Posts Tagged 'Social Causes'

Institutionalizing the (Social) Enterprise

Unintentionally-ironic paper dolls borrowed from the consultants at Akashi.us

I’ll be honest: the idea of social enterprise has always intrigued but perplexed me.  On paper, of course, it sounds great.  We’ll apply the principles of entrepreneurship to solve social problems; we’ll be far more efficient than governments or NGOs and maybe we’ll make some money in the process.  It’s an idea that gives a whole throng of bright, young, business-savvy but corporate-skeptical people a reason to rally.

But there are at least two problems that have kept me lingering on the wary rim of the social enterprise punch bowl.  The first is a logistics issue: it just doesn’t seem like altruistic capitalism is at all scalable, and it’s hard to find an example that proves me wrong.  The second is more of a meta-cynicism problem: even for a guy like me who relishes in contradictions, altruistic capitalism is a big oxymoron to get over.  The firmly acculturated bulkhead that stands between the social roles of charities and corporations marks any attempt at a mashup with a distinct smell of skepticism.

Two discoveries this week have me rethinking this response.  Specifically, I’m learning to live with the first problem and am excited to see someone working on the second… in the mucky thick of tax law, no less.  Grant tipped me off to an interesting development: over the last few years, states like Vermont and Montana have been quietly introducing legislation that defines a new type of tax status for business: the Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporation, or L3C.  This is a purely tactical play that makes it easier for foundations to legally invest (with hopes of a small return) in social causes instead of just donating.  But it’s also a soft step toward institutionalizing the idea of a corporation driven by more than market cap.  An official marker that legitimates an idea which has previously had so much trouble fitting into oppositional categories.  A badge for the metabrand.

I’m still skeptical about scalability.  But case studies like the White Dog Cafe have me toying with the hope that scale can happen at the systemic level if not the organizational level; that the long tail decorporatization that works so well on the internet can spill over into the world of brick, mortar, and better paychecks.  Here’s to hoping.

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Research Questions for the Social Media Revolutionist

Moldova protest image from NYTimes.com

Meme of the moment: the microblog-fueled social change movement.  In the last fortnight alone, activist organizers around the world have used 140-character-or-less messages to bring together anti-government riots in Moldova and anti-Amazon.com tirades in cyberspace.  Fans have rallied behind actor Ashton Kutcher’s noble quest to become the most followed in the Twitterverse.  And around the nation, conservatives painfully unaware of the pop-culture meaning of ‘teabag’ have come together to, well, teabag.

This is by no means a new phenomenon.  Notable recent cases include the organizing and then reporting of unrest in Myanmar,  SMS-fueled demonstrations in China and the grassroots instigation of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Center protests.  Indeed, with a broader view, one could likely argue that short messages passed among social networks have been driving change for centuries if not millenia (I’ll leave that one to the historians).

But the microblog movements of the past two weeks at least represent a new chapter in this story, and may well be canonizing new rules.  They deserve to be studied in earnest.  I already have enough on my academic plate, so here are a few open research questions to get somebody else started:

First off, how is rallying behind a Hollywood star and his mundane messages different from banding together to attempt government overthrow?  It’s a fair question.  How does the decision making process work at the individual level and en mass — can you map the networks from influencers to influenced?  Is there an Oprah of the Moldovan movement, or is it more decentralized?  Do the individual actors on the ground have a more coherent idea of what they’re doing and why?

Secondly, what’s different about movements that spill into widespread ‘real-world’ action as opposed to protests which play out primarily in digital space?  Do they last longer?  Do they involve more people?  Did the action in Moldova share more similarities with the teabaggers in the US than with #Amazonfail and Ashton’s publicity coup?

And ultimately, what does decentralization and time compression mean for the future of political philosophy?  Are we really dissolving into a world of one-off stunts disconnected from justifying ideologies, or was there just as much evidence of flippance in the first tea party in 1773?

Is this really so revolutionary?


Everyone and a Roof: the Audacity of Imperfect Realism

EDAR featured on CNN

Last week, a co-worker tipped me off to the EDAR (‘Everyone Deserves a Roof’) — a mobile, multi-function shelter for the homeless.  It folds into a shopping-cart-like structure that can be used for mobile recycling (a major income source), and it deploys into a tent-like raised bed in less than a minute.  It costs under $500 to make, a pittance compared to the cost of building and maintaining shelters, and it appeals to many people who are wary of or unable to enter those shelters in the first place.  Its unique function and unlikely story have caught the attention of several news outlets, including video features put together by CNN, ABC, and the LA Times.

Domestic homelessness and is a huge, abstract problem that has at least one major difference from other huge abstract problems, like climate change or terror: if you live in any remotely urban part of the world, you literally and personally encounter its face almost every day.  It is possibly the only great social problem that is, in some capacity, not solely mediated for majority of the general population.

