Sunday, November 29, 2009

Can Ashton Kutcher save philanthropy?

For some reason, the winter issue of Fast Company landed on my doorstep last week, with a cover story about Ashton Kutcher's social media venture, Katalyst. While I neither own nor work for a fast company of any kind, the allure of celebrity and Kutcher's face (see left) was too much to resist. I devoured the article.

From what I understand (again, no fast-company experience), Katalyst tries to advertise and brand products through social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. As the ultimate information-sharing method, social media has been heralded as a way to spread the good word of charities and leverage lots and lots of individual donations.

Kutcher did just that with Malaria No More, raising money through a Twitter campaign with a simple message: "Every 30 seconds, a kid dies of malaria. Nets save lives." A $10 donation to Malaria No More can buy a net and the Katalyst campaign was able to raise enough for 90,000 nets, or $900,000.

However, Malaria No More does a lot more than buy nets. Their website says that "your donation supports our entire effort to protect every family at risk," not just by buying nets, but also advocacy work. Using donations seemingly given for a specific item for other means isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Kataylst's partnership with Malaria No More makes me wonder if social media can encourage social investments, or the inherent superficial nature of it (Twitter posts can only be 140 characters long) will create deceptions and illusions about what donors are actually contributing to.Without engaging people beyond a few clicks, social media will just allow people to think that they are supporting "good work" and not encourage them to look for effectiveness.

Not much information of substance about a charity can be gleaned from a tweet or a Facebook wall. Disseminating charitable information through personal connections makes people focus on the positive and not ask critical questions. Both GuideStar and GreatNonProfits allow people to review charities they have worked with and almost all profiled have near-perfect reviews.

Social investments will not be effective without transparency and accountability and social media does not have the capacity to support the discussions needed for those requirements. The only way I could see a social medium helping is if it points to more in-depth information about an organization, like Kiva has done (although that tweet greatly oversimplifies the issues.)

The benefits from social media for non-profits are mediocre at best and its effects on donors could actually be detrimental. As we can see from Kutcher's involvement with Malaria No More, I think social media will ultimately be used to mobilize feel-good donations and not the critically-thought-out social investments needed.


  1. It seems as though you are saying the "means doesn't justify the end" I would disagree. I think that even superficially engaging folks (as in the ONE campaign's) events helps students and others see beyond their lives. I agree that we would like others to be more enlightented and connected with reality, but that is not our reality. As we know, most citizens are not informed and even a small contribution to a charity or campaign is (I hope) doing some good.

    As faculty at a community college, I see everyday what an avg individual believes. It is amazing to me how narrow their perspective is.

    I do a unit on Hunger in America and World Hunger. Most students don't see past their own world. Their eyes are opened in this unit. They see how many of their classmates have benefited from assistance (WIC, food stamps, food shelves) and my hope is they are motivated to volunteer or contribute to other organizations.

    Generally, I find colleagues and students are not well informed of community or world events, and anything we or other organizations can do to create a connection is good.

  2. I've had my misgivings about the benefit of social networking for fundraising for the non-profit with which I work, although for different reasons (mainly stemming from the fact that few to none of our clients are on Facebook), but ultimately I think the benefits of such networking, at least from a *fundraising* point of view, outweigh the negatives.

    Fundraising has always operated on a spectrum from high end donors who are deeply involved in a charity's operations to the random folks who donate $5 after reading a sappy client story that they got in the mail. Those random folks never *really* know what a charity does on a detailed level, they just respond to the crafted (albeit true) story that our Development Department mailed them to provoke their compassion/guilt. Being able to instantly spread quick stories like this (for free) and thus get more $5 donations is a huge benefit for us.

    And there can be education involved with it. Your tweet could only say "Nets save lives", but you include a link in it to an article or a website with more information, and a person could learn a lot on a topic.

    The extended benefits lie in the random networking constituent's drive to click and read more.