Philanthropy Debate in a Twitter World

The recent debate about Kiva is the first major philanthropy blog debate since Twitter added a number of philanthropy focused users to their Suggested User list. What makes the debate doubly interesting is that Kiva and their CEO Matt Flannery are two of the Twitter users on the Suggested User list. So let’s look at some of the data points and their implications.

  • Kiva and Matt Flannery’s follower counts on Twitter went from a couple thousand a piece before being added to the Suggested User list to 61,000 and 47,000 respectively today (just 12 days since they were added).
  • To put that in perspective, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has a circulation of 34,000 (that’s paid subscription to the newspaper, not their Twitter followers. In may ways it is an apples to oranges comparison, but it does give a sense of reach).
  • Acumen Fund, another new Suggested User, has seen their follower count go from a couple thousand to 52,000.
  • After I published the post yesterday summarizing the Kiva controversy, Acumen Fund tweeted a link to the post. That link has been retweeted 37 times and generated 276 visitors to this blog (over the last 23 hours). A second Acumen Fund tweet to another post I wrote on the issue has generated another 75 visitors.
  • Reading through the profiles of the people who retweeted the Acumen Fund tweet, it appears that many of them have some familiarity with Kiva, but are not regular readers of the philanthropy blogs.
  • These new readers didn’t just click on the link and then move on. The number one outbound link on my blog yesterday was the link to the GiveWell blog’s graphical representation of how Kiva explains their process to donors compared to how they explain it to microfinance institutions. This link was halfway down the post, suggesting that many visitors read through the post and took action to learn more.
  • Including all Twitter users (not just Acumen Fund), Twitter was responsible for 44% of all Tactical Philanthropy readers yesterday.
  • Yet the official Kiva Twitter account has made no mention of the debate and Matt Flannery’s Twitter feed links only to the guest post he wrote giving Kiva’s side of the story on David Roodman’s blog.

A number of the new Tactical Philanthropy readers who came in via the Acumen Fund tweet left comments on my posts. A quick scan of other posts on the debate suggests that readers new to the philanthropy blogs found the debate engaging and are asking questions about important issues.

The Kiva debate is complicated. There is good cause to criticize them and good cause to defend them. What is exciting is that we now have a vibrant online debate about important issues in philanthropy and new platforms like Twitter are exposing non-traditional audiences to these debates.

At the time the Twitter Suggested User list was published, I suggested that the new members needed to realize they were talking to a new audience then they were before and they needed to adjust accordingly.

One small suggestion I would make is to point out that the members of the list are now speaking to a mainstream audience rather than social entrepreneur insiders. I know from my experience writing for the Financial Times, that writing for a mainstream audience is more difficult but also offers more opportunity than speaking to people who already “get” where you are coming from.

Imagine you are giving a talk to a small group of people who are passionate about social change. All of a sudden the walls around the room you are speaking in come crashing down and you realize that their are thousand and thousands of new people outside the room who are now crowding around to hear you.

What would you say?

The Twitter Suggested Users suddenly find themselves holding a powerful new tool. They have the ability to point people’s attention to the subjects they pick. This isn’t a small deal. The current debate is about the validity of Kiva, one of the most highly touted of the “new philanthropy” brands. I’m not sure where this all goes, but I think it is healthy to have so many new people being exposed to the discourse. And I think new winners and losers are going to emerge.