I’ve long been driven by a need to do something with my life that I might, at its conclusion, reflect on thinking that it has made a difference that I have lived. I’ve also been compelled by the overwhelming suffering that I saw wherever I looked. Having dabbled in several other forms of activism, I found that my work for the poverty-focused charity Your Siblings and for Bronies for Good, the group this article series is about, was a particularly good fit for my skill profile.
Your Siblings introduced me to the burden of responsibility that comes with having to decide which project to support with the little funding we could raise and thus the burden of responsibility to decide who gets to live, and who, in turn, does not.
At Bronies for Good, we tried to give our donors all the information that has led us to selecting a particular charity or project to support so that our donors may form their own opinion. But often we found that they were ready to trust our recommendation without digging deeper. So the first burden of responsibility was joined by a second: our responsibility for living up to the trust that thousands of people put into us by giving hundreds of thousands of euros to our recommended charities.
We tried hard to do justice to these joint responsibilities. We certainly did better than many, but until 2014 our skill was still greatly limited. Eventually, however, I found out about effective altruism and all the knowledge – some of it decades older – that people in the movement had amassed. It is well possible that all our years of effort prior to that date had the same positive impact as just a few hundred euros donated to the charity we support today.
Starting in 2011, we have raised about €238,000 on a budget of less than €1,000 per person per year, less than €500 in my case. Our team consisted of about six core members at its peak with many others helping out in various special functions.
The budget is a rough extrapolation only from the expenses I noted as associated with the fundraising over the years and does not include such things as my cost of living that I would’ve had to pay for in any case. The funding came from my part time job as software developer.
There is a small chance that I may have completed my degree in computer science more quickly if I hadn’t engaged in these activities, incurring a cost in lost wages, but I think the chance is low due to the semester-wise inelasticity of the degree. Any remaining expected cost is probably offset by the experience I gained in the process.
The €238,000 is the aggregate of activities that thousands of donors, hundreds of musicians, scores of artists, and many other people have contributed to besides our core team. Most of it is the direct product of campaigns that we organized or co-organized; at most around 1% stems from fundraisers we merely inspired.
I think that the vast majority of the donations would have gone to much less effective organizations or nonaltruistic ends if we hadn’t influenced them – based on the perhaps roughly log-normal distribution of cost-effectiveness across interventions; that few people in the community who I talked to had learned about effective altruism at all, through other channels than us, or even understood basic concepts; and that we inspired a number of people to donate for the first time in their lives based on their comments on our online fundraisers. Donations that are not counterfactually valid are donations that I made to our own fundraisers, again around 1–2% at most.
The following section gives a chronological overview of our activities.
The second part describes how we organized our various events and is mostly interesting for someone who wants to see if there is something they can borrow from our experiences.
The third part highlights our learnings and makes recommendations as to how I think projects like these might be replicated in the future.
I’ve written this chronology mostly from memory, aided by our blog posts, chat logs, and internal documents. Unfortunately, I don’t have statistics on everything that we have done. In cases where I have none, I would have to reconstruct the data from the chat logs, old email notifications, and third-party websites. If you have a particular interest in certain data, I can put in more effort to reconstruct them.
In summer 2011, I became enamored of the TV series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that had premiered on October 10, 2010. I was studying computer science at the time and ran a poverty-focused charity, Your Siblings, and the show provided me with a welcome distraction from the harrowing knowledge I confronted in the second job.
In summer 2011, Bronies for Good was formed, a group of fans of the show (“bronies”), who wanted to funnel the fandom’s enthusiasm into charitable ends. At the time, I frequently read about charity-related efforts in the fandom, but I usually read about each once and then never again. Bronies for Good stood out to me, because I read about them with some consistency over the later months of 2011.
It seemed to me that the show selected strongly for sensitive and altruistic people. It also inspired great enthusiasm, so in December 2011, I ran a little marketing experiment where I invited artists to submit pony-themed art that conveyed themes of compassion, altruism, charity, etc. On the day the Equestria Daily news blog posted my quasi press release, my organization’s website received over 1,500 page views (as opposed to the usual 50). It was an order of magnitude less on the second day, for a roughly log-normal-looking distribution. I received 54 submissions. In many cases, unfortunately, the link to the theme was not apparent, and no one got sufficiently interested in my organization to ask about our work or donate. As my campaign concluded, I got in touch with Bronies for Good, who welcomed me with open arms.
