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Idealist.org

Empowering Teens to Make a Difference: An Interview with Aria Finger

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Aria Finger, COO of DoSomething.org. Aria oversees the programmatic and business development activities that empower millions of young people to take action each year around causes they’re passionate about. She reads economic theory for fun, loves vanilla cupcakes and thinks that “After Innocence” should be required movie viewing for anyone who cares about social justice. Aria currently serves on the board of Care for the Homeless, is an adjunct professor at New York University and was recently named to Crain’s New York Business list of “40 under 40″.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: DoSomething was founded almost 20 years ago, long before the explosion of social entrepreneurship and social media. How has the organization evolved and kept up with the new energy and excitement around social change and new technologies for connecting people?

Aria: DoSomething.org has always had the same goal – enable young people to take action around the causes that they’re passion about. The exciting part is that now, in 2012, we have an entirely new toolkit at our fingertips – mobile, social, the web, etc – to reach millions of young people who want to make a difference. Experimentation and iteration keeps us on our toes. About a year ago, we decided to text 500 of our users who we hadn’t heard from via email in 6+ months. We sent them a text message and in 9 minutes, we had a 20% response rate. Just incredible. We found that with texting we could activate 20% of a group of “defunct” users. This SMS test was the basis for our pivot to mobile – using cell phones as a means to activate and engage teens. We now text out to over 220,000 teens on a weekly basis.

Nell: How does an organization like DoSomething, that is all about the youngest generation, remain relevant as the organization and its staff age?

Aria: One word: interns. At any given time, we have 20-30 college students working for the organization. And we pay them. These interns are coming to pitch meetings, becoming instant focus groups, creating full-fledged national campaigns and being the frontline of interaction with our users.

In addition, in this new world where everything can be crowd-sourced, we use that to our full advantage. When we were re-launching our website, we put the mocks on Facebook and asked our fans what they thought. When we’re stuck on a campaign name, we go out to our 500,000+ twitter followers and ask them what we should call it.

Nell: At DoSomething you are committed to metrics and have some impressive quarterly performance dashboards. How do you balance what is easy to measure, like outputs (# of members, # of campaigns), with what’s harder to measure like outcomes (what social change DoSomething is creating)?

Aria: At DoSomething.org, we LOVE data. In fact, we have two data analysts on a staff of 40. They inform everything we do and we love that we get to show off their awesomeness in our quarterly dashboards. That being said, you can’t always measure in numbers the value of a warm and fuzzy story about a teen’s first volunteerism experience being with our Teens for Jeans campaign. Qualitative anecdotes do have a place in performance dashboards as well. What I’m really excited about is 5 years down the road when we’ll be able to track our young people long-term – see them go from engagement in one campaign to five campaigns to perhaps starting their own Do Something Club when they go off to college. It will be really exciting to measure whether DoSomething.org members are happier, healthier, participate in their communities more, register to vote more, etc.

Nell: In the last few years there has been a huge increase in online action platforms like Change.org that organize people around causes. How does DoSomething compete with or complement these new channels and movements?

Aria: We love the Change.org folks and all of the other fabulous online platforms that are promoting social change (half of our staff found their job on Idealist.org!). For the most part, the thing that sets DoSomething.org apart is our focus on teenagers. A lot of the other sites do a great job activating older folks – mid 20somethings and beyond – and our focus has remained on high school and college students.

Nell: The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely driven by dissatisfaction among the Millennial generation. What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, how they’ve organized and their potential to make change happen?

Aria: Personally, I’m a supporter of any movement that tries to change this world for the better, as long as they’re doing so in a peaceful and constructive way. A lot of millennials are pissed off because they perceive that the “older folks” have done a good job screwing up our world and now they’re left to pick up the pieces. We see a lot of young people really tuning out politics because they don’t see any good coming out of it and they think they can do a better job trying to fix things themselves. There has been plenty of criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I’m sure many of them are valid, although I do think they created a national conversation around income distribution, fairness, jobs for middle class people, etc that wasn’t happening before them.

