The Simple Truth

“Keep it simple”: that was the advice of Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity: Water, when asked for his advice to a social entrepreneur with an idea for doing good. Harrison was on a panel with Lauren Bush, founder of FEEDprojects (and the niece/granddaughter of two American presidents), and Charles Best, of DonorsChoose, moderated by Matthew and hosted by Janera. As Harrison pointed out, “You can say what each of these organisations does in one sentence; some organisations you listen to for ten minutes and still don’t get what they do. Charity: Water raises money to dig wells in developing countries. FEED sells bags to raise money to feed children. DonorsChoose raises money to help teachers do classroom projects in America’s public schools.”

He had a point – the simplicity of their mission has certainly helped each of these relatively young philanthrocapitalistic organisations grow at a rapid pace. The same is true of another favourite of ours – which we profile with DonorsChoose in a new chapter in the paperback of Philanthrocapitalism – the microfinance lending site, Kiva.

Harrison has applied a marketing instinct honed as a nightclub party organiser to raising money. A particularly effective idea was to ask friends to make donations rather than give him gifts on his birthday – starting by requesting a dollar in donation for each year of his life. The mybirthday campaign has caught on fast, with celebrities now competing to raise the most – the sort of healthy competition the world needs right now. A particularly fierce battle is taking place between new Silicon Valley venture capital, in the form of Sean Parker, and old Silicon Valley, aka Ron Conway, to raise the most for their respective birthdays. Parker, who co-founded Napster and later co-founded Causes on Facebook with Joe Green, is one of a growing number of people who are giving up their birthday gifts via the Causes application, which has put behind it some initial sluggishness and started raising some serious money.

Though their mission may be simple, in true philanthrocapitalistic style, though in different ways, the three organisations represented on the panel are innovative and surprisingly complex in how they set about trying to maximise their leverage. One example is their use of cutting edge technology. Charity: Water has spread through astute electronic viral marketing, friends telling friends, applying peer pressure and so on. It also posts pictures of completed wells and their location using Googleearth, so people can see the direct impact of their giving. DonorsChoose takes that even further, with direct feedback from teachers and thank you letters from students, as well as clever software that identifies and shows first the projects most likely to appeal to a particular donor.

Both DonorsChoose and FEED have formed innovative partnerships with some big for-profit companies. (Indeed, like a growing number of philanthrocapitalistic organisations, FEED is itself a for-profit company, though Bush says most of the profits are given away via the UN Food Programme’s school lunches initiative – which cleverly both feeds children and gets them to attend school in the process.) Prices for FEED bags – $20 feeds one child for a year – range from $60 online to $195 in the super-swanky retailer, Bergdorf Goodman. One of FEED’s latest partnerships is with bookseller Barnes & Noble, in tandem with the terrific library-building non-profit Room to Read (featured in our book). Buying bags at Barnes & Noble not only feeds children but also gives them books – which is also helping to catalyse local childrens’ books industries in some developing countries.

DonorsChoose has tapped into two trends – attempts to make corporate philanthropy more effective and the growth of customer loyalty programmes – through partnerships with firms such as retailer Crate & Barrel, which use some of their foundation dollars to give money to loyal customers to donate via DonorsChoose. These customers seem to feel that giving them the chance to be virtuous is a better reward than a discount in the store, and DonorsChoose benefits not just from the corporate donation, but also from the fact that once people visit the site they tend to get hooked on the satisfaction of giving directly to projects which they can see are making a difference.

Indeed, DonorsChoose took this insight a step further at the Janera event by giving everyone who turned up a card with $25 to give away on its site. Giving potential donors money is an unusual fundraising strategy, but it seems to work. The idea was inspired by the comedian Stephen Colbert, a DonorsChoose board member, who gives every guest on his Colbert Report a $100 DonorsChoose voucher.

The three social entrepreneurs had other advice for those who would follow in their footsteps. The first is simply to start, and figure things out as you go along. Another is to keep at it even if no one else gets it. The third, judging by their actions, is to set crazily ambitious goals. DonorsChoose has already raised $50m for classroom projects. FEED says it has delivered over 50m meals. Charity: Water says it is providing clean water to 1m people. Yet these achievements seem to have made them raise the bar still higher. Harrison says his goal is to provide clean water to 1 billion people within ten years, and that his organisation’s success so far represents only one-tenth of one percent of its target. We wish them all a great 2010.