Saturday, March 27, 2010

Digital Sheep

In his recent talk at the 2010 South by Southwest conference in Austin, Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for a Digital Age, media theorist, author and cyberpunk soothsayer Douglas Rushkoff urged attendees to pay attention (or more attention) to how we are being manipulated by digital media. Here's the video of Rushkoff's address:

Rushkoff is host of Digital Nation on PBS and author of Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back. Which are you, a programmer or one of the programmed among us? Rushkoff suggests that most of us are the latter. Caveat digerati.

Let us hear from you.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Fail Fairs

Failure - or the notion that we should publicly share our stories about what doesn't work in our scramble to innovate - is becoming the New Cool. Rather than launch a quixotic war on failure, some social sector leaders are saying that we should be using what we've learned to fail better, to learn from the past so that we may, collectively, meet the challenges we share. [What has to die so that better initiatives might live?]

Sure, social innovation leaders have been talking for a while now about the importance of sharing what works and what doesn't. But now, as collaboration gains momentum across the social sectors, the notion of failure as a critical ingredient of innovation -- and cross-sector learning -- appears to be gaining a new sense of urgency.

Earlier this week, global thought and action network PopTech released the theme of its annual October gathering in Maine, something that many social entrepreneurs look to as an intellectual context for their work. [Last year's theme was America, Re-imagined.] This year, PopTech's theme is Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs. It's an opportunity to remind ourselves why failure is vital - and to gain inspiration and new energy around the kind of risk-taking that's required for innovation to occur. [Some of the questions PopTech will be exploring include: What do radically different disciplines and ways of thinking have to teach each other? Why do some ideas work at a grand scale, and others only locally? How can small changes to our 'default' options lead to breakthroughs? Every visionary starts as a heretic, so how do ideas and their champions move from the edge to the center?]

The failure theme also is getting impetus from cofounder Katrin Verclas. Earlier this month, Verclas began inviting people in the mobiles-for-social-change space to share their failures, in preparation for Fail Faire, an event she is hosting in New York on April 14. Says Verclas:

"Projects succeed, projects fail. The successes are reported on, the failures are filed away -- or, in the case of most ICT 4 Development or Mobile 4 Development projects, pushed under the proverbial rug. Well, it's time to bring out the failures, with a sense of humor and with an honest look at ourselves."

Verclas, who has been a voice for innovation in the mobiles space for years, added: "If we understand what doesn't work in this field ... we can collectively learn and get better, more effective, and have a greater impact as we go forward."

Lucy Bernholz, a blogger, consultant and change activist in the philanthropy space, also has been voicing the need for nonprofit innovators to be more collaborative and open in their work -- chiefly more transparent about their hits and misses in their struggles to reshape their strategies in the face of the Web's continued radical evolution. Her recent Open Philanthropy: A Modest Manifesto urged the sharing of what works and what doesn't, triggering a continuing debate in the sector about risk and transparency.

Certainly, failure isn't just considered a value for start-up entrepreneurs, something to emphasize on a resume as proof of wisdom and experience. Talking about failure can have the effect of de-stigmatizing risk, catalyzing in-house innovators, and inspiring more of us to build systems that fail better.

How many of you are using social media to share failure stories as tools for collaborative learning, online and off? Does it trigger new levels of learning? What is needed in the storm of disruptive innovation to make people feel more secure about what they share?

Let us hear from you.

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Andrea Danti for
(This post first appeared on and appears here with permission)

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Do-It-Yourself School

Pop Quiz: What is the latest start-up to take on education-as-we've-known-it? [See School's Out.] Guess again. You get the gold star if you answered Supercool School, the latest buzz magnet in the noisy, online education start-up space. Founder Steli Efti, pitching at DEMO this week, says Supercool School is all about letting anyone create an online school to teach anything they'd like. Think of it as a kind of private social network, or Ning, in which so-called "citizen teachers" who want to fix what's wrong with the educational system can create a global classroom of their own. Subject and form is up to you. [One recent "citizen teacher" used the platform to host a conversation on the proposed start-up visa, which was attended by people in four countries; the instructor/facilitator used split-screen technology to bring some of his students, virtually, to the head of the class.]

Supercool School provides the platform for interactive, real-time virtual classrooms; you give Efti 20 percent of the tuition income for the virtual lecturn. "We create a white label platform the lets everyone create and customize an online school," he says. Efti also plans to start selling subscriptions for premium features. So far, there have been more than 100 Supercool Schools created since January -- including one called "Start-up School" in the company's beta testing program.

Efti says the San Francisco start-up has 2 million potential customers and a $450 million market opportunity.

But what's most distinctive about Supercool School is just how un-cool it seems to be, at least by reigning social entrepreneurial standards. Its founders come out of nowhere, its marketing materials aren't complex nor choreographed, its vision is huge ["We want to decentralize and democratize an entire industry," Efti says] and its backers aren't among those being knighted this year by either of the enterprise "world forums" coming up this spring on the conference circuit -- the Skoll World Forum gathering in Oxford next month and the Milken Global Forum in Los Angeles a couple of weeks later. On the contrary, Supercool School's message is totally "from the ground up" and direct and idealistic -- all the more reason it might actually make it to mainstream.

