Non-Governmental Imagination

Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of Celebrity-Backed Charities vs. ChipIn
January 19, 2007, 8:31 am
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Donations, Imagination, Resources, Web 2.0

Kevin Bacon, famous for the well-known (and really hard) drinking game Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon, has teamed up with Network For Good to create Six Degrees, a charity badge sharing site that lets you give money to the favorite charities of your favorite celebrities or to the charity of your choice. The badges that you or people like Seth Green and Ricky Gervais created can be put on any webpage, and you and your crew can keep track of the donations. The donations are processed through Network For Good, which takes a hefty cut of 4.75% that the donor can choose to absorb or pass on to the charity.

ChipIn is a flash widget that you can also put on any website that allows you to accept and track donations through others’ badges. Unlike the Network For Good badges, the ChipIn widget has a handy-dandy little thermometer that shows you how close you are to your goal, and the donations go through PayPal, which takes only 2.9%. The downside is that you can’t customize the buttons at all, and let’s face it, celebrities’ faces tend to be more attractive than the ChipIn logo.

I think ChipIn is clearly the better project, but Six Degrees has the Network For Good marketing muscle behind it. This is one of those unfortunate instances where the better marketed product is not as good as its lesser-known competitor. Bummer.

The difference in fees is something that really can’t be overstated. And ChipIn supports a clear trend in online philanthropy: the preference of people to support individual projects rather than organizations. You can give to a particular project within an organization, which might annoy many orgs but please the new breed of online donors who abhor overhead costs and worship at the altar of efficiency.

Plus, there are plenty of worthy causes that are not charities registered with the IRS that ChipIn can support. If your kid’s soccer team needs new uniforms or your neighborhood wants to buy the local homeless guy a sleeping bag, ChipIn is flexible enough to accomadate you, while Network For Good will only deal with nonprofits that have been blessed by the IRS.

I gotta admit, Six Degrees is clever and slick. Good site design, a brilliant jiu-jitsu style transformation of a drinking game into a charitable endeavor, and famous celebrities. Not the washed up, B grade ones, either.  It certainly has a bright future, and I hope they can steer the absurd cult of celebrity in this country to support worthy causes instead of fragrance lines and shampoo companies.

But I hope people don’t lose sight of ChipIn, a less glitzy but ultimately more solid offering.

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Thoughts on the Squidoo/Net2/Get Active 59 Smartest Orgs Online
January 17, 2007, 11:37 am
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Donations, Imagination, NGO Blogs, Resources, Visionaries, Web 2.0

Squidoo, Get Active and Net Squared teamed up to announce the top 59 smartest orgs online. It’s an interesting list, and while there are several orgs that are noticeably absent, all present seem to be doing interesting things and/or have big enough presences that they get to be noticed. There’s no cash prize, and people can vote charities up or down as long as they are, or want to, become registered Squidoo members.

But wait a minute, can’t this system be gamed? Sure. All you need to do is get your friends/colleagues/mailing-list to sign up for a Squidoo account and PRESTO, your charity, as long as it startedsomewhere on the list, is now ranked above Donors Choose, winner of the 2005 Amazon Nonprofit Innovation Award, which at the time of writing was ranked #55 out of #59 with negative one point.

All groups started with (positive) one point. So either two individuals think Donors Choose is doing a bad job of utilizing the internet to affect social change. Or two folks voted them lower because it would improve their own group’s ranking.

I’m not aware of anyone thinking that Donors Choose is either a bad idea, badly executed, or not in a position to utilize the internet to bridge the web 2.0 and philanthropy worlds. So obviously, there is some manipulating going on here.

That’s interesting. Is it ethical? I don’t know.

There’s nothing at stake here except for pride, and there’s no rulebook that says “don’t get your fellow charity staff members to create Squidoo accounts just to vote up your charity and vote others lower”. In fact, some organizations (which are ranked quite highly) are quite obviously pandering to their community to vote for them, even by mistakenly implying that there is a financial benefit for the group to do so.

