Why Diminishing the Benefits of Slacktivism Isn’t A Great Idea

Over on Facebook, my friend Gini Dietrich posted a question about trying to locate an image, used by a non-profit organization in a new campaign.

The image in question is the one below.

UNICEF Facebook Likes campaign

The messaging behind the campaign is simple – while Liking unicef.se (unicef Sweden) on Facebook is all well and good, and they certainly wouldn’t discourage that, it costs money to actually carry out the work unicef and other non-profits do every day of the week.

That makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is potentially alienating the very people you’re pseudo-criticizing in a campaign like this, by implying slacktivism doesn’t do any good.

Slacktivism and What Defines Action

A relatively new term, slacktivism is regarded as follows:

Slacktivist activities include signing Internet petitions, joining a community organization without contributing to the organization’s efforts, copying and pasting of social network statuses or messages or altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services. – Wikipedia

To use the slacktivism definition with regards the unicef.se ad, the suggestion is all the social activity in the world (in this case, Facebook Likes) isn’t going to save lives because it’s not resulting in hard cash.

That view is echoed in a comment on Gini’s Facebook wall around the ad by marketing professional Lisa Byrne:

People think clicking like means they are now supporting in some way cos they’re spreading a message – it’s all too easy a copout. I love what Unicef did – CALL TO ACTION PEOPLE!

This implies that unless hard cash is being donated, or a more substantial action taken other than Liking a status update or Page, then it’s not really action at all. Which, while that viewpoint is understandable, misses the longer tail picture.

The Benefits of Slacktivism

Social Change Anytime EverywhereIn their excellent book Social Change Anytime Everywhere, authors and  non-profit specialists Allyson Kapin and Amy Sample Ward share case studies, examples and methods on how to support non-profits via social media (as well as through “traditional” methods).

In Chapter 2 of the book, they look at the slacktivism question, and offer a very balanced overview of both pros and cons.

From the book:

Regardless of the era (this isn’t a new phenomena), the emphasis and effort spent on spreading information and raising awareness has always resulted in people doing what organizations ask, even if it’s considered slacktivism.

Liking a Page, liking a post, and all the rest are not the actions and real impact you’re looking for, ultimately, but those actions are important! Why? Because, through them, people are telling you that they will do what you ask to support the cause.

As both Kapin and Ward point out, while the end goal may be financial donations, the path to making those donations happen can come in many forms, and the act of spreading awareness – even through something as simple as a Like – is part of that path.

Taking it further is Steven Edward Streight, a New York-based senior copywriter and trustee for a local non-profit. In Steven’s words:

I am a trustee of a local non-profit. The grant writer told us that Facebook Likes, Comments, and Shares actually do help with getting grants and donors, because social media interactions indicate we are reaching out to the community and the community supports what we do (Peoria Historical Society). So I believe that the non-profit is wrong.

This endorsement is a perfect example of why slacktivism, even though it may not be a financial action, should not be dismissed as not adding anything to the bottom line.

The ROI Equation

Back in 2009, I founded a social media-led charity project called 12for12k. The goal was to find 12 charities, and support a different one throughout the 12 months of 2009, and hopefully raise $12,000 per charity throughout the year. Hence the name 12for12k.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by some very kind and awesome friends – people like Susan Murphy, Jon Aston, Darin Bernston, Rachel Kay, John Haydon and many, many more who believed in the project and donated their time and expertise for free.

Since the aim from day one was to give 100% of donations to the supported charities, this free expertise was a Godsend.

However, as focused and as determined this original small group was, there’s no way in heck we’d raise $12,000 between 6-8 people every month. And this is where a combination of awesome supporters and slacktivism came into play.

We created avatars that people could display on Twitter and Facebook. We connected with blog partners who would feature each new charity every month. We asked people that couldn’t afford to donate to simply share or blog posts and other content across Facebook and Twitter.

And it worked. I can give you at least fifty or so examples of people struggling financially, but who worked their asses off at getting the charities in front of more fortunate friends (from a financial point of view).

Those passive little 12for12k avatars that started popping up across social networks? People saw them standing out from others, and asked about 12for12k and the charities we were supporting.

12for12k avatar

This led to several mainstream media news stories and features about the project.

The end result? While we didn’t hit the overall goal of $144,000 across 12 charities, we did raise more than $91,000 in 12 months, and a further $9,000 in the first month of 2010.

A Clear Definition of Action?

These examples, and many more like them, highlight a simple fact – while unicef’s ad may be technically correct, it doesn’t start and end there.

No-one is denying that non-profits need donations to carry out the awesome and often-hard and unrecognized work that they do. It’s why between 30,000 and 60,000 non-profits are believed to close each year – and that’s just in the U.S.

The truth of the matter is, we need to support non-profits financially, and ensure the causes most at supported by non-profits can actually be helped. But to suggest that slacktivism isn’t helping is doing a huge disservice to those folks that can’t afford to help financially, but want to help in any other way they can.

This is where social media-led action – or slacktivism, if you like – can raise awareness and put a charity in front of the very people that can not only donate at that time, but become involved more deeply with the charity and support for years to come.

Turn these people away, and the next non-profit to “fail” could be one that doesn’t see value in all forms of support beyond financial.

And one final piece of irony, that made me smile wryly when I saw the unicef ad – UNICEF USA approached 12for12k early in 2009 to partner with them, and that partnership happened in June 2009.

I guess a project that uses slacktivism as a key component can offer benefits…

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