One of the reasons cause branding campaigns work so well is because it allows consumers to make doing good part of their regular routine. Someone can buy a cup of coffee and feel a sense of purpose without having to do any extra leg work. This ease of giving is magnified by Social Actions, a website that has aggregated literally thousands of charitable organizations and programs to connect users with causes, groups, and volunteer activities. Through a sophisticated database, users can access a multitude of resources designed to link them with opportunities for taking action without having to labor over research to find the right charity or how to get involved. Harnessing the power of social media and open source technology, Founder, Peter Deitz has made taking social actions as simple and targeted as a Google search with results as far-reaching as your desire to change the world.
Why did you decide to create Social Actions?
I started writing about micro-philanthropy platforms back in 2006 and quickly realized there was no unifying space to the sector – no single resource for learning more about the platforms and all of the opportunities to take action that they offer. Around June 2007, I built the first prototype of a system that aggregates microphilanthropic opportunities from sites like Firstgiving, SixDegrees.org, GlobalGiving and others into a single dataset. That initiative has evolved into today’s Social Actions search engine and open API. We’re currently aggregating 60,000+ donation and service opportunities from 40+ social action platforms and expect those numbers to climb exponentially over the next year. The entire dataset is available for third-party websites and developers to embed in their content, resyndicate, and otherwise mash-up.
Tell us a little more about how the service works.
The Social Actions search engine is a Google-style search engine for finding opportunities to make a difference. Users can search by keyword, platform, type of action (donating or volunteering, for example), and how recently the action was created. We also encourage nonprofits, companies, and third-party developers to create online tools that help people embed those actions on other websites, blogs, social networks, and mobile devices. In addition, Social Actions maintains a Ning-powered social network called My Social Actions, and offers one-on-one social media consulting for nonprofits, foundations, and companies that are seeking expert advice in engaging people to take action on the causes they care about.
What has been the response so far? Where are you seeing the greatest activity on the site?
Our search engine receives about 1,200 unique searches per month. The Social Actions API is embedding actions on Twitter and through a WordPress plugin called Related Ways to Take Action. The cause-oriented Twitter accounts and the WordPress plugin have been our most popular web applications to date. My Social Actions and our social media consulting pages services just relaunched in January 2009. So far, all signs suggest that they will become integral to the long term success and sustainability of Social Actions.
How do you involve the non-profit organizations directly?
We work primarily with social action platforms whose mission is to work directly with nonprofits. Sites like Idealist.org, Change.org, and VolunteerMatch make it really easy for nonprofits to list their opportunities for individuals to get involved. We work with those platforms and others to bring the entire nonprofit sector together. This model allows us to reach literally thousands of nonprofits without creating individual relationships with each and every one.
What measures do you have in place or due diligence do you undergo when vetting action sources to include on the site?
We are tracking roughly 140 websites that facilitate online action. As new action sources launch, we add them to our list of groups to contact. In some cases, they contact us first. As long as a website is facilitating online action with a social impact, we welcome them into the Social Actions API. We try to make it clear that each action source has its own vetting process and filtering mechanism for the types of actions they facilitate. In some cases, the vetting is almost non-existent, as in our use of Delicious. In other cases, the vetting is extremely rigorous, as in the case of Global Giving, DonorsChoose.org, and Kiva.
What impact have you been able to make on the causes and organizations you support so far?
At some point in the second half of 2009, we plan to implement a matrix for evaluating our impact on the nonprofit sector. In the meantime, we are very much in nonprofit start-up mode and haven’t had a chance to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. One impact is certain: We have succeeded in drawing attention to the sector (or movement) that is emerging around taking action online. We are encouraging our partners to collaborate with one another and to develop as a group an open XML format (called Open Actions) for publishing and syndicating rich information about the actions they facilitate.
What trends have you been observing in the cause market?
This question deserves a blog entry (or a book) of its own. We see that crowdsourcing and micro-blogging are dramatically changing the way agile and tech-savvy nonprofits get things done, and report on their progress. Overtime, this transformation will likely spill over to larger organizations with more traditional communications and programmatic work.
Do you think consumers prefer to give directly through a service like Social Actions over purchasing cause branded products? What do you think are the strengths of each concept? Where do you think they overlap?
Direct donations and embedded philanthropy are two sides of the same coin. It’s not an either / or. Depending on the circumstances and the task, individuals will be just as inclined to purchase a cause branded product as to make a donation for a worthwhile cause. Just to clarify, Social Actions does not process any donations. We simply refer people to the specific opportunities listed on our 40+ partners. At some point, we may include cause branded products in the open database of opportunities to make a difference.
How are you employing social media to spread the word about Social Actions and spark social change?
By far, our most active social media program is our Ning-powered social network, called My Social Actions. My Social Actions has nearly 1,000 members. Social Actions also has an active presence on Twitter and Facebook. At some point, the Social Actions API will power all kinds of innovative web applications that embed opportunities to make a difference using social media.
Tell us a little more about your “Change the Web Challenge” and what tools and innovations have resulted from it.
The Change the Web Challenge is a competition that will reward developers for creating innovative web applications that help people find and share actions from our open database. We are looking for iPhone applications, Facebook applications, WordPress plugins and other social media mashups that will result in people finding the opportunities to take action on the websites they already visit. The deadline for submissions is April 3, 2009. Please see http://www.socialactions.com/changetheweb for more information and links to the current entries.
Do you partner with any for-profit companies who want to make your services available for employees or customers?
We have talked about the possibility of working with firms that provide intranet solutions to companies. Our open API could be embedded in corporate intranets to help people find opportunities to donate and volunteer. These conversations have been mostly limited to the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” The nice thing about the Social Actions API is that it’s free to make use of. We would welcome any innovative uses of our API that result in people finding opportunities to serve or donate from their workplace.
How do you think Social Actions could fit into a company’s CSR plan or cause marketing activities?
We would be happy to provide expert social media consulting to any company interested in using the Social Actions dataset of 60,000+ actions to complement their existing CSR programs.
What do you think is the most critical element in an effective cause marketing campaign?
Do something original.
How would you advise a company who wants to implement a CSR or cause-focused strategy?
We recommend that any company seeking to develop a CSR or cause-focused strategy start by floating the question to their customers, “What are your suggestions for how our company can make a difference in the causes you care about and the communities you belong to?” It’s a surprisingly difficult question to ask but remarkably rewarding.
With the increasing number of sites and services where social change as simple as clicking a button, it will no longer be about nonprofits trying to gain exposure or motivate the masses to make a difference. It will be about forging partnerships for making deeper, more relevant connections with consumers, and using technology to focus and streamline their efforts. And if this level of awareness and action continues, the biggest challenges that causes may face in the future is allocating enough resources to manage overflowing activities and contributions.