After Twestival: Lessons And Insights When A Signature Digital Social Venture … – Forbes
This is the first spring in six years without Twestival organizing folks via social networks for good in cities around the world.
Created in 2009 by social entrepreneur Amanda Rose, Twestival captured the moment of uniting social good with social media, and grew up alongside social networks. It blossomed from an online experiment into a virtual movement that involved activists and organizers in more than 150 cities globally, raising nearly $2 million for nonprofits and in the process, using social networks to mobilize users to support causes and seek offline action and activity. Twestival was widely praised – and deservedly so – for uniting volunteers through what was then a new technology.
But not every social venture is permanent, not every idea is aimed at achieving scale or long-term sustainability. Sometimes, great ideas like Twestival – whose motto was “Tweet. Meet. Give.” – live in a certain time, and then the landscape shifts and it’s time to move on.
Last year, Rose made that decision to move on – and last week, Forbes connected with her for an in-depth Q&A on Twestival, the lessons learned, and the digital change landscape in general.
Tom Watson: Why did you decide to end Twestival – or more accurately, why was it time?
Amanda Rose: It is a unique experience to be at the epicenter of a movement in which so many people around the world share a sense of ownership. If the decision was mine alone I might have ended it after 2011 when I felt a shift with how people were using Twitter, since our campaign was so closely tied. I decided to keep Twestival going for two more campaigns because a large number of our volunteers remained passionate, there were new cities that wanted a chance to participate and ultimately we continued to provide hundreds of nonprofits with valuable donations and awareness.
After five years, it became clear that Twestival had run its course. When it started, the idea of hosting a day of action with distributed events globally was mindblowing. Twitter was so new that people were excited about meeting offline. Today, the barrier for mobilizing people using social media is only restricted by creativity and an ability to tap into communities who wish to be part of something bigger. There is a lot more competition online and offline when it comes to charitable initiatives, which is inevitable with anything that gains popularity.
Watson: What did you learn from the experience and what can you tell other social entrepreneurs looking to build change movement linked by digital networks?
Rose: Over the years a lot of people have emailed me asking for the ingredients of building a social good movement. What I’ve learned is that technology means nothing unless you take the time to build genuine relationships.
It’s probably easy for some to imagine I just woke up one day, started tweeting about Twestival and magically 200 cities chimed in their support. The reality is that in the weeks prior to announcing on Twitter I had reached out to influencers in my network, one skype conversation at a time, to explain the idea and see if they’d recruit a volunteer team in their city to host an event. Without the initial traction of those 24 cities committed, I don’t believe it would have inspired such a strong response virally.
Then there’s simple, yet instrumental advice for anyone wishing to build successful community based campaigns. Always try to respond quickly, honestly and clearly. I think it shocked a number of people when I would reply to their emails or tweets within minutes. It’s not the kind of advice you would get from Tim Ferriss, but when it comes to working online with others who are giving their time to a cause, making them a priority will prevent organizational bottlenecks and reveal dividends in the trust department.
Watson: We’re conditioned to think along the lines of “well, Twestival failed” because it’s no longer in business. But I think that makes no sense at all, given both the reach and scale Twestival achieved – and how rapidly the landscape is changing. Should social ventures always seek growth and scale and sustainability – those favorite watchwords of venture capitalists and consultants – or is a five-year run cool too…and why?
Rose: I am really glad you’ve addressed this because I know it’s something a lot of social ventures struggle with privately. I never set out to build Twestival into anything more than a one-time event. In fact, many people close to me didn’t believe extending support to local causes would work and advised to stop after we helped charity: water. All I can say is that I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to keep going. I made a decision for Twestival to remain relatively grassroots and only partner with companies who contributed towards our mission of giving 100% of donations and supporting city organizers. While this decision ultimately put limitations on growth and scale, I am really proud of the way we’ve managed to balance the interests of our volunteers and nonprofits without selling out. The media puts a lot of attention on how much Twestival has fundraised ($1.84 million for 312 nonprofits worldwide), but the main aim has always been to connect people from Twitter offline. Of course I would have loved to have grown Twestival into something tenfold and did set lofty goals each year – but I never truly felt it was the right vehicle given the name to transition into a fully fledged business.
In our final year, I experimented with a new model which allowed us to distribute leadership. I also explored partnerships with individuals, companies and nonprofits who I admired to see if there was a fit to give fresh energy to Twestival. The outcome of that was without significant changes to the Twestival model, it was not sustainable without my involvement and I was ready to move on. Not everything is meant to last forever and I think continuing would have diminished our impact.
Watson: Given the Twestival experience, what would you counsel social entrepreneurs to avoid – what’s the downside, where are the landmines in the digital causes arena?
Rose: I would start by asking what their motivation and desired outcome is because if something catches fire online, nothing can prepare you for the challenges or amount of work involved. If it’s coming from a place of passion and you have a unique approach, that will keep you going when times get tough. I didn’t make a salary from Twestival despite working beyond full-time hours. I am only now starting to repay favours to friends who kindly shared their sofa or bought me dinner over the years. Don’t try to be a saint. Really give consideration to how you can pursue your venture and make a living. There are so many people trying to solve similar problems in the civic sector, so joining forces with others could be a powerful approach rather than going out on your own.
Strategically, I think it’s important to do your homework before taking the plunge and find out what the actual needs are before partnering with a cause. Nonprofits are already under resourced, so don’t expect most to get actively involved before you’ve been able to prove real results. On the flipside, it was eye opening to see how fiercely passionate some people became. We had a handful of nonprofits who tried to enforce their own agendas and organizers who felt they knew better. When you are working in the digital causes arena emotions get intertwined, so it’s smart to be conscious of that.
Watson: Are you optimistic for digital change ventures, or have things grown too corporate, too narrowly focused on a few major platforms? And what’s next?
Rose: We have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how technology can improve society. If we are looking specifically at campaigns, people have become a bit bored and oversaturated with things like “company X will donate Y if you do Z”. It’s natural for a few major platforms to rise up, but there is a trend towards flexibility and integration which is exciting for entrepreneurs interested in improving a specific niche without the overhead of building everything from scratch.
Over the last year I have taken everything I’ve learned through my experiences with Twestival and campaigns like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day to build Timecounts, an app for community organizers. Social media has been wonderful to bring to the surface supporters, but I know first hand they aren’t designed with the mind of an organizer who needs to function in the offline world.
It amazes me that volunteers are the 7th largest workforce, yet we still think it’s efficient to coordinate using spreadsheets. I’m now on a mission to change that.