Unleashing the Snoball Effect of Charitable Social Giving

As originally published in Forbes.

Imagine that you and two friends are in Atlanta this New Year’s Eve to cheer on your UVA Cavaliers in their college football Bowl Game against Auburn. Early that morning, you guarantee a victory and back it up by pledging a donation to charity.

“I’m going to Snoball this,” you tell your friends.

Your laptop flies open, you log into your account at Snoball.com, and, with several mouse clicks, you throw down the gauntlet. If UVA wins, you will donate five dollars ($5) to MadisonHouse, where all three of you volunteered as undergraduates – one of 1.6 million non-profits supported by Snoball’s online social giving platform.

That’s where the fun—the giving—begins.

Through Snoball, you share your pledge—your nascent Snoball—with all your friends on Facebook, many of whom are UVA alums. You Tweet with all the appropriate hash tags (#uva #hoos #give #charity) the URL to your personalized Snoball page urging others to your join your Snoball. You then email your link to 50 friends. You’ve spent 10 minutes thus far. You then hold your laptop out to your friends.

“Your turn. Snoball it.”

Hours before kickoff, you and your two friends have tapped into vast social networks, giving each person the opportunity to match your pledge. In turn, each can do the same with his or her own network. Let’s estimate conservatively that the three of you reach a total of 1,000 unique individuals through Facebook, Twitter, and email. Suppose 10% of those individuals (100) join you. UVA wins. Your initial $5 Snoball—no big deal, right?—just turned into $500 for your charity of choice.

Why just the Bowl Game? If you’re a Tar Heel, why not Snoball when UNC plays Duke in hoops? Or when Army plays Navy? So the Yankees are visiting the Phillies tonight? Snoball the home team with $2 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and invite your friends and co-workers to do the same.

Why not motivate yourself to meet your fitness goals or to tend to your garden daily or to attend church regularly by rewarding yourself with a charitable donation to a local charity? Better yet, why not invite your friends to join you?

Welcome to Snoball’s concept of Social Giving.

The Importance of Online Giving

John Ludlow, Chief Strategy Officer of Snoball (@Snoballfort), understands first-hand the value of charitable giving. When his first daughter was born six weeks premature, he was volunteering with a number of non-profits based upon his belief that people should give more of their time than their money. He still does. Ludlow told me:

When my daughter was born, the March of Dimes had donated to the hospital that very day the machine she needed to live. I literally saw them unpack the wrapper. I realized then how important real cash is.

His co-founder (there are four) and CEO, Jeremy Kelley, experienced similar realizations when he and his wife worked with refugees abroad. Human capital was relatively plentiful, while funds were in short supply. A self-described geek who specialized in information security analysis at the Department of Defense and IBM’s Security Intelligence Group, Kelley saw the power of social networks to allow anyone to have a huge effect with a small beginning.

Social networks are very easy for anyone to participate in. People enjoy being connected. What’s lacking from today’s social network is the social action that is the core of social giving to bring about social good. Online giving is ripe for social action. Around 70% who give online do so because they are invited, especially by their friends. Snoball makes it frictionless to give and to invite others to give with them.

Online giving is not new. It was featured in Forbes as early as 2007 and is covered regularly by the contributors at Forbes’ Cause Integration. In 2010, total giving to charitable organizations was $290.89 billion (2% of GDP), according to Giving USA Foundation. The Blackbaud Index of Online Giving provides that 7.6% of charitable giving that year occurred online. That’s roughly $22 billion of online charity. According to Blackbaud, December alone accounts for one-third of online giving, or over $7 billion in one month. Competition for those year-end funds is fierce, as fundraisers can tell you.

My Snoball Experience

The only way to describe Snoball is to experience it first hand, so that’s exactly what I did. It took me just minutes to sign up and link Snoball’s platform to the social networks of my choice. Snoball links directly through its API to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, MapMyFitness, Reddit, and Github. I decided to pledge $1 per Boston Celtics victory to Boston’s Habitat for Humanity, with which I have no affiliation and to which I have never given either financially or in the form of volunteer hours. You can get much more granular than that if you’re so inclined, as Snoball’s sports engine is powered by Stats LLC, which knows more about statistics than Belly Beane and Bill James. It would have been just as easy to trigger a donation of 25 cents for each point scored by Celtics reserve forward Jeff Green.

You can make one-time donations, recurring donations, and even donations based on personal goals such as mowing the lawn or being nice to your brother. (You currently can limit the amount you donate in any given month. Snoball will soon introduce other limiting parameters.) The possibilities are endless, and Snoball will help you follow through by sending you an email at the appropriate interval. Did you mow the lawn this week? Ludlow told me that his team particularly enjoys following the charitable donations triggered by someone who gives if she accomplishes personal goals. Like clockwork, she answers yes and donates, as do the others who have helped her public Snoball grow.

Social Giving

The real power of Snoball is its ability to tap into the power of social networks to trigger the proverbial snowball effect. When one person’s $2 pledge becomes $20 or $200, Snoball works. Imagine the power of a celebrity or other social media Influencer who tweets a $2 donation via Snoball to 150,000 Twitter followers. Such a snowball effect could change in just hours the entire scope of what a local charity could accomplish in a year.

Snoball is also working with companies to allow certain internal metrics to trigger corporate donations. These can in turn be used to motivate employees through friendly inter-departmental competitions, for example. The potential for corporations to raise awareness about and funds for specific causes through Social Giving is profound.

People donate to causes about which they case and often for highly personal reasons. Yet the impetus for giving—school loyalty or the desire to support wounded veterans, for example—need not be stored until the final weeks of December. Each of us strives to achieve personal goals, and we often reward ourselves. Perhaps we might enjoy the gift of giving to a local charity more than that extra movie rental, especially when we can so easily challenge our social networks to join us.

As we round the final bend into the holiday season and 2012, each of us has an opportunity to give. Why not pick something fun—the outcome of your Wisconsin Badgers’ game against Oregon in the Rose Bowl; whether you catch your grandson waiting for Santa; or whatever fun metric you enjoy tracking, and create a Snoball that you share with friends and family. When it comes to Social Giving, the more the merrier.