With social media, supporting causes is easier than ever. Maybe too easy.

BBH Labs has just come up with a pretty cool idea. Donate your Facebook or Twitter feed to the African Medical Research Foundation. You simply go to an AMREF website, authorize the organize to post in your feed, choose one of seven needy Africans whose updates you want your followers to see, and just like that you raise awareness for the plight of Africans and for the good work being done by AMREF.

Amos N’Dungo is now updating my Facebook status for five days

I donated my feed to Amos N’Dungo, a street kid in Nairobi.

What’s interesting in this new kind of digital charity is that I didn’t really have to do very much. No volunteer work. No check writing. No sacrifice whatsoever. All I had to do was click a couple of web pages, authorize access to my Facebook account and I’m done.

What did I donate? Nothing more than my Facebook real estate, which I don’t really own, along with some of my friends’ attention, which I also don’t own.

And while I have given very little, I’ve hopefully received kudos and credit for doing so. My friends and followers can see that I am a caring and giving individual. “Hey, look at me! I just supported the needy in Africa!” And perhaps I am. After all, I’ve declared that this is an important, worthwhile cause. I’ve made a statement about my belief that it deserves attention. I’ve raised awareness for people in need. Perhaps I’ve even inspired others to take action.

But the question is whether or not I, or we, have actually accomplished anything. Will our news feed, rapidly filling up with information about life in Africa solve any the problem? Will it raise money? Will it affect policy? Or will it just make everyone who gifted their feed feel good about themselves for their “contribution” of digital real estate?

Don’t get me wrong. I think that BBH’s concept is brilliant in its simplicity and cleverness; it has virtually eliminated any barrier to participation. But have they made it too easy? If we can all do our part by simply passing along some digital bits, will too many of us take the easy way out, changing our avatars, posting a link, gifting our feed instead of volunteering our time or writing a check?

Certainly digital donations can be effective. Arik Fraimovich’s green avatar raised awareness for the Iranian elections and may have even saved lives by mobilizing Twitterati to change the locations in their profiles, confusing the government as to the sources of information.

Charity Water’s banner ads have helped drive awareness and contribute to fundraising in support of over 2500 projects that have collectively brought potable water to over 1 million people who previously didn’t have access to it. And ideally this project will not only raise awareness, but funding as well.

We now live in a world where we can ask not for goods or services, but for a few bits. Pass on this link. Change your avatar. Donate some space on your blog. Give someone access to your fans and followers.

It’s definitely easier to get someone to do that than it is to extract either time or money. The question remains how much it will accomplish. What do you think? Will it do more for a cause? Or less?

In the meantime, I hope you’ll offer up something more valuable than access to your newsfeed. Visit AMREF and make a donation. It’s a little more work and no one will know about it, but I promise you it will feel a lot better than a Facebook update.

14 comments
melexon
melexon

Edward, you may like this app on Kickstarter - looks like it'll DO more than just SAY.
I'm backing it.

Andrea
Andrea

Very timely article speaking directly to "slacktivists": http://mashable.com/2010/05/13/slacktivists-activists-social-media/

As the voice of a nonprofit FB page, I find it (and several of the comments above) a refreshing read. And I'm in agreement, both in theory and through my experience, that social media should be viewed a new first step in the engagement process.

Erica
Erica

Awareness is the seed. As Mel says, just thinking about the issue is probably new for a lot of people, and donors grow out of the seeds that awareness plants.
.-= Erica´s last blog ..Non-profits and the mobile web =-.

Howie G
Howie G

We have come a long way haven't we? 200 years ago everything was local. A disaster or famine wouldn't be known for months after it happened. Now everything is instant. When Darfur was in the news I was able to use Google Earth and actually zoom in on the conflict areas and see refugee camps.

The money thing is very important. We live in the most generous country for aid given by individuals and the stingiest first world country in terms of Government Aid.(see Economist Factbook). Our Government isn't even in the top 25 for giving Aid money as a % of GDP so it is critical for the people to give. And we do. We give more per person than any other country per capita. (go figure). Denmark gives 1% of GDP we run between 0.13-0.16%.

Awareness is critical to generating money and other forms of aid donations. I spent 3 years doing street outreach in LA for Stand Up For Kids. Until I found them online I had no idea we have 1 million children sleeping on the street in the US (pre-recession). And none of my friends or family knew! Hopefully all this technology will be a boon to the needs of people all over the world.

Mel Exon
Mel Exon

Thank you Edward, for your support and also for this post, which is a generous thing in itself - giving time and space to this idea.

I suppose that's my starting point in responding to your central question. In our industry we are super aware of the niceties of who owns the social media real estate, but I would wager the majority of people are clear that their Facebook profile and newsfeed are just that - theirs.