And yet, humanizing the homeless is hardly a daily occurrence.  Consciously acknowledging the deeply complex problems that exacerbate their plight is even more rare.  Something seems oddly novel about seeing homeless people interviewed on TV; hearing EDAR founder and movie producer Peter Samuelson chat with them like any other co-worker; watching the word ‘homeless’ appear under their names in the super with the same implied legitimacy of a public official or an eyewitness.  The problem suddenly becomes, if just for a moment, more difficult to drive past with a rolled-up window; less easy to brush off with callous feelings of superiority and uninformed allegations of what is and isn’t deserved.

The EDAR is, at best, a band-aid.  It doesn’t address the root problems of homelessness, it raises all kinds of legal and policy issues, it’s exploitable, and it’s far from a best-case scenario for fully integrated social services.  But it’s a bold, unabashed and intensely practical solution that completely bypasses circular discourse and challenges complacency.  It does something, today.

It’s a lesson for all of us interested in big, abstract problems.

Back in Style (the Problem with Problems)

Apparently, acid rain is back.  Under the headline ‘Eco-problems of the 80s return to haunt us,’ New Scientist details the rebound of acidity levels in UK streams after decades of decline.  What was once considered a capstone victory of the second-wave environmentalists was not, it seems, made to last.

As a recent resident of neighborhoods such as Seattle’s Capitol Hill, London’s Shoreditch, and LA’s Echo Park, I can attest first-hand to the fact that pH levels aren’t the only unwelcome resurrection from the decade before last… tight pants and neon are a full part of the package too.

They share more than historical heritage.  Causes, not unlike fashions, are fundamentally built on a fixed timeline.  They’re fueled as much by the object as the action — and the objects are constantly in flux, competing for attention, trading for time in the spotlight.

The fallacy of a problem solved is at the heart of why cause marketing isn’t a viable tactic for changing lifestyles: you only end up reaching the people who have already built their lifestyles around a cause.

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

Mutual Benefit

Interesting report released last week by GEMI and the Environmental Defense Fund on partnerships between NGOs and corporations.  The series of compelling case studies (pdf) are constructed in the form of a start-to-finish best practices guide for conducting such complex deals.  The word ‘brand’ is dropped 18 times, almost exclusively as a brief bullet point claiming that each partnship “enhanced brand awareness” or “enhanced brand image” for the corporate partner.

Less obvious is explicit advice on considering brand values before entering such partnerships in the first place.  Kodak’s partnership with The Nature Conservancy to empower citizen photojournalism of environmental and social wrongdoing in China (while picking up some valuable emerging-market consumer research) is a great example of getting it right.  The Southern Company’s electric utility partnership with a wildlife conservation effort (rather than an alternative power scheme) seems a bit more questionable.

Despite continued confusion and debate inside many boardrooms about how publicity and responsiblity intersect, it’s at least good to know that many are trying. (via GreenBiz)

© Ryan Cunningham 2008

DIY Brand Partnerships for the Socially Conscious Consumer

SocialVibe Screenshot

SocialVibe Screenshot

SocialVibe is offering an interesting model to users of social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook, and the long tail).

You pick a nonprofit organization from a predetermined list, and then pick a sponsor brand from another predetermined list.  They drop a big app into your profile of choice, which prominently features a 300×250 ad for the sponsor brand and gives you a chance to say that you’re partnering with PowerBar or Adobe or Colgate to save whales or pandas or cancer patients.

Presumably, it’s a CPM-based ad revenue sharing scheme that powers the thing; PowerBar is likely paying a premium to SocialVibe and a fraction of that is getting cut back to the Whaleman Foundation based on how many units are served.

At first glance, this is a no-brainer for everyone: brands get great, eye-popping ad units that users actually WANT on their pages–a fundamental shift in the traditional ethos of online media that encourages users to select their favorite brand ‘artwork’ instead of shutting out their most aggravating interruptions.  Users, meanwhile, get one more nifty badge to illustrate their identities with both social causes and brand affiliations they care about.  And, theoretically, good causes actually get some revenue.

Underneath the obvious, though, there are a lot of questions–success will very much hang in the subtext for this one.  What happens when you let end users play brand strategist and orchestrate partnerships for you?  Will the power of choice build a more authentic relationship and valuable data, or will a cacophony of unstrategic combination lead to awkward and inconsistent partnerships that ultimately dilute both brands and causes?  Will users really embrace the move as genuine, or will they see through the marketing ploy and sniff out the low levels of revenue actually going to organizations at the end of the day?

This one should be interesting to watch…

© Ryan Cunningham 2008


thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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