iParticipate and Social Change

Greg Baldwin, President of VolunteerMatch, sent me a link to his provocate blog post, Turning Good Intentions into Action: Hollywood vs. Google.  Greg says that the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s much-ballyhooed iParticipate campaign to boost volunteerism was a bust.

The idea of the campaign was for a significant number of TV shows to incorporate volunteerism into their episodes during one week. Participating shows included Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock. According to Greg the goals of this effort was to create a surge of volunteers that would avail themselves of the opportunities available through VolunteerMatch, VolunteerSolutions, Craiglist, 1-800-Volunteer.org, and Idealist.

No surge resulted. By Greg’s estimate VolunteerMatch will net about 15-20 new volunteers as a result of the broadcasts. What happened?  According to Greg:

“on…Thursday, we had a total of 33,250 visits, which if you are doing the math, means that about 98% of visits came from someplace other than the TV. Really? So where are they coming from?

The answer of course is Google and the long-tail of the internet. That is how much the word has changed, but not everyone is ready to believe it.”

Greg’s thoughts are interesting and provokative, good fodder for an interesting conversation.

Here are my thoughts in response.

1. It is important to unhook from the zero-sum notion that the world will either be broadcast or social media in the future. It’s not going to be one thing but an ongoing mixture of the two. Of course, broadcast media has lost steam in the last ten years, but it hasn’t disappeared and won’t in the near future. We need to keep exploring and learning about the intersection between the two and find patterns and methods for them to strengthen one another.

2. I think this is largely a case of what I call “malmeasurement.” iParticipate was hyperbole gone wild. We hear this kind of language so often. That the next campaign will be a “game changer,” or create a “tidal wave” of interest, etc. The expectations that highlighting volunteerism within TV programs would be a catalyst for millions of people to volunteer was never realistic in the first place. The distance between raising awareness and action is too far through the light touch of a mention in a TV show. But that doesn’t mean that raising awareness isn’t important. On the contrary, remember those public service announcements that seeped into our consciousness, whether it was Smoky the Bear or the egg frying symbolizing a brain on drugs. Those were powerful messages that shaped a national shift on behavior. But those PSAs were run many, many times on TV when television stations were required to conserve part of their bandwidth for public service. And that is one very interesting lesson learned for me in the iParticipate campaign. If this effort was a substitute for the many years that television helped to shape the national conversation about issues through PSAs it certainly is a pale, ineffective substitute.

3. What is very interesting about this discussion is the fact that Greg knows what happened immediately as a result of the television shows. In the analog world there would be no way for the rest of us to know what effect a television shows was having out there in the real world. But, Greg knows, he’s looking at the numbers of volunteers frozen stuck after the broadcasts. Of course, this is only one measure. People tend to marinate over ideas and activities over time. A focus group with watchers of the programs would provide terrific additional data as to whether the programs affected how viewers felt about issues and what else is needed to move them to action.

4. This is an opportunity  for volunteer matching websites and organizations, and the nonprofit organizations that use volunteers, to engage with EIF to develop a longer-term strategy of how to continue to raise the importance and opportunities of volunteerism. Social change takes a long time and an enormous amount of diligence, patience and resilience to pursue. These are not characteristics often associated with the entertainment industry, which is why its incumbent on the nonprofit community to find ways for the industry to use it’s best strength, their ability to be a megaphone to share issues with  large audiences of people at one time, and couple it with the best strengths of efforts like VolunteerMatch which is to inexpensively reach people — and stay with them over time.


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Allison Fine

Copyright © 2018 Allison Fine