Here's a video of Efti explaining the concept:

What do you think?

(Illustration, above: Doodlemachine Studio for

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Twestival Global 2010

Twestival Global kicks off tomorrow, this time bringing thousands of people in 175 cities around the world together to support the cause of education. Last year, the first global Twestival raised money for charity:water. This year, all proceeds will go to Concern Worldwide, a global organization that works to boost education for children born into poverty.

During a visit to London last week, I spoke with Renate Nyborg, a Twestival cofounder who parlayed her social media skills into founding Madhouse Collective, an interactive events company in the UK. [Nyborg was on a panel I led last week at's Social Media and Stakeholder Engagement conference in London.] Here's an edited transcript of our short conversation about Twestival:

What led you and Amanda Rose to start Twestival last year?
I was running an events company at the time and had started using Twitter; at the time, just journalists and bloggers and tech geeks like myself were using it and we thought:
Wouldn’t it be great to bring a bunch of these people together in the world to connect and share resources and give each other advice and use this collaborative idea to raise money for a good cause? So we rallied people on and offline, at first to benefit a local soup kitchen, and then we put that idea of a larger event out there on Twitter, and rather quickly, we started asking people where they were based, what were their skills, and what would it take for them to get involved? Two weeks later, we had 200 registered cities, 1,000 volunteers and we ended up raising $250,000 for this in the space of a month.We knew we were on to something from the start -- though I must say, we had no budget; basically, there were two of us doing it alone from London, but leveraging the buzz around it allowed the infrastructure to scale. We ended up being one of these online swarms that made a huge difference. We used the money to build 55 water wells in Ethiopia and Uganda, which directly affected 70,000 people. That was one campaign –we’ve done several others since. I think campaigns like Twestival are a strong example of how people can use social media to collaborate, versus popping up to exert pressure. And it's a sustainable group so far. It's building on what we started, not having to start from scratch.

What's next in the evolution of Twestival, in your view?
I believe passionately that collaboration is the way forward. Since we did the first Twestival campaigns, we have engaged a number of corporations and other stakeholder groups to help us to facilitate the work that we do -- PayPal, eBay, and other companies are helping us to do good and raise money for charity. The proposition to them is this: we tell them we have 1,000 people worldwide investing their time and skills and speaking well on their behalf, so let us build this for you. I think that's how things will evolve in many uses of social media for good, once the social capital -- the sheer numbers of people can be charted and brought to bear. I think corporations, rather than having to sit down and figure out what they have to do, or how they can change things or put up a budget, might better simply align themselves with people already out there doing things that can help change their organizations from the inside out.

Last year, we raised $750,000 for Twestival and we'll raise more this year. Now we have in place an infrastructure, and every single day, we've been getting lots of requests from corporations and individuals wanting to do something -- a design-for-good competition, for one, and a group of musicians offering to donate downloads of their music for charity, to cite two examples. It's really all about using social media to moderate group activity, to keep connecting the right people to each other, and the right brands to the right actions. We have high hopes for this year but we're still just getting started about seeing how widely this can scale over time. For those asking us where the money goes and how it gets there, this year, there's a Twestival Results section to the site, where you can look at detailed statistics including funds raised to date and how they're being spent. (Click on Impact tab)

For more on Twestival Global, check out the promotional video, below:

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Digital 'Dog Whistle'

More than once last week at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, I'd be sitting in a restaurant or in a hotel lobby with some colleagues, only to see nearly everyone within eyeshot suddenly stand up and start moving toward the exits, simultaneously. We'd go, too, ending up a few blocks away, or across the street, along with everyone else.

What was fascinating was that this wasn't the usual conference "pack" mentality. Our smart phones had made sure we had "gotten the memo." They told us when to go and where to go -- and then, who else might be there when we arrived. For many attendees, the SxSW conference was a first opportunity to try out location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla and experience the sensation of location-awareness media first-hand.

[New York Times writer David Carr described the sensation at SxSW, writing in the Times today that "it was striking to see the digital location effect in the wild, with people reacting to an unseen dog whistle and moving en masse, on command."]

How does it work? Once you arrive at a location, you "check in" and see a list of people who are already there; Foursquare was ranking the most popular locations by the number of check-ins during the conference. Local merchants were handing out digital, branded "badges" to those who showed up -- and free beer or other perks were being given to those who showed up the most often. Twitter launched a location-aware app during the conference and Facebook will soon follow suit.

Location, simply put, changes a lot -- from marketing to social action. [The potential to organize volunteers this way was explored again this year on some of SxSW's panels.] Merging location and the Web means that most of us can walk around with a smart phone in our pockets that not only tell others where we are but also plugs into the Net to share that information, merge it with online databases and spit out who else is in the immediate vicinity that we might know.

