As reported here, on January 1st, the web-based virtual world Metaplace closed it doors. While it never reached the mass appeal of worlds like Second Life, Habbo or Club Penguin, Metaplace was an easy entry point for people and institutions interested in exploring virtual worlds. With it's web-accessibility, simple user-interface and integration with other social media tools, a fairly tech-savvy individual could be up and running in-world within 45 minutes.
For nonprofits in particular, Metaplace was a great sandbox for trying out various virtual projects to see how they might work. There was literally no cost to creating a simple virtual presence in Metaplace. Anyone could build in an afternoon a digital theater for your YouTube videos, a simple learning lab for your students, or organize a fundraiser complete with live music, virtual goodies, and a paypal button.
AFAIK, there is no other virtual platform that can match this kind of on-the-fly experimentation and prototyping. Other virtual worlds like Habbo or Whyville require hiring the company that owns the world to build the experience for your organization. Open ended worlds like Second Life and OpenSim have much higher technical requirements on both the developers end and the end users.
Back in the early 1990s, creating a web presence for your nonprofit was a daunting and expensive affair. Bandwidth was expensive, coding in HTML was a skill few had or could afford, and server space was hard to come by. It fell to nonprofit networks like the Association for Progressive Communications, OneWorld.net and Institute of Global Communications to help small nonprofits and charities to get started online. This helped literally thousands of new nonprofits from around the world to flourish and connect with each other in networks that continue to this day.
Perhaps it's time to think about what the virtual world equivalent of this might be?
UPDATE 1/6/09: Alphaville Herald has an interesting analysis of the closure of Metaplace here.