April 6, 2009

"Activism 2.0" business models in Australia

The green and tech blogs have been reporting of late the rise of a new sustainable online business called “Virgance“. They’ve made a bit of splash after acquiring “GO Media“.

Virgance, a San Fransisco based company claims to be

a company that seeks to promote world-changing activism campaigns using market-based methods that are effective, transparent, profitable, and scalable. We do online organizing to create offline positive change that is direct and tangible.

It is doing so through three main projects running now, and has another major one in the pipeline.

Both existing projects focus on green business – and claim to make money. The emphasis on profitable social and environmental activism is not one that I’ve seen before. There are many “green” businesses (the entire renewable and recycling sector for example), but none that combine them with social activism.

Having looked around their site and their projects, I like what I see.

1BOG (one block off the grid) is a bulk-buying solar panel group, linking people who want to buy solar panels with each other so they can negotiate the best price. 1BOG seems to make money from the panel retailers.

CarrotMob – clearly inspired by flashmobbing – seeks to create incentives for small businesses to improve their energy effeciency (and other environmental measures) through promising more customers. The CarrotMob gets businesses to bid on the best environmental investment they’ll make, and the best bid gets targeted with CarrotMob customers (improving sales and ensuring the revenue for the business to install the new environmental features).

Lend Me Some Sugar (Lend) is aimed at promoting corporate philanthropy through social networking sites. Companies improve their image and the charities get their money; and consumers find out about it through being able to participate in deciding where the money goes. It’s called “crowd-sourcing” corporate philanthropy.

Finally, the big plan they’ve got going is the Green Fund. This is the most ambitious and most interesting scheme. Basically it seeks to harness the power of social networks to fundraise:

What if we got the 200 million people on Facebook and MySpace together and did something good? If each of those people put $100 into a new type of VC fund, we would be able to raise $20 billion dollars.

This is a great idea – clearly inspired by the success of the Obama campaign, which succeded in part through mirco-donations. While I doubt that the 200 million people on social networking sites will each donate $100, a smaller target of $10 or even $1 would be a remarkable achievement.

Virgance in Australia?

The biggest limitation to Virgance I can see is the sheer size of the United States. The slick website aside, there is nothing that sets them out from other charities, not-for-profits and social action movements. There are bigger, better funded groups out there, crowding out the airwaves. There is a limited amount of oxygen for this kind of thing.

In a smaller market (just San Fransisco for example) this could be big. Australia has a growing network of climate change action groups, a strong Greens Political Party and both Labor and Liberals (to a lesser extent) are taking the environment and climate change seriously. Furthermore, groups like the ACTU Rights at Work and GetUp both have ready made activist networks that can be tapped into. There is also a great niche to be filled for bulk-buying of solar energy.

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