How a for-profit firm fosters protest
Jan 26th 2013 | NEW YORK | From the print edition Buisnes
CHUCK HAGEL, Barack Obama’s nominee for defence secretary, is attracting brickbats because he joined a campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. Sweden has scrapped an old law requiring the sterilisation of anyone who has a sex change. In Rio de Janeiro, plans to demolish a popular high school to make way for Olympic buildings have been put on ice. These apparently unconnected events all have one thing in common. The campaigns involved (Global Zero, All Out and Meu Rio) were incubated by Purpose.com, a young company headquartered in New York.
The business was co-founded by Jeremy Heimans, who calls himself a “movement entrepreneur”. Mr Heimans previously co-founded Avaaz, a campaigning group focused on poor countries, and GetUp!, a citizens’-rights group in his native Australia. Those were charities. Purpose aims to make profits, though not necessarily to maximise them. Like another big petitions business, Change.org, it is structured as a B Corporation, the American legal term for a for-profit company with a social mission. It has a non-profit arm, which incubates protests and accepts donations. This is cross-subsidised by its for-profit arm, which makes money in a variety of ways. It sells consulting services to big companies such as Google and Audi, and to charities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. It helps them to build mass movements to support their favourite causes. Audi, for example, wants to design and promote machines to dispense clean water in India, a market where it hopes to burnish its car brand. Purpose also hopes to develop a business promoting “new economy” products such as solar energy. It will recommend to its members that they buy solar power from such-and-such a provider. In return, it will charge a referral fee.
Mr Heimans says he will work only with clients that fit with Purpose’s values. BP, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are out because, he says, “they are bad for the world.” (Cars are fine, apparently.)
Grassroots movements have usually been built, as the name implies, from the bottom up. Purpose seeks to accelerate the process by applying techniques drawn from Silicon Valley, such as social networking and the simultaneous incubation of diverse organisations. Its babies can grow fast: after two years, All Out, a gay-rights campaign, claims 1.3m members in 190 countries. Being for-profit makes it easier for Purpose to raise capital and hire good staff. Last year it raised $3m from investors.
The firm has been busy. Last year it launched unPAC, a campaign to support campaign-finance reform in America, and The Rules, which aims to give people in poor countries a voice. This year it plans to take the Meu Rio model for local anti-corruption campaigns to several cities around the world. It is also offering free open-source campaigning tools, including one that helps activists form flash mobs.
Luis Ubiñas, the president of the Ford Foundation, which has given Purpose’s non-profit arm a grant, reckons it is shaping up to be “one of the blue-chip social organisations of the future”. Its critics worry, however, that its brand of web-based activism is often skin-deep “clicktivism”. It is easy to click on a petition and then do nothing else.
Mr Heimans retorts that Purpose helps online campaigns nudge people along the “commitment curve”. It encourages first-time clickers to do more. Last year, for example, All Out raised a stack of cash in 24 hours to help airlift out of Iraq some gay activists who feared for their lives. A traditional bureaucratic charity could not have moved as fast, says Mr Heimans.
Some partnerships have fared better than others. An effort to recreate in America a campaign for healthy school lunches, started in Britain by Jamie Oliver, a popular chef, seems to have gone badly enough to make Purpose reluctant to work with celebrities in the future.
Perhaps the clearest sign that Purpose is having an impact is the enemies it has made. Some people who work for established charities accuse it of hyping the differences between new and old. Not so, says Mr Heimans. He contrasts The Rules with Oxfam, a 70-year-old charity that delivers food to the poor. The Rules campaigns to change the regulations that unfairly disadvantage developing countries in the global economy, he says; Oxfam is more focused on the need for the rich world to help the poor through charity. He adds that Avaaz, which he co-founded, has 120 staff and 15m members, whereas Amnesty International “has a staff of 2,500 and 3m members”. Maybe so, but many pay money to join Amnesty, whereas you can join Avaaz for nothing in ten seconds, depending on how fast you type.
Read a reaction of all-out with references to their website here: