Is This a Good Idea -- Or Not?
Mashable was pretty excited about this news recently -- a website, Mother Nature Network, that allows users to earn points based on how much time they spend on the site. Those points eventually translate into some sort of (unspecified) donation to an environmental nonprofit of the user's choice. It seems appealing on its face -- but if you think about it, maybe not so much. The MNN approach is a variation on the "shop your way to greenness" sales pitch adopted by credit cards like the Working Assets Visa. A small percentage of each purchase is donated to a group of nonprofits. That may do some good -- but it may do some harm, too, because it places a feel-good fig leaf over our tendency toward overconsumption, which in itself is central to the problems of environmental degradation and destruction. We tend to justify our purchases because we are somehow "helping the world," when by definition -- by the very fact that only one or two percent of the purchase price goes to the ostensible good cause -- we're working around the very margins of the problem, and potentially exacerbating it.
By the same token, allowing people to feel good for reading articles on a website, with the knowledge that their actions somehow support a distant environmental group, may be smart marketing but probably doesn't do much in terms of effectiveness for the causes in question. And it may even dissuade people from doing more, as they'll feel they've "done my part." (This problem is also an attribute of household recycling -- many people who recycle feel that they've done enough, and thoughtful environmentalists grind their teeth when they hear this.)
All of this points to the question of the story we tell ourselves, and the story we tell our clients or supporters, concerning who they are and how their actions are valued. Long ago, when I (Hal) was running a volunteer organization, we learned that the more we expected of our volunteers, the more we got from them. We told them a story about what it meant to be part of our organization, and they internalized that and reflected it back. The Mother Nature Network, on the othe hand, may be talking down to their clients, telling them less of a story than they, and their causes, deserve.