Monday, September 03, 2007

Mobilizing Donors and Activists in an Overwhelmed World

On Friday, I was on a "Darfur Activist" conference call produced by ENOUGH, the Genocide Intervention Network, STAND and the Save Darfur Coalition. Anyone could call in and hear an update about developments on the ground in Darfur and Congo, and upcoming legislation, events and campaigns.

After the call I started wondering, "How do you activate more people to contribute to the solution of a problem that is so horrific it paralyzes people into inaction?"

In a time when our world's challenges can feel overwhelming, and there are 1.4 million nonprofits in the U.S. offering solutions, not to mention all of the organizations in other countries, plus socially responsible businesses, plus individual activists' campaigns, knowing the best way to take action can feel as overwhelming as the problem.

Given the quantity of organizations, and the enormity of the issues we're faced with today, five qualities are important when designing an action:

1. Make it simple.
2. Make it personal (create a human-to-human connection).
3. Make it social (leverage the impact of the group).
4. Make it creative (ignite their imagination).
5. Make it tangible (participants should feel like they have made a direct impact).

Organizations like Kiva and Dining for Women demonstrate these principles well.

It is relatively simple to make a donation using Kiva. All you have to do is:

1. Create a username and password.
2. Choose an entrepreneur you want to donate to.
3. Make a loan of as little as $25 using your PayPal account.

The photo and story of the entrepreneur help the donor to visualize how their loan will make a difference, and the updates written by the person receiving the loan make the lenders feel like they are having a direct impact. In addition, a lender can see profiles of other people who have made a loan to the same entrepreneur. If you scroll to the bottom of this page on Kiva, you will see the nine people (including me) who made a loan to Beatrices Amoka. Our collective donations were able to fulfill her request for a loan of $500.

It is also simple (and fun) to be a part of a Dining for Women giving circle:

1. Find a circle near you.
2. Bring a dish to share to the monthly dinner.
3. Learn about the organization you will be donating to.
4. Write a check for what you would have paid to go out to dinner, or more.

Planning the event is easy for the organizer as well. Dining for Women chooses the organization that all of the groups will be donating to that month, sends supplementary information to share with the group, and processes all of the donations it receives. At the end of the month, an email is sent out to all of the circles telling them the total amount all of the groups across the country donated. According to Dining for Women's founder, Marsha Wallace, they have 150 chapters that collectively donate about $10,000 each month. (I'll be posting the interview with Marsha later this month).

Many people feel like they can't change issues like the genocide in Darfur, they feel too big. On the other hand, more people are taking small actions to stop global warming, like buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, taking public transportation, and unplugging battery chargers when they aren't in use. Somehow, someone needs to think of a way for people to feel like they are making a difference in Darfur through small, simple actions. The Genocide Intervention Network has a good list of 10 Ways You Can Take Action Today including writing to elected officials, divesting from Sudan, holding an awareness raising event, and creating a video for 24 Hours for Darfur.

But why aren't more people doing these things? Why isn't being anti-genocide as "popular" as being green?

Perhaps if you were able to see each logged phone call or letter about an issue on a representative's site (like MAPLight is doing with campaign contributions) it would hold elected officials more accountable to their constituencies wishes and make people feel like their call was heard. Or perhaps if there was a way for people to directly support a family in Darfur's getting to safety, or to fund an activist's going to negotiate, or do research in a dangerous region, people would feel more engaged in being part of the solution.

With so many pressing issues today, and so many organizations that address these problems, a direct mail appeal letter, or a call to march in the streets, or a request to email your senator may not be enough to gain the attention of people who feel short on time, money, and the power to create change.

Keeping campaigns simple, social, personal, creative and tangible might transform feeling overwhelmed into empowerment.

Photo Credit: Camp by Mark Knobil.


  1. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Re: 24 Hours for Darfur - I just posted on the topic on my blog, and I was shocked to see how little promo they've received, and their deadline (September 16 screening) is fast approaching. I noticed that their youtube video has been DUGG, and that is a great way to get the word out. Here are some links:

  2. Hi Natalie,

    Thanks for pointing me to this. I'm also surprised it hasn't had much publicity--I think it has the potential to be a powerful action. I'd never heard of it until I starting doing research for this post.

  3. Anonymous8:08 AM

    There are now hundreds of giving circles like Dining for Women around the country. As you point out, they're easy to form, provide a constructive social opportunity, and can magnify an individual's donation. For information on forming a giving circle, visit the Giving Circle Knowledge Center at

  4. Anonymous9:03 AM

    @ Britt:

    No probs! I wish I could remember where *I* heard of it, so I could give props on my blog, lol. I wish I could be in NYC when the screening takes place, it should be 'phat'. But, I'll be following it via the web anyway. This project has actually really elevated my understanding of the issues in Darfur.


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