But location-aware services -- though still a relatively new form of social media -- are doing more now than simply testing organizers' ability to move a crowd for entertainment [see Where Ware in Cause Global last week]. They're also testing new ways for crowds to help charitable causes with donated money and services: following the Haiti earthquake, Loopt announced that for every user who checked in from a Panera, Chipotle or a Whole Foods, it would donate $1 towards Haitian relief, with 50 cents going to the Red Cross and the rest to Doctors Without Borders. Not to be outdone, Gowalla donated $50 to the Red Cross for every user who checked in from one of three locations in San Francisco at certain times.

CauseWorld, meanwhile, is a location-based social network that hands out "Karma Points" each time a user checks in at a participating location. The free iPhone and Android app lets users convert their Karma Points into real dollars and donate them to to a list of causes that corporate sponsors Kraft Foods and Citi have designated. The CauseWorld community has, so far, earned $6 million worth of Karma Points for the homeless in Haiti.

No question, there is more potential, still, for groups to use location aware technology to move groups to benefit social causes. Backers say CauseWorld is an example of how brands can combine social media with cause marketing in new ways to deliver new value to customers and employees, alike. No doubt CauseWorld is just the first of such initiatives.

Are you part of any new projects that use location-aware technology-for-a-cause? How would you rate the potential for location-aware media to promote social action? Employee and consumer engagement?

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Matt Hertel for

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The New Watercooler

In Ken Auletta's bestseller, Googled, about the massive social and economic changes triggered by the Web, Auletta quotes NYU new media professor Clay Shirky as saying we're living through such rapid, destabilizing change, that "the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place."

The change is so wrenching, Shirky says, that when people demand to know how we're going to "replace" newspapers -- and all the other you-name-its getting knocked into irrelevancy or reshaped by the Web's tsunami-forces -- "people really are demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution, that the ancient social bargains are not in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it..."

I recalled Shirky's words while attending's Social Media and Stakeholder Engagement conference last Friday in London; many of the panelists [some from iconic corporate brands, including Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell, Dell, and SAP, among others] provided a rare glimpse at the degree to which social media are creating palpable levels of discomfort inside the modern corporation. Gathering at the 250-year-old, former Whitbread Brewery on the eastern rim of Georgian London, now a conference center, conferees spoke candidly about their scramble to find ways to use social media to win and retain employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Especially insightful were remarks by Tim Johns, VP of Corporate Communications at Unilever, who said that employee/management communication inside most large companies today "is at an all-time low," and that new people coming into the workplace "are tuning us out completely." Johns said this new generation of workers are among the most sophisticated users of media in modern history. "They have multiple interfaces with media and information and listen to what they choose, when they choose and how they choose -- and yet the funny thing is, at many organizations, we [in management] forget this." This is dangerous, Johns said:

"Young people have the ability to filter you out. They can put you on mute.
They can be looking at you, you can be looking at them, but they are simply not listening and will change the channel whenever something is being said or done that stops interesting them.
They do not lose these skills when they come to work.

It's scary, John says, because "the biggest driver of a company's reputation is its performance; performance is your people and so therefore, your employee engagement is your reputation." If your employees are putting you on mute, Johns said, your corporation's reputation is at stake. Johns said the only place where trust is rising in today's workplace are on social networks, among so-called "P.L.Us" -- People Like Us, one's peers.

Therefore, Johns said, companies need to start engaging with employees by creating social networks in the workplace that aren't about controlling the communication but are, instead, about facilitating it. Unilever, for one, has set up a MySite "zone" across the organization's UK operations, what Johns describes as an "internal Facebook" where employees with similar interests or skills can "find each other" and collaborate around new projects and solutions. [Do social media in this context fulfill the "knowledge management" goals that corporations have been chasing ever since the Web's emergence in the enterprise some 15 years ago?]

But there are barriers, Johns said. To be successful, senior managers must "rescue internal communications from the dead hand of HR," he said. "My hope is that when the revolution comes, HR people will be the first against the wall. The dead hand of HR in most organizations has killed employee engagement. [HR people] tend to be hierarchical, one-way communicators who want to tell you what's good for you and force you to accept it."

Among other conference highlights:

* Robert Nuttall, former head of internal communications for Marks & Spencer, the British retailer, said many companies are using social media to be in one-way communication with employees and customers, alike -- what he called "telling mode" versus engagement. "On many fronts, there is still a long way to go," he said. Nuttall said firms that fail embrace social media do so at their peril. "At some point in future," he said, "there will be a point at which companies will be called to account much more harshly than they are now" by their employees, consumers, and activists, and social media are the best way to engage corporate stakeholders as collaborators.

* Bjorn Edlund, former Executive VP of Royal Dutch Shell, agreed that many companies are struggling in their effort to harness social media. But he urged social media advocates inside corporations "to be stubborn. If you believe in change, you have to fight for it. Ask them to talk to their kids, to realize how the modern world works. Then ask them to come back and reconsider."

*Dan McQuillan, Head of Digital, Enterprise UK and co-founder of Social Innovation Camp, said social media are important because they help companies understand what matters most to their customers and employees. Companies need to "make themselves hackable," he said; people will construct change on their own, he said, if they see their own companies dropping the ball. The key, then, for organizations? Use social media to "find, and then be in the [stakeholder] conversations wherever innovation is occurring," McQuillan said.

