Tuesday, November 16, 2010

American Express Re-upping Its “Crowdsourced” Philanthropy

Everything, it seems, is being crowdsourced these days, even corporate philanthropy. The American Express foundation has been tapping the public for input on which historic sites to support in selected cities. The project, called Partners in Preservation, is a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express, which pledged in 2006 to spend $5.5 million over five years on refurbishing and upgrading historic landmark sites. A committee picks a different city each year and 25 historic sites in that city. Then the public votes on which site or landmark it wants the corporate donation to support. The site with the most votes is guaranteed funding; a committee of local civic leaders helps determine which other high vote getters receive grants.

People have gotten pretty creative in expressing their votes. In Boston in 2009, the biggest winner — the Paragon carousel — had a rock band write a song about it; the song was posted on YouTube and was instrumental in driving more votes. Seattle was chosen as the 2010 location; the big winner there was the Schooner Adventuress, a 97-year-old ship that was as a work boat on the San Francisco Bay and now serves as an environmental education site for schools and youth organizations. Via boaters’ blogs, Facebook and Twitter, and a video on YouTube the ‘Vote For the Boat’ campaign rallied the public. The Schooner won a $125,000 grant to be used for repairs.

Today American Express Chief Executive Ken Chenault will be announcing an additional $10 million commitment to the project from the American Express foundation. “As the program has evolved, we’ve relied more and more on social media for calls to action and communication with the voting public – but what’s really interesting is that it’s not just American Express and the National Trust talking about the program – the sites themselves are incredibly engaged and are driving their own communities to take action and vote,” says Chenault.

A spokesperson for American Express says that to the best of their knowledge, the company was the first to use crowdsourcing in philanthropy — although the term crowdsourcing wasn’t common in 2006. Others like Pepsi, with its Refresh campaign which “gives away millions to fund great ideas” have followed suit.

Still to be determined: Which city in the U.S. will be chosen for the Partners in Preservation competition in 2011. American Express says that decision will be made early next year. So far, the competition has been held in San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicagoland, Boston and Seattle.
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