Cause related … the gadgets, the wizards and the perpetual motion machine

09May10

If you’ve ever wondered what 21st century, social media powered stakeholder engagement might look like, there was a pretty good demonstration last week.

Jason Sadler, a young promoter whose business leaves him with a surfeit of shirts decided to combine his excess wardrobe with his social media following and created a campaign for a good cause. His One Million Shirts campaign asked people to send in old t-shirts which he would distribute to ‘the shirtless’ in Africa.

It was a bad idea, and aid and social entrepreneurship bloggers quickly started to point this out. You can read the blogs here.

To Jason’s credit he responded to the criticism and the opportunity for learning, and got on the phone for a roundtable discussion with many of his critics. He is currently rethinking his campaign.

Few corporate citizenship efforts are as poorly thought out as One Million Shirts. But many are seeking to demonstrate some form of consumer-to-beneficiary (C2B? or should that be C2P?) business model. They often share the same mix of on-the-ground complexity and simple (often simplistic) consumer messaging. It is into this gap that the openness of social media can shine a light.

The One Million Shirts experience highlights a few pifalls that other much bigger businesses are getting into, in the quest to make ’cause the new green’ (as someone said to me the other day).

  • There’s an app for that: the ‘gadgetization’ of social change – Gifts-in-kind, and other product based approaches offer an attractive impression of practical, quantifiable impact . Gifts in kind, such as One Million Shirts and  food drives , buy one-give one schemes for anything from solar lights to laptops to shoes, and cause related marketing such as box tops for education and One water,  all aim to give the impressission of direct connection and impact. But social transformation does not take place throgh the shipment of gadgets, or even through the agregation of well managed projects, but through politics, government, business and social movements that shift the basis of opportunity. None of these programmes give any clue as to how their shipments of products might support (or undermine) such change.
  • Don’t look at the man behind the curtain – making the organisation invisible. By focusing on making a clear link between the giver (or consumer), the proposed solution and individual recipient, C2P approaches render the organisation behind them invisible. But it is the organisation, it’s objectives, strategy and implementation, that determine how effectively these product based interventions can be. And it is organisations that can learn and be held accountable. When people give to an organisation with a single product solution – be it malaria nets, vaccines, lifestraws, playpumps or clitroral reconstruction surgery they are taking a bet not only that the solution is a good thing, but that the organisation can deliver that solution effectively and responsively.
  • Perpetual motion machines – the 100% efficient gift. Gifts in kind give the impression of reaching the fabled (and nonsensical) goal of 100% donation with no administrative cost – someone donates a can of soup, someone gets a can of soup. But looked at through an organisational lens, it becomes clearer that donors, are really giving the cost of the item to the organisation. Would people donate  money to a food bank if it was clear that that its method for sourcing food involves buying products at retail price and sending them on a round trip from depot to supermarket to households and back to a distribution point?

One of the key arguments for business involvement in social challenges is that they bring new discipline, efficiency and innovation to old and intractable problems. But the danger with gifts in kind and cause related marketing programs is that are optimised for a support raising niche rather than a problem solving niche. The incentives are to get better and better at giving consumers the feel-good impression they want without necessarily getting any better at helping people solve problems.

Jason, and others falling for these pitfalls argue that they are responding to reality; doing what they can as marketers to mobilise people’s limited goodwill and attention span for a good cause. Consumers don’t want to know about the complications of hard solutions to complex problems, organisational effectiveness and efficient use of resources. This is true I am sure, but at one time it would have been said that consumers don’t buy soup in cans, don’t fly in airplanes or don’t send daily text messages to random strangers. Organisations that take on the mission of action for a good cause have a responsibility to do their own due diligence and to design their approach for effectiveness and learning. Every new cause related marketing or fundraising campaign that relies on gadgetization, Wizard of Oz tricks and perpetual motion machines only serves to make consumers less, not more informed.

