Hi all,

@Yoav Ravid mentioned that it might be interesting/useful to get a “retrospective” post on CollAction.org (an assurance-contract website or what we call a ‘crowdacting’ website) that me and a few friends started a while ago. I’ll share a little bit about the history and the challenges that we ran into along the way.

Three points before I dive in:

  1. The reason I’m writing this post is two-fold: a) I hope it helps anyone that has a similar idea; and b) we’re actually looking for a team to take this platform to the next level. So please let me know if you’re interested to lead or be part of this team
  2. The website is still up and running. But at the moment the focus and limited resources that we have are mostly spent on building one of our most successful crowdactions (the Slow Fashion Season) into a movement (appropriately named the Slow Fashion Movement). Which brings us back to point 1b: we’re looking for a new team to take the collaction.org forward
  3. Apologies for writing a rather long post - I didn’t have the time to write a short one, as the saying goes ;)

 

Some history

A friend and I had this idea about 5 years ago. We were/are interested in collective action problems, more specifically of the Tragedy of the Commons kind. We saw that the solutions to collective action problems (regulation and privatization) weren’t always applicable, desirable, or working as they should. At the same time we saw all these platforms that used the power of the collective, whether it was related to buying (e.g. Groupon), funding (e.g. crowdfunding), advocacy (e.g Avaaz), or something else. So we thought: we should be able to use the internet to provide a new solution to collective action problems. Never before were this many people (3 billion at the time) connected with each other, through the internet. This should allow us to act collectively on an unprecedented scale. And thus the idea of crowdacting was born (well, born...As with most ideas, lots of other people probably had the same idea already as well. E.g. we later found out that Pledgebank did something similar in the UK a few years earlier, although they facilitated both crowdacting, petitions, and crowdfunding it seems. The site was taken down in 2015.) 

We defined crowdacting as “Coordinated, conditional, collective action to achieve a positive social and/or ecological goal” . Simply put, with crowdacting we ask: “Would you take action for good if you knew that a hundred/a thousand/a million/a billion others would do so too?”  

We consciously chose to separate the name crowdaction from the platform that we were going to build (CollAction.org) - in line with our belief that our mission is larger than our organisation. The implication is that we encourage other people to also start crowdaction platforms (just like there are many crowdfunding platforms). Practically this means e.g. that we build open source, have a static site that explains the crowdacting concept (crowdacting.org), and we’re currently looking at copying the version for a Turkish NGO that would run it locally. 

Anyway, after building a crappy prototype we started testing the waters with our first small crowdactions that we started ourselves, like switching to a fair bank and a meat free month (targets of 50 and 100). Shortly thereafter, two people that we didn't know started the first project that we didn’t organise ourselves, which was exciting, because that was in line with the desired end goal from the beginning: in order to be able to scale, we couldn't organise all campaigns ourselves, it would need to be done by the crowd

At some point we felt that we had tested it enough with small projects and we decided to focus on organising a one or two larger projects ourselves, instead of many small ones. So we ran a more professional campaign with the Slow Fashion Summer (which was in later years dubbed the Slow Fashion Season and is now turning into the Slow Fashion Movement).

Currently around 30,000 people committed to actions through collaction.org. Which is a nice start. But I believe the idea has the potential to have so much more impact. So let me talk about some of the challenges that we faced and are still facing. 

Challenges and considerations around a few themes

Concept. There were (and still are) a few risks and challenges to address when it comes to the concept. Some examples (not exhaustive): 

