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Clubhouse App Helps Nonprofits Reach New, Influential Audiences

Posted: 9/13/2021

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

By Maria Di Mento

A new social-media app for mobile phones called Clubhouse is gaining steam in some nonprofit quarters. The app isn't text based like Twitter or Facebook. Instead, Clubhouse users speak to each other on their phones in groups. Nonprofit leaders are using it to amplify their missions and expand their networks.

Rahsaan Harris became CEO of the Citizens Committee for New York City last March just as the pandemic was shutting down the city — and every nonprofit leader in the country had to start communicating with staff, donors, and grantees using online tools like Zoom and Slack. Harris first used Clubhouse last fall when the Citizens Committee was just starting to do podcasts. He wanted to learn the ins and outs of the medium from experienced podcasters.

"I ended up in a room of creatives," Harris says. "They were giving tips on how to do a podcast with blow-by-blow details regarding how to market and create a compelling podcast that's meaningful. I learned so much from the folks that were across the country all in this one conversation."

Since then, Harris and his team have been using the app to get the word out about the micro grants the 46-year-old organization makes to small local groups that work to improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. They're also experimenting with Clubhouse to promote the group's recent fundraising campaign and connect grantees with nonprofit experts and influential leaders who can offer organizational advice and other support.

"It's a way to create intimacy at scale because you're getting into conversation with people that you might not have been able to have a conversation with before, but it's different than some of the other social media that allows you to broadcast and misinterpret the words that are being typed out in text," says Harris. "You get a sense of the tone and the pace that a conversation is being presented in, and it's not edited. It's straight up like a phone conversation."

Clubhouse Introductions

Clubhouse is an app used to host live discussions that can accommodate two people or thousands. The app, which launched in early 2020, lets users communicate with each other in voice chat rooms — it works on both iPhones and Android devices. Clubhouse has gained momentum in the nonprofit world as some charity leaders, philanthropy experts, and foundations have joined to host and participate in live discussions and expand their networks.

Contextualizing the latest research from across the field of philanthropy, the Snapshot of Today's Philanthropic Landscape provides nonprofits with the information they need to create informed fundraising strategies.

The app operates like an audio-only conference panel that allows the audience to chime in. Some participants, like the host and any experts the host invites to join, are speaking while others are listening. Everyone in the "room" — on the call — can see a list of the people participating or listening in on the conversation.

The rooms have a moderator — usually the host of the conversation — who has the power to enable a participant to speak or ask a question or to reign in a problematic participant.

Harris says Clubhouse isn't a great tool to raise money directly. It's most useful, he says, for getting introduced and connected to the right people with whom you can then build relationships over time. He points out that there are a lot of venture-capital firm leaders on the app. (An early investor in Clubhouse was the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, whose founders occasionally speak on the app, and in recent months the firms DST Global and Tiger Global Management have invested.) While most are interested in using it to find other new ventures to invest in, some also want to invest in "social good" groups, Harris says.

The app has been a good way for his team and grantees to connect with influential people both inside and outside the nonprofit world. By inviting Citizen's Committee grantees to join, Harris has been able to connect many of them with experienced leaders or foundation officials they wouldn't otherwise have access to. Harris says the conversations have provided his grantees with advice from seasoned leaders about how to run their small nonprofits and has given grantees a platform to share their work with potential supporters.

"It's transferring social capital so that our grantee partners can talk to some of these wonderful folks," Harris says.

Donor Discomfort

What Clubhouse is not is a direct line to high-net-worth donors. The San Francisco philanthropist Jennifer Risher says she first joined Clubhouse in February. Risher and her husband, David, created the #HalfMyDAF challenge last year to encourage other philanthropists to move more money out of their donor-advised funds to charities more quickly. She joined Clubhouse to get the word out about their efforts and thought it was an exciting and interesting tool — at first.

"I explored it and listened in on things, and then I was invited to speak in a couple rooms on what my husband and I are doing to move money out of donor-advised funds. But after a few months went by, I didn't use it as much," says Risher. "It was interesting to hear conversations among a lot of different people, and it felt like a good place to network and meet people, but it wasn't my audience, and I felt like it wasn't a deep enough dive into any one topic."

Many wealthy donors don't feel comfortable speaking in a semi-public setting with groups of people they may not know or being exposed to charity leaders who may try to push for a donation before taking the time to get to know the donor. While participants in rooms are identified with a name, a photo or an avatar, and a brief bio in many cases, it is hard to know if a participant is a rich philanthropist unless identified as such. Most philanthropists are not inclined to do that because they want to maintain their privacy, Risher says.

She says it's hard to know who's in a room and to figure out how to talk about things and what you're trying to do in a way that feels comfortable.

"The way Clubhouse works doesn't lend itself to a deep conversation, no matter who is in the room," she says. "It's more about raising awareness about what your charity does and networking."

An Even Playing Field

Philanthropy consultant Kris Putnam-Walkerly says she likes using the app to organize panel-like discussions about fundraising and giving practices among nonprofit and philanthropy leaders. She agrees that Clubhouse isn't a great way to reach individual donors but says it is a good way for charities to make first contact with foundation leaders and program directors and then follow up with them offline later on.

"It evens the playing field between the funder and the nonprofit. There's less presentation and more conversation. There's less 'here's my six talking points' or 'I've spent 40 hours preparing for this event' and more 'let's hop on a call and engage in real time about what we're thinking, learning, experiencing,'" Putnam-Walkerly says. "It's shifting that mind-set around peer-to-peer interactions."

Putnam-Walkerly likens the Clubhouse of today to Twitter circa 2008, when she says early adopters could gain rapid and robust visibility, influence, and in some cases credibility by posting on the social-media platform.

Like so many social-media platforms in recent years, the Clubhouse app has been the target of hacks. In April, the personal data of 1.3 million Clubhouse users was posted on a popular hacker forum, according to CyberNews.com, prompting concerns about phishing and other types of targeted cyber attacks against individual users.

Whether Clubhouse will remain a useful and popular app for people in the nonprofit world remains to be seen. People like Risher have already grown tired of Clubhouse and have stopped using it. Yet others, like Harris and Putnam-Walkerly, think that for now at least, nonprofits can make good use of what Clubhouse has to offer — if they use it wisely.

"There's always a power dynamic in philanthropy; the giver gives, the receiver receives, and guess who holds the power," Putnam-Walkerly says. "This changes that because it enables more meaningful real-time discussions and conversations that, if leveraged well after the room ends and you follow up with folks, you can really begin to build those relationships."

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