NYC BigApps: For Profit or Non Profit?

A strange question started popping up in my classes at SVA PoD, NYU ITP, and in various apps and tech and data competitions:

Is my concept best suited to become a company? Or a non profit?

Strange, because when I graduated in the 90’s – this question might apply to one’s career path, but it was pretty clear that non profits were for those that wanted to do good, and for profits were for those that were ambitious, and wanted to make money.

Now there are multiple, myriad ways to form an entity, and “good” is not the provenance of the mission driven 501 (c) 3.

A better way to answer this question – follow the funding sources that accelerate scale.

I’ll be speaking Saturday, June 21, at the NYC BigApps Big Build

5 Social Apps for Social Good that Make Foursquare Seem Silly

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Think that mobile social apps are a waste of time and energy? What if you could use them to make the world a better place?  Inhabitat took a look at mobile-based applications and systems designed to promote positive social good. Here are five rising social impact apps to watch. 

Project Noah

Project Noah

The Extraordinaries 

Unable to fit volunteering into your jam-packed schedule, but you still want to contribute towards a cause? The Extraordinaries launched an app that breaks large scale volunteering efforts down into micro-tasks that you can complete, right on your smart phone, and now online. The app has a huge breadth of micro-volunteering opportunities. Anything from Big Cat Rescue – helping to catalogue animal rights abuses to The Sierra Club – helping to map trails in California. As one user expressed, “I love this app! When I feel like fiddling with my iPod I can make my playtime helpful to someone. No more wasted time! It’s a stellar example of using technology for social good.”

Causeworld

Karma points donations are starting to show up in Twitter feeds and Facebook streams everywhere, and is a favorite of marketing guru Joe Jaffe. The free app works like any location-based social game, but instead of earning virtual badges or winning prizes, members earn karma points donations and get to choose which charity receives their donation, and then broadcast their good works to their peers. Sponsored by brands like Kraft and Citi, Causeworld is looking to connect shopping and buying with location-based, real-time cause marketing, turning us all into mini-philanthropists.

Frontline SMS

Frontline SMS is a service created to allow citizen activists to monitor and track post election violence in Kenya (Frontline SMS and the web portal Ushahidi finds additional use in disaster recovery). The service has been used by non-governmental organizations in both Haiti and Chile to track down urgent messages in order to coordinate disaster relief. Volunteers as disparate as a Swiss graduate student in Boston, an engineer for Haiti’s biggest wireless company, and a social media innovator at the State Department used the service to find survivors, develop a communications protocol, and rapidly rebuild cellular infrastructure. Recent case examples such as the Haiti coordination are best practices for how government, talented volunteers, and citizens can rapidly self-organize to support people in need.

mGive

mGive is responsible for routing more than 90 percent of all funds raised to date through the mobile donations, and works with more than two hundred nonprofit clients, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the United Way. By not limiting the payment system to a specific kind of phone or service, mGive has wider market penetration than a comparable iPhone or Android based app. During the recent fundraising drive to support Haiti, you may have responded to the Red Cross call to text funds using the “90999” SMS short code. The Red Cross raised over $24 MM via mGive to help the Haiti recovery effort.

Project Noah

Project Noah started as a student project at NYU’s ITP school, the free mobile app allows citizens to become scientists. The goal is huge in its mission – to become the common mobile platform for documenting the world’s organisms. Users snap photos of local birds, plants, trees, and other species, and can either identify the organism or leave the classification up to the crowd. Project Noah conducts specific research projects in the form of field missions. Who wouldn’t want to join a mission called “Project Squirrel” – inviting you to contribute squirrel observations, or “The Lost Ladybug Project” – to understand ladybug species distribution. Join a mission today!

Clean Energy Funds for the Developing World Announced

Solar Handhelds

Solar Handhelds

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

With all of the climate talks, protests, and stunts during the Copenhagen UN summit on climate change, you may have missed an announcement about funds for clean energy in the developing world. Secretary Steven Chu of the US Department of Energy announced a $350MM from the Major Economies Forum to launch the Climate Renewables and Efficiency Deployment initiative (Climate REDI), focused on four key areas of development:

  1. The Solar and LED Energy Access Program: deploying affordable solar home systems and LED lanterns as an alternative to polluting kerosene.
  2. The Super-efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment Program:harnessing the market power of major economies to improve incentives for buying and using energy-efficient appliances.
  3. The Clean Energy Information Platform: establishing an online platform for major economies countries to share best practices of technical resources, policy experience and infrastructure for clean energy technologies.
  4. The Scaling-up Renewable Energy Program: providing policy support and technical assistance to low-income countries under the World Bank’s Strategic Climate Fund.

