Will Causes end up the Yahoo! of web philanthropy?

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Causes.com was one of the more exciting things to happen in the online philanthropic space when it launched in 2007. Here was a charitable platform that offered something truly unique at the time – deep integration with Facebook – just as the social network’s user growth started to chart skyward. Moreover, Causes founders Joe Green and Sean Parker had close ties with the early Facebook team, giving them a strong connection that any startup would envy.

Early advantage doesn’t sustain

But these things do not a successful startup make. Causes did accomplish some amazing numbers – over 170 million people have used Causes at some point, and they’ve raised over $40 million for charity. Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at. But where is Causes headed form here? Take a look at their monthly active users since September 2009, and the answer isn’t pretty:

A massive user base, impressive numbers, but users headed out the door. Remind you of anyone? How about Yahoo!? There’s more than one similarity that the two platforms share:

  • Identify crisis – like the purple web giant, Causes doesn’t seem to be sure of what it wants to be. Is it a site for non-profits to raise money? A platform for individuals to raise awareness? A better way to share your philanthropic activity with your friends? A campaign tool for corporations and non-profits to deliver messaging? It’s tried all of these things. It does some of them well, but none of them better than anyone else.
  • Scattered content strategy – Yahoo! was all over the board here, publishing content from its partners, producing material itself, and even allowing its users to generate and share content. Causes isn’t much different. Thoughtful, well-produced campaigns lie right alongside spammy calls to “Abolish the Band Nickelback”. And that material is mashed together with features that Causes develops itself, often with corporate messaging involved as well. The result is a confusing mix with highly diverging styles, purpose, and quality.
  • A “big but cheap” user base – nearly 300 million people are active users of Yahoo!’s services. That’s an asset nearly any web company would kill to have. But what are those users worth to Yahoo!? Are they actively engaging in (or even paying for) a product? Or are they just inactive names in a database? It’s not clear if is a long-term asset for Yahoo!, or just a number. With 170 million users of its own, but declining usage over the past couple years, Causes should question the value of its own user base.
  • Poor UI – do you remember what websites looked like ten years ago? No? Just go to yahoo.com and you’ll see. Causes.com’s UI suffered a different fate – not of being outdated, but of just being plain awkward. It felt like each part of the site was designed by a individuals working in nearly complete isolation from each other, only to come together at the last minute to make things consistent.
Is there light ahead?

Fortunately, Causes is midway through a makeover. The platform has some great things going for it, and it would be fantastic to see it take off again. How are they doing?

Good – The user experience is far more streamlined – each page now feels like it’s a part of the same app. And all of the site itself, (except for payment processing), is now hosted externally from Facebook. Earlier versions of Causes were just Facebook apps veiled as websites, and they gave you this uneasy feeling of not knowing where you were on the web. The new standalone site feels much more solid.

Caution – The whole issue about hosting/publishing/creating content still exists. Causes still needs some streamlining here. And since there are still about a dozen “causes” related to abolishing Nickelback, there hasn’t been done much about elevating the level of quality, either.

Warning – The site still suffers from an identity crisis. Until Causes can focus on doing one thing better than anyone else, I don’t believe users are going to stick around. Who is the site really made for, and for what purpose? I don’t feel like I can answer this question well, and that doesn’t bode well for any web product.

Causes will definitely be worth watching this year. This should’t be the last of its improvements. But there is no shortage of other cause-based startups who’d like to bite off a large chuck of its users for good. Stick around, there’s plenty more to come.

What do you think – will Causes turn into a the Yahoo! of philanthropy, or can it turn itself around?

A platform for social business

Me on a visit with one of our partners at Sojo Studios.
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I wrote the post below this week for my friends at Design Impact, a wonderful non-profit in Cincinnati that uses design thinking to tackle poverty around the world. The original post can be found here.