* Ed Gillespie co-founder of Futerra, urged his corporate peers to use social media to help "create sizzle" among employees about the company's "do-good" work. "It's about selling the sizzle, about focusing on what gets people internally really excited," Gillespie said. "It's about using social media to generate social proof that this thing you're working on has meaning." He said it's like the story about the hot dog salesman in the States, who tells a customer that he is not selling the sausage, but the sizzle -- the aroma, the smell, the excitement. Gillespie added: "If you're not selling the sizzle of sustainability, then it's like the hot dog salesman says; you're just selling a dead pig."

How much does your company use social media in the workplace? Let us hear from you.

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Oscar Scotellaro for

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Education 2.0

Here's the latest machinima dispatch from award-winning reporter [and Cause Global contributor] Bernhard Drax, this one on efforts by some teachers to transform education with more daring uses of technology inside the classroom -- and outside of it. Can learning in virtual worlds empower kids to do better? Draxtor Despres, Drax's avatar [the one with the glasses and earphones] interviews a range of educators and officials in Second Life, including those from the International Society for Technology in Education and the Department of Education.

Here's his report:

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Crowdsourcing Social Change

You’re a small, scrappy social change organization. You crowdsource. [Yeah, yeah, we know. It’s cheaper. Diversity solves problems faster. There is greater wisdom in numbers. Engagement builds collaboration and collaboration brings in money and volunteers.] But that’s not all. Crowdsourcing also turns Establishment philanthropy on its ear. “There’s not a lot of openness in traditional philanthropy,” Nonprofit Technology Network's Holly Ross told the crowd that came to hear her, Beth Kanter, Netsquared's Amy Sample Ward, video consultant David J. Neff and the Case Foundation's Kari Saratovsky talk about disruptive change in the sector. Part of SxSW’s Crowdsourcing Innovative Social Change panel, Ross added: “Crowdsourcing is an ethos that the nonprofit industry needs to adopt to better itself.”

To be sure, open philanthropy – the movement for more open collaboration and transparency in the giving sector – is an urgent mission by itself. Thanks to the Web’s ability to produce ever-faster and larger outpourings of free information, knowledge is no longer scarce and sharing is becoming the most efficient approach to social problem-solving. [See our SxSW2010 report on Clay Shirky’s conference keynote, also today, on the “problem” with (information) abundance. “It tends to break things,” he says.]

So what are some of the better examples of high-impact crowdsourcing? Here's the panel's short list, mostly of mobile startups. [Kanter asked her considerable social network back in January to start aggregating examples; SxSW attendees added some examples on the spot.]

* Open Green Map, offered up by Ross, helps communities map their eco-friendly spots, whether it's a bike rack or a solar-heated apartment complex or a public herb garden. Using this open source collaborative platform, the Manhattan-based nonprofit has so far engaged more than 600 communities in 55 countries in creating citizen maps to catalyze new environmental projects, large and small. The maps are made by community members. OGM helps.

*NPR’s online community manager Andy Carvin cited Project NOAH; the acronym stands for Networked Organisms and Habitats. NOAH, now in beta, is a free iPhone application that helps people discover their local plants and animals and document them onto a common tech platform for review by research groups and others. In this way, citizen scientists can help to track new species or changes in the environment.

* Carvin also mentioned Open Street Map, a collaborative project to create a free, editable map of the world with the help of people using data from portable GPS devices. OSM has been used recently by disaster/crisis relief organizations to share such information as which roads are accessible and which are blocked in the wake of disasters or civil strife. [Ushahidi, another example, enables users to crowdsource crisis information that is then used to make dynamic, real-time maps of public health outbreaks, street rioting, food drops and emergency facilities during crisis situations.]

* The UpTake is a Minnesota-based citizen journalist nonprofit that crowdsources the news and helps editors filter hours of raw videotape for the best clips. [Think C-SPAN meets Ghost Hunters meets CNN’s iReport.] Everything is time-stamped; the UpTake's profile increased during the disputed 2008 U.S. Senate election in Minnesota. [UpTake provided full coverage of the recount process, earning it plaudits for accuracy from established and online news organizations.]

* Seattle Free School, suggested by Ward, uses social media to organize classes and teach students. “The owners found each other via social media and the project was born from the interaction,” Ward said. “This is ‘for the community by the community’ education and engages the best local experts to share their knowledge and experience for free."

* Invisible People, an nonprofit that uses video storytelling to help de-stigmatize homeless people. "Our hope is that you'll get mad enough to do something," its Website reads. Invisible People uses crowdsourcing to select the best stories and interviews.

There are numerous other examples, but what are the lessons that can be shared from them?

Among the takeaways:

* Mix it up. Crowd-sourcing that harvests input from both experts and non-experts seems to work best for groups with a lot of in-house knowledge, said Saratovsky. “We do it this way [at Case] so it doesn’t become simply a popularity contest,” she said. Ross said Free Range StudiosYoutopia project is another example of targeted crowdsourcing. Free Range decided to give away $30,000 worth of free consulting to the most innovative social change groups, and used the crowd to help staff narrow the field to 20 finalists. Ward urged attendees to differentiate between an open, unvetted "crowd" and a group's "community" crowd -- suggesting that tapping into an organization's social network is a more strategic and manageable form of crowdsourcing for some initiatives.

