Friday, June 7, 2013

Funders: R U (Really) There?

When Nancy Lublin's social media team at began texting teens a couple of years ago to get more of them to focus their extraordinary energy on issues they care passionately about, what Lublin found was surprising. Mixed in with teens' texts about the need to help the homeless and rescue abused animals were many other texts that had nothing, at all, to do with DoSomething's social good campaigns at the time. "We started getting texts like, 'Help, I'm being bullied and I don't know what to do' and texts on eating disorders," Lublin said.

And then, Lublin told those attending today's Personal Democracy Forum, there was one girl who sent in a text that said exactly this: 'He won't stop raping me. It's my dad. He told me not to tell anyone. R U there?'"

It made Lublin, DoSomething's CEO, decide to start work creating a text-only crisis line, the first real-time teen crisis network —and a promising alternative to the thousands of pre-Internet crisis telephone hotlines that Lublin says can "make people wait two hours to get help" and largely fail to communicate with teens in their language, using the medium most common to their generation.

Fast forward two years, and DoSomething's Crisis Text Line, set to launch August 1, will attempt to use social media and text-messaging technologies to create the world's first data-driven text hotline for teens—and all at a level of cross-sector collaboration that Lublin hopes will break new ground in the nonprofit sector, involving unprecedented levels of cooperation among organizations that now compete to tackle teen bullying, rape and incest and sex trafficking. Lublin says DoSomething is still getting a steady stream of texts from a significant portion of kids that are unrelated to its dozens of cause-texting campaigns in any given month: Just last week, she said, during the launch of the group's new Undocumented for a Day text campaign, which simulates for teens what it's like to live in the United States as a teen without U.S. citizenship,  Lublin says up to 15 percent of those texting the nonprofit sent messages about sexual abuse, bullying and eating disorders. For Lublin, Crisis Text Line can't start soon enough. "This will help save more lives than penicillin," she says.

Designed with the help of Mobile Commons and the MIT Media Lab as an always-on, real-time conversation with kids in crisis that can scale nationally, Lublin says the text line should significantly improve DoSomething's ability to support teens. "Texting is a medium that teenagers prefer. It will be private. No one hears you, unlike when you're calling a hotline. It's quiet. You can be bullied at the lunch table at school and be texting for help in that moment. It's fast." But beyond rapid response, Lublin also hopes that Crisis Text Line will become a critical new example of how social media can be used to reinvent and vastly improve the way the nonprofit sector does its work—more effectively, using  only the latest data rather than outdated suppositions to tackle social problems. "In real time, we will have a map," she says. "We will have our finger on the pulse of what is going on in every zip code in the United States with these teen crises." School boards, police, journalists and local communities will now have better data to help drive policy change and reallocate public resources for better impact, Lublin told PDFers, "so politicians can be basing decisions on facts" rather than "just spewing policy based on their own personal convictions."

But Lublin says that creating the text line has been tremendously difficult—and shouldn't have been. "That girl who texted us (about her dad raping her) came to us two years ago," Lublin told her peers in the PDF audience, "so why is it taking us so long to build this thing? ... Why is it so hard for all of us (in this sector) to make something new?"

It's not that Lublin hasn't met big start-up challenges before. In her 20s, she founded Dress for Success, the not-for-profit organization in over 80 cities worldwide that provides interview suits and career development training to women making the transition from welfare to work. At Do Something, Lublin has transformed what had been a small New York City cause mired in red ink to one that now has 45 employees, 1.6 million members worldwide and enabled more than 2.4 million 13- to 25-year-olds to make an impact last year, alone.'s social media and information tech team is the envy of nonprofit tech activists; the organization has become one of the leading examples of smart social media innovation-for-good in the world.

The problem, Lublin says, is that for all of the nonprofit sector's talk about collaboration and the need to support technology innovation in the sector, "we're really, really bad at it." (Lublin said she wanted to deliver her talk today at PDF—an annual gathering of some of the nation's top minds in technology-driven social innovation—because its theme this year is Think Bigger.)

"There are lots of things that traditional foundations are doing to hamper this new disruptive stuff," Lublin said. In part, it's a vision thing. Traditional foundations, she said, tend to be innovation-averse. "So often I'll hear (when fundraising for this project) that this is a great idea, but you don't fit our (funding) bucket," Lublin said. "No shit," she offered as a response to PDFers, who applauded. "It's new."  She also said she wonders if large traditional foundations, like the Ford Foundation (one of PDF's sponsors), have simply become too "comfy" to take big risks funding the kinds of social innovation they say they now want to support.

"Do you really need to sit in that $400 million building, Ford Foundation?" Lublin asked. Most of the foundation's massive headquarters near the United Nations, she said, "is not even usable space" and suggested that Ford should sell the New York City landmark and move to a loft space in Brooklyn. Like the smaller, scrappier Blue Ridge Foundation, she said, Ford—which cited $10 billion in assets in 2011—should use more of the money it has tied up in overhead and real estate to support more start-up innovation.

But that's not all, Lublin said. Traditional foundations' insistence on seeing a business model as a prerequisite for funding also is hampering nonprofit innovation. During her fundraising for the text line, Lublin said, "I would keep getting asked, 'Is this sustainable? What is the model for Crisis Text Line? Maybe you should sell that data.'" Lublin said she refused. "No, I'm not selling the data," she said, to applause. "I'm not going to sell the data to some hedge fund or for certain police departments to use. It's going to be open."

Governments fund health care, provide education and build roads in some places "because it's what they think is important for the value system and for a state or the country," Lublin said. "Private industry does things because it thinks it can make money on it. And then there's us," she said, the nonprofit sector, which does its work because it thinks it can help people in need and tackle social problems that others often cannot or won't.

"We matter. We are worth funding," she said. (Click here for the video of her talk.) "Foundations, please don't forget that. This is not a pitch (for funding). Crisis Text Line is launching August 1st. We're doing fine. This is a request for all of us to take this conversation and put it out in the open."

Consider it done.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Andrew Polushkin for

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Blogger Evonne @ Amoration said...

Thanks for posting this Marcia....a great wake up call to focus on moving the needle, not stalling the car.

June 9, 2013 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Nexus said...

a great call to focus on social media for social change.Buy Facebook Fans

July 20, 2013 at 4:41 AM  

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