Gabe O’Neill could have never predicted back in March 2008 that a father-daughter project would blossom into one of the most influential nonprofits in social media. Now – with a combined audience of about 50,000 Twitter followers and Facebook fans, and a network of more than 1.4 million followers through tweets donated by supporters – Mashable considers Kids Are Heroes to be the No. 4 must-follow nonprofit making a difference with social media.
It all started when Gabe’s daughter, MaryMargaret, approached him about building a website to help animals. “Why stop at animals?” asked Gabe, a software engineer in Maryland with an entrepreneurial spirit. “Why not help people too?” And that’s when the father-daughter duo came up with the concept for “Kids Are Heroes,” an organization dedicated to encouraging children to become leaders through community involvement.
The premise was simple: encourage children to get involved in helping their communities by showing how other kids have already helped change the world through selfless acts of giving.
“When children see others taking action, it helps them know that they can join in and make a difference,” said Gabe. “Our goal is to create a generational shift worldwide, where volunteering becomes a natural part of a child’s development.”
Kids Are Heroes has since grown to more than 275 kids from nine countries, stretching from the United States to England to Kenya to Australia. The organization has received international media attention, broadcasting examples of kids helping their communities all over the globe. It even launched an annual “Kids Are Heroes” day, where children traveled from as far away as South Africa to win awards and hang out with celebrities like Levar Fisher, offensive tackle for the St. Louis Cardinals.
So how did a father and daughter build “Kids Are Heroes” into one of the most influential nonprofits in social media?
“Twitter was by far the most effective tool for us,” said Gabe. “At first, I wasn’t a fan of Twitter, but after forcing myself to use it, the value of it kicked me in the head. We were then off and running.”
Gabe uses only Twitter and Facebook to connect with his combined audience of about 50,000 followers and fans. He can also reach more than 1.4 million additional followers through a program called JustCoz, in which about 1,600 users have donated their tweets to be used by @KidsAreHeroes. But the massive following didn’t accumulate overnight.
Gabe started by simply following relevant users who seemed most likely to proactively participate in two-way conversations on Twitter. One of those users happened to be @JohnHaydon, regarded as one of the most influential nonprofit networkers in the country and whose philanthropy stories can be seen in the Huffington Post. (He helped connect us with Kids Are Heroes.) John Haydon has since become the biggest individual donor to Kids Are Heroes.
The organization’s first major breakthrough happened in June 2009 when Gabe entered the concept in a contest sponsored by Sir Richard Branson to find the top five business ideas in the world. Kids Are Heroes was featured first in Branson’s premiere episode of “PitchTV,” an online video series that showcases solid business ideas.
The next breakthrough happened in November 2011, when Mashable named Kids Are Heroes the No. 4 must-follow nonprofit making a difference with social media – ranked just below Sesame Street Workshop and the Brooklyn Museum. Gabe said @KidsAreHeroes had 35,000 followers at the time, and has since added more than 11,000 new followers in only three-and-a-half months.
Despite the tremendous amount of success Kids Are Heroes has experienced in its four years of existence, Gabe refuses to consider his father-and-daughter venture a success just yet.
“The minute you think you’re successful is the minute you start to fail,” Gabe said. “It still hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s really taken off, but followers certainly come much quicker these days.”
The next goal for Kids Are Heroes is to expand the organization’s activities to foreign countries by translating the website into different languages. Gabe said he would also like to sponsor more kids who can’t come to “Kids Are Heroes Day” in Maryland by using donations to fund their travel costs.
If you’re interested in supporting Kids Are Heroes, PaySimple is donating $1 to the organization for every new Facebook fan we acquire through the month of February. But if you’re really interested in supporting the cause, we recommend you also like Kids Are Heroes on Facebook, and check out how they’re empowering children to become leaders through community involvement.
And if you represent a nonprofit or a small business that’s curious about jumping into social media, but you feel apprehensive about getting started, take a page out of Gabe and MaryMargeret’s book, and just try it.