. Paul students each year.

"Even if we could build it, how do you get people to come to it? That's why GiveMN is so important. It will attract people with that giving spirit.''

To spark donations, a group of local foundations have created a fund to cover credit-card processing fees for the first $8 million of giving, said Ford Reedy.

They've also spearheaded a "Give to the Max Day'' Nov. 17, during which they'll offer a 50 cents on the dollar match to the first $1 million donated.

Local partners involved in the project range from the Minnesota Women's Foundation to the Greater Twin Cities United Way. Nationally, GiveMN has partnered with Razoo.com for the Web presence and Networkforgood.com to process the credit card transactions.

"We think this is the direction the world is going,'' said Ford Reedy. "In nearly every aspect of life, technology is being used to connect human beings in new and wonderful ways. Philanthropy is one of the last big industries to go online in a meaningful way.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511