Archive for Platforms

Why Idealist Matters (And How You Can Help)

We all know about “too big to fail” and its repercussions for the economy. But what about “too important to fade away?” To me, that’s the story of Idealist, the pioneering online community for the social sector- and its current fight to survive.

A week ago, Idealist founder Ami Dar sent a warning note to friends and supporters. After 15 years, the site and its incredible range of listings and services, was in trouble. Here’s what Ami wrote – and Tweeted:

Very briefly, here’s what happened. Over the past ten years, most of our funding has come from the small fees we charge organizations for posting their jobs on Idealist. By September 2008, after years of steady growth, these little drops were covering 70% of our budget.

Then, in October of that year, the financial crisis exploded, many organizations understandably froze their hiring, and from one week to the next our earned income was cut almost in half, leaving us with a hole of more than $100,000 each month.

That was 16 months ago, and since then we’ve survived on faith and fumes, by cutting expenses, and by getting a few large gifts from new and old friends. But now we are about to hit a wall, and that’s why we decided to ask.

To may way of thinking, Ami and Idealist saw the good cause in the early Web and pursued a path of service to nonprofits and causes. Its decade and a half of service should not be ignored with a pat on the head and a retirement certificate; indeed, the rest of the ‘CauseWired’ web stands – in large part – on Idealist’s shoulders.

Sure, the business model may need tweaking in a classified world dominated by Craigslist and a device-centric landscape of iPhones and Droids. But let’s chip in to give the Idealist crew that time to explore and grow and survive. I’m fond of telling corporate leaders than the social web – and by that, I mean the philanthropy sector – is actually ahead of consumer brands in using social media and building and supporting communities. Let’s prove that right by helping Idealist.org right now.

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Challenging Assumptions, Challenging Models

When you’re relatively transparent in your online social enterprise model, you can expect dissent to show up on the doorstep every time. And to me, public challenges to peer-to-peer funding models come with the territory.

In the last couple of weeks, two of my favorite platforms – one huge, the other quite small – came in for the kinds of public questioning that comes from trying to change the world in full view.

At Kiva, a coalition of lenders is angry at the microlending site’s decision to start offering loans to small businesses in the United States – and their “revolt” online had founder Matt Flannery admitting he’s lost sleep over the situation. Meanwhile, Lend4Health.com, the small microlending start-up created to fund treatment for autistic children, founder Tori Tuncan faced a challenge to her use of children’s faces and real-life stories online.

Both sites, I have to say, reacted well – and began the process of dealing with their issues publicly. Let’s take a look at each situation. Read the rest of this entry »

Skoll World Forum Take-Away: Funding for Online Social Activism


My panel yesterday at the Skoll World Forum, courtesy of MakeGood.

Lifting a pint in an Oxford pub that celebrated its 500th birthday two years ago with several Skoll World Forum attendees may have provided the exclamation point on a notion that developed during my panel on peer-to-peer philanthropy and microfinance platforms earlier in the afternoon yesterday: these are early days for online organizing, volunteering, crowdsourcing and wired causes.

The world economic crisis tends to sharpen the focus at this year’s Skoll confab, nicknamed the ‘Davos of Social Entrepreneurship’ but itself a mere baby against Oxford’s ancient spires (and the King’s Arms as well), yet the panelists in my session took the long view, despite the weekly press of funding challenges.

Together, they represented a fairly broad spectrum of online social enterprises – from the pure philanthropy of Global Giving, to the popular online success of Kiva‘s nonprofit peer-to-peer microlending community, to the for-profit start-up MyC4 which syndicates mid-range microcredit directly from investors who can expect a financial return on their social investment.
Read the rest of this entry »

Zazengo and the Social Resume

Last month around the inauguration of President Obama – and the day of the service centered on the celebration of Dr. King’s life  –  there was a ton of focus on creating a lasting online movement for citizen-powered change. As the economic crisis deepens and the new Administration deals with that challenge on a day-to-day basis, some of that January enthusiasm has been tempered by the reality of February – but during a recent conversation with the CEO of online social venture Zazengo.com brought back a bit of last month’s spark.

“This concept of challenging others, of making people do something, of a very focused call to action – that’s a big part of this call for national community service,” said Vicki Saunders, a serial entrepreneur and chief of the two-year-old online social change platform.

