Facing our Greatest Immediate Challenge – The Role of Philanthropy
12 March 2013
“Our goal is to create a really big base of support and then ramp them up the engagement scale”, explains Alnoor Ladha, a partner in Purpose.com, probably the hottest online campaigning organisation in the world.
Mr Ladha is responding to the common critique that social media is great for getting thousands or millions of people to ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ a campaigning message about gay rights or global justice but unproven at raising serious money. There have been plenty of false dawns for digital giving before. Can Purpose.com finally turn ‘clicktivism’ into a major new fundraising channel?
In 2005, back in the social media dark ages, when no one had heard of Facebook and Twitter was a mere gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye, a group of Australian activists started GetUp! as an online campaigning platform to challenge government policy on issues such as counterterrorism laws, migration and climate change. Based on that success, in 2007 one of the group’s founders, Jeremy Heimans, joined a new global campaigning platform called Avaaz (‘voice’ in Farsi). Over the last six years Avaaz has mobilised citizens around a diverse set of global issues from Iraq to Zimbabwe to internet freedom and now
claims more than 15 million supporters.
Purpose.com is Mr Heimans’ latest venture, not a campaign itself but an incubator for new campaigns. So far it has spun out organisations working on nuclear disarmament (Global Zero), gay rights (All Out) and citizens’ rights in Brazil (Meu Rio), as well as earning revenue by providing consultancy services to companies like Google. Mr Ladha, as well as being a partner in Purpose.com, is leading their flagship new campaign on global poverty called ‘The
Rules’, what he calls “the world’s poor organising using technology”.
The Rules will start with rapid, low-cost mass mobilisation online, which is the great strength of social media based campaigning. Avaaz, for example, has five times as many supporters as the much older and much bigger Amnesty International. Yet, as The Economist recently snarked, “many pay money to join Amnesty, whereas you can join Avaaz for nothing in ten seconds, depending on how fast you type.”
Mr Ladha thinks that this is missing the point, citing lessons learned from the trendy new school of ‘behavioural economics’ made popular by Richard Thaler’s bestseller Nudge, whose fans include Prime Minister David Cameron. “Behavioural economics shows that action precedes belief”, Mr Ladha explains. Get people doing things by offering “low barrier actions” (like clicking an online petition or replying to a text) and then you can ask for more, is the philosophy.
Purpose.com opened a European office in London at the end of last year, with a launch at the Royal Society of Arts including big-brained Labour Party almost-leader David Miliband as guest speaker. The Rules is its immediate priority. So too is applying their techniques to changing behaviours, as practised by the ‘Nudge Unit’ in the Cabinet Office that played a role in writing the Giving White Paper in 2010. Can Purpose.com kickstart online giving?
Fundraising has not been the principal goal of most of the campaigns Purpose.com has incubated. (Indeed, The Rules consciously challenges traditional campaigns about global poverty, from Live Aid to Make Poverty History, that were all about aid, focusing instead on issues like the City of London’s role in providing a safe haven for the ill-gotten gains of foreign dictators.) But, when cash is needed, they claim big success, such as when All Out raised $60,000
in 72 hours to do an emergency airlift for Iraqi gay rights activists whose lives had been threatened.
More important than the sum raised, according to All Out CEO Andre Banks, is the fact that the money was raised from nearly 3,000 individuals, mostly in the 16-35 age range and for 70% of whom it was their first donation to a LGBT cause. All Out, like other Purpose.com campaigns, seems to be reaching out to a new generation, growing the pool of donors. Mr Banks attributes this success to the way they have made giving “just one more action” on top of the regular requests (“we keep activating them every two weeks”) that go out to their members to sign petitions and send e-mails. And having got people giving, the next step, Mr Banks says, is to get them giving regularly and giving more.
Purpose.com shows that looking at giving, on or offline, in a vacuum is a mistake. Giving is, by definition, a “high barrier action”, so the ‘ask’ works best on those who are already engaged and doing something for the cause. Even if it’s just clicking on a Facebook page.