Occupy Wall Street
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.
February was the month to learn from other’s mistakes — from Komen to Hull House there was some great analysis about what went wrong and what can be learned. The other thing emerging in February was new social media darling, Pinterest, as an opportunity for nonprofits to tell their story visually.
Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in February, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest.
- The biggest news in February was Susan G. Komen Foundation’s repeated strategy and PR blunders when they pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, then reinstated the funding. Kivi Leroux Miller offered tips to recover from a PR scandal. Nancy Schwartz broke down Komen’s “busted nonprofit brand” and Beth Kanter described the 5 stages of a social media PR disaster. And when things finally settled down a bit, Komen stumbled again with their attempt to reassure donors.
- Always a great resource, the Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog provides 50 Fun, Useful, and Totally Random Resources for Nonprofits
- “As modern businesses search for a soul, who better than Millenials to help find one?” This month there were two articles about how the Millennial generation approaches work and ultimately how it will change how we all work: 13 Ways The Recession Has Changed How Millennials View Work and The Crisis of Meaning in the Millennial Workforce.
- Tom Watson launched a new column in Forbes focused on social entrepreneurship, and his inaugural post took an interesting spin on the endless “what is social entrepreneurship” conversation by finding parallels between Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street.
- Sometimes Dan Pallotta gets it really right, and that is especially true with his post arguing that a huge missed opportunity for philanthropist is to invest in the fundraising capacity of nonprofits.
- In the Harvard Business Review blog Nilofer Merchant argued that technology is fundamentally changing how organizations operate. This applies to nonprofits as well, and we should all take note.
- If you, like most people, struggle with creating content for your blog, this infographic makes it so much easier.
- Writing in the Washington Post, Antony Bugg-Levine, head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, argued that nonprofits must embrace breakthrough innovations like restructuring their approaches to social problems and using capital to build organizations, “The sooner we confront our new economic reality and support visionary thinking and organizations, the sooner we can begin to rebuild a sustainable safety net.”
- The collapse of one of America’s oldest and most successful nonprofit organizations late last year, Hull House, provides a cautionary tale to other nonprofits that may not be employing good financial management, argued Rick Moyers.
- An interesting debate loomed at the end of the month because of a study by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University that found nonprofit managers lack key financial knowledge. But Kate Barr and Ruth McCambridge took issue with the study’s methods arguing that the study missed the mark.
Photo Credit: aithom2
Scott Goodson’s new book, Uprising: How to Build a Brand – And Change the World – by Sparking Cultural Movements, has an ambitious goal that eventually falls flat. Goodson provides an excellent analysis of the new movements sweeping the globe and how social change organizations can learn from them. However, when he tries to connect that reality to corporate brand building, the book becomes more about exploiting social movements for profit, rather than for social good.
The first half of Goodson’s book is eye-opening. He describes what he calls “our current movement mania.” The Egyptian uprising, Occupy Wall Street, Etsy, the Tea Party, the Pepsi Refresh Project are all examples of movements. He argues that we are seeing an explosion of movements because of a confluence of trends:
The Internet, and particular the rise of social media, has made it easy to find and connect with like-minded souls. And that same technology makes it possible for a group, once formed, to organize, plan and take action.
Goodson examines countless examples of movements sparked by individuals, nonprofits and companies.
The bulk of Goodson’s case studies are what I would call “social entrepreneurs.” Some of these are for-profit (like TOMS Shoes), many are nonprofit (like KaBoom!, FIRST, and DoSomething), and many are not really legal entities at all (like the Occupy movements). All of these examples are fascinating when understood through Goodson’s “movement” lens. He helps us understand how these movements form, how they build momentum and find direction and how they’ve resulted in some serious change. In particular his discussion of “the swarm effect” is fascinating. He explains how these social movements behave like a swarm of insects:
A swarm moves in one direction as a group, and although it has no leader, it is capable of changing directions quickly to avoid a threat or pursue an opportunity…the group is able to share information instantly, based on tiny individual interactions…that allow members to guide each other as to what to do next…This combination of being adept at picking up on cues all around and being able to share that information quickly enables the swarm to be highly productive and move with great purpose and momentum.
But I wish the book could have ended there.
In the second half of the book, Goodson equates these social entrepreneurial movements to corporate re-branding efforts. The movements launched by companies which he profiles feel contrived. He points to Frito Lay, Pepsi and Jim Bean whiskey as great examples of companies that built their brand by sparking a movement. Frito Lay launched the “True North” movement for their health-conscious snack food line targeting baby boomers. I don’t quite understand how this dressed up ad campaign is a social movement.
What if instead Frito Lay recognized the growing epidemic of obesity and revamped their business model to create and market ONLY healthy snacks? It would be far more interesting to encourage companies that are interested in tapping into social movement “mania” to start by authentically re-evaluating their business model and then working to bake social good into it. Instead Goodson seems to be suggesting that corporate brands try to hijack a growing interest in social good for their own profit. To connect exciting, game-changing social entrepreneurial movements to things like Microsoft dropping copies of Office Accounting software via parachute just doesn’t compute (interestingly Microsoft has since discontinued the Office Accounting product).
But what I take from this book is that we are living in a new reality. Social media, a growing restlessness with the world as we know it, a struggling economy, and a passion for social change that defines Generation Y, have combined to make movements a powerful new trend. It is no longer the purview of the nonprofit or government sectors to create social change. Anyone sitting in front of their computer can tap into a latent dissatisfaction, get people talking, and spark a game-changing movement. Nonprofits, government and business alike should take note.
I think it gets harder and harder every month to narrow down to a list of only 10 great reads in social innovation. October was no exception. Here are my top 10 of the last month (but actually more like 13 if you’re counting). As always, please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see the expanded list of what catches my eye, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.
You can also read the lists of Great Reads from previous months here.
- Marketing is a brave new world these days, and so is fundraising. Replace “customer” with “donor” and “We’re All Marketers Now” from McKinsey Quarterly applies to nonprofits as well.
- A new Chronicle of Philanthropy blog launched recently that focuses on innovation in the nonprofit world. One of the first posts is about how the U.S. Army’s practice of using a “devil’s advocate” in their decision-making processes is something that some philanthropists are copying in order to come up with better solutions.
- Occupy Wall Street and the other protests in cities around the country was a big topic this month. Some of the most interesting were Who are the 99 percent? from Ezra Klein in The Washington Post and The Demographics of Occupy Wall Street from Fast Company.
- From the Harvard Business Review blog comes an argument that I completely agree with. Nonprofits that are struggling lack a “strategy for connecting their mission with their ability to deliver.”
- I know infographics are becoming overused, but this one is pretty cool: How the Top 50 Nonprofits Do Social Media.
- And speaking of the top nonprofits, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 400 is out, all about what the 400 wealthiest nonprofits are up to.
- The Alliance for Children and Families, a membership group for human-service charities, released a new report identifying the emerging trends social service organizations must embrace in order to succeed.
- If you missed the live-streaming from the White House last week on social impact bonds, Pay for Success: Investing in What Works, you can still watch archived recordings, or check out the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s great resources on the topic here.
- As usual, Lucy Bernholz tells it like it is, in her argument that the current debate in American politics about shifting more of the burden of funding for core public services to private philanthropy is undemocratic.
- Jennifer Landres from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy finds some lessons for philanthropy in the movie “Moneyball.”
Photo Credit: JeffersonDavis