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“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” says Simon Sinek, visionary thinker and speaker. In other words – being genuine matters. This isn’t true just for people; it also applies to businesses. And consumers are increasingly demanding that businesses to take “genuine to a whole new level – by actively creating positive social change in the world. But accomplishing that isn’t something corporations can do alone; they need strong non-profit partners who can help them turn good intentions into meaningful outcomes.

According to Havas Media, “nearly 85% of consumers worldwide expect companies to become actively involved in solving [global] issues.” Not only that, but 44% of consumers are willing to “punish” a company for acting socially irresponsibly. Furthermore, a separate study done by Cone Communications, with Duke University, found that “79% [of consumers] say they would be likely to switch from one brand to another, when price and quality are about equal, if the other brand is associated with a good cause.” It couldn’t be clearer: businesses can no longer get by with only making a good product. Instead, they have to be able to say, “Because our business exists, the world is a better place.”

Me on a visit with one of our partners at Sojo Studios.

While it’s a nice idea, how many corporations can actually make this claim?  Havas also notes that “only 28% of consumers worldwide think that companies today are working hard enough to solve our social and environmental challenges,” and that “20% trust companies when they communicate about their social/environmental commitments and initiatives.” Ouch.

Why such a discrepancy?  Sure, you can shop at Starbucks and support the fight against AIDS and malaria through The Global Fund. Whole Foods will support causes like the animal shelter when you use your own grocery bags. But these are one-offs, not the standard.

Would more be done if businesses were simply better educated on social issues? I don’t think so. Obviously, businesses don’t have much expertise on the subject. But they shouldn’t have to. Pursuing such knowledge wouldn’t allow them to focus on what they do best – building quality products. Instead, businesses should turn to the expertise that already exists, by partnering with proven non-profits that match their brand. By finding a non-profit whose mission is aligned with the values and attitudes of its customers, a forward-thinking business certainly take advantage of the consumer preferences that Cone noted. The non-profit would benefit, too, of course, though increased exposure and likely some meaningful financial support.

Work on the Erikoodu Briquette being conducted by Kaleidoscope.

Here’s a great example: Design Impact has partnered with Kaleidoscope, a product design-firm based in Cincinnati. The partnership is really meaningful, because it goes deeper than surface level. Sure, Kaleidoscope has provided Design Impact with resources such as office space, staff time, and even financial backing. But beyond that, the two organizations also share something more meaningful: they both use a design-oriented approach to come up with products, ideas, and processes that meet the needs of their customers. Kaleidoscope does so with consumer goods; Design Impact with eradicating poverty. Because the two organizations have so much in common, the partnership is one that all their stakeholders can get behind.

Partnerships like these are definitely steps in the right direction, and encouraging for any organization looking to pursue something similar. Unfortunately, though, such arrangements are still uncommon. Regulatory filings, legal contracts, paperwork, and generally not knowing where to start can keep plenty of organizations from ever moving forward. We learned this first-hand at Sojo Studios (my own place of employment), where we had to devote considerable resources to creating partnerships and navigating the associated regulatory landscape. Had non-profit partnerships not been critical to our business model, it’s unlikely that we would ever have found the time and resources to make them happen.

Sojo Studios website, featuring Wetopia.

Without a streamlined way for a for-profit and a non-profit to find each other, that statistic about 28% of companies not doing enough isn’t going to change much. What we really need is an “eHarmony” for cause marketing. Something open, flexible, transparent, and large-scale. This doesn’t exist yet, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t. With an obvious desire from consumers to see the companies they patronize “do good” in the world, and high barriers to entry for-profit/non-profit partnerships, the world is ripe for a better solution. Groupon built one for daily deals, Amazon and eBay did it with retail, and Kickstarter make it happen with crowdsourcing. Why not something for corporate social good? Keep your eyes peeled; something is bound to develop soon.

In the meantime, speak your mind about whether or not the businesses you patronize are doing enough to create positive change. And lastly, share your thoughts: are for-profit/non-profit partnership the best way for corporations to create social good? What needs to happen in order for them to more easily occur?