Posts Tagged ‘Nonprofits’

Using data to build a sense of community in grassroots organizing

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008


In the past few weeks, we’ve seen two different political campaigns use technology and the Internet in new, expansive ways. We saw the mother of all online campaigns with the election of Barack Obama, and it’ll be interesting to see how its massive database of donors and volunteers is mobilized in the coming months. We’re also seeing supporters of gay marriage using Join the Impact to organize people across the country and the world, both to stage the protests that occurred simultaneously on November 15 and to create momentum for further action.

It’s fascinating to compare and with something like the ACLU Action Center. There are a lot of differences, but the one that really jumps out at me is that two recent campaigns firmly place you, the supporter, within a larger context of what others are doing in support of the same cause. It’s like that old fundraising symbol, the thermometer with a target goal, except much more interesting.

For example, Join the Impact’s first organized action was the simultaneous demonstrations that were held on November 15. The website was used not only to announce and spread the word that these demonstrations were happening, but also to record where they occurred and how many people attended. It may be fun for San Diego attendees to see that they attended the largest demonstration at 25,000 people, but it’s even more important for the 15 people who demonstrated in Sandpoint, Idaho, to know that they are part of something bigger. Traditionally, demonstrations have sought to be newsworthy by being enormous—hence, the “Million Man March” on Washington. But these demonstrations were trying to show something slightly different, a sense of support for the cause from towns both big and small, from liberal bastions to more stereotypically conservative places. The fifteen people in Sandpoint were more significant demonstrating in Sandpoint than they would have been if they had traveled to Boise and added to that demonstration by fifteen, and certainly much more than if they had traveled to San Diego. The website enabled the campaign to take a snapshot of that day that both focused on the local but also provided a view of the national that would have been impossible otherwise.

Now look at the ACLU Action Center, which focuses primarily on organizing letter-writing campaigns. It’s very easy to use, they’ll help you figure out who your senator or representative is and his or her email address, and they’ll even provide a template for the letter you send. Once you send your letter, you’ll be exhorted to send the link to all your friends. Yet the website isn’t really connecting you to anyone else. Imagine if, once you sent your letter, you got to see how many letters had been sent from your state. And that you got to compare that number to how many letters had been sent from a different state. Maybe you would see that very few letters were being sent to the representative from Utah who is actually chair of a key committee, and you would feel compelled to email your college roommate who now lives in Salt Lake City and ask her to send a letter as well.

Nonprofit organizations are eager to use “social networking” to promote their work and further their mission. It makes sense to recognize that the best kind of organizing has and always will depend on real connections between people. But the full potential of the Internet isn’t in a Facebook fan page. The best sites are going to take advantage of the Internet’s ability to collect and aggregate information in ways that reinforce a sense of community and shared purpose.

The Common Datatrust Foundation Changes Name to The Common Data Project

Monday, August 18th, 2008

We are excited to announce that we have a new name, The Common Data Project. We’ve changed our name for a couple of reasons, to avoid confusion around our use of the words “trust” and “foundation.” As an organization trying to create a new kind of nonprofit institution, we were interested in using these words to help explain our work through analogies to existing institutions–a datatrust that holds an individual’s personal information like a personal financial account, an organization that provides “grants” of information to researchers and nonprofit organizations. But given the specific legal definitions of a financial “trust” and “foundation,” we’ve decided that it’s more important to avoid public confusion. After all, we’re very decidedly not an investment company nor a private foundation.

In any case, we like the immediacy of the word “project”! We’re excited about moving forward on our Project and we hope you’ll get involved with our Project as well.

A nonprofit wants to share its mailing list with some economists–would that bother you?

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on an economists’ study of what makes people donate by an interesting liberal-conservative pair, Dean Karlan and John List. They wanted to do an empirical study of fundraising strategies, to find out what kind of solicitations are the most successful. As the article points out, lab experiments of economic choices aren’t particularly realistic: “If you put a college sophomore in a room, gave her $20 to spend and presented her with a series of pitches from hypothetical charities, she might behave very differently than when sitting on her sofa sorting through letters from actual organizations.”

So Karlan and List found an opportunity for a field experiment, a partnership with an actual, unnamed nonprofit that allowed them to try different solicitation strategies and map the outcomes. They wrote solicitation letters that were similar, except some didn’t mention a matching gift, some mentioned a 1-to-1 match, some a 2-to-1, and some a 3-to-1. In the end, if a matching gift was mentioned, it increased the likelihood of a donation, but the size of the matching gift did not. As the author, David Leonhardt, notes, their findings and the findings of other economists in this area are significant to many people, from the nonprofits trying to be better fundraisers to economists studying human behavior, even to those who want to make tax policy more effective and efficient.

The article, however, didn’t mention whether the donors to the nonprofit had consented to their responses being shared with anyone other than the nonprofit. I’m not that concerned about whether donors’ privacy may have been egregiously violated. (I’m also not sure what’s required of nonprofits in this area.) I’m just curious to know, if they had been given the choice, would they have agreed to their information being shared with the economists? Obviously, the study wouldn’t have worked if potential donors had been told they would be sent different solicitation letters to measure their responses, but I think if most people on a nonprofit’s mailing list were asked if they would explicitly allow their information to be used in academic studies, they would consent. They might want assurances that their individual identities would be protected—that no one would know Mr. So-And-So had given zero dollars to a cause he publicly champions. But they might very well be willing to help the nonprofit figure out how to be more effective and be a part of an academic study that could shape public policy. They might even be curious to know how their giving measures compares to other donors in their income brackets or geographic areas.

Most people, myself included, have a knee-jerk antipathy to having their personal information shared with anybody other than the organization or company they give it to. But maybe we would feel differently if we were actually given some choices, if our personal identities could be protected, if sharing information could lead to more than just targeted advertising or more junk mail.

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