Fundraising for Your Cause with ChipIn: An Interview with Carnet Williams

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Carnet Williams is a popular guy. Steve Bridger interviewed him last week in his "Interview with the Widget King", the 501c3Cast is posting an interview with him on their February 26th show, and I posted an interview with him on the NetSquared Podcast this week.

Who is he?

He's the CEO of ChipIn and you can read an transcript of my interview with him below. (Full disclosure: I am on ChipIn's Nonprofit Advisory Board).

Carnet Williams: My name is Carnet Williams. I am CEO and co founder of ChipIn. We are a distributed fundraising widget platform geared towards both individuals and institutional fundraising. ChipIn works in a couple of different ways. I think, first off, ChipIn works by leveraging an individual, in particular lets say a non-profit stakeholder, leveraging an individual's social network for fundraising purposes. Now when we talk about fundraising it has a relatively wide appeal. It could be an individual raising funds to buy a new laptop computer, or it could be an individual raising funds to support a particular non-profit cause or charity.

So the strength of the system really is in providing tools for individuals to raise money. We tried to build as simple as possible and it's build around the concept of having an embeddable flash-based application that can be transported through many different sites such as blogs, social media sites such as MySpace, Xanga etc. The concept is very simple. There are really only three things you need to know to even start a ChipIn event. You just need to know how much money you want to raise, some sort of title for the event, and how you want the money sent to you via your PayPal account, or do you want ChipIn to collect the money and send it to you via ACH.

Once you decide on the parameters of the event, you are given the opportunity to promote the event in two ways. First you are able to customize a flash widget with parameters such as the title, the description, the color, the size, and then you are able to place that widget on your website or your blog or your MySpace page. The concept of the widget is that it allows individuals to very easily copy and distribute your particular ChipIn event, so that they can help you with your fundraising effect.

A second way that we allow individuals to promote their particular ChipIn event is by providing a very simple domain space, meaning that individuals can register their particular name or and then we provide a very simple editing tool to put up images, pictures, text and video, sort of like a very, very simplified blogging tool, where they can actually send people to read about the event and contribute. So those are the two ways that we allow users to utilize our system to raise money.

Britt Bravo: How can non-profits use ChipIn for their work?

CW: I think there are a couple of things that we have assumed. One is that individuals as a whole are becoming more interested in active giving. And how I define active giving is individuals who want to know where their money is going, what's being done with it, and what specific need is being addressed. I feel that the days of giving, you know, a thousand dollars to a five million dollar capital campaign, are over. I think that my generation, or our generation, who is finally coming into a financial position where they can give some of their money to causes that they believe in, really are very interested in, what is that particular, I use the term, return on my investment.

And so I think where non-profits can use ChipIn very effectively is to break down and segment any particular campaign they are running. So when we work with groups and organizations, we always say, instead of saying you want to raise a million dollars, break it down into discreet chunks--we want to raise a hundred thousand dollar for scholarships, we want to raise two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for improving a shelter--be very discreet in terms of what are the specific uses of the money, and then utilize the widget so that if I support a non-profit, but I most particularly support their after-school scholarship program, then I am more apt to take that widget, place it within my social network and say, "Hey I really support this very specific need of this non-profit organization, and I want my social network to also support it."

So I think for non-profits, the concept that we are introducing of distributed fundraising is really two-fold. I think it's one, it's utilizing the social networks of their best supporters, and two, it's allowing individuals to discreetly grab elements of a particular campaign and be the greatest advocates for that element. Very recently we also published, in conjunction with Beth Kanter, a great case study at that really highlights how she used the ChipIn widget system to raise money for the Sharing Foundation, which is a cause very near and dear to her heart.

BB: What are some other ChipIn success stories?

CW: One of the other things that we have very much focused on is that the widget in itself isn't the full story. Even though we've worked to create a very rich and robust set of media on the widget, meaning we can stream video, audio, and images, we think that's only part of the picture. I think what's most important is that the supporters of these non-profits need to have a very close connection into why they are fundraising, why they are trying to get their social network, their friends and family, to support it.

A couple of examples that I think I can share that just sort of jump out to me, we get examples of these almost every day, but a couple of ones that we have had, a number of examples where you know, a particular individual within a community had some sort of medical issue. Now this isn't particularly a non-profit example, but you can quickly see where someone puts up a certain person who maybe just came down with cancer, or just injured themselves and they can't support their families, someone puts up a widget on a MySpace page, the word gets out, and you would be amazed at the breadth of the network of people who step forward to contribute even just a little amount.

