The great imbalances in wealth and power that characterize life on our planet are embedded in the social sector, too. As the book Winners Take All and several recent articles assert, those with disproportionately greater means have disproportionate influence over the trends, fads, and investments that determine the directions we take in this field. Those with proximity to this influence understand it more deeply and thrive; those situated at a distance lack the networks and social capital to access it.
Individuals with power—and the foundations they fund—sometimes prefer incremental change over direct challenges to the social order that produces their wealth. This should come as little surprise, but it can cause activists who seek to undo that order to despair. They realize that the resources of super-elites dwarf their own, and feel they must choose between soliciting them or facing ongoing financial struggle. They look at looming crises like climate change and severe injustices like institutionalized racism and gender bias, and they feel powerless to make the urgent change they want. They post and tweet at the top of their lungs to little effect, or simply turn their attention to less painful pursuits.
Fortunately, a set of organizations from around the world has emerged to challenge this narrative. Drawing from the best of traditional community organizing and “new power” approaches to unleashing large-scale change, they are mobilizing everyday people to have a more meaningful, direct impact on world events. Specifically, they are encouraging massive aggregation of money to catalyze bigger change. Where earlier crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Kiva helped individuals make better choices for their personal giving, this new generation emphasizes combination, in hopes that it will empower the public to have much greater influence in the social sector and in global affairs more broadly.
Inspired in part by electoral movements like the Bernie Sanders campaign, which raised the vast majority of its funds from small-dollar donors, and local participatory budgeting initiatives, which invite citizens to directly determine how government will spend a portion of municipal funds, these efforts seem to fall into three categories:
1. Groups that combine money for pre-identified investments. Groups such as Kulturland Genossenschaft provide an interesting example of this first case. Featured by James Fallows in The Atlantic, Kulturland is a Swiss giving community whose members pool small contributions (minimum contribution is 500 Euro) to purchase plots of land that will be farmed in a sustainable, organic way (a response to destructive industrial farming practices). Similarly, more-traditional crowdfunding platforms have begun to offer opportunities for their members to pool contributions with other participants; GlobalGiving, for example, has a Project of the Month Club, which chooses a vetted project with a track record of success on behalf of a community of its donors each month.
2. Groups that leverage existing crowds to raise large sums. Other platforms amass funds from large crowds that are already coming together for another purpose. PLUS1, for instance, founded by Marika (co-author of this piece) and her bandmates in the group Arcade Fire, takes a dollar from every ticket sold at events like concerts and pools it. It then gives artists and other performers the opportunity to direct the money to one or several organizations from a thoroughly vetted set of national or local nonprofits. In addition, because this platform takes advantage of countless events happening every day, it is agile—it can direct funds to emergent crises. A similar example comes from the party game Cards Against Humanity, which famously got $15 from 150,000 of its regular players and took a series of actions to challenge the Trump administration, including buying land at the Mexican border (to avoid having a wall built on it), paying for objective polling, and redistributing wealth among its members.
3. Groups that invite contributors to decide what to do with their shared funds. Finally, a third group emulates the model of traditional, in-person giving circles, using the Internet and new voting technologies to help much bigger groups decide together how to spend their pooled funds. This is My Earth takes this approach by asking its members to combine money and select biodiversity “hotspots” for conservation, and then works with indigenous groups and NGOs to protect the land they buy. Project for Awesome, co-founded by young adult novelist John Green, does something similar once a year, mobilizing its community to contribute more than $2 million every December and nominate causes for the group to vote between. Shared Nation, co-founded by Joe (co-author of this piece), gets its members to pool their funds each month and then invest them in organizations whose work addresses a rotating set of issues (such as carbon emissions, fake news, and youth empowerment). All candidate organizations get some funds just for taking part, thereby increasing their incentive to join, but Shared Nation members select one winning organization to take the majority of their funds in order to increase their impact. In time, this community hopes to transition from a people’s foundation to a virtual, global nation made up of millions of citizens, regularly identifying big actions to take with their “shared national product.”
Each of these projects requires innovative voting technologies to enable large groups to make efficient decisions. Shared Nation, for example, uses “pairwise” voting, which asks each member of its community to choose between a few pairs of prospective investments, thereby divvying up the work and rapidly aggregating the group’s preferences—and a number of similar decision-making approaches were documented in SSIR last spring.
In time, the groups exploring massive aggregation—or other, larger groups who adopt their approaches—have the potential to gain considerable influence. An activist community like Avaaz, for example, which claims to have 48 million members worldwide, could have $5 million a month or $60 million year at its disposal by just getting $1 from one tenth of its members. And the intriguing range of prospective investment opportunities those significant dollars could fund includes many options beyond standard support to nonprofit organizations, including: purchases of acres of land for conservation, along with energy and sustainable transportation infrastructure; funding to relieve student debt; support for universal basic income in defined geographic areas, for slates of candidates who agree not to take money from special interest groups, or for emergent social movements; responses to public health emergencies caused by climate change; and “buycotts,” which use pooled funds to support corporations that are doing good.
Of course, group purchases of these kinds require thorough planning and ongoing management, like any social investment, but so far the groups noted above have proven capable of navigating those complexities and logistics.
Will massive aggregation alone be sufficient to address the gross imbalances of power that plague the planet? Hardly. Only dogged action on multiple fronts to elect leaders invested in redistribution of wealth and to reform our broken political system will lead to long-term change. But this set of approaches does have the ability to give participants a sense of their potential, allowing them to make a major progress on social problems while deepening their civic engagement and educating them on the challenges that will define their future.
This story has been modified from its original version.