* Small organizations with skimpy budgets have the most to gain. Said Ross: “It’s about realizing that if I want to create the most value for my cause and organization, then that value is going to come from beyond me. As a nonprofit, I am a gardener in the process." Added Kanter: "An expert now is someone with a great network. Crowd-sourcing lets you tap into a wider range of talent and skills than you may have inside your organization.”

* Start slowly. “You can't go from nothing to a lightbulb overnight,” said Ward. Use crowds to help you innovate in iterative steps over time.

* Don’t expect miracles."Crowdsourcing is just another shiny object unless you can tie it to outcomes," Kanter said. “Millions of crowd-sourced ideas don't produce anything.” Be very clear about what you want the crowd to help you achieve and deliver before you get started, then be able to measure the impact of those efforts.

* Make it fun and keep it simple. “People don’t want to do a lot of heavy lifting but they do want to do good,” said Ward. At its best, crowd-sourcing can be a form of civic engagement. At its worst, it can be exploitative. Be careful that you don’t ask crowds for too much.

Okay, dear readers. Now it's your turn. How do you use crowdsourcing and what lessons can you share with the crowd?

For more on the panel, see a summary of its presentation on slideshare.

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Photo-collage of Italian residential facades by

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Googling China

Google's relationship with the Chinese government has been tenuous, at best, in recent months, ever since Google announced it would stop censoring Chinese search results -- even if it meant having to leave China. Yet even after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Internet freedom in China some two weeks later, Google has been able to retain a foothold in China; its status there, however, remains iffy -- at best.

At the South by Southwest conference in Austin this weekend, Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based author and political commentator, spoke to attendees about Beijing's complex relationship with the Internet and why he thinks that most of China's more than 384 million Internet users "are too busy enjoying the Internet they have, to worry about the Internet we think they ought to have." Kuo also talked about what he called "public misperceptions" about Internet censorship in China, the reason for Google's announcement and the likely road ahead.

Kuo's remarks were called Google in China: Context and Consequences. What do you think of his take on the state of free speech in China via the Net?

For more on China censorship, see The Spinternet and Peep Show, Cause Global reports on the subject that ran previously on this blog.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

After Slacktivism

Who says social advocates can't raise big money and forge lasting donor relationships online for their causes? Today's South by Southwest (SxSW) panel on slacktivism -- more elegantly and formally called Debunking the Myth of Social Media Fundraising -- offered a rousing antidote to the notion of ineffectual, click-and-give philanthropy. Urban Dictionary defines slacktivism -- a portmanteau of the words "slacker" and "activism" -- as "a way of pretending to care while sitting ... in front of a computer playing WoW." Such detachment, the panelists asserted, is becoming less of a factor in today's cause-wired, text-aided giving arena: the outpouring of mobile contributions to victims of Haiti's January 12 earthquake and donor retention strategies being crafted to hang on to many of those donors over time should be proof positive that online giving has, at last, begun to evolve and inform even the most traditional philanthropy circles.

[Evgeny Morozov, one of the critics of slacktivism, wrote in a Foreign Policy Magazine article last fall entitled "From Slacktivism to Activism" that he is skeptical of numerous digital activism campaigns "that attempt to change the world through Facebook and Twitter." He said the desire to instantly connect with others online around ever-new causes poses a threat to more productive uses of time, such as brainstorming solutions to the world's ongoing problems.]

Combining research data with personal anecdotes, panelists Stacey Monk (Epic Change); Brooke McMillan (the Lance Armstrong Foundation); Donna Wilkins (Charity Dynamics), and Frank Barry (with Blackbaud, the fundraising software firm) made a strong case for the potential of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to raise money and awareness -- not simply as tools in one-off fundraising campaigns but also in efforts to build richer and more sustainable donor relationships across the socioeconomic spectrum.

There are dozens of commonly-held misperceptions about the use of social media in advocacy, the panelists said, and here are five of them:

Myth One: Social Media Aren't Very Effective. Not true, said the panelists. Social media can be effective in breaking down geographic boundaries, building communities of donors who otherwise would not be able to connect, and bringing in contributions from many more people than before. Monk says her nonprofit has raised nearly all of its money via Twitter, to build classrooms in Tanzania, buy school supplies for the students there and provide skills training inside and outside the classroom -- including social media skills aimed at helping them to learn more about other people from around the world. While the panelists agreed that using social media to fund-raise can take time, as it's all about relationship-building and not simply a matter of learning the technology.

Myth Two: Major Donors Do Not Exist in Social Media. Not true, said McMillan, and cited the example of @fatcyclist, the Twitter handle for a man who blogged and Tweeted to raise some $800,000 over the course of a year for Livestrong, Lance Armstrong's cancer research foundation. With social media, Barry said, "major donors" are no longer just wealthy individuals. Now they include individuals of all income levels adept at using their social influence online and off to engage others around giving to a cause.

