Will Causes end up the Yahoo! of web philanthropy?

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?