  • Turning commitment into acting. I.e. how to enforce the contract. If people commit to a project, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will actually act upon that commitment once the target has been reached. This one we haven’t sufficiently been able to address yet - but I’m pretty confident that it could be with the right resources. Here are just some examples of, let’s say, ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ measures that could be considered (I’m sure there are many more).
    • Soft
      • Clear communication upfront. At the start of each signing up-procedure we make it very clear that we only want supporters to commit if they are willing to join in with the acting.
      • Use of social (pressure) media. If people post they will do something on social media, this increases the chance they will actually do so. By encouraging the sharing of commitments on social media, the commitment / acting ratio will increase. Tools like Thunderclap (now no longer operational) could also help with that
      • Engagement throughout the campaign. Keeping engagement high throughout the campaign will increase conversion
      • Gamification. For example, users could earn points when participating in a project, and when sharing his/her support on social media. And/or users can get points for sharing evidence (e.g. photos) with CollAction or on social media that an action has been performed.
    • Hard(er)
      • Simply put: People transfer some money and only get it back if the action is taken (exact operationalization can have different shapes and forms)
        • NB: there’s a trade off between sign ups and higher commitment-to-action conversion through such measures of course. I.e. anything in the flow that could increase commitment-to-action ratio (e.g. if they need to leave more information or transfer money to a retainer or something) might decrease the view-to-commitment ratio
      • Only relevant for certain projects: conditionally start the action (upon reaching the target). In projects where the action is a switch to e.g. a values driven bank or insurer, sustainable energy provider, or a sustainable pension fund, the participant could give permission to make the switch on their behalf on the condition that the target is met. People share the necessary information at the time of commitment and their conditional permission to make the switch.
  • Concept clarity/understanding/execution. Not necessarily a challenge/problem, but it was interesting to see that people had different reasons to participate in projects. We sent out surveys after projects once in a while to ask for their motivations to join. And yes, a substantial part of the people participated because they knew other people would do the same. But others said they were just inspired to finally do what they were planning to do. Others found it more fun to do it with a group. They weren’t all necessarily triggered by the ‘assurance contract’ element of it all. At the same time, not all crowdactions that were started were ideal projects. What I mean by that is: an ideal crowdaction for me would actually solve a collective action problem that I wouldn’t be able to solve by just changing my own actions. Some sort of tipping point would need to be reached. There are plenty crowdactions that we can think of that would do that (lots of good examples here as well), but even more collective actions that don’t.
  • Finding the right crowdaction starters. Making a crowdaction successful requires the crowdaction starter to invest a bit of time into thinking it through properly, setting it up, and - most of all - promoting it so it reaches its target. In practice, people are often inspired to set up a crowdaction but then don’t realise it actually takes quite a bit of work to reach enough people to make it a success (since the attention space is quite competitive :) )
  • Bad intentions. The platform could also be used for people with bad intentions. Theoretically speaking, the crowdacting principle can also be applied to achieve goals that are not desirable, such as “If 10 people commit to beating up John, we’ll all do it together”. We addressed this by having all submitted crowdactions checked against a set of criteria by the CollAction team. One other way to do it, especially when you scale, is to have a reporting system - i.e. when someone submits a crowdaction it immediately goes online, but the community members can just report projects that don’t meet the criteria that have been set.

Funding. Finding funding for the project has been a bit of a pain to be honest. There were two avenues we explored (unfortunately we didn’t really have the right high net worth individuals in our network):

  • “Free money”, like subsidies or from foundations. This has been a bit challenging since:
    • We’re not focused on 1 particular problem (like climate change, plastics, poverty, or loneliness among elderly, etc.) but we’re posing a new way to solve all kinds of collective action problems. This generally does not fit many funders’ buckets / categories;
    • We’re a platform. We found that the funders we reached out to generally prefer to fund a concrete action or a physical project. Nevertheless: we were lucky enough to find some funders which helped a great deal. It just hasn’t been enough yet to really scale beyond our current impact.
  • (Impact) investors. We had some discussions, but for many we were still too early stage and first needed to show a little bit more proof of a working business model.

Business models

We’ve considered a lot of models and tested some as well. Here’s a list of the main ones (probably not exhaustive):