Bronies for Good was at the time running a fundraiser for the Children’s Cancer Association that had stood out to them on the charity comparison platforms they were aware of. The fundraiser was based on a music album, Smile!, that they had compiled, and reached almost $27,000. Then the platform awarded another €3,000 (a refund of the platform fees, I think) for being the most successful fundraiser of the year or some other time period.
I was involved in the conception of the second music album and fundraiser, Seeds of Kindness (which I originally proposed to call “Seeds of Truth”), whose proceeds were to go to the projects that my charity supported, in particular a small medical clinic in a rural part of Uganda and close to a refugee camp. (More on the music album strategy in the second part of the series.)
The €7,214 that were still missing to fully fund the clinic were collected within days after the launch of the fundraiser, and it went on to raise over €40,000 in total. The shape has always been a logarithmic one, with most of the donations coming in within the first three months and only a fraction afterwards. An independent group contributed by running their own gaming fundraiser, which raised €581. (More information on that, again, in the second part of the series.)
Soon after, a cover of a song from the show, a collaboration of 11 soloists and over 160 choir singers, was released, the Massive Smile Project. It was only loosely associated with our fundraiser (for legal trademark reasons), but it may have caused another bump in donations. Since donations were still coming in at a high rate at that point anyway, the impact of this release is particularly hard to estimate.
In July, a singer and entertainer well known in the fandom ran a fundraiser livestream for us that was nightmarishly organized but attracted almost 1,000 viewers at the peak and washed about €3,700 toward our Seeds of Kindness fundraiser.
The Germany-based European convention GalaCon was the first to host a charity auction for our charity. It was highly successful, with over €7,500 raised from only just over 300 attendees, and the start of a very impactful cooperation. (More details, again, in the second part of the series.)
The third music album was released, Seeds of Kindness 2: Faithful and Strong (the format is [fundraiser name]: [album title]), and raised over €31,000. After €21,000, my charity’s room for funding was exhausted and we selected another beneficiary – the German branch of Engineers Without Borders – based on our “best-effort” prioritization, and technical and legal feasibility.
November saw the the first incarnation of the Kallisti livestream, a 24-hour livestream with artists and interviews with show guests – writers, voice actors, composers, and other artisans who create the TV show. It raised €1,722. Because it was a collaboration between us and GalaCon, our part amounted to €861.
GalaCon 2013 raised €14,254 – the charity auction and a Bronies for Good table combined. At the table, we accepted donations and gave out thank yous to the donors, such as decorative pins or art prints.
There was a reboot of the gaming fundraiser in November, but I was not involved in the organization. It raised around €230 toward Seeds of Kindness 3.
Christmas was marked by the premiere of two radio plays that friends of Bronies for Good contributed. One used to be a storybook with images accompanying the narration and dialog, but Hasbro intervened and banned the project from being released in its audio-visual form for trademark reasons. Again I find it hard to reconstruct the bump in donations around the time, but I think it was not proportional to the effort that had gone into the projects and most likely below €700.
Shortly after Christmas, another independent project – a top fifty of the best songs of 2013 according to a community vote – encouraged donations toward our fundraiser. The returns were part of Seeds of Kindness 3, and the bump is hard to reconstruct today – probably less than €400.
Despite the still sizable success of Seeds of Kindness 3, it was evident that the enthusiasm of the fandom at large was on a downward trajectory. Had we run Seeds of Kindness 3 with the same lackluster technical know-how, marketing, connections, brand awareness, etc. that we had at the time of the first Seeds of Kindness, it would’ve surely raised even less.
In the graph at the top of the article it looks as if online fundraising reached a tipping point only around early 2015, but in my experience, this downward turn became evident to us throughout 2013. (Please disregard the downward turn of the trendline. Since the graph shows the aggregate raised, a downward turn like that is impossible. The downward turn that I’m referring to is one of the first derivative.) It became harder and harder to reach people – livestreams that used to peak at 200–300 viewers now peaked at 80–120 viewers despite much more intensive advertisement. Our team increasingly thinned too, mostly due to university degrees and full-time work. As the remaining team members’ efforts increased and donations decreased, we eventually reached a point where we decided that certain types of events were no longer worthwhile. This point was reached about a year after the general downturn became evident to me; hence the delay in the graph.
In 2014, friends of the organization ran their own album project to benefit our fundraiser. The album was more lightly supervised and limited to electronic music while ours had no genre limitations. It raised €1,888.
