Awesome Summit 2012 – Giving More Than Money

Live notes from the “Giving More Than Money” session at theĀ Awesome Summit, by Rahul Bhargava, Ethan Zuckerman and Willow Brugh.

Matt Stempeck (@mstem) comes to the Center for Civic Media from the Washington activism world. The organizations he worked with always lacked money. When it became time to run a campaign, organizations always wanted to figure out what to ask for… and the obvious question is to ask for money. But people don’t like to be asked for money. Now, more people do their jobs over the Internet – can we structure organizations so we can benefit from people’s skills, not just from their ability to write checks.

Jeremy Liu thinks about professional skill matching in the Bay Area. Emilie Dubois studies time banks and trading of skills at Boston College. Arlene Ducao is building a project called OpenIR, which relies on a set of volunteers to turn infrared imagery into activism. Deana Zandt has worked in a wide range of organizations and wrestling with these challenges in different contexts.

Jeremy Liu

Jeremy Liu starts by asking us how many of us have heard of community development corporations – only a few hands go up. CDCs have been around since the 1960s, and Jeremy tells us that few people know what they do. One reason is that they’re involved with so many issues – open space, job training, affordable housing… pretty much anything that helps build thriving communities. As a result, they’re very hard to put into any particular box.

In Oakland, Jeremy ran the East Bay Asian Development Corporation, which ran projects like the Oakland Digital Literacy Collaborative, which offered social media coaching to different organizations. His organization bartered space to the group in exchange for services provided to Jeremy’s organization and their clients. It was a great way to share resources without engaging in a financial transaction. In another case, they partnered with a professional green building firm to have them “on call” so that any real estate development project could be turned into a green project early in its lifecycle. In this case, as the firm was for profit, they structured the service transaction so that a fixed number of hours of service bought rent in a EBADC building.

There are about three thousand community development corporations in the US – Jeremy wonders how crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding could influence the existing and powerful CDC movement, as these organizations are often anchor tenants around key urban issues. Section 3 of US public housing law allows low income housing developments to contract with residents to provide services like gardening or carpet cleaning – finding ways to tap that massive network of people could lead to powerful new opportunities for collaboration and growth.

Emilie Dubois – Connected Learning Research Network

Emilie Dubois is working on her PhD in sociology at Boston College, studying the “collaborative consumption” space for Macarthur’s Digital Media and Learning project. Emilie’s focus has been on time-banking, looking at ways the movement can build social capital, harnessing peer to peer barter networks. Time-banking is an online repository of skills – Emilie says she might advertise her talents at statistics – she might be willing to share her statistical skills in exchange for time-bank hours, which she might use to study photography. One hour is always equal to another hour within time banks – an hour of legal advice equals an hour of child care. This is the egalitarian basis for time-banking, and allows assistance to people who always feel like they’re in need of help and support.

She’s been participating in the time-bank by copyediting, carrying out photography assignments and walking dogs. Because her research is in Cambridge, there are certain limits to the experiment. But one motivation seems to be that people want to shrink the production chain – they hope to understand better who’s producing goods and services. Instead of going to the market to fix your sink, bringing in a professional plumber, in a time-bank setting there’s opportunity for peer sharing and learning. She hasn’t seen many meaningful gains in social capital – people participating tend to be pretty transactional, not focused on building social capital in the process. That’s not always the case – the visiting nurses association of New York has a time bank, and in that community, there’s far more focus on social capital.

In the Visiting Nurse Association in NY, participants report better physical health and better mental health. That’s unusual – self-reported indicators of health tend to be stable over time, so anything that can point to change in the space is impressive.

Deanna Zandt –

Deanna introduces herself as a pinch-hitter for a speaker who got stuck in DC due to a cancelled flight. She’s interested in the challenge that volunteer labor can present for nonprofit organizations – organizations can easily get swamped by volunteers. It’s often useful to think about tasks that a large number of people can participate in without much oversight. She reminds us of Sunlight’s campaign, “Congress is a family business.” This was a project to identify congresspeople who had family members on staff, who were therefore pocketing some of their campaign funds. They asked a group of people to take on a single representative, do a bit of research and turn in a simple form. They repeated they experiment recently, and were able to process a huge set of data within a day or two – people got addicted and wanted to research more than one congressperson. Giving people repetitive tasks with a social overlay – competition with others, for instance – can make work highly parallelizable.

Another trend is the ways in which people are becoming advocates and evangelists for causes. Deanna references the Susan G. Komen controversy, where the organization decided to defund Planned Parenthood over the issue of abortion. She realized that this was a case where a very simple technology – Tumblr – could allow a set of people to become evangelists. The tumblr was called “Planned Parenthood Saved Me”, and it was open to submissions, which allowed people to post their stories about Planned Parenthood. Promoting it to a few feminist friends, the Tumblr collected over 300 stories over a weekend and was featured on Rachel Maddow within a few days. More than half of the views to the project came “organically”, from online word of mouth, not from mainstream media interest. Komen, ultimately, decided to honor its existing commitments to Planned Parenthood, and Planned Parenthood has gained thousands of donors.

