- Unknown Signs
- Bullets Dodged
You may want to start by reading the introduction to this series of three blog posts if you haven’t already.
The first part 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.
This third part highlights our learnings and makes recommendations as to how I think projects like these might be replicated in the future.
My friend Martin Wilson contributed major parts of this post. His contributions are highlighted in blue.
My name is Martin Wilson, and I was one of the principal founding members of Bronies for Good. From 2011 to 2014, I’ve been involved in charity fundraising efforts that raised over $300,000 for several charities. I hope others can draw on some of the experiences documented here to repeat this success.
I was heavily involved in most of our major fundraising campaigns, and worked hand in hand in with Denis Drescher to manage some of our key initiatives. In this brief retrospective, I’ll be both adding to some of the existing discourse that Denis has discussed sharing some of my own insights on successes and missed opportunities.
Our biggest failure was that we took too long to learn about effective altruism and thus squandered a lot of potential.
I also think that supporting Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) was a mistake given the opportunity costs of not supporting something like Animal Equality (AE) earlier.
If AMF was 10–100 times as effective as the weighted-average project we supported before, and AE is 10–100 times as effective as AMF, then it lets our pre-2014 fundraising shrink to a relatively paltry €16–1,600 in AE-equivalent euros. And I have trouble empathizing with worldviews according to which these multipliers (or denominators) would be much smaller.
Supporting AE, finally, may similarly turn out to have been a mistake, but I don’t see any alternatives that would be better clearly enough to offset some minor problems we would incur: other top candidates like Animal Charity Evaluators, the Effective Altruism Foundation, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, the Good Food Institute, etc. are not (yet) tax-exempt in an EU country, particularly Germany. This probably rules them out for most convention programs. The EA Foundation may very soon have this tax-exemption, but I think it is harmful to be too unreliable in one’s support of charities and I’m too uncertain about the relative ranking of the EA Foundation and AE, so that I don’t think I will want to switch.
Until 2014, we used a platform for fundraising that did not allow us to collect names and email addresses of our donors to send personalized messages to them. It did allow for the posting of “blog posts,” which would be distributed to all participants, but the email dispatch seemed to happen synchronously as part of the request, and so timed out after a minute or so. I suspect that we only reached a fraction of the donors this way. Many probably also opted out of these messages, which we might’ve avoided if we had been able to target them better.
Eventually we set up a Mailchimp list and send a “blog post” around inviting the readers to join our new list. Only a fraction of them signed up. Since, the list has again grown to over 900 subscribers, but we might have several times as many had we recorded them from the start.
My main feelings about our projects were first fear that something might go wrong, and finally relief that most of it had worked out within parameters. So when we completed a project, we were (or I was) just happy to have survived it and quickly moved on. As a result, I now have trouble reconstructing the totals of many older projects because they are buried in millions of words of chat log.
Later, I started to record all important data in Google Sheets and publish them in blog posts. These are the resources I drew on to compile this article series.
Collaborations with big names promised exposure to many donors, but early on we made the mistake of collaborating with these big names on their terms. Unfortunately, they were chaotic and unconcerned about legal constraints, which could have endangered the trust people put in us.
I provided donation matching for some of our own fundraisers but did so from my donation budget without explaining this fact or the concept of counterfactual validity to the donors, which I now consider objectionable and uncooperative. I should not have counted this money toward my budget or generally refrained from using matching for our fundraisers.
We started to wonder about our end game when the fandom was already quickly declining – around 2014. We should have made precautions for this from the start. Unfortunately we didn’t know about effective altruism at that point, so this ties back to the first mistake.
These are decisions where I am unsure whether they were good or bad on balance. Experimentation with the opposite decision may be interesting.
Apart from our fundraisers, we also engaged in some miscellaneous activities such as blood drives and appeals against bullying and discrimination. Some of these may only have diverted time and attention (also the attention of our donors), while others may have put off donors with opinions other than ours on topics fairly irrelevant to the charities we supported. Keeping a leaner identity may have been smarter. On the other hand, the activities did generate some attention an engagement and may have opened doors to groups that shared our opinions.
We were often asked whether we have or want to start local chapters in various locations. Organizations such as Oxfam and Giving What We Can are doing this, but we were afraid to allow it lest less informed people at those chapters express opinions we would not endorse and thus jeopardize our image. This may have limited our impact, but may also have averted risks.
In Germany, where I have been throughout the time, we had Your Siblings as a legal entity that could handle money. In the US, we decided against forming a 501(c)(3) because of the costs and bureaucracy involved. Instead we usually arranged for our donors to donate directly to the charities. Few of our donors asked for donation receipts for tax reasons, but especially some larger donors did and it seemed to be necessary for convention in some countries, so we took the tax status of our charities in Germany and US into account.