So that seems wrong to me. Obviously, each of the people in charge of marketing or communications at these orgs got a pat on the back when their bosses learned what happened, especially at small orgs (look, we’re better at communicating online than The One Campaign/Gates Foundation/Greenpeace/etc). But what else is there to be gained by cheating?

I know, there’s no rules, it’s not illegal, blahblahblah. But it feels wrong.

Is your group great? Sure. When I saw that Interplast made the list at #31, I signed up, voted, hit the ‘ole refresh button and watched us jump to #25. My coworker did the same and we were at #18. Pretty good for 15 seconds worth of marketing. It was fun, but it left me with no illusion that we do a better job of empowering people to change the world than Kiva or TakingITGlobal. We eventually jumped peaked at #10, and we never voted anyone else down. Were we unethical? I don’t think so. We honestly believe that we are doing a good job, and I’m sure that Squidoo is more than happy to let us vote in order to bag a couple of new subscribers. We didn’t spend much time on it, got a good chuckle and a warm fuzzy, and went back to work.

But we used to have five points, and now we have four, so again, even though there’s nothing at stake an I shouldn’t really care, someone’s screwing with the system.

It looks like someone who either works for or is a supporter of some group near the top is voting everyone else down. At the time of writing, 12 groups were at -1, which means that two people voted them down.

But here’s the problem with your plan, evil voter-downer-people. If any person familiar with nonprofits, technology, web 2.0, fundraising, marketing, etc sees a list with (all rankings current at time of writing):

Then they will simply dismiss it as an unreliable source and ignore it. If, on the other hand, they see a reasonable list where groups at the top seem to be really innovative, then the story might get picked up by bloggers, MSM journalists, and other chattery types who would catapault the list and all orgs on it onto their radarscreen and into their publications. Everyone wins.

Seth Godin, the founder of Squidoo, made a big hubhub a while back in the nonprofit blogosphere by questioning the way that many charities market themselves, especially the ones that didn’t have a Squidoo lens. That didn’t win him many friends in the NP blogosphere, but it sure garnered him lots of links, discussions and yummy stuff which he probably prefers.

I think Seth Godin is really smart, and although I don’t quite get Squidoo and why it presents a credible alternative to blogs and/or wikipedia, I think that this list is a smart move. Squidoo will garner new subscribers like me or folks who like ferrets, and people will talking about Seth Godin breathlessly as innovative and clever, which he certainly is. (see? It’s already working.)

I’m curious to see what the list looks like six months from now, and I predict that Donors Choose will slowly climb the ranks until it rivals Kiva. What do you think?

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Oprah Encourages Philanthropy
November 4, 2006, 9:25 pm
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Donations, Imagination, social responsibility

On Monday, Oprah gave everyone in her audience $1,000 Bank of America debit cards that had to be spent on charities or strangers. All audience members also got Sony camcorders to record their experiences giving away the money.

I think this is great for a number of reasons.

First of all, I really believe that philanthropy is not just for the Bill Gateses (sp?) and Warren Buffetts of the world. Sure, their billions go far, (most recently for diarrhea research) but the aggregated donations of everyday schmos like you and me far exceeds the largesse of the uber-wealthy. When a person of her stature gives ordinary (ie not rich) people to make a difference in peoples’ lives, it reminds everyone of their power to do good.

Secondly, I believe that the corporations win big here. Oprah has given other stuff away before, most notably Pontiac cars. But this makes BofA and Sony look like nice, cuddly companies whose products/services can be used to better the world. Any product can be helpful somehow to someone doing something nice (such as the search engine, couch, pillow and light bulb all assisting me in my effort to write this post about philanthropy). But these two get to be recognized for their generosity. Good for them.

When I heard this I quickly put up a plea on the Interplast blog hoping that any audience members who hadn’t decided how to spend their money might be persuaded to give Interplast a piece of the pie. No luck, but oh well.

I’m a big believer in 8,000 one pound gorillas doing more ass-kicking than one 8,000 lb gorilla. Oprah is the only person I can think of in America who completely transcends race (although not gender), and to see her use her sway for the good of others is great.