Myth Three: No one Raises Money on Twitter. Guess again, said the panelists. For one, look at Twestival, the regional, national, and global fund-raising campaigns staged on Twitter to benefit a variety of causes. Then look at TweetsGiving. Both micro-blogging fundraisers have increased donations year over year, suggesting such campaigns are sustainable. To be sure, Monk said, "when you first get on Twitter you don't know what you're doing there." But soon, she added, you discover that "Twitter engineers serendipity" -- all sorts of connections that can be leveraged to raise money and awareness over time.

Myth Four: Building Community Does Not Help You Raise Money.
Also not true, the panelists said. Social media campaigns allow nonprofits to reach new donors and build the relationships required to raise funds from previously untapped sources. Nonprofits, said Monk, "shoot themselves in the foot" when they put a "give" button on their Web sites. Causes need, instead, to humanize fund-raising by using social media to engage donors in the cause. "Authentic connections between humans create movements, and movements raise funds," Monk said. "...Social media should humanize the process of giving, not automate it." Storytelling, the act of humanizing your cause to engage donors, is critical, she added. "If the word 'donate' is in your Tweet, you're doing it wrong," said Monk. To emphasize the point, Monk says she writes the Twitter handles of donors on the walls of the classrooms they're helping her to build as a way of showing them both her gratitude and their impact, and it works.

Myth Five: Social Media Cannibalize Other Fundraising Channels. Au contraire, said Monk. "Social media are just additional tools. Donors want to be able to choose" the way they give money to a cause, she said, and sites like Facebook and Twitter give them the option to give in new ways. Besides, the panelists agreed, social media offer an effective way for causes to reach the hearts and pocketbooks of Baby Boomers, the largest-growing demographic using Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Both Wilkins and Barry said multi-channel fund-raising strategies proved most effective, citing a recent Blackbaud/Charity Dynamics study. One finding: organizations that use email effectively to fund-raise also tend to use social media more effectively, as well. "My job didn't exist a year ago," said McMillan, the social media evangelist at Livestrong.

For more on the subject, check out the study on social media in fund-raising released last month by Charity Dynamics and Blackbaud.

Still not convinced? Come to the NTEN annual conference in Atlanta in April to hear some opposing views on the subject and a debate over the challenges to online giving that exist. My panel on Slacktivism will feature Nancy Lublin, CEO of; Jacob Colker, Cofounder of The Extraordinaries; Wendy Harman, social media director of the American Red Cross, and Aaron Smith, of Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, which is conducting ground-breaking research on the use of social media by Generation Y. Hope to see you there!

--By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Jumpingsack for

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Where Ware

It's all about location-smart social media this year at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. Dozens of new start-ups launching there this weekend offer new ways to help people connect geographically in real-time, on the fly, using their mobile phones and devices. But just some of these new start-ups use social media for social good.

Here are a few very new start-up social enterprises which have, so far, triggered some buzz among the more than 5,000 SxSW attendees (many want to "discover" the next Twitter or Foursquare):

* is a real-time, location-based information stream that aggregates the movements of people in Austin attending SxSW -- and will soon be able to do the same in different cities around the United States and the world. [Go ahead, try it. It's like a visual Twitter on steroids.] SimpleGeo, the startup that owns, partnered with eight different location companies -- including Gowalla, Foursquare, Brightkite and Twitter -- and the result is a fast-moving "location stream" of data. So far, much of the activity represents check-ins from either foursquare or Gowalla. Down the road, founders hope to help nonprofits and NGOs build new ways to map crowd movements in environmental or political crises, so as to boost the delivery efficiency of basic goods and services.

* CauseWorld is a free iPhone and Android app that enables users to check in at places but when you do, participating brands (including Kraft Foods and Citi) will give money to a charity of your choice. The concept is to turn the current craze for location-based check-in games into money for those in need. This week at SxSW, CauseWorld and TechCrunch, the tech news blog, are partnering to offer double "karma" points to people who check in to one of over 50 participating venues in Austin. There are no purchases required. "Players" just need to check in to the right venues to earn the points.

* SparkHelp, a project that Mashable is supporting for the Pepsi Refresh SxSW Challenge, a competition for $50,000 in start-up funding. Founders describe SparkHelp as "a foursquare meets Craigslist" application. "The idea is simple," says Brian Milner, co-founder. "Anyone can place a call for help and anyone can answer that call. Help can be sought for anything: fence repair, car repair, computer work, dog-walking, etc." SparkHelp is seeking funding to build is Website as well as the apps for all of the major mobile platforms needed to match someone with time or skills with others who need them -- and all in real-time, based on where they are now.

* Giiv bills itself as a startup that's all about "texting with benefits." It's a mobile "micro-gifting" platform that lets people instantly send gifts to friends and those in need. How does it work? Find a gift you want to give from among those listed on Giiv's site and then enter the intended recipient's mobile number with a note. Giiv then texts that person a giiv code, which he or she can then redeem for real merchandise or services. Globalgiving and Tom's Shoes are among the first "gift" items listed on the start-up's beta site. (There is a 99-cent processing fee added on to the amount of the gift.)