  • Referral: for every person to change to a renewable energy provider, a fair bank, or to buy from sustainable brand X or Y, we get a referral fee from the provider
    • Pros: relatively easy to implement.
    • Cons:
      • Risk of not being seen as independent, but rather as a marketing machine for certain brands
      • Not structural/recurring revenue (ad hoc)
    • Status: we had some discussions in the beginning with green energy provider and a bank, but did not pursue this further due to the cons (and there is also some logistical/technical implications of connecting our platform to the brands’)
  • SaaS: sell our platform (and additional consulting services) to e.g. municipalities or companies that want their constituents/employees to take action for good, collectively
    • Pros:
      • Recurring revenue.
      • In line with mission (ie more people act through crowdacting)
    • Cons
      • Costs dev time
      • Long sales trajectories, which take a lot of time
    • Status: we sold it to one municipality, but they didnt end it up using because of internal things/priorities over there. We pitched it to a few more potential clients but stopped, because we realised how long these sales cycles were and were personally de-energized by that. Also, we just didn't have enough time to pursue it
  • The CollActive: a system where users/people can become member/co-owner of collaction. They get certain rights (e.g. a say in directions and which projects get some money) and pay x euro / month
    • Pros:
      • Close to the core. Fitting of our proposition (the crowd owns the crowdacting platform)
      • Builds community
      • Recurring revenue
    • Cons
      • You have to provide some value (emotional or more tangible), which will take up some resources
      • Needs to be some community management
    • Status: we did quite some thinking and even researched and worked out the legal setup. But haven’t had the time or resources yet to implement it.
  • Donations (including recurring)
    • Pros: Free money
    • Cons: none
    • Status: implemented it and received a few thousand euros. Options are one off and recurring - not many people have gone for recurring yet.  From a UX and design perspective, we could probably do things to increase conversion to donations quite easily. But either way, you need high volumes of users to make this your structural business model 
  • Events: we never intended to make money from events, but we ended up making a little bit, mostly through the partnerships around the events. Not a real structural, scalable option though, imho.

Hope anyone here found this insightful. As I wrote in the intro, we’re actually looking for a new team to take CollAction.org to the next level. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time at the moment to give it the attention it deserves, and the other team members are building the Slow Fashion Movement and need to stay focused on that. So we’re basically looking for a new team or even an existing organization to adopt the platform. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you’re interested or know someone that might be.

Cheers,

Ron


Some  relevant articles here that triggered this post:

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/kwaBa3KqBeAo8WE4m/making-a-crowdaction-platform

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/98HihPxpoRFja2JNF/is-there-an-assurance-contract-website-in-work

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/fQkzGfRoL82XX4cPr/if-a-kickstarter-for-inadequate-equlibria-was-built-do-you

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6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:25 AM
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I've long been interested in stuff like this. I don't really have any credentials to directly help, but I have the goal of someday creating an MMO (massively multiplayer online game) in which leveling up one's character's skills requires doing real life "quests" related to the skill. So a druid would gain power by actually physically going out and gardening, or buying organic / vegan food, or etc. A player with a necromancer character could level them up by researching their genealogy or respectfully visiting a gravesite. Etc.

This wouldn't necessarily be about large-scale collective actions, but more about encouraging healthy and beneficial behaviors in each person's life. I think large scale actions could be done as well - treat them as "bosses" to be fought - but that would be built atop the more basic element.

The real fun starts when addicted people will try to maximize their score by gardening at a gravesite 24/7.

Hey Ron, I am working on my own version of this (inspired by this Sequence), and would love to get your advice! Right now I am focusing on crowdfunding via dominant assurance contracts on Ethereum.

How did you / would you verify that someone did something? What are specific examples of that happening for different actions? What kinds of evidence can be provided? I have a fuzzy sense of what this looks like right now. The closest sites I can think of just off the top of my head that involve verification are CommitLock (which I made a successful $1000 commitment contract on to get myself to do swim lessons) and DietBet, which requires a photo of your scale (it also has that 'split the pot' feature you mentioned, which I am pretty excited for).

DonyChristie,

I'm also working on something similar!  I've got a landing page at Spartacus.app

No blockchain element right now.  I'd love to chat.

Ron, thanks for this retrospective.  A lot of this info is incredibly useful as I think about building out Spartacus.app

I'm running into a lot of the same challenges (mainly time constraints as it's still a side project) but hope to make some more progress before the end of the year.

There may be collaboration potential here, so don't hesitate to reach out.  You can also find me on Twitter at @appspartacus

We’re not focused on 1 particular problem (like climate change, plastics, poverty, or loneliness among elderly, etc.) but we’re posing a new way to solve all kinds of collective action problems. This generally does not fit many funders’ buckets / categories

I'm not sure if you were implying the following situation (though this is what my imagination initially came up with), but: if there are a number of potential funders, each of which would benefit somewhat from a better mechanism for solving collective action problems, but each of which finds it too weird/illegible or not individually valuable enough to fund a general mechanism for collective action problems, does this mean you could ask those funders to commit to funding/promoting the collective action problem site a certain amount only if enough other funders also collectively do enough, and then… ?