I’ve been tracking the launch of HopeMob for a while now. Founder Shaun King has a great track record of using social media to raise money for causes, and when I saw that he was asking the social web to follow @hope in advance of a launch of a new storytelling and fundraising platform I was intrigued.

Now that the site is launched, I’m disappointed. In order to inspire its audience with its “direct donation” model, HopeMob goes out of its way to perpetuate many of the worst myths against nonprofit organizations. More importantly, by submerging any background about the root causes of its challenges, HopeMob is missing an opportunity to be a gateway for deeper engagement on critical social issues.

Legacy of Twitchange

Shaun King is a social networking guru with a calling to help, a huge social network, and a talent for promotion. Over the years he has organized social campaigns and created networks to  support communities and fundraise fro people who have been hurt.

King is best known for Twitchange, a campaign platform that he launched in 2010 to raise funds for the Haitian Earthquake victims that essentially auctioned off celebrity Twitter presences for charity.

Through Twitchange, fans could bid on the right to have Justin Bieber or some other celeb follow them on Twitter and RT one of their own tweets.

According to Mashable, that campaign got more 35 million hits and raised more than $540,000 with involvement from Bieber, Shaquille O’Neal and other pop culture names.

Rousing the Mob with Stories of Need

Two years later come HopeMob, which seems to build on the Twitchange model by again harnessing a huge audience to support a worthy cause. This time out, King and friends are asking the crowd to identify great stories of real need, vote for the best, and then raise money to help the people in those stories.

At a distance, HopeMob seems to be doing a great job using game dynamics and social networking to identify stories of real need and connect them to individuals who want to help. Members log in, buy points with their credit cards, and then vote on which stories to use their points for.

For example, there’s Chris.

Chris is a nice guy of modest means with the bad luck to be born with crappy teeth in a society that doesn’t see dental care as a fundamental human right (sorry, Chris). Chris’s story is trending at HopeMob and soon will have enough points to launch as a Featured Story. If that happens, it will stay on the HopeMob page long enough to get sufficient donation points for HopeMob to pay for Chris’s surgery.

Chris wins, the HopeMob mob wins, everyone wins, right? Not nonprofits.

I was feeling great about Chris and HopeMob until I found the page titled Why We Need HopeMob. 

Savvy and discerning donors are increasingly demanding that their donations go directly and completely to causes and people and not systems or bureaucracies… people… are increasingly skeptical of mega charities and want vetted methods to ensure their resources are maximized. This is what we do.

I see this bias all the time. This line of thinking puts “people” and the amorphous “causes” in the good column, and institutions, “systems,” “bureaucracies” and “mega charities” in the bad. Instead of saying some organizations suck and some don’t and why, it’s easier to just slag the lot of them.

Compare this negative approach to the upbeat vision and language used at the new Groupon Grassroots site, which launched right around the same time:

Every dollar spent on Groupon goes directly to a local merchant instead of being diffused outside the region, spurring greater economic impact at the local level. Groupon Grassroots uses that same model to aid neighborhood advancement by mobilizing local people to raise funds for specific community projects. As a result, the spending stays local and the community grows stronger…. The discovery of long-lasting relationships is the basis of sustainable community renewal, and we want to help those bonds take shape.

Big difference, eh?

Teaching Audiences About Measuring Social Impact Is Hard

There is a cause here, but it’s not Chris. In the old days we would just say that Chris is needy. “Chris needs help from a charity to improve his life.”

But Chris needs a lot more than dental surgery. He needs a society that truly values him and his family, one that see his health as part of the health of our society overall.

And even when Chris gets money to fix his teeth, wouldn’t it be awesome if he could choose to get his teeth fixed at a nonprofit hospital or dental clinic… perhaps one that is able to discount its services to needy families because it’s sustained and supported by a nonprofit foundation?

This  is the cause that HopeMob goes out of its way to avoid mentioning. That’s why it’s such a shame that HopeMob presents “institutions” as the bad guy — the thing that stands in the way of a smart donation. Advocating for affordable health care, of course, is the mission of dozens of great organizations large and small. In fact, the truly “savvy and discerning” donor who cares about changing how health care works in our society is probably already supported one or more of these organizations.

That’s why it’s so hard to take HopeMob lines like this seriously:

People with the heart and means to provide direct aid … want vetted methods to ensure their resources are maximized. This is what we do.

A Missed Opportunity for Larger Change

A frequently cited criticism of social media for social good is that it can reduce “issue complexity” to bite-sized nuggets that may be tasty but have no lasting value.

That is, rather than focusing on building lasting and sustained relationships between audiences and organizations, they tend to “slash and burn”. They monetize the fact that we care by throwing social gas on the slow heat of our compassion. The fact that these sort of campaigns also burn out the fire more quickly by making audiences feel satisfied with their efforts despite not fully becoming involved in or knowledgeable about the cause is usually ignored.

Twitchange was precisely the kind of celebrity based social media campaigns that have been so heavily criticized in recent years. The recipe — which seems to be a few parts massive mainstream audience, add one part celebrity sizzle, multiply through social media and then send a check to a celebrity endorsed organization — seems uniquely suited for promoting celebrity agendas while creating little lasting change or awareness about social issues.

Compare that with this year’s #Kony2012 campaign — which used sophisticated storytelling to get millions of people to watch a 30 minute video about a warlord in Africa. Which approach is likely to be more sustainable?

Now comes HopeMob, which appears to be taking a similar path.

So message to Shaun: It’s great that HopeMob is making it easer for compassionate folks to help others. But it’s wrong to position HopeMob as the antidote to institutions that are working to create systemic change in all our lives.  Doesn’t our ecosystem for social good need both aspects?