Social Good Takes Over SXSW

The annual SXSW Interactive Conference just wrapped up in Austin, TX. And while this year’s version may have grabbed headlines for Edward Snowden’s virtual appearance and cognitive cooking from a food truck, what stood out to me was the emphasis this year’s festival put on social good. SXSW’s 2014 version featured a rich helping of content centered around how the tech community can support innovative nonprofits, Millennials doing good, social entrepreneurship, new ways of looking at corporate social responsibility, diversity in the tech community and more. And turns out that wasn’t a mistake: organizers consciously went out searching for this content in response to past year’s attendee feedback asking for the shift. It was, in effect, the tech community throwing a call to arms out to itself.

Here are just a few of the many social good highlights from 5 action-packed days:

Celebrating Social Good Innovation

Chelsea Clinton delivered the keynote on the festival’s final day and her message was an appropriate one to leave on. She reminded the tech community, known for chasing and celebrating those who invent and get there first, that sometimes in the development/doing good world, it’s actually more important to be transparent to your process, even if that means coming in second or third. She challenged the NGO and tech communities to embrace the idea that “innovation isn’t always new,” that sometimes the most important innovations come from incremental improvements of old ideas that celebrate what’s working. Because when lives are on the line, first isn’t always best – effective, proven and scalable is.

Combatting the Stigma of “Slactivism”

A group of high-profile organizers, including Hollywood actor Ian Somerhalder and the founders of Omaze and Ryot came together to praise the ability of social media to create positive action, directly disagreeing with the growing notion that tweeting or posting for change amounted to nothing but “slactivism”, or the idea that so-called passive action is an easy way to look like you’re involved without actually getting involved.

Somerhalder and friends argued it’s actually the opposite – organizing millions via simple messages communicates support around an issue that can be used to make real change. The hugely-successful and popular (Red) social media campaign to combat AIDS in Africa was cited as an example of social media activism creating real change.

Sidenote: if you haven’t seen the video Ben Affleck and Matt Damon put together for Omaze you should check it out.


Smart(er) CSR

Another hot topic amongst those at SXSW’s StartUp Village was how to build smart corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies into their new companies. It was clear that this generation’s young founders are thinking about a lot more than profit when they plan their companies: they want their companies to have a role in changing the world. Two conversations kept popping up within this community around CSR: First, do CSR and giving back programs need to have a measured ROI, or are they better measured anecdotally as a piece of an overall benefits package, to guard anyone seeing CSR volunteerism policies as simply another way to make money? If companies genuinely want to give back, do they need to prove an ROI every single time?

And second, how can companies better supply skilled volunteers to nonprofits so nonprofits get as much value as possible out of CSR time? For instance, it’s great for team-building if a group of creatives gets together to build a house for a day, but anyone can swing a hammer and unskilled volunteers are relatively easy to find. Wouldn’t it be better for a design shop to offer a 24 hour design-a-thon so that nonprofits in desperate need of website makeovers and professional logos could take advantage of the shop’s pro bono, skilled time?


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