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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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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Should NGOs buy recycled paper?
July 28, 2006, 7:18 am
Filed under: Imagination, social responsibility

I’m in a book club. I had to buy the book for our next meeting and I found myself deciding between going to my local book store and buying it for like $15 at my local independent bookstore or by buying it on Amazon used books for $2. I like to support local, independent businesses and artists who contribute to society. I also like money. Call me a bitch, but the cheapness in me won. It wasn’t the money as much as the hassle. Amazon ships to my door, but the bookstore is near the train station, a place I only visit when I’m in a rush.

Anyway, tonight I went to a book reading thingy by Annalee Newitz at City Lights book store. She wrote a new book that sounded sorta interesting, but by the time I got there (work was pretty crazy today) she was finishing up her talk and taking questions. I listened to the Q&A for a while and then tried to leave City Lights. But…..I couldn’t. I picked up one book and started reading the inside flap, and then another and another. Although I almost ended throwing down $75 on books, I ended up escaping with only one book (about an idealistic NGO worker who gives up and then travels the world trying to lure refugees into work at a high-falutin’ sex club). I know I could’ve bought the book on Amazon (or gone to the library) and spent less money, but I actually wanted to help out City Lights. It’s like I wanted to thank them for hosting readings, having snacks (I drank quite a bit of their juice, it was really delicious), and profiling interesting books. In a similar vein I paid in cash even though credit is more convienient for me, just because I didn’t want them to get charged the 3% or whatever the credit card companies charge merchants I get cash back on my card, so I gave up money so they wouldn’t have to pay more. I viewed my purchase as helping an artist make a living and a local bookstore keep its doors open so it could continue contributing to the community, etc. Helping a local bookstore deliver good books to me and helping local authors finding audiences seems like a clear mitzvah of community service. It felt like philanthropy, and it felt good.

Can all such purchasing decisions provide such piece of mind and moral clarity? Is donating money to non-profit organizations necessary to help people, give one warm fuzzies or assuage guilt due to privilege? Do you help the world more by buying organic produce at local farmer’s markets or by shopping at chain grocery stores and donating to environmental NGOs?

Or here’s a harder question: should charities pay premiums to help other causes unlreated to their missions? Every day people who work at charities make purchasing decisions. As is always the case regarding money, these choices have moral consequences. Would donors be ok if our newsletter was less neat-looking if they knew it was printed on recycled paper? Would they want me use open source software tools even if they took me more time to learn? Would people be ok if their $5 went to buy fair trade coffee for our caffeine addicts instead of freeze-dried crap? Should we buy books from City Lights or used book sellers? None of these things are inherently related to an org’s mission, and people could have chosen to give to orgs who focus on those other areas. So does making ethical purchasing decisions violate donor intent?

I don’t think so. Most people that donate to charities give to more than one, so I think people are ok with one group’s resources being slightly spent on non-mission-related activities as long as its within reason.
But I don’t really know, I’d be curious to hear what people think. There are so many businesses that are great bulwarks in our communities, and others who do comparatively little except put out good products that make people like me do my job better. It’s hard to find the ones who do both at the same time. So where do you draw the line? I definitely judge coroporations based on their perceived corporate social responsibility (call meit hypocritical if you want, but I hate Wal-Mart and tolerate Target). Should we do the same for NGOs? Does anyone care about nonprofit social responsibility?
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