7 principles of stuff-raising

They call it an Impact Tour. You board a yellow school bus, which takes you to one of the many places funded in part by the United Way.

Posted by Jeff Schnurr on October 05, 2014 · 14 min read

They call it an Impact Tour.

You board a yellow school bus, which takes you to one of the many places funded in part by the United Way. Today, our destination was the Stevenson Children’s Camp, just outside of London, Ontario.

A few miles outside of town, the bus turns onto a gravel drive under a white wooden sign, stenciled with the name of the camp. “Pretty lousy sign”, I thought, noting the flaking paint on the plywood and the amateurish look of the thing. On either side are corn fields, making the drive in seem like a tunnel, with the corn at full maturity. The bus bounces over potholes as it winds down the path, finally opening up into a small yard, surrounded by a number of buildings.

We’re met by a young man named Jason, who identifies himself as the camp’s director. He’s relatively new to the job, but he has some experience here - he was a ‘camper’ when he was younger. He leads the group to one of the nearby buildings, and patiently waits while the group makes their way inside.

“This is the dining hall”, he starts off, addressing the 30-odd people gathered in the modest, wood-frame building about the size of a basketball court. They feed 96 kids in here, three times a day. In the back, a small commercial kitchen is in need to repair, something they have planned for this winter.

Stevensons Childrens Camp Sign

Jason tells us more about the campers, who aren’t here on this warm September day. They’re kids between 7 and 10 who, for whatever reason, face difficult life challenges and wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to attend camp. They’re often referred by schools and community resource centres, but sometimes it’s the Ministry of Children and Youth Services that drop them off, often unplanned, as a safe place until a foster home can be found. There’s a fee to attend - it’s $15/week - though many can’t pay, so they often waive it.

The next stop is the craft hall. It’s about half the size of the dining hall, with similar construction and minimalist, wood-frame construction. Around the perimeter of the hall are shelves stocked with random materials for crafts. Jason says they get donations of random materials, and it’s always a challenge for the camp counsellors to come up with new craft ideas using only what’s on hand. Today they’re pleased to have received some cardboard - always a hit. A colleague nudges me and recounts the many times he’s broken down boxes from large IT shipments, and put them out for recycling. This place needs cardboard, while we discard it by the truckload. Hold that thought - we’re moving again.

Across the grass we go, passing a medium-sized pool surrounded by chain link fence. He also points out the breezeway, a covered-porch type area that connects the dining and rec halls together. It’s concrete, and filled with picnic tables; a great place to get the kids out of the sun to have some ice cream. Across the yard is a modern-looking outdoor play set, graciously donated by a local company. The groundskeeper has the lawnmower going, and it’s a noisy walk across the damp grass to the sleep cabins.

Consistent with the rest of the buildings, the sleep cabins are rudimentary, wood frame construction. Inside is a honeycomb of rooms with bare walls, each with 4 bunk beds. Jason explains how they organize the campers by age / gender, and where the counsellors stay to keep tabs on the campers. This can be a pretty rowdy place, he says, though after a few days in the kids are worn out from constant activities, and tend to fall asleep quickly.

Again, Jason tells us more about the campers. He’s a vivid storyteller with an infectious enthusiasm, and this crowd isn’t missing a word he says. They have problems here, he tells us. Some kids have head lice, which they’ll clean up at intake, day or night. Behavioural issues are common, but everyone here has the resolve to work through it, imagining what life challenges the child must face, and hoping the camp experience will help. Some children, Jason tells us, grow up without supportive adults in their life, and they’re used to people giving up on them - but that won’t happen here. Lots of turnaround stories start with one person who is willing to care, and they’re determined to be that person.

The next stop was the bathroom / shower building. Built of concrete blocks, it had the same rows of sinks and showers you might find at any public campground. It felt dingy, cold and damp today, though Jason tells us it gets very humid in the heat of summer. Jason stops near a wall - probably the one that separates the girls section from the boys - which is covered in wood shelves, each with its own little door.

These shelves, we’re told, contain extra personal care and clothing items, which the staff use to supplement their belongings when kids show up empty-handed. It’s important that every kid be accepted by the social group, and having the same kind / quality of personal effects helps. They even have backpacks, some ready to go, for kids that get dropped off with just the clothes on their back. At this, I notice, tears well up in the eyes of some visitors, who consider how these meagre belongings might be a step up for some kids.

The remaining buildings - staff cabins, a small medical centre, the Rec hall, and an administration office - all follow the same template. There are also walking trails, complete with rope-course challenges, and a huge fire pit, for the obligatory roasting of marshmallows, and singing of silly songs.

