Stuffed Unicorns

The latest “Giving Carnival” question is being organized this month by Peter Deitz, the brains behind Social Actions.

Peter’s question: “Is person-to-person fundraising dead, or just getting started???”

I’ll give my brief answer. Person-to-person fundraising is either dead or slowly dying, but that could be good news. Let me explain.

We’ve all probably had some experience with person-to-person fundraising — me, I sold Girl Scout Cookies. Now, I wasn’t selling Girl Scout cookies because I deeply cared about raising money for the organization or because I was interested in sharing the story of the Girl Scouts with those whose doorbells I rang. I was in it for the badges and stuffed unicorns that I could win by selling the most boxes of cookies. Person-to-person fundraising has reached a point, I think, at which there is such commodification of an organization’s story that there is little meaning left in the actual transaction…just stuffed unicorns.

Person-to-person action, however, is a different story — and I think that’s where there is tremendous potential. Take, for instance, what’s happening on PledgeBank. Individuals create a pledge to do “something,” but must make asks of their social network (friends, family, co-workers, etc.) in order to make that “something” happen. Rather than operating via a “transactional” outlook, it’s actually necessary to tell the story of why this “something” is important. There are few drive-by fundraisers on the site — you have to interact with folks and let them know why they should sign up to this social contract with you in order to meet your pledge’s target number of signers.

Similarly, I recently chatted with David Stoker, who’s working with Ashoka’s Citizen Base Initiative. They’re addressing the problem of superficial interactions by encouraging organizations to rally a fan base of individuals who support them…much like a sports team. The analogy is lost when you start imagining people painting their faces on behalf of the Red Cross, but the idea of organizations looking to their network for more than just a donation is certainly compelling.

Don’t get me wrong — I still buy and love Girl Scout cookies. But if I had to place bets on where the future of online organizing lies, it’s on peer-to-peer action that requires interaction, that illuminates an individual’s values, and that is part of a meaningful narrative arc. Thin Mint, anyone?