Turning Good Intentions into Action: Hollywood vs Google

How New Media has Changed the Landscape of Volunteer Engagement

Thursday night was a big night for the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s iParticipateiParticipate_network_thumb_2 campaign. With unprecedented support from the industry, volunteering themes were written into some of America’s favorite prime-time shows.

It is an extraordinary example of what amounts to product placement for the greater good, so why isn’t it working?

This is a difficult and awkward conversation to have in a nonprofit world which often measures success by an organization’s appearances, not its impact. Nonprofits tend to operate in a place a bit like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon where all the organizations are  above average – particularly if you ask them.

iParticipate is new to Lake Wobegon, but it should come as no surprise that they too have quickly established themselves as an above average neighbor. In many ways they deserve that reputation.

If five years ago someone promised to organize a project that would write volunteering into the storylines of major TV shows, most would have considered it a well intentioned but impractical endeavor.

Last night the impractical became the possible as script writers put their spin on a changing social landscape.

Participating shows included:

Private Practice ABC – The practice brings their experts to a teen shelter to provide free check-ups for all the homeless teenagers.

30 Rock NBC – Kenneth volunteers at an animal shelter. He was never allowed to have a pet growing up so he decides to adopt all of the dogs.

Parks & Recreation NBC – The Parks team volunteers with Kaboom! to refurbish a playground.

The Office NBC – The group discusses volunteering.

This new reality is a reflection of how much the world has changed and how conversations about making a bundle have thankfully given way to conversations about making a difference.

But despite the best of intentions and millions of dollars worth of promotion and PSAs yesterday’s star-studded TV event didn’t work as planned.

How do we know? Well we’ve been waiting and preparing for what was promised by organizers from Entertainment Industry Foundation and Service Nation to be a massive spike in volunteering activity flowing from the campaign’s online home iParticipte.org. The plan was to use the unique star power of Hollywood to convince viewers of the importance of volunteering and drive millions of people to the new website iParticipate.org where they could find thousands of local volunteer opportunities pulled from sites like VolunteerSolutions, Craiglist, 1-800-Volunteer.org, Idealist and VolunteerMatch.

But the wave of new energy and excitement didn’t quite make it to shore.
Last night VolunteerMatch received a total of 874 new visits as a result of the campaign or what will likely translate into between 15 to 20 new volunteers.

Many will say as a nonprofit we ought to be grateful for whatever new volunteers we can find or explain away the results as just another example of how hard it is to convince people to volunteer, but we see it differently.

Part of the reason we do is that yesterday was an otherwise busy day at VolunteerMatch. As is pretty typical of a Thursday, we had a total of 33,250 visits, which if you are doing the math, means that about 98% of visits came from someplace other than the TV. Really? So where are they coming from?

The answer of course is Google and the long-tail of the internet. That is how much the word has changed, but not everyone is ready to believe it.

Without promotion or convincing or celebrity appeals, 14,376 people were on Google yesterday looking for volunteer opportunities and found VolunteerMatch. You might say, sure, but how many of them went to Google because they saw the campaign on TV? That’s tough to know exactly, but last Thursday we had 13,787 visits from Google.

That means that without any expensive PSAs, or TV production, or powerful sponsors, or celebrities, or any real extra effort at all, Google out performed Hollywood on Thursday 16 to 1.

That’s the world we live in. So what’s the lesson here? Should celebrities stop talking about volunteering? Is Google taking over the world?

No I don’t think so. I think the real lesson here is simple. The world has changed, and we need to catch up. New media, not old, is the future of volunteer engagement and if TV campaigns aren’t the secret-sauce of expanding volunteer engagement, let’s spend some time together looking at the facts to figure out what is.

But to do that we’ll need to move out of Lake Wobegon first — preferably to a place with lots of web engineers and where everybody has an above average appreciation of measurement and impact.

See you there.