We would’ve been limited in how much we can reinvest because of our legal status; any investment could’ve only come from our own donation budgets or directly from a donor. Still, my personal investments were lower than they could’ve been; this may not be true for others of our group who had lower incomes. I usually jumped at any particularly good investment opportunities, particularly in the past few years, but still they were limited. It is not clear to me how we could’ve reached much greater scale with additional investment that would’ve been within my donation budget. Beyond that, it would’ve been valuable to pay a salary to those of us who were struggling financially so they could dedicate more time to our work.
The organization has fallen apart because we didn’t manage to recruit new team members at the same rate that we lost them due to college/university degrees or full-time work. The people we did bring on board were often not committed enough to learn the ropes and disappeared again, leading to high onboarding cost at low return.
Martin has analyzed the problem in greater detail.
While I agree in principle with the premise that adopting effective altruism sooner would have enabled us to generate a stronger overall impact with the fundraising dollars we managed to raise, a greater potential was missed in building a strong, lasting core of fandom volunteers. According to data from the Brony Study research project, a series of collaborative survey studies on adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the median age of fans was around 20.79 years old.
Through representative sampling, we can extrapolate that the majority composition of the community lies within the young, post-secondary school range. Individuals of this age are typically enrolled as full- or part-time students in postsecondary institutions, or are engaged in part-time labor force participation independent of academic study. And while young adults are increasingly pressed for time, the possibility of course credit or “impact-centric work” could have helped motivate many of the young adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to plug into organizations in their community. These bright minds could have brought an enormous degree of passion, creativity, and energy to organizations with deep service-centric programs. The need in nonprofit organizations for such volunteers is also great: Over 80% of registered third sector organizations in the US acknowledge the use of volunteers to meet critical service outcomes. Regrettably, many potential volunteers faded into the demands of their personal lives, or were directed to numerous, disparate efforts and projects.
Our own attempts with volunteer engagement came in the form of our Nurse Redheart’s Roundup campaigns, where we encouraged our constituents to donate to local blood banks and centers in their communities. Donors would subsequently log their participation through an online form and be randomly entered into a sweepstakes to win token prizes. While the three instances of the campaign yielded a relatively modest return of 59.5 liters of blood, the campaign could have greatly increased its potential impact by seeking active collaborations with collection agencies in close proximity to population centers with active meetup groups. The replenishing of blood is a particularly salient issue, since much needed transfusion stocks can dwindle perilously during the down periods between major disasters.
In sum, more of a robust recruitment and engagement process for community volunteers, along with greater outreach to corresponding service organizations, could have generated numerous fruitful collaborations and projects for the community as a whole. Especially if we had plugged into existing paradigms on volunteer engagement, such as Service Learning, which could allow university students in particular to pursue volunteer work as coursework, research, or even culminating experiences.
We were always very careful not to make enemies. Star Trek’s Prime Directive about noninterference may sound stupid at first, but it has one crucial advantage: When you get in touch with some new civilization or fandom, then what you’re really doing is probably that you get in touch with one particular faction of it. The opposing factions (of whom you’re not aware) will interpret this as you siding with their opponent. You will be assailed from all sides before you know that there is even a war going on. Or some less dramatic version.
In fandoms there are people who pour months (or years) of work and ten thousands of dollars into some fandom project of theirs only to then have some competitor overtake them by luck or by having poured five times as much money into it. They despise each other in proportion to their investment and earlier or later one will subtly sabotage the other and the war begins.
When I first got in touch with the fandom, I was concerned with trying to find the main multipliers who I would have to send my press releases to. Soon I found the top one, but then it turned out that it was only the voice of one faction of the fandom.
When you’re trying to achieve something, it can be really bad to have opponents. So I tried hard to treat every cooperation partner equally. For news sites this meant that I would put in the extra minutes it took to reformat the press release for all the other news sites even if they only had a hundredth part of the readership of the big one. (They would only copy and paste the text, so it needed to be formatted such that it would look okay right away when it landed on the website.)
For online radio channels, it meant that we would try to get everyone to play the same premiere recording in parallel (this never quite worked) or stream it ourselves and have them restream it from us.
Months or years of work have gone into many fandom projects that were eventually shut down by Hasbro because, obviously, they contained ponies. These ponies, and especially their names, are trademarked.
We’ve always been careful to minimize the risk of being shut down with a Cease & Desist notice. Depending on the area of one’s activism, this can be an important consideration.
We faced a number of challenges with regard to the platforms we used for our fundraising.