I think Vicki is exactly right, and that there’s an opportunity – even in the downturn – to create that “focused call to action” on the Web. And Zazengo is a very interesting platform: its motto is “What happens after the call to action?” and the emphasis is very much on impact. In Zazengo’s case, impact of members – in volunteering, raising money, taking actions and the like – is measured through a handsome user interface that favors graphs over pure numbers. This recognizes, I think, the idea that activism isn’t always about pure metrics (dollars raised, for example) but about impact over the longer term. Zazengo’s cool graphics offer a kind of friendly and light feedback loop that emphasizes encouragement over spreadsheets.

But Zazengo is also highly cognizant that the world may not need another destination website, with actions focused on a single URL. “People looking at destination sites, but that’s old thinking,” says Saunders. “It’s really all about getting your unique value proposition out to other sites, to where people live. We really want to be about tracking the impact.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas, Yet to Come

ChristmasFuture.org didn’t make my list in CauseWired and I’m sorry about that because I love the message of this year-old site that aims to change the nature of Yuletide giving. Here’s how this Canadian nonprofit describes it:

ChristmasFuture is about change—fundamental, meaningful, planet-shifting change. We’re helping bring together everyone to eradicate poverty by leveraging the goodwill of a powerful, passionate group: You. Change the world. For good.

The site offers projects for funding benefiting the poorest of the poor in 11 nations through six partner agencies. And it also comes with a handy how-to video (something no site should be without). Try it.

Don’t Panic: Scarcity Drives Innovation

Online social activism platforms are, generally speaking, lean operations. The more than 40 platforms we’ve identified here at CauseWired (and supplemented by Christine Egger over at Social Actions) do not boast deep balance sheets laden with venture capital, or vast marketing operations designed to build their brands rapidly. As hard times nip at the world’s heels – and this truly is, in my view, a global economic crisis – the cause start-ups should be well-positioned to survive, and in many ways, to help provide assistance where it may we be needed more than ever.

And as recruiters of CauseWired consumers – wired young activists who believe their work must stand for something great than themselves – the online social activism start-ups can provide a real outlet for soul-satisfying involvement even as markets close and opportunities suffer.

Nonetheless, these platforms are start-ups: from the venerable DonorsChoose (started way back in 2000) to the newest online cause. They require some cash to run, whether philanthropic or of the investment variety (or a combination of both). They are social ventures and are expected to boast models that lead to financial self sufficiency at some point in the future. So the disaster in the markets and the paralysis of the world credit markets may well leave their mark.

That said, I was struck today from some advice published by my old friend John Borthwick, a well-known entrepreneur from my Silicon Alley days who now runs an incubator for social media start-ups. I think some of the hard-charging CauseWired social entrepreneurs could do well to read his advice this Columbus Day weekend. Here’s an overview:

Things look ugly, but with distress comes opportunities. Scarcity drives innovation. Always has, always will. Do more with less: A trite one liner that you need to make part of your companies DNA.

There will be more emphasis on user value, more ways to make money from that value. We will finally fess up to the fact that many of the ad models of web 2.0 don’t yield results, and we will invent ones that do. All around there will be more innovation.

It’s counterintuitive, but during an up cycle people accept conventional wisdom, and during a down cycle people challenge it. That’s good. Very good. And the cycle will winnow competition.

And yes, you do have competition. Sure, it’d be great if all the well-minded social actions platforms grow and survive and help to change the world. But they won’t. Some will become part of the fabric of public life; others will whither. And the competition for attention alone – those precious clicks and minutes online – will eventually winnow the pool. Then other start-ups will come along and innovation will advance. And the big players we currently take for granted in the online world will also change, says Borthwick:

Pieces are going to move on the chess board. Big pieces. This shouldn’t be your focus, but things are going to have change around your business, and they might affect you. Yahoo is going to be sold or bought. Ebay will either be sold or bought or broken up. Facebook is going to have to change (cut spending, focus on revenue) or it will be bought. Same for Linked in. Microsoft, News Corp. TWX and other media companies will be buyers. What does Google do in this cycle — freeze or be bold? The newspapers — do they act out of fear or freeze up? Telco’s and cell cos; cable cos — do they jump upstream? Why should you care? Because as these pieces move around the chess board, they may well affect your future. So watch carefully. If Paypal — which by some estimates is now 50% of the value of Ebay — gets spun out of ebay, then they will accelerate services beyond advertising. Etc. etc. So consider the moves the elephants make. The equation for them, public or private, has changed.

