Lessons from Chase Community Giving and the “Catfish” Dilemma

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October 12, 2012; Source: Ad Age

The Chase Community Giving Program, started in 2009 by JPMorgan Chase & Co., was reportedly one of the first experiments in using social media to engage charities and their supporters in a competition for grants. By many accounts, it has not gone well. As Ad Age’s B.L. Ochman reports, “the 2012 contest descended into chaos, capped by Chase’s bone-headed announcement of $10,000 prizes to 15 charities that didn’t get enough votes to win—apparently the result of a clerical mistake.” According to a representative of one of the 15 charities, the mistake came with some reputational harm as “people think [the charities] did something wrong that caused us to lose the $10K.” Plus, there were allegations that Chase was secretly blocking winners that the bank didn’t think fit with its image.

Chase has had a problem with charges of voter fraud since the contest started and some of the lucky winners think that the effort and social capital it takes to engage with the contest might be better used elsewhere. Alex Aliksayanyan of DogsInDanger.org comments, “What a disaster this contest was for everyone.” Given this mess, Ochman offers a few key takeaway suggestions for Chase or others interested in conducting a similar contest: move the voting off of Facebook, don’t rush in announcing winners, admit mistakes right away, clearly document where the money is going, and take some steps to stamp out cheating.

Those all sound like reasonable suggestions, but the last point may be a little more labor-intensive than Chase or others engaged in corporate philanthropy would bargain for in such an undertaking. That’s because it is so easy to set up fake user accounts on Facebook and other social media sites. This was evident from the 2010 Chase Community Giving contest, during which an online battle erupted between Invisible Children (of Kony 2012 fame) and the Isha Foundation when the contest started registering votes on behalf of “users” with questionable names like Gdfg Kcjbvkljvb and Sdfj DfsjlfKddjf that look like the work of someone who just randomly ran their hands over a computer keyboard.

Would those interested in sponsoring social media charity contests such as the Chase Community Giving Program be willing to invest in some human beings that would look over the list of voters to check for fraud? Even that might not fully do the trick, given that some people have established fake social media accounts that look very real (as the 2010 documentary film Catfish showcased).

We’d love to hear reader commentary about what does or doesn’t work in such online contests. Even if there was no “voter fraud,” are they a reasonable way to make grant decisions? –Mike Keefe-Feldman

  • jme thomas

    as our charity was the winner of one of toyota’s 100 cars for good, we must say we are very pleased with this kind of contest- but they also had VERY clear rules, laid out well in advance of the contest, and the participation was monitored…unlike chase’s which we also participated in but didn’t try very hard in since we saw too many issues. likewise, a friend participated in a different contest and actually WON with popular vote but because the organization didn’t want to “disappoint” anyone- and they honestly told her they just wanted to be done with the whole ordeal- they let a cheater win instead…people who had most definitely been caught doing things inappropriately and for some reason were NOT disqualified when this was first discovered!? my friend is dying of cancer and can barely keep a roof over her head and she lost out to a cheater…to say we were infuriated is an understatement.

    i can see the reason why corporations and foundations want to rely on crowd decided voting contests, because it is easy for them- however in putting the power in the hands of the people, they really need to take extra steps to monitor the contest and have a ZERO TOLERANCE policy for cheaters. hiring an outside pr firm that is reputable and has the server power (which is often a problem with sites crashing) is one step, but also heeding the warnings for cheating, not turning a blind eye because it makes their job harder. contestants can usually dig up dirt on the other contestants- and when this is done a tighter reign needs to be given to vote counts and reviews, before announcing winners. many sweepstakes and contests don’t announce the winners for a month after the drawing- perhaps this is how these votes should go to promote the idea of fairness rather than haste.

    most contests we participate in have a very clear set of rules- and surely even the best organizations cannot keep some people from voting as their pets or kids- but this is hardly enough to sway the vote compared to some of the more technological ways that cheating occurs. obvious cheating needs to be eliminated and penalized with disqualification- and although there will be a handful of people earnestly trying to give their org an edge, this is less likely to affect the vote dramatically. as long as the organization shows due diligence in promoting the rules and fair play, i think this kind of matter is manageable and negligible. if the organization however has been shown to have supported cheating (which must be done in a concerted and widespread effort, which is bound to have a trail), they should be disqualified.

    we have both benefited and struggled with voting based contests, but we know too that as we grow and win more and more that people will continue to support us in this way. we believe our cause is a winner based on merit alone, but if “the people’s” opinions are how it’s going into the future, expect animal groups to win over and over, and for cheating to occur. the corporations and foundations offering these contests are going to have to invest heavily in regulation- and realize they open themselves up to harsh criticism…some warranted, some not.

  • Suzanne Hoban

    A fascinating take on this new form of corporate philanthropy. I understand the desire for widespread name promotion for the corporation, but for a lot of non profits, this is just not a worthwhile fundraising strategy. So much time is spent in trying to gather votes – this time could have been better spent in face to face with potential donors, phone calls or other ways of building true support for the mission rather than just grabbing votes.

    Perhaps a more nuanced and helpful way for corporations to engage would be to offe rmore matching grants so that their own contribution was recognized and applauded, would leverage additional funds and would result in a better long term strategy for non profits.

  • Tara Connolly

    Here are a few surprising things about the 2012 top Chase Giving Winners – namely, they don’t necessarily have large Facebook following, or even their own Facebook page! Most of them also had heavy international presence. Here is my write up about the 2012 top winners: http://www.taralconnolly.com/2012/09/21/a-closer-look-at-chase-giving-2012-winners-social-media-strategies/

  • B.L. Ochman

    Thanks for referencing my post about the chaotic Chase Community Giving Contest http://adage.com/article/digitalnext/chase-shows-manage-online-charity-campaign/237644/

    It would be difficult, if not impossible, to manually scan the 1.5 million votes cast in the Chase Contest. The bank spokesperson said they use a software program combined with human monitoring. However, the several IT people I interviewed said it is highly unlikely that the list could have been scrubbed in the time between the close of the contest and the announcement (with mistakes) of the winners at 10 a.m. the next day.

    All in all: a mess. But no reason for other corporate philanthropists to fear because there are indeed better ways to handle an online effort.

  • Bill White

    Unfortunately, this is what charity has come to in the corporate mind set, and unfortunately, in the non profit mind set. Money any way one can get it, visibility anyway it can be sold.. Very little about the mission, outcomes, problems addressed, leadership or much else of significance: no long term support to see a difficult problem through.

    Tell Chase to keep their bailout money and let charity do some significant things to change the world, without any payback expected or asked for.

  • Sharon Charters

    I completely agree with Bill. It’s a sad day that philanthropy contributes to an unhealthy competition between charities. Popularity contests have nothing to do with the worth of the organization and work against efforts to be strategic and thoughtful in granting.