Sure, as Douglas Rushkoff warns, it's a templated thing, a framework for networking designed for us, not by us. Whilst complete control and customization suffer (not to mention privacy, of course), there's opportunity here too: borderless, near-frictionless sharing. Yes, it's very easy. A well-designed app makes it easy for thousands to act upon something simultaneously. What's most interesting about this - of course - is the fact that in doing so they transmit messages (in this case 5 days' worth), provocations, requests or points of view to their network.

On that note, we'd argue if Status of Africa succeeds in generating a broader awareness of the plights facing that continent, it is a demonstrable, valid step forward. In fact I would hope we're doing more than this - namely driving a deeper connection. If you've downloaded the app you've spent time with the issue. For many, those minutes may represent more time engaging with the problems facing Africa than ever before. What's more it's very early days in the case of this particular app, but hopefully it is already a demonstration of how a good idea can earn media, vs paying for it.

All of this said, we'd agree awareness and engagement are only two steps along a journey. As Mareka and Kim tell us in the BBH Labs interview:

"Whilst donations can be made to AMREF via their Facebook page and their website, we will be developing an engaging online method to donate directly to the charity in future (we’re not ready to give the idea away just yet, so please watch this space!).

...This piece of communication through Facebook is designed to fulfil the awareness part of the brief, and then there is a ‘Part II’ in the pipeline we’ve hinted at above - an exciting and innovative donation driver."

I hope we'll be able to continue this conversation once Part II is ready to go. I also hope we'll be able to learn some lessons, perhaps next time examine how/if both elements could be welded together from the start in future.

Thanks again.
.-= Mel Exon´s last blog ..Twitter’s most radical idea yet: advertising that adds value =-.

Jenifer Olson
Jenifer Olson

Edward, I hear you and tend to agree, but I also think raising awareness of an issue is an invaluable gift in and of itself... organizations can and should be doing more to leverage this visibility through low or even no-cost donor recognition and promotion. Jenifer

David Ginsburg
David Ginsburg

"Slacktivism" is a growing trend, and in some cases, there is a direct impact beyond just showing our individual networks how caring we are. For instance, following the Haiti earthquake and the floods in Tennessee, anyone could donate $10 to the Red Cross via text message. In this example, there is a tangible accomplishment.
Regardless of how much awareness these types of initiatives raise for their respective causes and how easy it is to minimally contribute and feel good about ourselves, it's always going to be a passionate minority that really gets involved and donates the most valuable commodity of all: time.
.-= David Ginsburg´s last blog ..Radio & Social Media: A Response To Peter Smyth =-.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

As I was reading this I got to thinking about another cause that was made to be too easy: the Iraq war. I remember Bush The Sequel talking about how he would not expect Americans to sacrifice for the war, that it would be paid for without new taxes and that we would not have to give up any comforts. If nothing else, his political tack has created a mostly apathetic (or even blase)wartime population and colossal waste, as an uncaring population turned to more important things than military budgets. All of which is to say that I think making any cause too easy does more harm than good.

Jeff
.-= Jeff Shattuck´s last blog ..10 tips for cooking up better songs. I think. =-.

edward boches
edward boches

I am glad that you and others feel this way. Makes me more confident in the motives of all those who choose to participate.

Howie G
Howie G

BTW the Denmark v US numbers are Government Aid.

edward boches
edward boches

Thanks for the engagement and the explanation. I believe, as do you, that the mobilization of a community for any cause that's valid, whether simply generating awareness, conversation, learning or money is good. And ideally those who participate will do so out of true conviction of one kind of another. Just thought it was worth questioning the possible lemming affect of clicking because others do. This is a great dialog and ideally more and more causes will figure out the benefits of true community engagement and mobilization.

edward boches
edward boches

Jenifer:
Yes. In fact I tried to start a service that aggregated all kinds of online ads from causes and pro bono organizations and then make them available to companies large and small who could provide real estate on their sites and, of course, visibility for the cause. However, believe it or not, I could not find an ad server willing to help or support the effort. Perhaps that's a movement we could start. It might work with a long tail approach, but to serve ads on high traffic sites like Comcast or Fidelity, need a server company to serve the ad to site visitors.

edward boches
edward boches

David:
No doubt. Time is a rare commodity. In some cases nothing is more valuable to the cause or more generous on behalf of giver. I have little of it. So I write checks or take on the causes here at the agency and try to give company support or free up the time of employees. It's an interesting challenge and opportunity. Digital and social make it easy for causes to raise awareness and identify supporters. They make it possible for brands to find and support causes that matter to their customers and prospects. And, of course, with everything from PayPal to Square, it's easy to contribute money, too. Hopefully something like donating your stream will inspire the two other actions that are even more important.

Howie G
Howie G

He lied about paying for it. Our kids and grandkids will be paying for it because he borrowed $2 trillion to pay for it in 30 year notes. And of course all the brave service people already have paid for it in blood, careers, family etc.

The sad part is your right about the rest of us. How often does one cause hit the news and then 2 weeks later no one cares and are focused on something else.