Another example we did was a holiday fundraising drive with the local newspaper here in Hawaii. They put up a small widget for the holiday fundraiser, and that really was a great way for people to say, "Hey, you know it's the holidays, I think it's good time for me to contribute. I may not know any specific needs, but I can give to this particular fundraising drive that is going to provide shelter and food for people over the holidays."

We've had a number of other events that were created around immediate needs. Again, I think another example that I would give would be non-profits that have unforeseen or immediate needs, the ChipIn fundraising widget system really allows them to have a very quick and immediate impact on fundraising.  Last year, there was an earthquake here in Hawaii, using a local example.  it was very quick and very easy for us to put up a widget that was spread around the Hawaii community, the Hawaiian community, and people would contribute to that widget very quickly. So one of the areas we've been looking at is around disaster fundraising, where there is a major crisis these widgets could quickly be distributed over the Internet and people could quickly react to whatever needs might be out there.

BB: What's the path that led you to this work?

CW: I don't know if you have enough time for me to get into that. [laughing] It could be a long story. You know, I always say that a good idea really is a convergence of many different paths that you take in life. ChipIn really was started around a very basic concept, and that was, people are always collecting money for something. They're collecting money for birthday presents, they're collecting money for a vacation rental, and the organizer always has a lot of pain in collecting money. That was sort of the initial concept that got us started with the business.

But of course anything you do in life is always colored by your previous experience, and my co-founders and I, Kevin Hughes and Olin Lagon, we have a very deep rooted history and background in community organizing, the non-profit sector, etc., so I think it was very natural for us to morph our company into a service that really was focused on helping not only individuals, but also to help non-profits find new and innovative ways to fundraise.

So really where ChipIn is today, I think it's a natural outgrowth of our own personal passions and interests to say that there is a better way of doing this online, and with the sort of technology experience that we've all had, looking where the next major changes are going to occur. Four and a half billion dollars was given online in the US in 2005, and I think that we can get that number even higher with the goal of making every donor an active donor, so that when people give money they know specifically what they're giving it for, and that they get a nice feedback loop to understand where their money went and what it did, so that they'll give money again.

I think that is where ChipIn is really heading towards, particularly with the next iteration version of our widget platform, to incorporate much richer media, streaming videos, and audio, and having much more robust interactions with the end user.

BB: Some people are saying that 2007 is the year of the widget. What do you think?

CW: Well, I guess I don't want to sound like the party pooper, but I think I'd like to actually redefine what 2007 is going to be. I think 2007 is going to be the year that widgets evolve into an intelligent being. What I mean by that is that the widgets we see today online, and I think the term "digital bling" is very appropriate for them, I call them dumb widgets. And the reason I say that is that most of the widgets we see today, be it a YouTube video, a picture show, they are merely display widgets, meaning they're just sort of spiced up banners. They just stand alone, they display some sort of content, it might even be the weather that they display.

What I think 2007 really should be part of is the evolution of the widget into a smart widget. We are going to see widgets that are going to be focused around transactions, such as a ChipIn widget around donations, focused around intelligent content, meaning that widgets will soon be able to identify the users, and where they're located, so that they can serve our conditional and intelligent content.

I really think that widgets are going to evolve and you're going to start seeing a whole new breed of widgets that are more intelligent, that are richer in the data, and that have a much more grounded rationale so they'll move from becoming decorations to part of a business process for companies and individuals online.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about ChipIn and non-profits?

CW: We are actually evolving the ChipIn product pretty substantially in the next 30 days. What we really realized is that our widget platform does so much more than just track the collection of money. Right now we've just secured several different contracts to provide our widget platform for a variety of different purposes, everything from political campaigns, to event management, to traditional donorware fundraising. Really where we are going is beyond fundraising, we're going to be providing a widget management platform.

A lot of the partners that we're working with will soon be essentially white labeling our technology so that they can offer a very robust, out of the box, and easy to integrate widget system that they can immediately make available to their users. So lots of great things are going to be coming out. We've got a bunch of mad scientists working on some pretty new and innovative ways of tracking, monitoring, and displaying the widget content.

So we're really excited about where we're going, and I'm just really happy to be back working in the non-profit sector and being part of this new wave of looking at online services both here in the US and internationally. I think one of the things I really would like to see with ChipIn is that it provides a global mechanism for fundraising, and for social advocacy, and measuring social engagement not only here in the US, but at the international and global level.

I'm really excited about where we're going, and I'm really excited to be able to provide a service to the non-profit sector, and am just going to watch how people adopt and adapt. What we strive to do at ChipIn is to make sure that we address clients' needs most, so we're constantly going to be watching and monitoring and talking with the people who use our system so that we build what people need, not what we think they need.

Transcribed by CastingWords