What I’ll Be Sharing With the Audience at SXSW

This Saturday, March 12, I’ll be moderating a panel discussion at SXSW, the Austin-based conference for technology folks and digerati. Joining me will be a super-sharp panel of smart thinkers and accomplished social change campaigners: George Weiner from DoSomething.org, Patty Huber from Groupon, Laura Cochran from Gannett, and Tom Dawkins from HopeLab and Start Some Good.

Our topic is about online engagement for social good, and because so many of the organizations and companies we work with are focused on doing just that, I thought I’d share some of my notes for the panel.

When I joined VolunteerMatch as a communications officer in 2006 it was after a decade working with various nonprofits and business to affect social change.

I was most interested in making a difference with organizations where my work would have a multiplier effect. That is, I didn’t just want to heal the sick, protect the environment, or house the homeless – I wanted to do all those things.

Which meant, for me, being part of a team building a platform for the entire nonprofit sector.

Today VolunteerMatch is the Web’s most popular volunteer network, and our technology enables millions of people each year to get connected with your work and be part of the change you’re helping to create.

A Burgeoning Set of Options

Back in 2006 there were few real direct competitors to VolunteerMatch and much less innovation in terms of Web tools for social change. Facebook and Twitter were little used by organizations. Causes and Change.org were still a year or two away. Most nonprofits had web sites built on very basic web strategies, and they were served by early leaders like Care2 (petitions and leads), Network for Good (donations), Idealist (job postings), and VolunteerMatch (volunteer recruitment).

The times have changed. This week I’m heading to Austin, Texas, to moderate a panel on engagement for social good that is just one of dozens related to the work of changing the world through technology. And of course it won’t just be nonprofit types in the audiences and on the stage. For-profits, start-ups, and established brands are all interested in being part of the solution for our problems. Back in 2006, there were no B Corps and the concept of social enterprise was relatively unknown. Not anymore.

Social Change & the Engagement Ladder

And so for producers, strategists, marketers, and nonprofits, it’s a golden era. Not only have we reached an entrepreneurial tipping point, there’s also been an explosion in tools and services to help innovators engaged new audiences.

At VolunteerMatch we help 40 or 50 new partners each year configure their volunteer engagement campaigns to be as effective as possible.

We work with companies that want to engage employees. We work with brands that want to engage consumers. We work with nonprofits that want to engage supporters in volunteer work — hopefully to one day have their support as donors. We also work with media companies, agencies, and dozens of unstructured start-up concepts.

They all have audiences and they all believe that they can inspire their audiences in campaigns for social good. The hard part is finding the right mix of engaging content, impactful actions, frequency of touch, and social sharing options.

In sum: it’s complicated — frankly, I’m in do-good tech field and even I get confused around all the choices I can make as a digital producer. For example, just a few of the categories of online social actions include:

  • Crowdsourced fundraising
  • Microphilanthropy
  • Traditional giving
  • Microvolunteering
  • Traditional volunteer search
  • “Slacktivist” activities such as Liking, Sharing, Following, or “Caring”
  • Online Storytelling
  • Online Mentoring
  • Online Petitioning

Together these are all tools of online engagement designed to make an offline difference. And theory is that each action can be a rung in a ladder of engagement that strengthens and solidified a person’s relationship with a cause.

But does the ladder of engagement, which seeks to move folks in an orderly fashion from bystanders to committed movement leaders, still make sense in a crowd-sourced, free-agent, sharing-enabled, microvolunteering world? Not only are the rungs becoming blurry, it may be that “ladder” is the wrong metaphor completely. (Christine Egger wonders if it’s really more of a spiral!)

Stories of Success (and Otherwise)

And so in Austin I’ll spend 90 minutes talking with experts and entrepreneurs about their experiences with campaigns to inspire social good. At SXSW I’ll be leading the panelists in three areas of conversation:

  • What’s working and what are some of the myths when it comes to engaging various audiences in social good.
  • In which circumstances does the engagement ladder model not really apply? If not a ladder, what’s the right metaphor?
  • How can for-profits, in particular, balance the needs of business with the goals of their social impact campaigns.

It should be interesting. If you care about social change, I hope to see you there!