Going Gaga Over Philanthropy
I’m generally supportive of anything Lady Gaga (or any other celebrity) chooses to do for the non-profit sector, but I confess that I let out a loud groan when I clicked on an email the other day to find that she and Robin Hood Foundation were teaming up to run a Facebook contest that would allow the public to vote on how Robin Hood should disburse a Gaga $1M among five charities. The increasing trend towards “crowdsourcing”—having the public act as the voting jury to determine an institution’s course of action, in this case its charitable giving (most often these are corporate dollars, although not in this case)—is one that I haven’t looked very kindly on. Often it’s the large organizations that bring home the bacon, because they have the staffing and brand-recognition to recruit a bazillion votes. Does that mean organizations that don’t have the same people-power but a unique approach and proven solution deserve less?
Admittedly, brand recognition is always an important factor in being competitive in the philanthropic world, but that’s often true to an extreme in these online contests. In an industry in which “accountability” is everyone’s second word, I’m fascinated that corporations are entrusting their dollars to the public—though of course I’m not so naïve as to overlook the PR brilliance (but I’m okay with the fact that it benefits parties on both sides). I’m puzzled by the argument that I’ve heard articulated by at least a few corporations that a value of crowdsourcing is in “decentralizing the decision-making process.” Why is the public in a better position to make decisions about how a corporation should spend its money than trained corporate philanthropic staff? And if they are, why have philanthropic staff at all (other than to tend to the administration of these contests)? It’s an odd sort of logic, in my view.
Despite having some reservations about this form of philanthropy, I do find it compelling that crowdsourcing is a vehicle for corporations and other philanthropic institutions to drum up public excitement around philanthropy (Robin Hood’s contest, which appears to have just ended, generated one million votes)—for me, that’s the silver lining of these charitable contests and a reflection of the very positive ways in which social media is building a more informed, connected world. If the public gains a greater exposure to the many different types of organizations out there and the many different types of changes they are trying to make in the world by browsing contestants, that’s a genuine accomplishment in my book. The work of non-profits tends to get a lot less attention than that of other sectors in our society (like corporations).
I’m really interested in what this phenomenon looks like from the other side—that is, from the seat of a philanthropic institution. Speaking of accountability, is there valuable data to be collected from these contests, beyond the selection of the winners? What do corporations and philanthropic institutions learn from seeing where the public’s votes cluster? Do the social issues (e.g., environmental, health-related, local, international) people favor in any given contest, or over the course of several contests, reveal something meaningful about the public’s focus when it comes to producing change in the world? How, if at all, does this information influence an institution’s decisions about where it invests its remaining philanthropic dollars and what public education it might engage in as part of its philanthropy? Can the wisdom of people who think about philanthropy for a living (i.e., staff of a corporate foundation) be leveraged to a greater extent to educate and inspire as a part of, or as a result of, these contests?