Betterplace is free – it even pays for the transfer fees – but depending on how you use it, you may have trouble getting names and email addresses of your donors. When we used its API, we were able to implement this part of the funnel ourselves, but that was only warranted because we needed the system anyway for the Your Siblings website. Otherwise the CauseVox fee may be the smaller expense.
AMF’s fundraiser system is hard to use – you have to fill in a lot of data redundantly, and the WorldPay interface is highly confusing. We probably lost some donors who couldn’t figure it out. The advantage is of course, that it is provided directly by AMF, so that no intermediary deducts any fee from the donations, except for transfer fees.
CauseVox, eventually, was recommended to us by Charity Science. It is highly usable and charges a relatively modest fee when you use the “free” plan. It’s our current solution. (It might’ve been risky to continue to use Your Siblings’ system after I left the organization, so we rather switched.)
Some say that there are millions of bronies, but the number of people who are active enough that one could reach them for any kind of charity campaign may be in the six-digit area.1 Only a fraction of them are well-off and altruistic enough to become donors.
There were several charities active in the fandom – and I’m using “charity” in a loose sense that includes individuals organizing yearly charity events. Only one other one of them displayed in their decisions anything resembling a concern for effectiveness. With such a small donor base to draw on, and people usually having informal donation budgets, it is likely that someone who donates heavily to a brony fundraiser for a CalArts scholarship will later not have enough spare change to save some lives in a Bronies for Good fundraiser.
Even worse, when a convention runs an auction for a charity that is, say, a thousand times less effective than another charity that we fundraise for at the same convention, then a lot of people will not donate to us because they want to save the money for the auction. They may be indifferent to the difference in effectiveness between the charities or not even realize that the auction benefits a different charity.
In the cases where we were on good terms with a convention but the convention wanted to dedicate the auction to a much less effective charity, we have repeatedly attempted to explain effectiveness considerations to convention organizers, but the ones that were not convinced from the start also didn’t come around. It turned out to be much easier to annoy them with our attempts than to educate them. Since our collaborations with conventions are extremely valuable, we decided to ignore the squandered funds and focus on staying on good terms with the respective conventions.
Seeing how donation drives usually try to capitalize on the Christmas spirit, they usually take place in December. We could have exploited this dynamic, and run our drives in November, so that we may miss out on the Christmas spirit, but will instead profit from reduced cannibalism. (Well, we’ll be the cannibals.) This may be analogous to the property of being “provocable” of a tit-for-tat agent in an interated prisoner’s dilemma, so it will be important to be tranparent about our algorithm.
If you want to repeat what we have done in another community, then it will be important to join at the right moment, just when it becomes evident that the community is growing rapidly. My feeling is that in the case of the pony fandom, this means that joining in the first year is optimal (late 2010 to late 2011), joining in the second year still works well (late 2011 to late 2012), joining in the third year will take more effort (late 2012 to late 2013), joining in the fourth year may no longer be worth it (late 2013 to late 2014), and after that you should rather look for another opportunity. But other communities probably expand and decay at very different paces.
The pony community attracted more than average sensitive people and probably people who were also more altruistic than the average. This was a great asset in motivating people.
Problems were, however, that there was no particular selection for rationality in place and that many fans were school or college students so that they didn’t have a lot of money. These are also criteria that you could use to decide between different opportunities.
$300,000 may fall short of the expectations that some organization have into fundraising campaigns that require the degree of effort ours did. Better targeting and possibly diversification by educating and supporting people like us in many communities may be a more efficient strategy.
Of course, a solid grasp of prioritization is crucial. There is no use in organizing for months to raise $10,000 if it goes to a charity that is a thousand times less effective than some top charity; you could just transfer $10 to the more effective one and spend the rest of the time cuddling.
When you do spot an opportunity to join a promising community at a good time, then it may be best to become a member of that community yourself. We had the great asset that we were first greatly enamored of the show and then wanted to make something of it. Conversely, it would seem dishonest to try to pass as a fan of something that you don’t really care about. It’s not recommended. If you are clearly not enthusiastic about the locus of the community, then you can try any of these:
You can be completely transparent about what you’re doing and why (think of REG’s work outside of poker). Like-minded people will realize that the value of your activism is not dependent on your in-group-ness. (This may not have worked with ponies, because the number of sufficiently like-minded people were probably in the hundreds, rather than in the thousands, like our donors.)
You can find people who are already organizing charity events in the community or submit a press release that calls for volunteers to a community hub. These people could then do most of the things we have been doing while you supervise, coordinate, and support them with advice, connections, money, legal entities, etc. If you are actually in some similar community, then you can communicate your like-mindedness through your brand. Imagine Better has attempted something like this by choosing a name that communicates their association with the Harry Potter fandom (it’s from a J.K. Rowling quote) without being limited to it.
