Note From Beth: A few weeks ago, I wrote a reflection on an article in CNET called "Crowded Roads Ahead for Charity 2.0" based on an interview with Toby Daniels of Think Social and Scott Harrison of charity:water. Many people left comments reflecting on how the landscape has changed for fundraising on social networks, including James Wu from Acumen who graciously expanded his thoughts into this guest post.
I work at Acumen Fund and I manage the organization's social media work. The CNET article struck an anxiety point for many of us who work in the trenches.
We're really excited about the mention of the new charity:water website! Making it easy for people to give to a cause by integrating charitable actions into the activities, routines, and habits of daily life is brilliant. It's a small step up the ladder of engagement and won't necessarily lead to true education about an issue and offline engagement, but that marginal increase in awareness has a lot of potential for deeper levels of engagement.
Recently, a few staff
members here just started experimenting with Birthday Wishes on Causes
and were shocked at how easy it was for each of them to raise $200 from
their networks without really lifting a finger. Your posts on Birthday Wishes definitely helped give us the courage & a blueprint to dive
in, but it is only one rung on the ladder of engagement.
There was one hypothesis made in the CNET article that I found curious: "At best, donations could be spread too thin, rendering many organizations less effective." It could just be a matter of word choice, but I felt this was a bit of a leap. If fundraising is the only measure of what makes an NGO effective, then I worry about what the real value proposition is of organizations soliciting donations. We are seeing a real movement behind social enterprise & social entrepreneurship due to the sector's embrace of transparency and accountability. What determines success, failure, and impact has much more to do with how NGOs are ensuring the sustainability & scalability of their programs, grantees, or investees. Again, I think it was just a matter of wording and taking an excerpt slightly out of context. We certainly can't achieve any of these things without sufficient capital, but effectiveness is a measure of so many more variables.
One quote from the article related to Cause fatigue caught my eye. "If one tweet after another is seeking donations, people might just get fed up." This is absolutely true and the reason why we must lead with a value proposition that is transparent, and clearly articulates how impact and long-term sustainability will be achieved. At the end of the day, organizations have to earn the right to ask. They must ask "Have we provided enough value, and demonstrated enough proof behind our model or concept to ask people to give?"
The article also talks about scaling issues for charity:water "...their biggest problem now is scale...You need staff, you need operational resources, you need to have all your business systems in place..." I think this was a really interesting and insightful observation by Toby. I'm not sure that charity: water's biggest challenge is scale, as it is demonstrating impact and long-term sustainability. There is no shortage of people in this world who have an appetite for helping provide safe drinking water to those without it. And assuming charity: water remains brilliant at marketing and communications, there will be no shortage of brilliant, talented, well-connected, well-resourced individuals who will line up to help them raise an infinite source of capital as long as they can demonstrate impact and sustainability of their solutions.
I don't think we can underestimate the power of volunteerism in providing the resources and business systems that a non-profit needs -- especially volunteerism that breeds true leadership. As long as you have the proper infrastructure to support your community of proselytizers, scale becomes relative.
I absolutely agree on the need to work in networks of organizations. In addition to social networking infrastructure and channels, we're looking to build networked tribes of supporters and advocates all around the world. Based on the success of our all-volunteer Young Professionals group in NYC that's developed over the past year, we are thinking of launching chapters worldwide to help us with our mission of changing the way the world thinks about "the poor" and tackles poverty. Stay tuned to Acumen Fund's blog for more news on this soon!
I think Jill Finlayson's ideas on "thought leadership" are also key in rising above the noise and clutter. Organizations must establish themselves as a trusted source. And we have to remember, one of the things that makes Twitter, Facebook, and social media great is that it's easy to opt-in and opt-out. The power really is with the people, so things only have to be as noisy as you want them to be or have tolerance for.
I'm going to sound like a broken record here but to address cause fatigue and to create a real movement, organizations must ultimately demonstrate the impact and long-term sustainability of their work. Our challenge at Acumen Fund is making the concept of Patient Capital one that is generally accepted as an effective way of fighting poverty. Unfortunately, patience and complexity aren't the sexiest or most marketable ideas. But, we feel that people are beginning to wake up to the fact that there are no silver bullets and that complex problems require complex solutions that don't happen overnight. This doesn't mean operating without a sense of urgency, but instead eliminating unproductive dogma and polarization.
Movement building is all about relationship building techniques
as Beth mentioned in her reflection. Social media offers some great
tools, but the rules for relationship building don't change. The
challenge is creating a high touch experience online as well as off.
James Wu is a Communications Associate at Acumen Fund where he works with new media and community engagement. He enjoys the process of cutting and peeling fruit, and likes to reward himself with milk and cookies before bed.