Rethinking non-profits (and other intern inspirations)
13th June 11
Posted in Participation
Last week kicked off another session of The Barn, BBH NY’s 10-week internship program. The Barn brings in 6 interns, divides them into two teams and has them compete on a 3-word creative brief (last session’s was “Do good, famously” but we can’t tell you this one just yet).
It’s a fantastic program, run by Heidi Hackemer, Dane Larsen and Jordan Kramer. As I work with my new team (I’m the Advisor for Team Moose*), I’m reminded of how such a program broadens our agency’s thinking as much as it does the interns’.
My team last session had a fantastic idea to give 4 homeless men a voice via Twitter as part of a project called Underheard. That experience made me fundamentally rethink the role non-profits play in a world where motivated audiences self-organize and work (a theme we’ve discussed before).
In fact, Underheard showed me the limitations inherent to straight-forward marketing by non-profits. Generally, their missions—and resulting communication—are highly focused. Take, for instance, the mission statements of two of my favorite non-profits here in the US.
Feeding America: “Our mission is to feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger.”
National Resource Defense Council: “We use law, science and the support of 1.3 million members and online activists to protect the planet’s wildlife and wild places and to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all living things.”
Both organizations are clear not only in what they want to achieve, but also their means: food banks and legal action, respectively.
This fairly typical behavior makes it clear and easy for me to engage. Their cause is established. If I choose to support any cause, I’ll do so via an organization that uses the means I believe most effective. So of course a non-profit should outline the micro-actions I can take as a concerned citizen to help, right?
I’m no longer convinced that’s the only solution. Underheard (not an organization of any kind, to be explicitly clear) was simply a platform for homeless individuals. It didn’t specifically ask people to donate, nor did it edit what happened (when giving homeless individuals a voice, it should be no surprise some of what we heard fell outside of anything an organization would ever endorse). Nonetheless, people regularly contacted the interns to help the four men in ways they deemed best. At one point, someone in Australia paid for 2 transit tickets Albert (one of the four Tweeters) received. Those tickets totaled $200, beyond any reasonable amount Albert could have gathered on his own. Similarly, Danny was offered help to write his story by someone in Wisconsin. This desire to tell his story was something he brought up a few times including at the very outset of being selected for the project. Neither of these were ever explicit requests. In fact, financial help was offered regularly, but no one ever said they’d like to donate generally. Every financial offering was tied to a specific individual and incident. The offer was never $200. It was to pay for those daunting tickets. The offer wasn’t to fund a book; it was to help write it.
It seems people will determine the appropriate means of contributing if the right system is in place. In this case, the only pieces required were a platform to communicate (pre-paid phones to tweet from) and someone spreading the word. It’s similar to how a free-to-use site like Craigslist can turn commerce upside down via collaborative consumption. Craigslist never set out to extend the life of products or help communities consume more efficiently; it just happened to be the platform on which such consequences transpire.
All of this opened my mind to a new possibility. Could a non-profit exist simply as a platform for those that may need help with no instructions or systems in place to actually help? Sure, a number of organizations already use social media to push their causes and seek help, but they are generally speaking to existing supporters– and they’re outlining what they need. Could an extremely low-cost platform serve solely as scaffolding to let people connect their own solutions to narratives told by people in need?
Currently, people in need use the internet to ask for help all the time, but to a very limited audience. Their best-case scenario is having their need adopted by a cause that will help them. But what about all those people that could decide how to help without an organization outlining how? Is there a scalable solution between being a collection of individuals in need and being a formal organization requiring funds to operate? Could a platform that simply makes voices heard but doesn’t actually have an agenda successfully exist? Perhaps it’s a Craigslist-meets-Kickstarter-meets-Twitter for people to tell stories in a culture that is clearly intended to seek assistance, but in no specified fashion. The possibilities seem pleasantly ambiguous and endless.
Now, that may be the dumbest idea ever. That’s not the point. The point is how much my mind was opened by people with limited resources and experience answering an open-ended brief.
The point is intern inspiration.
I can’t wait to see what this new group of interns does. No matter what they do, I’m sure I’ll be inspired in some way. That’s a fantastic investment for any company to make.