It appears that the program will operate through NGOs and government-backed organizations like Lighting AfricaLighting a Billion Lives, and the Lumina Project, and other efforts that focus on solving energy issues at a large scale. Existing government-focused organizations like the International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation, the Collaborative Labeling and Standards Program, EPA’s Energy Star program and the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate will focus on the efficient appliances initiative. Meanwhile, the Clean Energy Information Platform will operate through theClimate investment Funds, managed by the World Bank.

The Major Economies Forum is long on the idea that technology is a potential accelerator to solve for climate change, with a focus on rapid deployment and scale. Yet several social entrepreneurs, NGO workers, and scientists have spoken of the need to not replicate a developed world model of technology based on rapid obsolescence, cheap component parts, and scale for scale’s sake. In the wake of complicated discussions in Copenhagen, what do you think about a technology-led initiative from larger economies?

Gazelle.com – A Recommerce Company Making Cash from Trash

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Gadget Tree

Gadget Tree

Preparing for a move back to the east coast,Gazelle.com’s cofounder Israel Ganot took his collection of used electronics to Staples for recycling. He was surprised to discover that the recycling program asked him to pay approximately $15 for the privilege, even though he knew from his days at eBay that the gadgets could be re-commissioned and even resold for value. Gazelle.com was born to not just solve the problem of ewaste, but to create a market for used electronics with revolutionary idea: Recommerce.

Recommerce follows the axiom that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that significant business opportunities abound in creating the infrastructure for more intelligent reuse and recycling networks. Both Ganot and his co-founder Rousseau Aurelien have deep knowledge of the reseller marketplace. They knew that decommissioned phones could be resold on secondary markets, creating a profit opportunity for companies that provided recyclers a cost-free way to handle their used electronics.

How it works: look up your used or decommissioned gadgets on the Gazelle.com site to determine their value, answer a few questions, and the company ships you a box (in most cases free of charge). Once you then send your used electronics to Gazelle.com, you can elect to receive payment or to donate to one of 23 causes.

When Gazelle.com takes in unfixable or otherwise worthless gadgets, the company responsibly disposes of the objects with one of several responsible recyclers. Ganot asserts that Gazelle.com’s end-of-life recycling partners are “best of breed” and rated by the Basel Action Network, a third party NGO that advocates for responsible recycling. Ganot told us during an interview, “Only 5-10% of our electronics wind up with these recyclers. The rest are resold and put back into use.”

The real potential for Gazelle.com lies in the hidden drawers and closets of American homes. According to the SVTC, over 70% of used electronics are stored away in peoples’ homes, since electronics recycling is often complicated, costly, and confusing.  Electronics that have hazardous substances like BFRs, PVC, and pthalates have been found to cause damage to human and environmental health when not responsibly recycled. This may be a leap of faith, but the hope lies in the secondary market influencing the designers and marketers of these devices. By extending the life of these machines electronics manufacturers may finally have a financial incentive to design for longevity as an alternative to design for obsolescence.

To date Gazelle.com has applied social media and PR strategies to promote the service. Because the story of the company is compelling to environmental advocates, Gazelle.com has received positive word of mouth and endorsements. If you are interested in Gazelle.com as a solution to your own personal gadget graveyard, you can learn more atGazelle.com, or follow the company on their Twitter feed@gazelle_com.

World of Good: Early Efforts in Ethical Consumption

Imagine a system of commerce in which you knew the people who made your things, and were assured that the making and delivering of these objects harmed no animals, preserved the environment, and empowered humanity. eBay has tried to turn this vision into a Paypal-funded experiment through World of Good. In the spirit of launch and learn, I won’t be too harsh. The combined company has good intentions; they’ve just made some early missteps that will become roadblocks to fulfilling their vision of becoming a marketplace for ethical products.

World of Good

World of Good

First Attempt: Altering eBay’s Business Model to Stack the Deck in Favor of “Good”

The partner company, World of Good Inc., began as a social community designed to create a venue for small producers from India and around the world to sell their artisan wares, and connect to a global marketplace of people who care about the social origin of things. The eBay site World of Good is marketed as a subset of eBay’s business. Handcrafted jewelry, artisanal pottery, natural cosmetics and other products will be cross-promoted along with regular eBay items, and eBay buyers are given ready access to purchase goods on the site. While eBay kept the aspect of their business model that benefits eBay: a fee for placing the product, and a transaction fee for selling, eBay needed to ensure “fair trade” by insisting that everything on the site remains a fixed price.

eBay’s fixed price model is an excellent case study for why Fair Trade pricing schemes are challenging. Free market, liberalizing eBay has a chance to set up an exchange between buyers and sellers, only to insist on protecting the sellers from under-cutting their work. I guess it would defeat the purpose if auctions resulted in an end-price that delivered a below market wage for a seller on this site; but by making everything prix fixe, eBay takes all of the fun and intrigue out of eBay. I’m only left with my finely crafted hand blown vase and a “click to buy” option.