Finally, the big downturn – and we’re looking at a couple of years, minimum, so don’t kid yourself – will help to accelerate another trend, one that favors the zeitgeist of online social activism. Borthwick:

I think this cycle is going to drive another significant shift in how open and interconnected the Web is. This is good news for you, and this is bad news for the Facebooks of the world, who tried to replicate the walled garden strategy of Web 1.0.

Think about what happened through the last cycle. Start with AWS. In the 1990s, Internet companies had to own everything top to tail. Today you can use Amazon and other services to pop up a new box for hundreds of dollars, if that. Thats a huge shift, and it’s also a shift towards interdependency.

We are all now dependent on the Amazon’s of the world for parts of our infrastructure. I think this turn of the cycle is going to drive a lot more openness. This in turn ties to the market figuring out how to rapidly establish bottoms-up standards. This is about working with others and figuring out how to do things without having to do all the work.

John Borthwick was writing about for-profit social media start-ups, but I think his advice is spot on for social entrepreneurs working on the web. It’s going to be a rough go, but I think the stakes of what we’re doing just got higher.

Guest Post: Social Actions Roundup 12 – Change.org Re-launches with Social Change Blog Network

Note: The online social activism sector is growing all the time, and sharing information and ideas is crucial to continuing that growth – and the very impact on society. We’re happy to carry the excellent Social Actions Round-up of links and resources here at CauseWired, created by the prolific and plugged-in Joe Solomon. Enjoy it – and pass it along!

This week came the much anticipated re-launch of Change.org! The new Change.org combines online news channels (blogs) that focus on specific issues (i.e. – climate change) with relevant ways to get involved and take action. With a rock-star team of bloggers, and a super tight UI, the new Change.org is definitely worth checking out. You can also check out the posts that covered the re-launch here (including Newsweek, Mashable, and CauseWired) and follow Change.org on Twitter here.

More Platform News:

This week was also Online Giving Marketplaces – a conference that brought together “online giving marketplaces with philanthropy experts, so as to tap the pulse of what’s really happening on the frontier of philanthropy.” From the buzz I picked up from Twitter (Thanks @TomWilliams and @PeterDeitz), there was much discussions and excitement about collaborating on a philanthropy micro-format, which would unlock platforms’ giving opportunities – enabling 3rd party applications to offer them across the web. Check out Tom Williams’ awesome post for more info. You can also check out VentureBeat’s overview plus Lucy Bernholz’s post for excellent notes. You can also see a slideshow of Kiva’s presentation here.

In other platform-specific news…

  • Wokai is launching a pilot program for China micro-finance – Link (Also covered in WorldChanging)
  • ThePoint will launch a new site later this month called Groupon as in “group + coupon.”
  • Amazee shared a Drupal Case Study on their re-design here.
  • mGive Launches New Mobile Donation Campaigns – Link (Hat tip to Michael Stein)

Articles and Relevant News:

New & Noteworthy Campaigns:

  • Lend4Health won the first sprint on IdeaBlob! Now Tori Tuncan created a campaign on ThePoint to encourage people to vote in the next and final round!
  • Alex Steed got a matching $5,000 grant from the Case Foundation! In order to get the money, however, he needs your help to raise $5,000 (he’s over halfway there!) – You can chip in here.
  • Sign the petition to Ask Google for a World Diabetes Day Doodle

Social Actions News:

  • Britt Bravo asks “Have You Used Social Actions’ Search, WordPress Plug-ins, Widgets, or TwitterFeed Mashup? We Wanna Make You a Star!” – Got a story? Share it here.
  • Christine Egger introduces The Small Change Fund, a new organization providing small grants to local, grassroots groups across Canada. They recently approached the Social Actions team for strategic advice on how to include individual Canadians in their grantmaking process. With their permission, we’ve brought the conversation into a forum to encourage as broad a range of insights as possible – Join the conversation!
  • Peter Deitz shares his vision for micro-philanthropy at Online Social Marketplaces 2008, a closed event organized by and for grantees of The Omidyar Network.

Each week, Social Actions community members post links and news about online social activism – This round-up is a summary of the links that surfaced in the last 7 days.

New: As a bit of an experiment, you can now share links and news for future Social Actions rounds ups in the Peer-to-Peer Social Change FriendFeed Room.