These days we are inundated with the lure of fundraising on Twitter and Facebook and sites like KIVA.org. A birthday ask on Facebook that raises $5,000. A Twitter campaign that asks for just $10 apiece, suddenly raising $10,000 to help an individual family or a “boy without arms.” Sites like KIVA.org that ask you to lend as little as $25 to a specific small business as a microloan.
I am not suggesting these are not worthy causes. I am, however, suggesting that this is
a) not sustainable (which I will save for another post),
b) scarcity-based vs. strength-based (which I will also save for another post), and
c) counterproductive if we want to create a better future for our communities (today’s rant).
Why Social Media Fundraising is CounterProductive for Our Communities
As I have watched the “raise money fast via Facebook” approach gain traction, and as I have read countless articles about why “nonprofits” (I use the term here because this approach is all about money) should get on the Social Media Fundraising Bandwagon, two stories keep coming to mind – both of which we in community work have heard a zillion times.
The first is the Starfish Story – the one where the boy is on a shoreline surrounded by beached starfish, where he is throwing a starfish at a time back into the sea. When asked what difference his actions can possibly make, given all the other starfish that remain, he replies, “It will make a difference to this one.”
The second is the story of the guy who is driving near a river, when he suddenly sees that the river is teeming with babies, floating along in baskets. There is a swarm of people gathered, pulling those babies out of the river. As he starts to drive away, an indignant baby-saver screams, “Hey, you selfish SOB, we need all the help we can get! Where do you think you’re going?” To which the guy replies, “I’m going up the river, to stop whoever is putting the babies IN the water.”
Pollyanna Principle #6: Individuals will go where systems lead them.
Making a difference for one starfish is not going to create significant change in our communities. If we are continually helping one family, one child, one small business at a time, we are destined to be tossing starfish back into the sea forever.
If, however, we want to ensure starfish are never beached, or babies are not put INTO the river, we can only accomplish that if we create coordinated efforts towards systems change.
The unintended consequences created by the one-at-a-time approach is actually more destructive than just failing to address the real problem. These efforts reinforce the misguided notion that doing any more than that is too overwhelming to tackle.
These efforts tell donors, “You will have the satisfaction of knowing you helped.” And yet a year later, when nothing has changed for all the other millions of families, those donors become disillusioned. More than one such donor has told me of getting to the point where they are thinking, “Geez, I can’t help EVERYONE. This is just getting silly. I was foolish to think any of us can make a difference.”
Yes, by asking for help for “just one poor boy and his family,” we are actually creating the path to frustration, burnout, lack of impact. We are setting up our communities for an even tougher job of creating a culture of philanthropy, as they will now have to also overcome a reinforced Culture of Can’t - the culture that gives the million and one reasons that creating a better world is impossible.
And now we finally get to the point of my rant: While it is tempting to succumb to the “raise one-time money fast” approach that social media fundraising can indeed accomplish, DON’T DO IT.
Instead, aim your work at creating systems that will keep the babies out of the river. Build community-wide (or nationwide or worldwide) systems that will create equity, peace, health, compassion.
And build community-wide infrastructure for supporting that work. Build infrastructure (for example) for convening groups, so they can more easily work together to create positive social systems – systems that not only prevent problems, but that build strength.
The one-at-a-time approach is a scarcity approach. The we-can-accomplish-anything-if-we-work-together approach is a strength-based approach.
More importantly, it is a vision-based approach, not a problem-solving approach. And as we know from the history of community work, problem-solving approaches do not solve problems. (See the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror. See the years of trying to “end homelessness” or end anything bad for that matter)
Individuals go where systems lead them. The only way we will ever eliminate problems once and for all is to replace existing systems with systems that lead where we want our communities to go – systems that aim at creating something positive, rather than ending something negative. With those systems in place, we will indeed solve our problems. But we will solve them along the way to creating the healthy, vibrant, compassionate communities we all want.
It is not impossible to change those systems. It will simply take aiming at the future we DO want to create, and then creating plans to accomplish that.
In Part 2 of this post, I have tackled the scarcity / nonsustainability reasons why Social Media Fundraising is Counterproductive.
For more about The Pollyanna Principles – you can read Part 1 of the book here.