In February and November we ran livestream events of a few hours – Charity Chitchat 1 and Charity Chitchat 2 – whose unique feature was that we had two guests of honor for interviews, so that we could host something like a panel discussion. They raised a little over €600 and €700 respectively, counted as part of Seeds of Kindness.
This year we also published an essay on bullying and an audio panel discussion on discrimination against people with intersectional identities. These were topics dear to members of our team that had gained currency in the fandom around the time. I have no data on any impact they may have had on our activities except for one second-hand account that one donor allegedly discontinued their donations to either Your Siblings or the Against Malaria Foundation as a result of the second project. Others may have started donating to them for the same reason for all I know.
While the last Kallisti livestream was a surprise success, we shared the returns with our convention partner, so that it was only half as successful as it may seem at first glance. Seeing how we could only hope to raise around €1,500 with another Kallisti, how it took about two months to organize, and how our team had shrunk further and was now missing key people, we no longer felt that the returns were worth the effort and risks.
The year 2014 was special in that it was the year when I learned about the movement for effective altruism and thus gained access to a wealth of information on charity prioritization. Effective altruism was everything we’ve been trying to do all along. Now we saw that we’ve been doing a pretty haphazard job at it and corrected course by relying on the research of GiveWell for our charity recommendations.
At the time, the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) was still demoted after GiveWell’s 2013 concerns about its scalability, but upon review, we didn’t share GiveWell’s concerns and viewed AMF as better than or on par with their other recommendations. Technical and legal reasons (further) tipped the balance, so that we decided to finish up all ongoing collaborations we were engaged in (as Your Siblings and Bronies for Good) and then focus on AMF.
Finally, in December, just in time for the launch-release of Shine Together, AMF was reinstated as GiveWell top charity. We partied!
The year 2015 was the year of the launch-release of Seeds of Kindness: Building Bridges, our sixth charity album in the Seeds of Kindness series. Since “Seeds of Kindness N” was always associated with our (N+1)th charity album, which caused confusion, we started to drop the number from the fundraiser name and rather distinguished the fundraisers by the album titles. This Seeds of Kindness “5” has since raised €7,400.
It was also a year full of conventions: Brony Fair 2015 (€1,068), GalaCon 2015 (€20,027), BABSCon 2015 (€798), EQLA 2015 (€839), and Czequestria 2015 (€3,865). GalaCon and Czquestria have been the most comprehensive and amicable collaborations as they rely on our (and thus GiveWell’s or ACE’s) recommendation entirely and dedicate their auctions to our charity in addition to offering us a free and strategically placed table at the event. The other conventions only offered a free table.
Eventually we also sent our first comic book to the presses, Bound Together. (No BDSM reference intended.) We ordered 1255 copies (too many) for $6,167.58, funded from 294 preorders. Online we had a turnover of $11,142 minus cost for shipping of $3,380 for a profit of $7,762 for AMF. The comic book also sold well at European conventions (hardly at all at US conventions, contrary to our expectation). Adding up the tallies from the European conventions (251 books = €6275), we get a total of €13,644 thanks to Bound Together.
A the end of 2015, I officially took my leave from Bronies for Good and Your Siblings to focus on either full-time direct work or earning to give at other organizations or companies, though I continue to run the European convention division of Bronies for Good.
Last year I ran three convention programs for Bronies for Good: Brony Fair 2016 (€1,349), Pony Congress 2016 (€530), and GalaCon 2016 (€23,019). Pony Congress – next to GalaCon and Czequestia – also counts among the convention that collaborated with us fully, including the charity auction. The convention had too few attendees, though, and was set in Poland, which has very low wages, so that the return was meager.
In early 2016, right after Brony Fair, we agreed to switch our support to Animal Equality to boost our fundraising impact by another two or three orders of magnitude. About half a year later, however, one of us asked for the decision to be reversed for US fundraising.
We hope to release Seeds of Kindness: A Change of Heart early this year, but I’m hardly involved in the process anymore.
|Seeds of Kindness
|Elements of Charity
|Seeds of Kindness 2
|Seeds of Kindness 3
|Ministry of Brony
|Seeds of Kindness 4
|Brony Fair 2015
|Seeds of Kindness 5
|Brony Fair 2016
|Pony Congress 2016
The second part of this series dives into detail on how we organized all these events.