Spendrise seeks to harness people’s buying power to solve the biggest problems of our day. (Getty Images)

This week, a company that seeks to inspire social change asks how best to get its story out. –Dan Beyers

The entrepreneur

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, Eric Shih went to work as a community organizer for a nonprofit in San Francisco focused on environmental health and working conditions of low-income immigrant communities. He spent three years knocking on doors and meeting with people at their kitchen tables, rallying people to the cause.

The experience made Shih passionate about how to create more opportunities for people to influence issues that affect their lives. He went back to school in 2010 to take a wider look at the question of where do communities have power and how to create change in the 21st century. Shih was focused on updating the community organizing process at the core of many social movements. His “ah-ha” moment came from a graph in a class that showed the power of U.S. consumers, contributing more than 70 percent of the gross domestic product in the nation’s economy.

“Bringing these two things together seemed like a real opportunity,” says Shih. “If we could find a way to apply that buying power to the biggest problems of our day, we could drive a lot of positive change..”

The pitch

Eric Shih, founder of Spendrise

“Spendrise is a way for consumers to connect their spending and their values to help businesses that they love become even better. On Spendrise, consumers can make a monetary pledge to spend at a business on a condition that the business makes an important change. If the business does, all of those pledges go through and consumers receive a gift card to the business in the amount of money that they pledged. We use all-or-nothing crowd funding, so if a business doesn’t make the change then all the pledges expire and no money changes hands. We’re creating a simple, risk-free, powerful way for consumers to speak up and actually be heard on issues that they care most about. It’s a way to tap into the real power of consumers: the dollars we spend.

“An example of a Spendrise campaign might be an effort to get a coffee chain to switch to recyclable cups to replace the cups they sell per year that can’t be recycled. On Spendrise, anyone could start a campaign to petition the chain to make that change by pledging any amount — $20, $50. Then if the company does, the campaign succeeds and the pledges go through so that everyone receives gift cards to that chain in their pledged amount. That’s good for the consumer, good for the chain and good for the planet. We make money from successful transactions.

“We launched our public beta test in April. We have our first campaigns running, working with organizations and community groups who are already actively working on specific causes. They are using the Spendrise platform as a way to win their campaigns and another way to engage with their members.

“Spendrise builds on things people might already know about – signing a petition and crowdfunding – but it is something new, so how do we tell our story most effectively? Thinking about our initial user base, there are a lot of consumers who want to see better business practices and care about social missions, but that is a vast audience. Should we start with specific niches– a particular demographic or particular issues – to find our core initial users? We don’t necessarily want to limit the breadth of what we do, but it may be easier to tell our story if we focus on a specific market.”

The advice

Sara Herald, associate director of social entrepreneurship, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“Harnessing the power of individuals to create change can result in major impact, but you need to better communicate the process. Clearly explain how a Spendrise campaign works on your website. Who is taking the pledges to the companies to try to get them to make the changes so the campaigns actually come to fruition? How many pledges will it take for the campaign to succeed? You don’t want these campaigns to just feel like wishful thinking – you need to show specific metrics and the tipping point. People want to know what it’s going to take to make the change happen so that their pledges feel like making progress towards a goal, not just a drop in a bottomless bucket.

“Focusing on a specific market will help you gain initial traction because finding your ‘early adopters’ is very hard. See what information you can get from platforms with similarities, such as Change.org or Indiegogo’s Generosity.com. What are the characteristics of their most active users? Why have some of petitions or campaigns been more successful than others?

The other thing to keep in mind is that while there will likely be some macro-level trends in your early adopters, each type of campaign will have a different group of active users. For example, young parents will probably be more likely than college students to make a pledge to persuade a toy company to make more gender-neutral toys. Someone who is passionate about addressing climate change may make multiple pledges to campaigns related to the environment but not even click on campaigns that don’t speak to their personal interests.

“To really demonstrate how Spendrise can work, find a business that is willing to make a change with enough consumer support. Run a campaign with a specific goal, target people who care about that cause, document how the company makes the requested change, and use that impact as proof of concept to get other organizations on board and showcase your platform to users.”

The reaction

Shih

“I’m particularly interested in more clearly showing users the connection between taking action on Spendrise and making progress toward an achievable goal. As individual consumers, speaking up and actually being heard often feels like wishful thinking, so it’s extra important to find ways to communicate how we can and will create incredible change together.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.