Tag Archives: Civic Crowd

Some bridges and fences – New Platforms for Action

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In my very first post, I talked about how the evolution of social technology has made relationship-building and connecting people with one another key to simultaneously growing businesses and doing social good. This morning I read an interesting post from Annika Small of Nominet Trust, who in writing about scaling social innovation, puts it in similar terms: “technology supports the development of solutions that are tailored and accessible to individuals while also enabling their wide distribution at significantly lower cost than traditional services.”

So, with that as a starting point (and after quite a few months of not doing what I promised to do, i.e. writing about actual companies and products), I’d like to start exploring what might make individual social tech products into true ‘bridges’, in bringing their user bases together behind a common purpose – or, conversely, what makes them function more like ‘fences’, constricting rather than magnifying people’s natural urges to connect with others, and do good.

I’d like to start in this blog with a few social action platforms. ‘Social action’ is quite a buzzy phrase very much in vogue amongst the policy wonkerie, which as I understand it (and I could be wrong- if so, do shout in the comments section below!) is about people taking relatively autonomous and dynamic actions to advance a particular social goal.

So while it’s like (and can indeed encompass)’ volunteering’ as traditionally understood,  I think there’s a bit more to social action than that – something about making a particular change happen and rallying others behind it, that goes a bit further than what we usually mean by volunteering.

And for the purposes of this blog, let’s rule out petitioning.  Yes, there’s no question that it can be a driver of real social change, and as the Indy reported last year, it’s a really exciting space – as the article mentions, between 2007 and 2009, the rate of online petition signing more than doubled, from seven percent to fifteen percent – with groups like 38 Degrees amassing a pretty impressing achievements list, and my personal favourites, AllOut, making big international political changes happen for LGBT communities across the world. But what I’m really interested in here are platforms that encourage individuals to take a variety of actions involving some sense of investment in the outcome – often of time or skills.

Here are 4 platforms trying to do just this, although with subtlely different ways of going about it:-

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  1. WeWillGather, run by Dan Thompson (who among other things, invented and spread the #RiotCleanup hastag to mobilise action following the 2011 London riots) has had some great support since its launch last year, and is based on a simple premise – come up with an idea for a Good Thing (as they term it) that you need to build some support to make happen, create a page for it on WWG, tweet about it and they will too, and your crowd with gather. The platform features some smashing Good Things already successfully carried out, like guerilla grime busting at Elephant and Castle.
  • WWG allows organisers to make an immediate ‘ask’ of their follower base, and seems to be predicated on low commitment, small-scale local actions. The strength of the platform looks to be in the immediacy that each Good Thing organisers’ ‘ask’ can achieve – hence the use of Twitter as the primary means of sharing/ promoting your Good Thing through WWG – supported by a requirement to set a clear signup target for your Good Thing (so if you subscribe to the WWG feed, be prepared for a lot of tweets saying ‘We need [insert number] people to make a Good Thing happen in [insert place]). WWG acknowledges that not everyone will want to contribute to every Good Thing all the time, but its success depends on a wager that (a)the tools offered to project leaders will be sufficiently powerful in helping project leaders access their own (and their friends and family’s) networks and (b) they’ll hit the ‘sweet spot’ of Good Thing opportunities advertised through the WWG Twitter feed reaching individuals with a prior inclination to get involved at a time when they are most inclined to say yes.  And while (a) can be solved through an ongoing conversation with Good Thing organisers and getting some appropriately inclined individuals signed up to its feed should solve itself with some good publicity, getting the second part of (b) right is a really interesting challenge.

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 2. In contrast to the immediate and ‘sweet spot’ approach of WWG, the Civic Crowd seems to have set its sights on brokering longer-term relationships between grassroots organisations and local (actual and potential) supporters. As you’ll see by having a look at the homepage, navigation is driven through map, with a handy Google locate tool suggesting projects local to you from the get-go. Following a recent refresh, the platform supports users to undertake a range of interactions from ‘liking’ and sharing particular projects with your social networks to supporting them with your cash through the platform’s crowdfunding feature (well, sort-of crowdfunding – you can make donations to projects, which is great, but I couldn’t yet see the kind of project totalizers and ‘all or nothing’ funding approach that makes Kickstarter and co such fun), and is equally open to one-off projects and established community groups and organisations. As it looks like you could start and post a project just as easily in Goa as in North London, the platform’s clearly got some space to grow, if it needs.

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3. While both WeWillGather and Civic Crowd are about encouraging people to list and get involved with local projects in as frictionless way as is possible, Blue Dot – launched at the back end of 2011 with a huge blitz around Children in Need – pitches its USP at giving those already volunteering and giving money something in return.  The idea’s simple – everything you give to charities signed up through Blue Dot, both through time and money, gets you Dots (1 dot for a facebook ‘share’ for example), which can be cashed in for treats. For example, currently being advertised in the marketplace is a signed Elbow CD for 400 dots, and 25% off yoga wear from 40 dots. As the platform makes its income from its business partnerships, contributions through the site reach the recipient charity without any commission being taken, which is rare, and quite cool. And with a fair range of suggestions for volunteering already in the ‘more ways to get dots’ section of the site, there’s real potential for the platform to become a portal for users to discover new social action opportunities, albeit perhaps with a slightly more ‘transactional’ motivation.

