As you can imagine, I do a lot of searching in the media for discussions about generosity. More often than not, the topic comes up in the British and Canadian press (they seem to name this human attribute more than we do here in the US) or in discussion about the functioning of the internet. I have written about this before in the postings Is the Gift Economy Generous and The Business of Generosity (Part 2). Today I found an interesting, brief lecture by Clay Shirky about designing web interfaces to engage people’s generosity, called Designing for Generosity. The video from Pop!Tech is posted below. Shirky is a web consultant, teaches at New York University, and wrote the book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.
Shirky tells the story of how the Grobanites for Charity came about. As he tells it, Josh Groban’s (a pop recording artist who sings neo-operatic music) large fan-base, through their online chat rooms, decided to give Josh a 21st birthday present. They started collecting money to be used as a donation in his name, and ended up with $75,000. Mr. Groban’s lawyers then back-pedaled and set up a Josh Groban Foundation to accept donations in his name. However, a group of his fans decided to start their own charitable organization (IRS 501(c)3) to raise money and fuel the Josh Grobin Foundation. In this way, money was raised before there was a charitable purpose and resources were created before there was an organization ready to handle them, exactly the opposite of how things normally go in philanthropy. Grobanites for Charity exists solely for the purpose of raising money for the Josh Groban Foundation, and as you can see from their website, do so with abandon and personal drive that is seldom seen on professionally created online fundraising web pages. If you are interested, this short video is packed with more information on the topic of designing to engage people.
Mr. Shirky’s 3 tips for designing web interface for generosity are most interesting to me. Here they are:
- Design to appeal to intrinsic motivations: so that the user feels good at what she/he doing, feels she/he is doing the right thing for his/her fellow man, and is appreciated. Note: the latter means appreciated by a small group of people who know her/him well (not appreciated by a large group, i.e. fame).
- Design to allow for autonomy. That is allowing the user to have choices, chart their own course, and be creative (in this case, contribute more than just money toward a charitable mission or commercial product).
- Balance complete autonomy (openness) with constraints. By constraints he means focus, so that the topic and mission of the page are not lost and the participants function with community norms. I believe these constraints, if balanced by autonomy, encourage generosity because they appeals to a sense of belonging, an intrinsic motivation.
Shirky suggests that we think of groups (in this case web user groups) not as just an aggregate of individuals, but as members of a social system. This social system needs to have a consistent internal logic, which gets back to his idea about appropriate constraint.
Although this lecture content has to do with technological design, and he is lecturing to people who are looking to profit from engaging people for their enterprise (whatever it happens to be), I completely agree with his 3 tips as philosophical underpinnings for any philanthropic program or interface. I believe that most contributors to any charitable mission do so because they are seeking to satisfy some internal yearning, and would include Shirky’s list of motivations to other yearnings. However, if contributors are passionate about the cause, they want to give more than just money and will look for other ways to give their time, talent, and energy. And I believe they want to understand how they can add to efforts skillfully, so are looking for the internal logic of the social enterprise, i.e. guidance about where the effort is going, existing knowledge of the best way to get there, and how they can help.
Many times nonprofits are shy of opening themselves up to the real engagement and influence of their contributors. I believe that if they understood better Shirky’s 3rd tip, that they would find a way to design their charitable giving programs with allowance for autonomy while also drawing a map of the issues associated with their mission (challenges, past successes, opportunities, vision, etc.). In this way, the contributor’s non-financial involvement would naturally align with the organization’s strategies and would not drain the organization’s resources in extraneous activities geared toward contributor’s more external desires (looking good). A program based on Shirky’s tips would allow people to bring their full passion to the table which would fulfill more of their intrinsic yearnings (feeling good) while effectively contributing to the change they want to see in the world.