How can Planned Parenthood harness the attention and energy of activists at a moment like this? They reached out to activists like Deanna, but they didn’t give her instructions. They simply invited her to help and offered her resources if she needed them – that’s a great method to harness these creative people.

Arlene Ducao (DuKode Studio, MIT Media Lab)

Arlene is a lover of maps, and looks for ways that love can connect with her volunteerism. She works with an organization that sets up Ushahidi deployments to help communities in crisis. She notes that one deployment she was heavily involved with was during Hurricane Irene. She was homebound at the time, so had plenty of time to search for open shelters up and down the east coast. Another deployment looked at satellite imagery of Somalia, using imagery from a company called Tomnom?, trying to mark up satellite imagery to identity tents, tanks and other key features. The project invited people to participate even if they weren’t at a high skill level, with hopes that oversampling between volunteers would lead to higher quality information.

Now Arlene is working on a project involving infrared satellite imagery, offering details on the natural environment that would not otherwise be accessible. She suggests that volunteering often breaks down on high-skill/low-skill lines. It’s often valuable to find ways to allow low barriers to entry for volunteering, where accountability is not on the individual person, but on the software that’s validating crowd information. @open-infrared


Matt asks whether there’s a barrier between low-skill volunteers and the sorts of super-volunteers who might either push your project in exciting new directions, or who might go rogue. Deanna points out that Planned Parenthood had a great media and volunteership strategy in place, which allowed women to participate in the campaigns and initiate their own efforts. The personal connection around issues of women’s health meant that people were extremely passionate about taking part. Deanna reminds us that you need to build a community before you need it – you can’t simply walk into a party and tell people how awesome you are. Instead, you need a community already in place.

Jeremy tells us about an individual who was organizing a health fair around a 600-unit housing project. His organization was able to act as a fiscal sponsor for her and allow her to work on a larger scale. But there are open questions about how to best identify residents of those properties who have great ideas and potential to carry them out. Matt points to a progressive skills bank that knows who’s an experienced media buyer in Arkansas, who might be able to volunteer when money for organizing is scarce.

Emelie points out that Time-banking is blessed with really strong software to match people based on their skills. But you still need to have time to give, and this can be a constraint for people with in-demand skills.

Andrew Slack asks whether time-banking has been gamified. The answer: not yet, but it’s a promising direction. Jeremy answers, “We don’t need no stinkin’ gamification!” Behavior like time-banking happens all the time within families and circles of friends. Cohousing is a really weird western, white, hippie way of executing a joint financial transaction, and calling it “community” – there’s genuine connected housing that happens all over the world. Why don’t we do a better job of supporting those efforts? Emilie argues that timebanking is actually doing something very different: it’s connecting people with low levels of social capital with others across economic exchanges. It’s a complementary activity, not just a celebration of existing social networks.

A question reminds us that people who don’t have money often don’t have time – was that an explicit design constraint for these projects? Deanna points out that this is often the case for people who have limited resources. We need to move away from models focused on solving other people’s problems and more closely towards working with people who have problems. Jeremy suggests that agency is a key factor in any project dealing with public health – more agency tends to connect to more health and well-being.

A questioner points out that these questions are old ones – we’ve been talking for years about cooperation and social capital. Are we at a moment of disruption in this space? Deanna answers simply, “I hope so.” Jeremy suggests that we could be if we start rethinking this space, applying new tactics like crowd-sourcing to old problems in cooperation with established institutions like CDCs. Deanna adds the observation that people are starting to understand that market economies don’t always work for everything. The success of her food coop in Brooklyn, where there often aren’t opportunities to volunteer because there are so members, suggests that a fundamental shift may be underway. She urges us to look at Steve Lambert’s “Capitalism Works for Me” public art piece (Kickstarted). Lots of people are voting against capitalism, and not just in hippie cohousing communities.

Emilie’s research partner, Luka, asks Deanna about time management and priming experiences. A research subject, who’s already deeply engaged in education, is now taking on Coursera courses – something in learning more about education has primed him for more education. Are there other priming experiences that work like this? Deanna wonders if this is a function of Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus” – if we learn how to spend out time other than six hours of television a night, could we change our behavior in other ways?

A questioner talks about a creative financing method she and colleagues used to buy a building in Canada for community use – she wonders whether there’s more of a space between crowd-funding and social enterprise that will help organizations scale to address large and challenging issues. Deanna suggests we shouldn’t think of this in capitalist or anti-capitalist terms. While social entrepreneurship is very hot right now, it’s worth remembering that not everything beautiful and wonderful can sustain itself financially.