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4. And finally, the box-fresh Good people (launched around the turn of the year) tries to do something a bit more familiar, hosting a kind of a dating service to match people declaring an interest in working with social action organisations with organisations with something to offer. Signup is short, simple, but very carefully segmented, offering ‘Good People’ the chance to get involved from the basis of curiosity (with the prompt of “I’m interested in discovering early-stage innovations and ideas”) to vocational and financial need (“I want to change the world for a living”).

In contrast to the platforms mentioned above, Good People is not predicated on winning over ‘casual’ users who come to the platform ‘cold’, but instead seems to be about growing a ‘hard’ network of regularly engaged Do-gooders. Like WeWillGather and Civic Crowd, Good people is agnostic to whether these organisations are operating on a for profit or not for profit basis, leading to a pretty broad set of participants, and one other thing I really like about the platform is the exacting segmentation of users from across the spectrum, from the curious early adopter to the creative looking for work. It’ll be interesting to see if and how users might move along the spectrum, perhaps starting with engaging on an ‘ideas’ basis, while through time getting more and more involved with an organisation, perhaps even to the point of being paid by them.

While I’m here, I also absolutely love the ‘pledge’ that takes the place of detailed terms and conditions on Good People, so thought I’d share it:-

“I hereby pledge to repay the value that the good people community provides for me and/or my organisation.

  • I will be good, and help support others. I’ll put back as much – if not more – than I can take.
  • I will act responsibly at all times, and notify GoodPeople if I see people that aren’t behaving appropriately.
  • If it works for me, I’ll tell others. If it doesn’t. I’ll help improve it with my ideas and suggestions.”

Where now?

While they’re all pretty new and definitely have time to find their feet still, none of these platforms have yet hit what could be described as a breakthrough – and with at least 3 out of 4, have gone through a couple of iterations since launch. Looking at a few other examples, here are a few slightly generic thoughts about how each could go about the hard business of pushing growth even further:-

  1. Think really carefully about the value your platform can offer to everyone engaged with it, and they’ll use it more – or in short, do what Hailo did. As Wired’s analysis made clear, what has made cab hailing app startup Hailo scale really fast (in a pretty competitive market) has been the tools it offered to help cab drivers rather than just passengers (who would usually be seen as the primary customers of the app), which has got it a 40% cab driver user base in London. I do think there’s a lesson here: just as Hailo’s founders had to get beyond the assumption that cab apps had to be structured solely for the passenger, so social action platforms should continually think about how they can provide tools that help the project/ Good Thing leaders want to use and depend on their platform.
  2. Define and build your first user base very carefully – This is something that at least a few the platforms above look like they could do more, to tick up the signup and action lists at the very least. Tracking the growth of any successful web community and you normally find a starting point involving a really simple function and a tight user base – the best example of this (I think) is Facebook, photo sharing, and college communities. Who are the super-loyal groups of people who will help each of these platforms gain critical mass? For my part, I’m working on getting the RSA Fellowship involved, but it’ll take time (more on that in a future post).
  3. Collaborate and merge/ aggregate user ‘offers’ – There’s got to be some really interesting collaboration opportunities here – for instance, how tricky would it be to offer Blue Dots for actions discovered through Civic Crowd or WeWillGather? How about displaying users’ blue dots and Civic Crowd/ WeWillGather participation history on Good People profile, to help great activists show themselves off? It’d be really great to see new socially-orientated products and platforms collaborate more, and pool their user bases where they share common aims to become a bit more of a social action ‘collective’ – maybe this sort of thing is happening already, though, and if so, do add a comment below and tell me about it?

Finally, I know that there’s something missing from this blog – my own experiences of actually getting involved with these platforms. Well, in short, watch this space – I’ve signed up to each of these platforms, and promise to get going on Blue Dot, keep an eye on local activity on WeWillGather and Civic Crowd, watch out for exciting offers through Good People, and report back how any activities I get involved in go. If you do the same, please let me know how it goes in the comments thread below, or tell me about other such platforms worth exploring – I get the sense I may be only scratching the surface here….

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The RSA- awakening the sleeping Fellowship giant

   An excellent example from the RSA Animate series


About 5 years ago a friend at the Civil Service invited me to join the RSA – an acronym which nowadays unfolds to the rather less pithy ‘The Royal Society for the promotion of arts, manufacturing and commerce’ – a membership organization with a glittering history dedicated to improving society through social policy and action, including:-

  • A formidable programme of talks and lectures, available online here, including the trailblazing RSA Animate series;
  • An Academy, putting theory into educational practice;
  • Fascinating hands-on research and social action projects;
  • A smashing central London space, currently undergoing a massive refit.

