Saturday, 18 August 2012

Online Altruism: How To Appeal To The Internet

Okay, so you're in a pickle. Money's running out and you're at risk of losing your home. Increasingly desperate, it occurs to you to do the unthinkable; swallow your pride and ask for help, preferably financial. From the internet. Here's how some people get on.

Robert Partridge is an IT technician down on his luck. Skills include pc / server support & administration - website development / maintenance - IT instruction - virtualization - etc. A resident of Austintown, Ohio, he's been out of work since the middle of January this year, having been in the trade since 1999. He's a single father of two small boys, "mini-geek" and "mini-ninja" (he doesn't use their real names online), and when his savings ran out, no job offers came up,  and the threat of homelessness loomed, he had to look elsewhere for a way to feed his family.

The real life efforts

I've been in conversations with lucky working Libertarian-leaning people who declare that the welfare system is being abused by lazy people. The fact is, if they take off their Ayn Rand goggles they'll find that a single father of two facing eviction can

  • apply for unemployment but be denied

  • contact the local Catholic Charities office for housing assistance but be told they have no money at the moment

  • ask for help from family and friends but the help runs out after a while

  • sell off possessions

  • start his own business

and still get nowhere because everyone else is in the same boat. The economy is collapsing in slow motion and the knock-on effects are hitting everyone. Where are the markets for IT services in Ohio? He's had little, if anything, in. Menial jobs don't pay well and there's no one to mind the kids if he manages to find one. Childcare would cost more than he'd earn.


Had the Indiegogo option not been available, there might have been an option to try to get on a list for a HUD home. With pressure to house an increasing number of homeless people, getting on the list in the first place requires the applicant to be already homeless. Fears of the unhealthy environment provided by "the projects" kept Robert looking for other ways of raising money. He doesn't want to expose his boys to the deprivation and crime found there.

So he turned to the internet

Proud men who have always "done for themselves" don't beg. It doesn't occur to them, but with kids to feed the only thing Robert could do was ask the internet to help. It helps to be an active member of a social media site, in this case, Google Plus. He gets into chats with people, shares jokes, and weighs in on those topics that interest him. He's a social geek and it was to geeks that he turned when all his real life options were exhausted.

We geeks like The Oatmeal, a humour site, and Robert had seen the BearLove Good. Cancer Bad campaign — and all the drama — unfold online. The new Oatmeal campaign to fund a Nikola Tesla museum has also caught his eye.

Robert says,

First became aware of Indiegogo thanks to Matt Inman (The Oatmeal) and his “BearLove Good. Cancer Bad” campaign / was reminded again just recently with his new push to help purchase Nicola Tesla's laboratory to turn it into a museum.  (MAJOR THANKS TO MATT INMAN!!)

I like the "perk" feature on Indiegogo because it allows me to offer my services in exchange for donations if they're desired by the "donator" - I don't want a "handout" as much as a "hand up" and I'm not above earning what is given to me.

The Ohio economy

Youngstown, Ohio, is the nearest population centre, and it's one of the most economically depressed in the nation. The demise of the manufacturing industry has pretty much killed off the "rust belt." The few steel plants that remain are not enough to sustain a service-based economy. Temping jobs are available but income isn't guaranteed and the jobs are few and far between.

According to Brookings, 49.7% of Youngstown residents live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 40%.  The Ohio Department of Development reports that 32.1% of Youngstown residents live in poverty, and between 1999 and 2009, the poverty rate for the broader metro area increased from 12.5% to 16.7%. Basically, if more people were working and therefore earning, they would have computers, their computers would require maintenance. One of the companies might employ him full time. Either way, he wouldn't be in this bind. As the saying goes, "It's the economy, stupid!" Trickle-down economics didn't work for Ohio.

Long term goals

Robert has wisely used the opportunity to launch his new business venture, Digital Aura, in the meantime. The website is under counstruction at the moment but the plan is to provide a range of IT managed services / consultancy - focusing on residential and small/medium businesses. Money from the fundraiser will pay off the bailiffs, etc., and keep the wolf from the door for now. Offering internet services to a worldwide audience will hopefully keep it away forever.

The impact

The fundraiser was a desperate attempt to stave off the threat of homelessness, and thanks to the internet, the modest $2000 goal has been shattered. Robert says,

I've been completely overwhelmed and humbled by the response I've received to this campaign.  The Google+ community has been AMAZING!  My post went viral and made it to the "what's hot" page within an hour and we hit the campaign goal after only 6 hours!  The kindness and support that everyone has shown has been amazing!  I had one person who even sent my children each a $25 toys r us e-giftcard in addition to their very generous donation!  Google employee Mike Wiacek even turned my resume into their HR department for consideration!!

When I created the campaign I never expected any response similar to this.  I did it figuring that I had nothing to lose so what the heck?  I've always been one who wanted to believe that people in general want to do good and help others - the G+ community has proven this to me.  I've often been questioned by people that I know "in real life" about why I use G+ instead of my Facebook account since I don't really "know those people".  I've tried to explain to them how amazing the community is and how you easily can find people who share your interests.  I've formed terrific friendships / bonds here - ESPECIALLY because of the "hangouts" bringing us "together" as if we're all in the room together.

This just goes to prove that anyone can end up in the desperate straits Robert did and there's no way to tell when or how it's going to happen. Saving for a rainy day is all well and good, but when the funds run out, it's over. Then what? Robert didn't lead a profligate life; he was six months unemployed before he had to ask for help. He asked family and friends but there is only so much they can do. When they can't help, where do you go? Robert's advice for a successful Indiegogo campaign is,

if you decide to try out an Indiegogo campaign - if you can offer some kind of good or services for the donations make sure to do so - also having a campaign alone won't do you any good if you don't have some kind of community or network of people to promote it to / if you've got a good network of friends online you'll be much more successful.

He's right, of course. Being fairly popular to start with helps. It also helps to be involved in an online community. Robert doesn't share his Linked In information, etc., for privacy reasons (though it's not too hard to find if you dig), but people who do little to make themselves checkable online risk failing.


A man who only identifies himself as "Chris" faces homelessness and because there's no way of connecting him with anything else there's no way to check he's on the level but Detroit is bang in the middle of the rust belt so it seems legit. People in the comments are reaching out to him and offering tips for getting a job, and his descriptions of walking to the library for 45 minutes on the internet to ask for help or thank contributors are very moving. His electricity has been cut off — thank goodness it's summer! Without the opportunity to get to know people online, his chances to interact with us are limited and since he's not part of a community, his pleas are so far falling on deaf ears. And he's not the only one. There will be more. He needs employment more than anything else, so if anyone can provide information on jobs for semi-skilled factory workers, please click the link and send him a message. He'll get back to you when he can.

Indiegogo is a great resource and as a fundraising mechanism it works really well as long as you're a good engager on the social media or are popular on the internet. If you're not, you need to work at it for your efforts to have any chance. Being able to provide decent or desirable perks helps, but ultimately it's the viewers' will to pay into the fund that makes or breaks a campaign.

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