Today was my last day on the Helpdesk at JustGiving, an innovative, respectful, useful, transparent and fun internet company that kept me off the streets and paid the bills for three years. I didn’t really intend to stay quite so long, but time flies when you’re having a good time, as the saying goes.
In 2005, when I was still in Brussels, working for the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an advisory body of the European Union, my eldest brother ran the Snowdon marathon and I donated to his JustGiving online fundraising page. I had already heard about the company as managing director, Anne-Marie Huby, and I have a good mutual friend. At the end of 2005 I alighted from the Euro gravy train, disappointed and disillusioned with the EESC. But that’s another story.
Back in London in 2006, I bumped into Anne-Marie, who knew I was looking for work. She asked whether I might help out a few days a week on the Helpdesk, as the company was growing and Jules, the original helpdesker, was overloaded with email and phone queries. The rather ramshackle offices in Old Street, where I carried my bike upstairs to stand by my desk, was a far cry from the shiny glass and steel ‘Whim of the Gods’ buildings in Brussels in which my besuited self had grown used to shaking hands with the great and the good. Having worked in a previous life in a large technology company in Paris I was not a complete stranger to the concepts of online databases, graphic user interfaces and the increasingly fast business world of electronic communication. And I like people and talking to them.
JustGiving was still barely out of its startup phase and had only just broken even, but the team was relaxed, yet hardworking, good-natured and welcoming. Not only is the business a brilliant idea, using the internet to connect charities, their fundraisers and donors online, it was and is underpinned by a central concern with ethics, personal responsibility and respect for diversity. I remember sitting in a training session led by Zarine Kharas, the CEO, at which the entire twenty-strong company discussed the meaning of honesty and transparency. I metaphorically pinched myself, wondering whether this could be real after my off-putting encounters with the lack of openness, arcane hierarchies and inefficiency at the EESC.
The other reason I think I stayed so long, responding to emails, then as time went by answering telephone calls, are the company’s users, in particular the fundraisers and donors, for whom JustGiving has provided a platform to create meaning and positive value, very often out of difficult and even tragic personal circumstances. Sometimes I felt tears welling up when listening to parents wanting to help charities who had helped their children; friends raising money for basic humanitarian causes; proof that altruism and good intentions still abound in the selfish, consumerist world. It was almost as though online fundraising was being used as therapy. The internet was democratizing the ways in which individuals could make a qualitative and quantitative difference enabling them directly to support their causes and those of their friends and social circles. The company went from strength to strength, keeping a keen eye on the bottom line, as its development depends on a sound business model that needs to provide value for money. In a rapidly changing economic and technological environment it has constantly to invest in people, ideas and infrastructure in order to keep its offering relevant and attractive.
And then along came the social networks and the floodgates seemed to open. It was an inspired, yet risky decision to develop the JustGiving Facebook application; my middle-aged pride was flattered to gossip that I used the network, despite my nephew’s astonishment at me poking him when I saw his inebriated photos at uni online. “I didn’t know oldies were allowed on Facebook”, he replied. And then came Twitter and realtime debates about the business; immediate praise and criticism for all to see.
JustGiving’s social demographic spectrum also fascinated me. Any UK registered charity can use the service and those that do range from hospices to specialist medical research groups to churches, mosques, synagogues and humanist societies, to conventional health and social charities, including the innovative and leading Cancer Research UK, to animal welfare and other bodies. All are able to promote their causes, raise money and, increasingly important, connect with their users in a personal and direct manner and not only in Britain; anyone on the planet with an internet connection and a credit card can use it. And it’s fun! When the Atheist Bus campaign came along, it took everyone by surprise, touching a raw nerve among a social group who had felt excluded by the polarities of religious debates in society. The campaign went far beyond simply raising some cash to put posters on a few London buses. It spawned an international happening from Australia to America. Or take the inspirational Phil Packer, who raised over one million pounds for Help for Heroes, in part through his JustGiving page http://www.justgiving.com/philsmillion/ Whatever your political or religious persuasion, JustGiving is simply the tool, servers whirring constantly in the background, providing a non-judgmental medium for those who choose to give their money to religious, non-religious or other causes.
Chatting all day long to fundraisers began to take effect. If all these people were having fun raising money for good causes, then maybe I should give it a go, I thought. On a regular run with my brother and sister-in law around Hampstead Heath, we decided to raise money for WaterAid at the Stevenage half marathon. And it really worked!
After that another pet project came to fruition and brought me down to earth, literally, when I did a skydive for Help the Aged:
Finally , a once in a lifetime (I think) stroll around beautiful London town taking part in the Flora London Marathon!
A few weeks ago JustGiving launched a new platform, so that the company could continue to grow in line with increasing demand and traffic on the site. We lit the blue fuse paper on 20 June, and the fireworks began… because we hadn’t done our homework properly. JustGiving infuriated thousands of users as the donation process crashed. Frustrated donors, fundraisers and charities besieged us, but the core values and determination of the company came to the rescue and the team pulled together to make the best out of a botch. In our culture of blame and shame we were subjected to a torrent of grief and bile. “I will not be using justgiving again, I wouldn’t trust them to run a proverbial in a brewery.” was one relatively polite contribution. But we didn’t hide, we apologized, we opened our blog to all comers to vent their spleen.
What struck me most about the re-launch was the depth of feeling provoked by the mistakes and the volume and quantity of the complaints. Luckily, JustGiving’s half million weekly unique users did not all phone us up at once, but a significant percentage did. One blogging complainant even called for an independent audit, indicating a mistaken belief that JustGiving is, or should be, a public service in the conventional sense. It is a private company, financed by private investors and the 5% transaction fee on donations, but it has no public service obligation. However, not only does it provide a service to a very wide spectrum of the public in the peculiarly British third sector fashion of charitable action, it is also remarkably open and candid about how it does so. You only need to compare and contrast the speed and openness of JustGiving’s response to its mistakes with the foot-dragging of Parliament over the MPs’ expenses scandal or the BBC’s coyness about what it pays its top people.
It has also been fascinating to witness at close quarters the coming of age of mainstream business online in which the notions of service, delivery and commitment are so radically new. For instance, I use Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to conduct important parts of my life, yet I do not pay any of them anything for the extraordinary and increasingly essential services they provide me. Not a bean. During the problems in the past month at JustGiving many people complained that they had lost money, when in fact they had not. They may have lost opportunities to raise, give or receive money, but no money went missing. Nothing was embezzled or used to pay off mortgages on floating duck houses, trim wistaria or buy flat-screen televisions. So although the company chose to compensate charities by waiving fees on donations for a week, there was no model to compensate for the real, yet virtual loss of opportunity. I mean, could you sue a train company for failing to sell you an online ticket for a train that was cancelled?
JustGiving is made up of a bunch of good people, doing good work, sincerely trying – and for the most part succeeding – to help people help each other. Following the economic debacle of the past two years and the sorry display of corruption and incompetence in leading political and business institutions around the world, it has been an especial privilege to be part of a company that talks the talk and walks the walk.
Last day photo album here