If you wish to concentrate your efforts on a small number of communities, then it’ll be important to be very careful about how you position yourself within the communities. As mentioned throughout the text, it is easy to first think that you identified some nexus of communication in a fandom only to then realize that it is only the nexus of communication of one faction of it, and that by associating with it, you have made enemies among the other factions. When this happens accidentally, it’s usually possible to mend fences with the other factions, but that requires that you first become aware of the situation, which can take time. My feeling is that the most likely failure scenario is that the majority of people in the community will see you as a rather non-agenty part of the outgroup, so they will just ignore you.
For similar reasons, it’s safer to maintain an image of independence from other groups in the fandom, in the sense that you collaborate with them, but that you are not a subsidiary or project of theirs.
If, conversely, you have identified a number of mildly promising communities and want to fundraise in all of them, then less caution may be warrented (but this is untested). By seeking a strong cooperation partner as interface to the community and relying on its brand and network, you can save a lot of time, gaining traction more quickly. Meanwhile, the diversification can keep your risks managable.
We have, for example, observed projects associating with radio stations and thus profiting from the established brand of the station, its reach among listeners, its contacts among prominent people they have interviewed, and its contacts to conventions (for recording and streaming of panels). In other communities, other forms of media may suggest themselves.
While discussing the need for volunteer engagement is all well and good, a quick and dirty problematization of volunteer coordination reveals some rather substantial obstacles:
- Time. Between Family, Work, School, and other commitments, being able to coordinate even a single local volunteer group would have exceeded the available operational bandwidth of a non-incorporated group. The amount of uncompensated hours would have also been an enormous demand to make to a single member.
- Organizational structure. Thinking through how we, as part-time non-incorporated organization, could put together a system that allowed volunteers to connect with partner organization is a daunting challenge on it’s own. Perhaps something akin to a geek-themed, volunteer-focused version of LinkedIn might serve here?
- Quality control/training. While volunteers are a wonderful asset to any organization, not all volunteers are useful contributions. Some organizations, such as San Francisco Suicide Prevention, require volunteers to undergo extensive training on HIPAA laws and phone etiquette. Ensuring that any volunteers sent their way would complete the training, let alone prove effective at the intensive emotional nature of this work. Thinking through quality control issues with potential partners and liability pitfalls would potentially undermine some collaborations completely. How candidates could plug into specific projects or existing services that an organization offers is also worth exploring as well.
- Resistance to community/sub-culture. While most organizations will jump at the chance to have a steady supply of volunteers, not all organizations are led by open-minded, welcoming individuals. While we have not experienced directly, I have been on the receiving end of an organization refusing to accept a monetary donation form efforts I was involved in due a certain member of the nonprofit’s Board of Directors expressing misgivings about an active association with adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
- Volunteer liability. The finding, placing, and ongoing management of a volunteer: While this would obviously vary depending on the organization, creating a mutual understanding on liability issues around a volunteer’s participation with a potential partner would be a question that merits careful and systematic review.
- “How is this pony-related?” And last, but certainly not least: How to market to potential volunteers how and why they should get involved with a certain partner, and how it feeds back into the undercurrent of interest that binds the community together and generates effective calls to action.
Our small, unincorporated group also attempted to recruit volunteers; however, we often found that while individuals were interested in working with us, many lacked tangible skills, maturity, or personal stability to remain involved in a capacity that would sustain the organization in the long term.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list or reflection, I hope it provides a kind of reflection point on how our experience in attempting to engage volunteers where they lie. And while it would be a wicked challenge, channeling energy and attention to pursue a more systematic, volunteer-centric strategy to spreading altruism can be instrumental in fostering empathy, generosity, and localized connections. Imagine if the spontaneous creativity, passion, and innovation that permeates online affinity communities could reach beyond its confines into the troubled world around it. Where we, as agents of altruism, channel these elements into real, service-focused work, this work can bring an impact that can help alleviate the deep, systemic inequalities and traumas of consumer capitalism. All while providing fertile ground for the personal self-discovery and passion of young adults the world over. Ideate, create, and transform!
If I’ll notice that I’ve forgotten something major and add it later, I’ll send out an update on Facebook.
That’s it. Good luck!
The strongest period on record at the news site that I also worked for – early 2012, shortly after we started recording – saw 33,000 returning users. If they are not truely unique but different browsers and devices used by the same person, we may be at 10,000 unique readers. The largest news site in the fandom had 10–100 times the reach, probably around 30 times, so we’re at 100,000 to 1 million people, somewhat skewed downwards. ↩