You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

[Op-Ed] Bill Gates's Database of Global Citizens Will Not Be "Moneyball" for Activism

BY David Karpf | Monday, January 26 2015

The Gnomes' business plan (Wikipedia)

According to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have committed to funding the creation of “a massive self-registered database of ‘global citizens'.” Gates’s database will be controlled by the Global Poverty Project, which has experience promoting global causes through star-studded charity festivals. Gates hopes that the database will have over 10 million names by this summer. At first glance, this looks to be a new global advocacy group, committed to ending extreme poverty worldwide. That’s a laudable purpose, but the details are pretty odd. Rather than creating a single new organization, Gates is promising to create a database that can be shared by groups like Oxfam, The ONE Campaign, Greenpeace and Save the Children. Each of those organizations already has its own massive supporter list. Randall Lane at Forbes magazine sees this as a game-changer, trumpeting the new initiative and saying it “could herald the Moneyball era of activism.”

I’m sure Gates’s heart is in the right place, and the commitment that Microsoft’s founder has shown to global philanthropy is lovely to see. But if he’s looking to dramatically improve social activism around issues like global poverty, public health, climate change and education, then it sure looks like he’s receiving bad advice on this project. This ain’t Moneyball activism. It looks a lot more like South Park’s “underpants gnomes” business model. (“Step one, collect underpants; step two, ?????; step three, profit!”)

Let’s start with the obvious: social activism is plagued by a lot of problems. A lack of big lists is not one of them. Change.org has a list of more than 86 million supporters. Avaaz.org has more than 40 million worldwide. Well-established companies like Catalist, Trilogy Interactive and M+R regularly work with nonprofit advocacy organizations to notice trends and overlaps within their databases. One more big database of emailable supporters isn’t going to shake things up. It isn’t even going to be a noticeable change from today’s status quo.

Change.org is a particularly interesting example, because the original model for Change.org looked surprisingly similar to what Gates is now proposing. Back in 2007, Ben Rattray was pitching Change.org 1.0 as “Ning for Nonprofits.” People would create profiles on the site, and organizations would then reach supporters through that giant, self-registered database. Facebook Causes was pretty similar. Both companies eventually pivoted to completely different business models after they tested the idea and realized it was a dud.

Even if Gates’s database includes 10 million people, it is doubtful that will lead to anything dramatically new. Large organizations like the ONE Campaign and Oxfam will share access to the list. They’ll take turns messaging the members. But, as noted before, those organizations already have huge lists. Making them slightly larger isn’t an activist revolution. It’s a quarterly growth target.

The problem for social activism today isn’t that we lack a big database of contactable names. The problem is generating deep, lasting commitments, building “communities of fate,” and leveraging the power necessary to take on powerful actors who have strong incentives to resist social activism. This, by the way, has always been the problem for social activism. It isn’t unique to the “clicktivism” era. Power resists counterpower. Organizing is hard, and it requires a dynamic mix of creativity, mass participation, deep commitment and fortuitous timing.

It also looks as though Bill Gates has been spending entirely too much time in places like Davos. In his interview with Randall Lane, he says, “People have a tendency to brag about the total size of the list … In fact, if you can get 20,000 people to go to Africa and see something that connects to their heart, and that they’re giving to and caring about, that would be spectacular.” This is a nice sentiment, but it just reeks of activist tourism. Apparently if you want to really participate in Gates’s social movement, you’ll need enough disposable income to select Africa for this year’s vacation destination. (You must be this wealthy to enjoy the activism ride.)

As for Lane’s contention that this will usher in “the Moneyball era of activism,” I have to question whether the Forbes editor grasps what either of those terms actually means. Here’s the thing about “Moneyball”: it only works if the outcome you are measuring is clearly defined and easy to quantify. Moneyball worked in baseball because they had a mountain of statistical observations (at-bats against left-handed relievers with runners on first and third), a static end-goal (win games by scoring the most runs over nine innings), and a network of “experts” who were ignoring the data in favor of their own hunches. Moneyball has also worked in electoral politics where we have discrete end-goals like voter turnout.

In social activism, the end goals are never static. Some activist campaigns try to raise money to build a hospital or school. Others try to pressure a corporation to reform its behavior. Still others try to push corrupt public officials out of office, or pass legislation that reforms a broken policy process. Activist campaigning is never as simple as “raise X dollars and collect Y signatures and we will surely win.” Organizing is a dynamic process of establishing your goals, evaluating your resources, developing alliances, selecting targets, and then creating the conditions where maybe you can win.

The real tragedy here is the giant pile of money that Bill Gates is sure to waste on this database project. One real, enduring problem for social activism is that infrastructure and experimentation are badly underfunded. Some of the best social change organizations in the world operate on shoestring budgets, and struggle to keep their doors open every year. Bill Gates is listening to the wrong people. If he listened to the right ones, his money could make a profound impact. Gates could act as an angel investor in campaigns for social good. Instead he’s being sold vaporware.

The theory-of-change behind this database seems to be “Step one, get 10,000,000 names; step two, lend them to a bunch of existing organizations; step three, ?????; step four, save the world!” Forbes Magazine thinks the whole thing is brilliant. If you ask me, it sounds pretty cartoonish.

David Karpf is an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. His book The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy was published in 2012.