Before climbing back aboard the bus, a representative of United Way steps in to remind us that, of course, none of this would be possible without generous donors like us. The camp is funded in part by United Way, but also runs its own fundraising initiatives and rents out the facilities for extra income.

Onboard the bus and winding down the dusty path to the road, we make a turn onto the road, underneath that same dilapidated sign. This time, however, the sign bears new meaning, and seems to strangely embody the minimalist, hand-built ethos of this whole place.

Impact Tour, indeed.

Beyond fundraising

If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering what this story has to do with technology, and why it appears in this blog. Like many of you, I’ve spent my career building business capability, solving technical problems, and re-wiring process flows for optimal efficiency and effect. Now, reflecting on the Impact Tour, I can’t help but think “this is the best we can do”?

Let me explain.

I have tremendous respect for the United Way, and similar agencies, and the work that they do. The demand for help is insatiable, and there is great benefit in providing the infrastructure to collect, redistribute and administer charitable programs that optimally balance supply and demand. They also administer a portfolio of social programs that benefit the community in different ways.

What strikes me is that the whole concept of charitable giving, of asking for money and then redistributing it, seems so - inefficient. How can an agency hope to penetrate the consciousness of a busy professional, otherwise occupied by the 24/7 demands of modern life, and convince her to make a donation? How can Jason articulate his need for cardboard, a pillow, or a pink “Dora the Explorer” T-shirt, without navigating bureaucracy? How can a system, where every actor has aligned values and interests, have such low yield?

There must be a better way. Not to replace the existing model, but to accelerate it, personalize it, make it more adaptive and responsive. A way for Jason to express a need for ‘stuff’, and have a willing community fulfil it, just like that. Call it ‘stuff-raising’.

Design Principles

As I think about it, a system like this would operate on 7 key design principles.

1. Specific

Needs should be expressed in a modular, highly specific way. Think about how you receive birthday gift recommendations for your friends’ kids; ‘Bauer Vapor X80 Hockey Shoulder Pads’ is much more specific than ‘he’s into hockey’, making it more actionable with less cognitive load. We need our team of charitable givers to be handed a shopping list.

2. Personalized

As someone who has ‘joined the team’, my profile should help set some parameters around how, where and when I’m able to help. There may be causes I favor, price points I can bear, locations I spend time in, or a category of goods I get special deals on. This data, when joined with what we can track of actual behavior, becomes a way to personalize how the individual is engaged, and avoid being spammy.

3. Contextual

Foursquare knows I’m downtown, and recommends the Pad Thai across the street. This location-based, contextual trigger can be highly effective, prompting spontaneous action. Jason’s call for the Dora t-shirt should pop when I’m at the mall, or on the first cold day of fall when I’m packing up the summer clothes.

4. Gamified

People do silly things for point or badges. Perhaps it’s part social proof - evidence of your good nature and contribution to society - or a small competitive streak. Whatever the reason, your contributions should be tallied and broadcast in a way that creates status and allows for extrinsic gratification.

5. Predictive

Jason will need some help to pull together the shopping list. Using data from past experience and similar requests, the system predicts demand, lead times and availability of recurring supplies, and makes recommendations for Jason to accept. After a while, he’s just dealing with exceptions.

6. Closed loop

A feedback loop should help validate that my contribution mattered, and offer a place to share qualitative information or dialogue. If I bought a bag of potatoes, I’d love to know that the kids “liked” the Tuesday night dinner.

7. Fun

The whole experience should be fast, simple, well-branded, and fun. Heck, it might even be a little quirky and make me feel like I’m part of this little club. The infrastructure makes it easy to drop-off and transport goods, minimizing inconvenience and working into my daily flow. I help, I feel good, and I wasn’t inconvenienced, isn’t that fun?

Making it happen

Who would build something like this? Has it already been done? Is it too crazy - just the product the Silicon Valley philosophy that engineering can solve everything, even something as squishy and human as charitable giving? Perhaps things are just fine the way they are?

I don’t think it will come from a profit motive; this isn’t the sort of platform you jam with ads or charge $2.99 to download. It must come, paradoxically, from the same community that would use it. A blend of engineers, designers, data scientists, behavioural economists, charitable foundations - and folks like Jason - stirred up and charged with the cause. I imagine this team, huddled in the Tannery, obsessing over fill rates, subscriber growth and the virility of the explainer video, just like every other growth hacking little start-up.

We know how to do this. Marketers herd us into manipulated behaviour every day. They use surgical precision to target and influence, and we don’t even know it’s happening. Apps track our every move as the world dynamically adjusts to present a context optimized for buying.

Surely, then, we can figure out how to get Jason that Dora t-shirt, on demand, from an army of willing and able volunteers. Maybe we can even find someone willing to build a new sign.