* Glass is another real-time Web company, but this one lets users place notes on top of any Website, so that contacts "can see your thought together with the moment that inspired it, in context, allowing you to share the experience of being there." Think of it as a clear, digital Post-it note. "It's a virtual sheet of glass that lies over the entire Internet that's yours to affect," founders say. "You can share your thoughts about anything on the Web, right in the moment, by literally placing notes, highlighting text and even placing pictures and videos on top of any Website and share those thoughts with only those you choose." Think of it as a personalized form of "augmented reality" that lets people share a moment and a thought together as an experience. Founders say the application promotes information-exchange and promotes transparency, with the potential for social advocacy organizations looking to quickly share information about specific locations or get up to speed faster in crises locations from those on the ground.

Other unique location-aware ware at SxSW this year? Check out the "Twitter mandala."

Ironically, perhaps, these and other location-tracking platforms come amid some first-day conference sessions devoted to spirited discussions of online privacy, which conference kick-off keynoter danah boyd defined as "being not about hiding your information but about being able to control it in different situations."

Watch this space for updates.

-- By Marcia Stepanek

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cause-washing: The New Black?

We've all heard about green-washing, what Urban Dictionary defines as "when companies pretend to be environmentally friendly -- when in fact they are not." Now there's a new term -- cause-washing -- that's being used with increasing frequency in the blogosphere to describe inauthentic marketing-for-good.

To talk about this and other new trends and challenges in the worlds of corporate responsibility and social enterprise, I sat down recently with the popular Harvard Business School marketing professor V. Kasturi Rangan, who moderated a panel in February on the subject at Harvard's Social Enterprise Conference 2010. Rangan says he worries a lot about how some causes may be considered a better "sell" than others. He also says he thinks it will soon become critical for companies involved in cause-branding to start proving social impact amid an increasingly cause-crowded marketplace -- but adds that few firms are, as yet, up to the challenge. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:

What are the new cause-branding trends going forward?
I see pluses and minuses. Cause branding requires you to attach the cause to brand and then commercialize it; there are some causes that are more commercialize-able than others. That does not mean that those other causes are any less important. Some causes pull on your heartstrings. And sure, none of us want to see a hungry child; none of us wants to see children without access to education; we don't want to see children without access to health care. I mean, emotionally, we get pulled in. But there may be other things, for example -- drug addicts; for example, older adults who some in society might think are supposed to take care of themselves. Those kinds of causes may not be saleable, commercialize-able. So my worry is that if we cause-brand some causes and not others based on how sale-able they are to the general public, then we are letting private enterprise choose what is most important for society -- which may not exactly align with what the most important causes are. I really worry about that a lot. There needs to be some sort of clearing mechanism where not just the causes that are commercialize-able dominate all of the money from corporations. There must be some mechanism whereby some of the other causes also have a chance to get some corporate money to play up their causes.

On the plus side, we in America are a mature market. Most consumers in America pretty much know what kinds of products and services they can get and so it's very clear that a differentiation factor is what a company is doing for society. I believe a lot more products and brands will jump into cause-branding. When all is said and done, cause marketing is just a teeny fraction of philanthropy - about $15 billion or $20 billion, alone, versus all of philanthropy, which is about $350 billion. So we might see more corporate money coming into cause branding, and this is good. Once a corporation attaches itself to a cause, it tends to take it seriously, and public companies have oversight and so forth to help guide them in how well they execute. So it's good for the business. It's good for the social fabric.

And the downside? Is cause marketing a tougher sell?
Yes, if everybody claims that everybody is doing a great thing for such and such a cause, and then sooner or later, consumers will become skeptics. It's already starting to happen in some cases. I think the most authentic brands going forward will not only have to be transparent about how they are raising money and how they are spending it, they also now will have to show they are having a social impact. This is something that I do not think that most corporations are ready for. Corporations are willing to show financial impact. They are willing to show transparency. They are willing to show they're authentic about what they are thinking. But are they ready to show that yes, this is the cause that I care for, and look at the impact I've made in society? That, I don't think, the corporations are ready for. But it is something that corporations that really want to differentiate themselves are going to have to step up for. It's a new game for them that many haven't yet started to think about.

Why aren't most ready?
It's a cost item, and it's incredibly more difficult to achieve. Measuring social impact is different than measuring financial impact. (See "Does Corporate Philanthropy Sell?)

Can you cite a company that is?
Timberland, for one, is trying to measure the social impact of what it is trying to do. It's an early symbol of what is happening.

What are the stiffest challenges for cause-marketers?
The only way to succeed here is to support value. Newman's Own and others say that at best, consumers may pay a small premium for a cause-brand, but not a lot more. Cause brands now need to operate at a superb level of efficiency and effectiveness just to generate an extra surplus to support the cause and the movement. Cause brands have to be very lean, very hungry and really tough.

And secondly, of course, cause brands need to be authentic. That's always been the case and this is becoming ever more critical. When you lose trust on 'good' initiatives, your brand suffers irretrievably. A decade ago, maybe you could get by with a little sloppiness on the authenticity front but now - because there are so many companies claiming to be helping a cause - you have to run these cause branding campaigns as both a terrific business and you have to be authentic. There are so many watchdogs on the Web now that will call you out if you're not. With online social networks, successes and failures get amplified. Customers talk to other customers and stumbles can hurt badly. The Web is both a friend and a foe.

In that vein, what do you make of the new consumer activism online - chiefly social enterprises like Carrotmob, Quiet Riots and Good Guide that crowdsource consumer opinion? Are these new online networks friends or foes?
My quick takes on it? This is good for companies; they can get real-time consumer feedback. But companies and movements have to be careful. Ultimately, corporations and brands exist to show a return to shareholders. Some of these movements and the things they ask for may be perfect from the point of view of the small group of consumers that these movements represent. However, what these consumer groups are asking for might not form a valuable business proposition in terms of scale or in terms of sustaining the franchise because a company may not be able to make that kind of product or service available for, say, a mere 10,000 people in a northeast corner somewhere, or to a certain type of demographic. And that's where I think the problems might come, where it becomes like an activist movement, where the activists get up in arms over, say, what mothers really need but there's not a single firm able to take care of it.

If these new online consumer movements can be translated by companies into something viable business-wise, they will present an opportunity for businesses. As long as the consumer feedback is viewed constructively and firms are mindful of the fact that these are great opportunities for them to learn about digital markets and get a very quick sense of how [online complaint] builds up, maybe [online consumer groups] can help companies to decrease the cost of launching a product and taking it to market.

Otherwise, I'm afraid that these [consumer] movements could create more dissonance - cases where these online groups will not have impact and then start to feel used, thinking 'I gave all of these ideas to this company but look at what corporate American has done. It's not stepped up to the plate.' Businesses, beware.

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Matt Hertel for

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"You" Video

And now for the next generation of bringing YOU into videos, check out the latest "Blue State" fund-raising appeal from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in partnership with and Brave New Films. Called "Glenn Beck Attacks," the campaign personalizes a video to include, well, you -- using a Facebook interface that "grabs" your photo with the click of your mouse.

The video caption reads: "Fox host Glenn Beck spent much of the last week claiming that a normal, everyday progressive was linked to Stalin, Elvis, Joe Biden's cousin, and the guy who came up with the idea of taxes."

But what's interesting here is not simply that the campaign is a digital send-up of Glenn Beck, the politics-of-paranoia purveyor that TIME Magazine has called "that pudgy, buzz-cut, weeping phenomenon of radio, TV and books." It's the technology, folks -- the ability to customize a video for millions, with the click of a mouse and a cause.

The interface adds your name and picture to a pseudo "newscast" but for those who wish [apparently depending on your level of political activism], the video can be personalized even further, to include one's hometown, friends' names, employer, and so forth.

Have a look by clicking on and walk through the paces:

Is this the next generation of political advertising -- the experiential LOL version that can be just as easily used by a children-in-poverty group to rail against homelessness or child-trafficking, or by other groups to, say, put donors "on the spot?" The site advises people to worry not: "This video and site are fictional and satirical," it says.

What do you think? Is this campaign going to go viral or does it run the risk of scaring off potential donors? And regardless, what applications might there be here for your cause? The technology is here, folks -- regardless. Let us hear from you.

(Illustration by Matt Hertel for

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The Good Capitalist Party

South by Southwest (SxSW), the annual social media and cause festival that brings thousands to Austin, Texas, each spring, is offering something new this year for social entrepreneurs and other social innovators: The Good Capitalist Party. It's a bottom-up event organized by Justmeans reader and social entrepreneur Martin Montero that's gone viral in the past week or two among those SxSWers looking to party and network around making business better.

The event was originally to have been just another networking event at the festival, which is hosting more than 200 such side events this year at various locations around Austin. But the Good Capitalist Party [set for Monday night] is now destined to be one of the festival's biggest off-program networking events, having attracted so many RSVPs so far that Montero and his crew have had to change venues twice just to accommodate those interested -- not to mention an expanding roster of sponsors, which now include Acumen Fund, Social Edge, Good Magazine, Kiva, and the Austin Center for Design and others.

According to Montero, the event will focus on social entrepreneurship and the people and companies that strive to profit as well as make the world a better place. Montero says guests will include the founders of new for-profit and nonprofit hybrid models and a number of social entrepreneurs -- both experienced and just getting started. They'll be on hand to answer questions from attendees on how best to start your own social venture and share information about funding, fellowships, training, and startup contests and investors.

Montero says he came up with the name for the event -- good capitalist -- based on his desire to promote social enterprise among all kinds of citizens and "average Joe types" [including but not limited to MBAs]. Montero says he's been inspired by the groundswell and will announce a new enterprise of his own at the event, what he describes as a Web site for "average Joes [and Janes]" that will aim to be "an uber-practical guide to social enteprise for the blue collar." Watch this space for details.

For more information about the party -- now wait-listing people who haven't yet signed up -- check out the event's Web site.

Are you planning to attend? Let us hear from you!

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