Thursday, November 17, 2011

Crowdsourcing and Nonprofits: What Marketers Should Know

As a Social Policy and Integrated Marketing Communications student at Northwestern University, I have studied how social media has allowed individuals to express their personal values by connecting them with the issues they care about most. Specifically, nonprofits today are using a number of innovative techniques across the social web to converge donors of money, time, and creativity, namely through the process of crowdsourcing. Meanwhile, private-sector brands are attempting to express their alignment with consumers' personal values like never before. Marketers need to be better informed about how consumers are using crowdsourcing to express their values, and look for opportunities to leverage these online communities for psychographic information.

What is crowdsourcing?

If you’ve spent any time in the social media space, you’re probably somewhat familiar with “crowdsourcing," defined by Wikipedia as the “act of sourcing tasks traditionally performed by specific individuals to an undefined large group … through an open call.” 


Whether or not you’ve heard the term, manifestations of crowdsourcing have probably touched your life in some way. Wikipedia, of course, integrates content through an “open call” to self-proclaimed experts on subjects ranging from shoegaze music to postcolonial theory. Threadless, a popular online t-shirt retailer, sources its apparel from a community of artists that vote on each other’s designs.

Crowdsourcing and Nonprofits

Leaders in the nonprofit sector have been quick to harness the crowdsourcing model to work towards social good. Over the past few years, the web has seen an emergence of several tools for change-makers hoping to leverage the crowd. Their approaches are roughly divisible into three categories:

1. Crowdsourcing Labor
Websites like crowdSpring present an attractive alternative to understaffed, underfunded nonprofits that could benefit from supplemental labor. For a small fee and cash award, any organization can post a challenge to crowdSpring’s growing network of over 100,000 designers. To compete for the cash prize, the crowd drafts a logo, develops a web copy, or composes original content for the organization.

Through its “Community Gives Back” program, crowdSpring assists qualified nonprofits by waiving the posting fee and monetary award requirements, while offering special recognition to winning designers.

Generally, private sector crowdsourcing platforms (such as Innocentive) have seen significant increases in numbers of nonprofit clientele seeking to crowdsource labor.

2. Crowdsourcing Innovation
Today, the burden of solving the world’s most intractable problems often falls on the back of the nonprofit sector. Through sponsorship by NPOs and NGOs worldwide, websites like OpenIDEO aggregate and organize ideas, concepts, and solutions to pressing social issues.  OpenIDEO guides its community through six distinct creative phases, and culminating in an actionable outcome.

The UN is implementing a similar model through its CrowdOutAIDS initiative, to harness the collective power of young minds in addressing today’s AIDS crisis.

3. Crowdsourcing Funding (Crowdfunding)
Nonprofit organizations have always struggled with dependence on external funding sources. Fortunately, the practice of crowdfunding has exploded in recent years, allowing NPOs to connect with new funding sources like never before. Most established in this space is Kiva, the microfinance crowdfunding platform that allows users to make microloans as small as $25 to entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Intercontinental Ballistic Microfinance from Kiva on Vimeo.

Other fundraising platforms, like 33Needs and Crowdrise, serve the more straightforward role of connecting individuals or organizations with potential donors.

Nonprofit Crowdsourcing and For-Profit Social Marketing

In his Direct Marketing class at Northwestern University, Randy Hlavac teaches techniques for identifying the intrinsic passions of target communities. The crowdsourcing platforms listed above offer venues for the convergence of several passion communities, around a vast range of issues. The innovative social marketer sees opportunity in these conglomerations. As crowdsourcing tools make it increasingly simple for web users to contribute their time, money, and ideas to the organizations they care about, social marketers should consider the types of data they can collect from these “values-driven” transactions. To which causes are your customers lending their time, effort, and dollars? A more comprehensive understanding of the issues that drive their customers can significantly assist marketers’ development of psychographic profiles. When feasible, social marketers should create opportunities to connect product value propositions with the causes close to their customer’s heart.

Aaron Faucher (@aaron_faucher) is a senior at Northwestern University studying Social Policy and Integrated Marketing Communications.

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