Affecting articles about poverty, climate change, and epidemics come rolling down our news feeds every day. Some inspire powerful reactions, including a desire to act. But social media tends to limit how we engage with even the most devastating news—we can "Like", 'Share', or 'RT'. Needless to say, the options don't quite channel that will into action.
Two tech-savvy Chicagoans want to make the experience of reading—and then acting—more intuitive, with what they've termed the Do Public Good Button. It's a social widget that connects news stories to a marketplace of charities; it's meant to let readers click, donate, and take action at a potential moment of inspiration. It's part of a suite of services that Public Good Software, a public benefit corporation started by Obama campaign vets Dan Ratner and Jason Kunesh, plan to introduce over the next year with the goal of helping non-profits.
"We come from politics, where there's a rising tide of disengagement because people feel their individual voice can't make a difference," says Ratner. "We wanted to build a system where an individual contribution can make a difference."
Beginning this week, the Do Public Good Button starts an exclusive test run with the Chicago Reader, the city's four-decade-old alt-weekly, and the Chicago Sun-Times, the major daily in an increasingly rare two-newspaper town. Funded in part by a $35,000 Prototype Grant from the Knight Foundation, the button will make its first appearance in a series highlighting the Reader's past public interest journalism pieces. It's a public beta phase meant to test out the right combination of prompts and placement needed to inspire people to engage with the expanding network of 100-plus charities, a lineup initially focused on violence prevention, children's literacy, and environmental issues. So the button may not say 'Do Public Good' but 'Take Action' or 'Help Out'—the beta test aims to hit on the right combo of actionable terms.
Easily embeddable with a single line of code, the Do Public Good Button was designed to be as easy to use as a Facebook 'Like', and to serve as a resource for any interested publishers or bloggers. Once you click, you'll be presented with a list of 501(c)(3) organizations related to the story you just read, selected based on your location and natural language analysis of the article. Readers can then register with Public Good Software, donate $3 or more to an organization and tweet about their donation.
Each transaction will include a 2.9 percent credit card fee, and Public Good Software will eventually charge a 2 percent transaction fee, which they're waiving this year (for comparison, another online donation-accepting service, Blackbaud, charges a 4.9% transaction fee). Later, actions like signing petitions and volunteering will be folded into the system. The goal is to make repeat donations even easier; according to Ratner, using the button a second time requires four clicks from story to donation, even on a mobile device.
We want to reduce friction and make it simple for people to take action in the moment
"The usual suspects, donate and volunteer, are what we've been telling people for decades," says Grant Garrison, the Director of Strategy at GOOD/Corps, the strategy and consulting arm of the media company. "More important than a new verb, you need a new experience."
According to Sarah Collins, the new Director of Digital Growth for the Reader, the publication's reason for using the button isn't traffic; not first and foremost anyway.
"If it helps people engage and read these stories with a more positive attitude, and feel like they can do something about the city, that's huge for us," she says. "We report on real issues, and offering readers a chance to act on that content was really important for us."
The project was inspired when Ratner and Kunesh noticed that the sea change in small-money contributions and engagement they saw in the Obama campaign hadn't quite hit in the non-profit sector. But they believe it's primed to accelerate rapidly.
"The lesson we learned from the campaign was to get technology out of people's way," says Kunesh. "We want to reduce friction and make it simple for people to take action in the moment."
According to The Digital Giving Index released by The Network for Social Good and a report from Blackbaud, online donations jumped 13.5-14 percent in 2013. Garrison says that as online donation technology has evolved into successful crowdfunding sites, the next step is to figure out how to make it more social. In the case of the Do Public Good button, will reading an article be enough to motivate people to act?
"There are literally thousands of crowdfunding sites, and there are only four that have significant organic traffic: Kiva, DonorsChoose.org, GlobalGiving and Kickstarter," he says. "That shows how difficult the task is. Out of thousands, only a few have created a specific audience beyond single projects. I don't think anybody has nailed it."
One recent high-profile attempt at encouraging social giving was Jumo, a social network of charities created by Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder and current publisher and editor-in-chief of The New Republic. When it launched in 2010, it promised to offer users a sleeker way to connect with causes they cared about. But it ended up gathering organizations on a platform that users didn't make a part of their routine, according to Garrison (GOOD later acquired Jumo and merged the technology into the GOOD.is platform).
As we start to move into new models and revenue streams, we have to experiment and learn where the lines are blurry and figure out where the new ethics are going forward
"How do you go where people are and bring them content that translates into action?" says Garrison. "We've tried to make the connect between information and action, and I wouldn't say we've mastered it."
Being decentralized instead of living in a silo could be the Do Good Button's key differentiator. Plenty of other sites, such as TakePart, have combined storytelling and social action. But the button also raises questions about how this kind of engagement may blur lines between journalist, advocate, and activist. Chris Barr, Director of Media Innovation for the Knight Foundation, has asked those questions himself.
"There's a huge danger there, and that's something we're really cognizant of," he says. "The reason we're funding these tests and trials is to figure out how we do this with journalistic independence in mind. As we start to move into new models and revenue streams, we have to experiment and learn where the lines are blurry and figure out where the new ethics are going forward."
Collins says the Reader sees this button strictly as a means of providing information to its readers. Endorsing non-profits isn't appropriate—"it's weird for us to pick winners and losers," she says, and "we can't report accurately on things we're that directly in bed with"—but the idea of connecting reader to a set of tools is different. For one, it's more natural; and second, the choice is left to the reader whether to click or not.
While the button's default setting leaves the choice of organizations up to Public Good Software, the system also allows publishers to manually adjust and pick which organizations show up. Those recommendations, according to Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, as well as the data and taxonomy that support them, will make or break the button.
"There are more than one million nonprofits in the United States," she says. "As soon as users start clicking the button and seeing ten organizations being recommended that aren't relevant or contextually appropriate, that's the second they're going to stop paying attention."
Kunesh doesn't pretend to know the effect of the button on media and online donations. While there's a lot of building before the Do Public Good button creates a cascading network effect, he feels the potential to affect long-form journalism, or change the ways nonprofits work with the media, is there.
"There's so much room for innovation in this space," he says. "I think this'll be a really exciting time to see what works and what doesn't. When people have that spark, when they want to learn and do good, being there and giving them an easy way to do it is important."