Cool Photo Journal of a West African Cotton Farmer Affected By US Subsidies
February 9, 2006, 8:36 am
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Food, International Aid

Check out this photo journal of Francois Traore.  Gives some insight from an African perspective about the US cotton subsidies.  I especially like the picture of him in Texas.

Great News For The Global South: US To End Cotton Subsidies
February 4, 2006, 7:40 pm
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Food, International Aid

The US press didn’t pay too much attention to this, but Congress authorized President Bush’s decision to comply with a WTO ruling (instigated by Brazil) that mandates the elimination of major subsidies to US cotton producers. Before I get into how much this will benefit the world’s poor at the expense of only a few rich agribusiness companies, let me note that this is the first and possibly the last time you will seem me praising Congress, Bush and/or the WTO (oh my!). To approve of them all at one time is just crazy talk.

Why is the elimination of cotton subsidies a good thing? Well, the US government is always clamoring for greater “free trade”, as it describes it. It says that the world economy is better off if all countries reduce subsidies and tariffs. One of the many problems with this argument is that the US has simply not been following its own advice. It bullies other countries into opening up their markets through the WTO while keeping its own domestic subsidies. The result is farmers in poor nations cannot grow crops because subsidized versions from the US (and/or Europe and/or Japan) are cheaper to buy than locally grown crops. As Oxfam notes, Cotton is a perfect example of this. So the local economy tanks and US farmers win. TIME magazine points out the irony that the money we give out as aid to West African cotton producers is often equivalent to the damage we do to their economy:

“…annual losses in export earnings in most West African cotton-producing countries are comparable to U.S. aid donations. Burkina Faso, for instance, received $10 million in U.S. aid in 2002 but lost an estimated $13.7 million in exports because of U.S. cotton subsidies”

So US farmers are benefitting at the expense of poor farmers in the global south. But the “US farmers” are not who we think they are; they tend to be a less cuddly group. I love the idea of helping family farms, but when 61% of the total cotton subsidies (in 2004) go to the top ten producers, it doesn’t strike me as very equitable.

By eliminating major cotton subsidies, the US will allow poor countries to work their way out of poverty. Aid can only go so far; people need to be able to fend for themselves. By stopping the flow of subsidized cotton to the global south, we are giving poor farmers a chance to help themselves and their communities. Way to go Bush/Congress/WTO. Relish in my praise, it is pretty rare.

Dead Whales, Greenpeace, Paul Watson and Macgyver
January 24, 2006, 8:22 am
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Blogs

Japan has been whaling a lot recently, and Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have been blogging from the Antarctic hunt. While both groups are basically doing the same thing, there is no love lost between the two, although Sea Shepherd has a pretty extensive page of Christmas wishes for Greenpeace. Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, was one of the early pivotal members of Greenpeace.
One of Sea Shepherd’s main beefs with Greenpeace is that they are more concerned with publicity and hanging banners than actually accomplishing real change. Sea Shepherd explains the difference thusly:

“Sea Shepherd is not in the waters of Antarctica to protest whaling. We are there to intervene with the purpose of upholding international laws protecting the whales.”

Their spat is indicative of the NGO world. As groups morph from a small group of committed pioneers to a professional organization, the culture changes and hard-charging personalities may find that they are not as welcome or comfortable with the new buttoned-down, donor-friendly approach.

Both are trying to save the whales, a campaign I greatly respect. I think Japan’s claims of whale-hunting-as-research are tenuous and ridiculous. Different tactics and levels of slickness appeal to different people.
Where do I stand on the big vs. small, change-the-system vs. work-within-the-system debate? I don’t really know yet. Part of why I started this blog is to work it out in my head and out in the public.

I do know this though. Greenpeace definitely has a sense of humor.


But in the category of most impressive reason to back an anti-whaling direct action NGO, I gotta go with Macgyver (See “Ticket Prices”).  See, Sea Shepherd?  Fame and celebrity are powerful forces for shaping public opinion!

Sea Shepherd / MacGyver: 1
Greenpeace / Japanese Embassy in Berlin: 0