Non-Governmental Imagination


Vote for cool projects at NetSquared
April 11, 2007, 10:36 pm
Filed under: Donations, Imagination, Resources, social responsibility, Visionaries, Web 2.0

My good friends at NetSquared are doing a really cool project. Lots of projects/ideas/websites that have a social benefit have been submitted, and the top 20 vote-getters get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Net Squared conference in May, where conference participants will dole out $100k to the groups that they decide are worthy.

I feel pretty lucky to have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are doing neat and bootstrappy things. They’re all telling me to vote for their project. I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for or how much time I’ll invest poring over the 120ish projects, but until I figure it out, please vote. Votes are only accepted through April 14.  There sure is lots of talk about changing the world through social tools, and it’s wonderful and rare when someone puts up actual US dollars to back an idea as chosen by a community.

The one thing I will say at this point regarding my vote is that I will not choose projects that already made it big, either in terms of financial sustainability or name recognition. This is an amazing opportunity for the little guys who have no other resources, and I sorta look negatively on the big boys on this list for whom the price of a ticket to the conference is negligible. Ahem.

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SearchKindly Has A Different Model Than Goodsearch or Goodtree
February 23, 2007, 12:44 am
Filed under: Donations, GoodTree, Imagination, social responsibility, Web 2.0

A few months ago, I compared the business models and apparent legitimacy of GoodSearch and GoodTree. Recently, thanks to an email from one of the founders, I became aware of SearchKindly.

To recap previous posts about GoodSearch and GoodTree (the comments are a great read and have lots of interesting perspectives, including a response from GoodTree’s founder), GoodSearch lets you pick a charity and search either in your browser’s searchbar or on their site. Your search donates one cent to your charity of choice and you get Yahoo search results. GoodTree gives you the same search functionality, except that your choice of charity is limited to 50 or so large NGOs and instead of Yahoo seach results you get that of Infospace, a public company with an ugly history that creates private label search engines. While those are big negatives, you can create your own personalized homepage, which you can’t with GoodSearch. Both are for-profit companies that donate 50% of their revenue to the charities specified.

SearchKindly is similar to the other two in that it allows you to direct someone else’s money to charities via searching. Unlike the others, however, SearchKindly is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that says it donates 100% of its revenue to charity. Instead of Yahoo or Infospace results, you get Google search results, which I regard as top notch.

The catch is that their money comes from banner ads on the cluttered SearchKindly site. The charity of the month (picked by the founders from user suggestions) gets about 1/3 of a cent from each page view of the SearchKindly site, and nothing from the search results themselves. When you search through the downloadable SearchKindly browser searchbar and press enter, it takes you to the SearchKindly site, where you have to wait for the ads to load and press enter again to get to your search results.

They certainly have an interesting idea. Google search is the best, and the fact that GoodSearch and GoodTree didn’t have Google search powering their sites is a big downside for them. And you certainly can’t argue with 100% of revenues going to the charities, even if it seems a little too good to be true (who pays for hosting/bandwidth/coffee?).

I’m not terribly bothered by the theoretical annoyingness of the SearchKindly ads. The more advertisers they can draw there to give money to charities, the better.

But waiting for the Flash ads to load so I can press enter the second time to get to the results is surprisingly bothersome. It’s just a couple of seconds, but it seems much longer. I’ve gotten spoiled on instantaneous search, and by making me wait until the ads load, the site reminds me of The Hunger Site.

I like The Hunger Site, and I should go there every day, but I don’t. I like to feel that I’m helping the world by my actions, not by my patience, and while searching seems to be an active part of my life, visiting websites for the express purpose of being advertised to does not sound appealing.

I want SearchKindly to thrive. It has the best search results and zero overhead. I want them to keep striving and innovating. If their ads loaded as automatically as lower-paying text ads, I’d be a humongous SearchKindly supporter. As it stands now I’m pretty ambivalent about all three offerings. I have SearchKindly’s searchbar in my browser right now, and I’m going to give it a few weeks to see if I get used to the waiting and clicking twice. Although GoodTree and (especially) Goodsearch have built up name recognition by going live earlier, there is little barrier to changing search providers, so maybe SearchKindly will gain a footing.

From a business perspective, it will be interesting to see how SearchKindly does in comparison to GoodSearch and GoodTree. Per use, SearchKindly generates only 1/3 as much money to charity as the other two. So for it to become a major player in the charity search field, people have to find their service three times as useful as the others. And by “their service” I mean Google. So are Google search results worh three times as much to people as Yahoo’s or Infospace’s? Or do people even notice a difference? I do, and I’m going with SearchKindly, at least for now.

From a philosophical perspective, these are similar groups doing similar things. One is a nonprofit, the other two are for-profit, social entrepreneurial activities. Both have their pros and cons, and it will be interesting to see if one of the two revenue-distribution models gives a clear advantage to any party.

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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.

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An Open Letter to GoodTree
October 23, 2006, 8:01 am
Filed under: Donations, GoodTree, Imagination

I just wrote this email to GoodTree, let’s see if they say anything back:

Dear Goodtree,

Last month, I discussed GoodTree on my blog, Non-Governmental Imagination, and I am currently getting lots (for me) of comments about my review. I said I thought Goodtree was legit, but I expressed some doubt. Many of the comments on my site raise valid concerns about some of your practices, namely asking for people’s email passwords, having vaugely worded policies and displaying odd search results.

After considering their points, I am inclined to agree with their skepticism about GoodTree’s legitimacy. I thought it would be fair of me to give you the benefit of the doubt and let you respond to these issues.

My post is currenlty #3 on google’s ranking of “goodtree” and #2 on goodtree’s, so you may want to reconsider your policy of ignoring my emails. I’d be happy to post any response from you.

Sincerely,
Seth Mazow

Update: James Currier, founder of GoodTree, responded.  See the comments below or this post:

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A 401(k) for NGOs?
September 28, 2006, 2:02 am
Filed under: Donations, Imagination

A bill (S.3881) has been introduced in the Senate to allow for the creation of pre-tax “personal philanthropy accounts”. Think of it as a 401(k) for your charitable donations. You get to put in a max of $15k pre-tax and the charities of your choice get the money. This is a better deal for the donor who is currently giving with post-tax dollars and could encourage an increase in giving fron individuals as well as employers through matching programs.

Sounds really cool, but I wonder when the charities actually get the dough. I can’t access my 401(k) account until I retire without paying huge early withdrawal penalties. Do charities have to wait as long as I do? I hope not, I’m only 25, retirement seems an awful way off.

Nonetheless, it sounds like a cool idea. Props to Sens. Isakson (R-GA) and Lautenberg (D-NJ) for sponsoring it. And thanks to PerryWasserman for finding out about it.

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