The Illusion of Helping

Recently I vowed to cut off my considerable hair for charity. Thanks tons to the people who have stepped up to help. You guys are awesome! We made 5% of the goal in the first day. Hooray!…? Now we’re at 6% (the widget in the sidebar is bad at math) and it looks like my hair will reach the ground before the target is reached.

Marketing is a big factor, of course, and I have some observations about that below. First I’d like to share some thoughts about the culture of Facebook as it relates to fundraising. In a nutshell, Facebook has created a culture that allows people to feel like they’ve helped out when in fact they’ve done pretty much nothing. I don’t really think this is bad (pretty much nothing is better than nothing), but it exposes a way that Facebook could change the economics of fundraising for the better.

When I set up Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, I went through a site that makes fundraising easier, and that site allows you to automatically pimp out your fundraiser on Facebook. Naturally I used this option.

I don’t have a huge circle on Facebook, but right away people responded. They ‘liked’ the post. They passed on the link. Strangers liked it. With two exceptions (who would have donated anyway), the post-likers and link-passers didn’t donate, yet I’m sure those folks felt like they had helped. “I won’t donate, but if I pass this on, maybe someone else will.”

Of course, calling attention to a cause you think is worthy is a good thing to do. Certainly better than nothing. Alas, in the Facebook universe, it’s only a tiny bit better than nothing. Almost not measurably better than nothing. About a dollar less in value than donating a buck.

I don’t think it’s cheapness that creates these not-so-helpful helpers. If it were as easy to donate a buck as it is to ‘like’ a post, I bet 5% of the likers would make that gesture. As it stands, you have to click a link and fill out a form. If you’re planning on making a large donation, the hassle is pretty insignificant, but it’s a lot to go through when your beneficiary is only going to get a small amount.

If it was as easy to make a small donation as it is to like a post, and there was a “54 people have tossed in a buck” message, with a list of the buck-tossers, fundraising might be fundamentally altered.

In the meantime, when you pass on a link to a cause you believe in, how about starting with “I tossed in five bucks! How ’bout you?” If it’s worth passing on, it’s worth taking a little of your own time to back it up.

I have now promoted my fundraiser in three different ways (the fourth will launch Monday), and I’ve learned a few things.

  1. The most effective marketing method by far has been direct email. Spam makes a little more sense to me now.
  2. Facebook and this blog are terrible marketing tools.
  3. Some folks I thought would have a strong opinion about my aging-hippie look (pro or con) haven’t weighed in. Perhaps I misjudged the Q Score of my Fabio-crushing man-mane.

The next leg of the campaign will be called “Match this, Tim!” The new Apple CEO has announced a pretty generous charity matching program, and I’ll be twisting arms around the office. I don’t think Tim’s going to be able to match my flowing tresses, however.

But seriously, tresses aside, if you haven’t already, pitch in to make a young chemo patient’s life a little less awful. It’s worth doing, and it’s not an illusion.


3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Helping

  1. Great analysis. I hadn’t thought about it, but I think you’re onto something with the donation/effort theory. It seems like a great opportunity for microfinance. What if everybody on facebook had a wallet, and donating a buck was as easy as “liking.” No big form to fill out, no worries about security. Maybe you said that already, I’m just thinking outloud along with you.

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