All of this is part-funded by its 27,000 Fellowship base, who in turn drive their own activity and networks in support of the Society’s aims. Although subject to a nomination and approval process, anyone can become a Fellow (and do get in touch if you’re interested).

Amazing, right?

Well, nearly.

In the five years since I joined, I’ve experienced the RSA treading a slightly confusing and hard-to-navigate path between its many identities; part-think tank, part social action hub, part membership organisation. The work it does is brilliant and the RSA’s officers are excellent, and I’ve enjoyed the talks (particularly the RSA Animate series), been to few meetings of the RSA social enterprise network, and spent plenty of time meeting Fellows and the central team at RSA House – but I feel that all of this great stuff does obscure the fact that a more effective relationship with and between Fellows would enable the Society to make an even bigger difference to the UK and the world.

It’s not just me saying this. When I was getting together the nominations to run for the Fellowship Council* I was disappointed to find that a number of friends had recently resigned their Fellowship- saying that as all of the things they valued the RSA for were offered for free to anyone and it wasn’t clear what else the organisation offered its Fellows, why would they pay the approx £100 annual subscription?

And they had a point.

While being part of the RSA Fellowship is not quite the same as buying a private product or service (i.e. Fellows’ subscriptions subsidise the Society’s general work, including making things like the RSA lectures available for free), my worry is that the message of the RSA is either not clearly defined or is not getting through, meaning that it’s not achieving its mission as magnificently as it might.

For me, the RSA is a great example of the huge opportunities, and the equally intimidating challenges, in getting people behind social organisations. I don’t want to be one of those people who extolls the virtue of private over public in all spheres, but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, many private companies would kill to have as many ‘fans’ as the RSA has amassed and would be bolder in prompting them to act in support of their brand or product. Again, this is not to denigrate what the current team is doing, or to say that this is easy. It’s hard. But it’s such a great possibility.

And if you think that this is all a bit parochial, stop to think about how valuable a 27,000-strong user base would be to a social startup seeking to build a following behind its mission. There are, put simply, so many social startups doing great work for whom the RSA Fellowship could be a transformational friend.

So, here’s what I’d do to try and awaken this sleeping giant. I freely admit that these may already be on someone’s to-do list at RSA House – but from the point of view of a relatively active Fellow, if that is the case, the message hasn’t yet got through:-

  1. Use existing web platforms to personalise the RSA’s offer to Fellows, starting with new Fellows, and using data from other social networks better. Private companies draw on their user’s existing consumption habits (indeed, Facebook’s entire commercial strategy seems to be driven off opening up its users ‘likes’ to interested brands). We need to understand better what Fellows want from the RSA, and match them to the projects, discussions and initiatives that would deliver for them. This could also involve looking at greater integration of the online RSA Fellowship with existing platforms, including Facebook and social (like civiccrowd.org, about which I’ll be saying more soon).
  2. Give Fellows’ blogging a louder voice – In May, I wrote a short blog for RSA Comment (linked below). There was 3 weeks from submission to publication, and by the time it came out I felt pretty detatched from the article and wasn’t keen to share. RSA Comment has some terrific content, but wouldn’t it be great if we let go of some of the central control and gave Fellows had a more open platform to blog (around the Society’s mission and themes of course), with the most-read/ shared/ commented stories getting prominence on the RSA social meda feed and ultimately in the RSA Journal?
  3. Crowdfund the RSA’s Fellows-led Catalyst projects to make them go further and get more Fellows behind them –  I had a go at this with WeDidThis, with mixed success but a lot of learning, and would be keen to help this happen more and better in future. I’ve blogged about at greater length here.
  4. Increase opportunities for Fellows to drive Projects led by the central team – there’s a wealth of talent and experience in the Fellowship, which could be much more directly employed to drive forward RSA Projects. As a starter (and apologies if this is happening already but I haven’t yet seen it) why not invite Fellows to sit on the boards of each Project strand (subject to interview, and matching their skills and expertise with the project of course)?
  5. Set some public, accountable targets for Fellow engagement  – you know the ’50 people are talking about this’ that you see on every Facebook fan page? Well, it’d be great to have something just as open to drive the RSA’s engagement with and between the Fellowship – how many new Fellows do we want, and what are our targets for their involvement?

As you can see, I’m writing for both RSA Fellows and non-Fellows- I’d really welcome comments from both. If you’re a Fellow already, what do you reckon – does this make sense, or am I barking up a set of wrong trees? If you’re not, what do you think about the RSA – would you join?

* My candidate statement’s here – have a look, and if you’re already a Fellow, please vote for me!
To give you an example of the work funded by the Catalyst fund, here’s a project that was part-funded through my old site WeDidThis.org.uk and Catalyst. We need more of this!

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