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The Spring of Generosity

“People say we are overstating the importance of technology in giving. I say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” British charity tech guru Steve Bridger was in bullish form this Thursday morning, September 29th, at the Gulbenkian Foundation in London’s trendy Hoxton Square, just around the corner from the British tech hub known as ‘silicon roundabout’. Bridger is here to launch ‘Spring’*, a new project to promote giving online and through mobile phones run by the Big Society Network (a nonprofit that is increasingly the brains trust of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society project).

“We desperately need new ways to reach out and get people to support charities,” warns Steve Moore, the CEO of the Big Society Network, pointing to the impact of the dire economic circumstances on public spending . Yet the fiscal gloom cannot keep the irrepressible Ulsterman from seeing the bright side. “There’s a vibrant network of people using new technologies to get people to give”, he enthuses. “We are issuing an invitation to join us in this conversation.”

Much of the success of this initiative will depend on the nature of that conversation. We believe that a “mass philanthrocapitalism” which harnesses social media to mobilise and organise ordinary givers has enormous potential, as evidenced by the success of organisations such as Kiva.org and DonorsChoose in the United States. But getting this right is not proving as straightforward as many charities had hoped, as Bridger noted. If Spring is to figure out how to unleash the full potential of online giving, the conversation needs to have three characteristics:

First, it must not shy away from tough topics. There is certainly a lot of experimentation taking place with online giving in the UK (check out local giving, seethediffeence.org and givey, for example). All, no doubt, dream of becoming the eBay or Amazon of giving. But, whereas for-profit dotcoms are the children of a ferociously competitive market in which failure comes thick and fast, donor-backed projects tend to fail slowly. Spring needs to dig out the lessons of what does and, perhaps more importantly, what does not work.

Second, it must be imaginative. A lot of giving websites are just that, using the internet to get the public to give through a new medium, rather than changing the way in which people support good causes. Spring needs to explore completely different ways of raising money for new causes, for example through gaming. Just last week, the PlayMob, one of the tech companies at silicon roundabout, launched a new platform to use online gaming to raise money, not through donations but by getting gamers to buy products that support a good cause. For those of us mystified by the joys of Farmville and bemused that any Old (Apple)MacDonald would pay real money for, say, a digital cow for his digital farm, this all seems pretty odd. Yet gamers are expected to spend more than $2 billion this year on virtual stuff. The PlayMob‘s ‘Giverboard’ platform is there to try to skim off some of that for good causes, starting with selling a Soup Can Hat (price $5.50) in the Parallel Kingdom game to raise money for feeding programmes in Africa run by SOS Children. Easy money? Not at all, says Jude Ower, the CEO of PlayMob: successful fundraising in these virtual worlds must go with the grain of the games and will only work if it enriches the gamers’ experience. But if the forces of fun can be harnessed to doing good, the potential could be enormous.

Finally, Spring must be ready to be disruptive. Kiva and DonorsChoose have been successful because they offer the giver a completely different experience. They connect donor and recipient and help donors see what their gifts have achieved in a way that is not possible when giving to a traditional charity. (Kiva, in particular, has also made a virtue of transparency, which is not always the strong suit of nonprofits.) Maybe the potential of online giving is going to be fulfilled not merely as a fundraising tool for charities but, rather, as a disruptive technology that disintermediates charities and creates new networks for doing good. Spring needs to be ready to ruffle a few feathers. to help that happen.

Here’s to a great conversation!
 
*Disclosure: Michael will be one of the advisers to this project.

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