Is Social Crowdsourcing Good for Philanthropy, Anyway?

Jeff Bezos' unprecedented decision to ask the world how he should spend his $85 billion on philanthropic causes directly through a tweet drew a lot of attention and some criticism. But it did present an interesting way to think about how organizations can draw awareness to fundraising needs.

If you were about to become the world’s richest person, how would you handle the inevitable question of how to give away your formidable wealth?

That’s a question Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos was faced with recently—in part, because The New York Times asked him about it. His answer? He sent a tweet.

For someone of his stature and wealth, this is a fairly unprecedented approach. Even in an era when even the president goes for off-the-cuff more often than not, Bezos’ move to crowdsource his largesse was just a bit surprising.

Admittedly, he had to say something, probably—not necessarily over Twitter, but somewhere.

Generally, this kind of crowdsourced approach to giving comes not from the top, but the bottom.

His personal wealth has risen two and a half times over since 2015 alone, to $85 billion. (It got a boost last week after Amazon announced it would buy Whole Foods, which is likely to be the blockbuster deal of the entire year.) To give you an idea of how fast his personal wealth is growing: Back in March, he was worth $73 billion, according to a Business Insider tally of the world’s richest people. Twelve billion in three months? Nice gig if you can get it.

As a result of Amazon’s surging stock price, he’s very close to topping Bill Gates and becoming the world’s richest person. It could potentially happen any day.

Bezos’ call for requests, in many ways, reflects the shifting nature of philanthropy. It drew some critics: Forbes contributor Jake Hayman questioned both Bezos’ desire to focus on short-term benefits and his move to reach out for answers on social media. It also drew attention to Bezos’ prior reputation in philanthropic circles as a bit of a no-show.

But it also brought in people who might not otherwise engage with Bezos, like Madonna, who saw an opportunity to help her hometown of Detroit:

At a time when social media is treated as something that demands kid gloves from the C-suite, Bezos tweeting out a simple desire to receive ideas from the public feels like new territory on this scale.

Generally, this kind of crowdsourced approach to giving comes not from the top, but the bottom, through sites like GoFundMe and endeavors like #GivingTuesday. But there are some examples of big-money philanthropy being driven by a crowdsourcing approach like this. The Skoll Foundation, launched by eBay cofounder Jeffrey Skoll, has experimented with this approach in the past, teaming with The Huffington Post and CrowdRise on multiple occasions.

But the man in charge of another of Skoll’s philanthropic efforts, Larry Brilliant of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, in an interview with the Times, had words of warning on Bezos’ approach.

“The denominator of ideas you will get in, the vast majority of ideas which are not good, not viable, will flood this process,” Brilliant said.

So the jury’s still out on whether crowdsourcing in a public forum beats, say, an RFP … at least in the case of guy looking for donations.

About Those Ideas …

But enough about Bezos. One thing that I also found fascinating about the responses to his tweet is that there were many folks ready for him.

In a manner that I can only really compare to the way that Donald Trump’s Twitter feed fills up thanks to individuals who are savvy about how to get their tweets to show up at the top of the response feeds, nonprofit organizations were quick to the trigger with comments.

For example, EveryLibrary, an advocacy group targeted at literacy and library-related issues in communities throughout the country, had full graphics ready to share.

Mark Horvath, the founder of Invisible People, an organization focused on telling the stories of homeless adults, used his tweets to Bezos to raise interest in the mission of ending homelessness.

Human Rights Watch, which focuses on human rights issues along with the need to investigate them, invited Bezos on a field mission to check out the refugee crisis firsthand.

And the Wildlife Conservation Society suggested, fittingly, that Bezos use some of the money he made from Amazon to help out the Amazon.

Here’s the interesting thing about this strategy, and I think what might be the most interesting takeaway here specifically for nonprofits: Social media, as a messaging tool, can be great for making introductions—but only if you’re ready to make yourself heard or to speak up.

The odds that someone like Bezos is going to randomly hop onto Twitter and ask the public how he should spend his money? That’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing. He can’t ask this question again—at least not in this way.

You know what isn’t once in a lifetime? Opportunities to spread your message to the public at large. The Bezos philanthropy story drew a ton of attention Thursday, and it drew even more the next day when Amazon revealed it was purchasing Whole Foods.

Bezos may or may not call these organizations back. He has more than 39,000 responses to this tweet, so he has a lot to sort through. But social media users are going to learn about these organizations—some well-known, others relatively obscure—through this tweet, and they might just donate a few bucks themselves.

You certainly won’t get that from an RFP. And opportunities like this are everywhere on social media if you’re ready to respond.

But your marketing team has to be ready to pounce on an opportunity like this in a matter of minutes, not days. That’s not easy—but the exposure potential can be genuinely huge.

Maybe not Bezos huge, but it’s not every day someone is on the cusp of becoming the world’s richest person for the first time.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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