Doubtlessly there will be more Jasons, and some of them will command much bigger marketing budgets, but as the One Million Shirts experience highlights, social media increasingly means that if your business model is one that would fall apart if all of the stakeholders in your value chain could talk to each other, then you you have a business model that is in danger of falling apart.

Conversely if you can find a way to learn from stakeholders and drive performance through transparency, you may be able to innovate your way to a making a real difference.



6 Responses to “Cause related … the gadgets, the wizards and the perpetual motion machine”

  1. 1 c-sez

    “Would people donate money to a food bank if it was clear that that its method for sourcing food involves buying products at retail price and sending them on a round trip from depot to supermarket to households and back to a distribution point?”

    This is a core part of my beef with 1millionshirts — assume it’s wildly successfuly and attracts donations of 1 million shirts, how many *millions of dollars* are people going to tear into tiny pieces by shipping their effing tshirts to the 1MS partner’s warehouse in colorado, when they could have just given those *millions of dollars* to the red cross?

  2. 2 c-sez

    And while I’m ranting.

    The miracle of the internet is that it gives crowdsourcing for certain kinds of activity a marginal cost approaching zero, yet often with delightfully non-zero marginal benefits. Wikipedia and open-source software development can occur and create huge value at a massive online scale because of one fundamental principle: per-contribution, no objects and no people need to phyically move; only data, or information, or ideas. Long-tail contributors have long-ago or elsewhere sunk the costs of having a PC, electricity, and the internet.

    One problem I think is that social media / new economy types can be so immersed in this as to forget this miraculous nature, and simply neglect or be blind to what’s entailed when deciding to crowdsource in a world of physical objects, which doesn’t operate with the same greased-electron efficiency.

  3. “When people give to an organisation with a single product solution – be it malaria nets, vaccines, lifestraws, playpumps or clitroral reconstruction surgery they are taking a bet not only that the solution is a good thing, but that the organisation can deliver that solution effectively and responsively.”

    I agree with your sentiment. But that again comes down to effectively marketing the good ideas against the bad. Institutions like the Redcross are faceless and they lack authenticity. So, then here you get “some guy”, that wants to do something. Kicks off a pretty authentic attempt albeit a misguided one. I never heard of some guy at the Redcross trying to collect million tshirts or a million anything for that matter, and I’m a long time donor.

    As C-Sez points out, the miracle of the internet gives everyone a fairly good chance to distribute half thought ideas throughout the internet and it’s overwhelming, because everyone is doing it (qualified or otherwise). But that leaves the responsibility to educate & market the good ideas on these institutions and those that are in the know. Which is exactly what we’re doing here.

    Good post.

  4. 4 Duncan

    I think there’s a big difference between people coming up with a ‘send t-shirts, shoes, food etc’ idea and people using concepts like that to fund (related) aid projects by generating cash. I’ve heard of a scheme (but can’t find it unfortunately) where people collected t-shirts, sold them as ‘pre-loved’ and used the money to finance projects by an aid-agency. For me, this sounds like a much better idea.

    I also met with one charity recently that is moving into the financial services sector – sounds crazy until you realise that they have an incredibly loyal donor base – and provided that the FS product they deliver is equivalent to others on the market, why wouldn’t you invest money or buy house insurance from them?

    As for what we do – sell bottled water to fund water projects, condoms to fund HIV, soap and loo roll for sanitation & hygiene projects, investment fund for micro-loans etc., it’s a way of generating a sustainable revenue stream for our partner NGOs. We’re open to funding any NGO and our (independent) trustees review this annually.

    For me, I think the traditional funding models for NGOs are changing – and perhaps this is something that people need to embrace.


  1. 1 Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » What aid workers think of the 1 Million Shirts campaign
  2. 2 What aid workers think of the 1 Million Shirts campaign | Good Intentions Are Not Enough What aid workers think of the 1 Million Shirts campaign | An honest conversation about the impact of aid

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