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What We Can Learn From Idealist

At the risk of going against the crowd, I’d like to add my perspective to the Idealist crisis.  Idealist.org is a job site for nonprofit organizations that has been around for 10 years.  It’s a great site that brings nonprofit organizations and aspiring nonprofit job seekers together.  It has launched many a great career, including that of Rosetta Thurman, nonprofit consultant and Gen Y leader who is a huge supporter of the site.

Earlier this week Ami Dar, Executive Director of Idealist, sent out an emergency appeal for funding to Idealist supporters.  It seems that the recession has taken a serious toll on the nonprofit organization, and they are desperate for funding to stay afloat.  Ami’s impassioned appeal has made its way around social media sites and raised quite a stir. They are hoping it will bring in some serious donations.  And it seems to be doing that–you can see the running tally of recent donations on their homepage.

I admire what Idealist does and think they serve a real need, but with this campaign they are making a mistake that nonprofits sometimes make when they hit a crisis like this.  An appeal for emergency funding can raise quite a bit of money, for a time, but then what?  What is the long-term plan? How will Idealist overcome the obstacles that got them to this place so that they can emerge stronger, more effective and more financial sustainable in the future?

In his appeal, Ami says that the weak economy got them to this place because of a significant decrease in job posting revenue over the past 16 months.  That is completely understandable.  But over those past 16 months what has Idealist done to diversify their funding model?  What has been the result of those changes?  And what are their plans for the future?  Ami is fairly vague on these points:

Very briefly, here’s what happened. Over the past ten years, most of our funding has come from the small fees we charge organizations for posting their jobs on Idealist. By September 2008, after years of steady growth, these little drops were covering 70% of our budget. Then, in October of that year, the financial crisis exploded, many organizations understandably froze their hiring, and from one week to the next our earned income was cut almost in half, leaving us with a hole of more than $100,000 each month. That was 16 months ago, and since then we’ve survived on faith and fumes, by cutting expenses, and by getting a few large gifts from new and old friends. But now we are about to hit a wall, and this is why I am reaching out to you.

I understand why they are in this position. But what I don’t understand is how they are going to get out of this position after the emergency funds that they are attempting to raise dry up.  According to Ami, their plans for the future are:

If in the next week or two we can reach everyone who’d give us a hand if they knew we are in trouble, I believe we’ll come out of this crisis even stronger than before. I believe this because while this has been a tough stretch, I’ve never been more optimistic about the future. The content on Idealist has never been richer, our traffic is surging, we are building a whole new Idealist.org that will be released later this year, and the potential for connecting people, ideas, and resources around the world has never been more urgent or more exciting. Your contribution will allow us to maintain all our services…and it will also give us some time to diversify our funding. Being able to breathe, recover, and plan ahead for a few months will be an incredible blessing.

If Idealist hasn’t been able to figure out financial sustainability in the last 16 months, why should I think that they will be able to do it in “a few months”?  And scarier still is the fact that economist are predicting that the jobless economic recovery will continue for the foreseeable future.  So I’m not sure “a few months” is really going to change things all that much.

What I would like to see from Idealist is a bold plan for action, a revamped business model that will allow them to continue to provide needed services to the nonprofit community in a financially viable way.  Emergency funding is great, but only if it is a stop gap measure that will get an organization through a very specific, finite period of time and that on the other side of the crisis is a new business model for a viable way forward.

I think the nonprofit sector can learn something from Idealist’s crisis.  There are many other nonprofits in this same position.  And many who are contemplating or have launched an emergency appeal.  But keep in mind, you can only cry wolf once.  So while you are working to stay afloat, you also need to be taking a hard look at how to radically change your approach, your business model, your funding streams. And you need to put those changes into a comprehensive plan and communicate that plan to your funders. In that way, you all will know that you won’t be back here again.

UPDATE: The Tactical Philanthropy Blog hosted a debate between Nell Edgington and Rich Polt from Louder Than Words about the Idealist appeal.  You can read the debate and comments here.  

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