Right step: Let eBay be eBay, all the way through. Point out the inefficiencies and fallacies of fair trade certification by cutting out any middleman and linking buyers directly with the producers of things. Allow the maker to determine the fair trade price, even have a conversation and negotiate, not a third party. The role, then, of certification is to ensure the product maker’s claims at the product and production level.

#2: The Girl Scout Merit Badge Approach to Ethical Buying

World of Good, Inc. aims to connect people to the things that they buy by making supply chains transparent, by connecting the dots between producer and consumer. As World of Good’s General Manager Robert Chatwani says, “We really want consumers to drill down into the detail of what’s behind that product.” In some cases, you even get to see photos of the very artisans and craftspeople who have made your jewelry or straw basket, and understand the impact you’re having on their lives.

But the site uses a confusing system of certification – TrustologyTM. Over 25+ organizations provide validation to earn multiple merit badges representing different ethical claims. There are three levels of organizations – those verifying at the product level, like Rugmark Foundation, those at the producer level, like Rainforest Alliance, and those at the seller level, such as Co-Op America. Then there are over 32 different criteria  under headings such as People Positive, Eco Positive, Animal Friendly, and “eBay Giving.”

The site is additionally complicated by the fact that one can’t just hunt down one level of criteria that might be important to you – such as “toxin free” products (you can get an eco badge for just being hand made, toxin free is an added bonus). The system is overwhelming, confusing, and because it’s not well organized, it does not deliver the promised transparency.

Right Step: A simple solution would be to publish the producer or seller’s claims right on the product page. Rather than providing a series of badges, tell the eBay buyer the specific claims, and let us know how that claim was verified. Allow the buyer who is interested to drill down further and read the documentation of these claims, see photographs of the manufacturing process, and meet the product maker themselves. This process might even encourage all sellers to be more upfront about their entire product development cycle. A more advanced and proactive effort by World of Good and eBay would be to fund a single 3rd party certifier to develop a more comprehensive ratings system; something similar to what EPEAT has done for computers.

#3: How Did a Leaden Lipstick Get in Here?

So if you haven’t noticed I’m a suspicious green consumer, but I still had hopes for the site until I saw a lipstick from PeaceKeeper Cosmetics. This Whole Foods-marketed cosmetics brand was outed in an Environmental Working Group (EWG) report last year, A Poison Kiss, for having a high concentration of lead while also claiming to be all natural (and socially pure). Burts Bees was also listed as a culprit.

Granted, there is still vociferous debate about whether EWG and other environmental advocates are crying wolf, or whether we should really believe that no amount of lead is good for a product applied directly to one’s lips. I had my own encounter with PeaceKeeper as a consumer and writer trying to understand this issue, and never got a straight answer from the company as to whether their products were truly safe.

When I see that PeaceKeeper has been verified by Coop America for being both green and socially positive, I wonder if this third party organization knows about the EWG study, the call for FDA investigation by John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and the ongoing efforts by EWG and other activists to get to the bottom of this issue. For now, I go lipstick-less, until the truth comes out. In the meantime, the existence of this product on a site claiming the highest degrees of ethical and eco choice makes me question the entire premise and offering, which is a shame.

Right Step: Eco-fatigue is caused by such confusing claims and hard-to-navigate credibility. What eco and social and good-seeking consumers need is a more holistic understanding of the things that they buy. World of Good is selling mostly non-essential gift items like jewelry, fashion, housewares, and coffee, but the eco and social benefits of each could be much more transparently communicated.

Asking all sellers to publish their claims on the site would be the first order of business. But the real opportunity may lie in connecting the community website functions of World of Good to the product and commerce aspect of the site. World of Good started out as a community of socially-minded entrepreneurs, so allow these members to review and comment on products, and invite the producers to join in on the conversation. Rather than have ethics imposed from the developed world to the developing world artisans on the site, let ethics evolve as they naturally do, as living, breathing conversations, behaviors, and expressed beliefs. Only in this way can we develop a more global and shared sense of ethical living.

Update: World of Good was acquired by Ebay in February, 2010, and was transformed into Green.Ebay.com – the sustainability aisle for Ebay.