Some thoughts on Pepsi Refresh

screen-shot-2010-02-16-at-123337-pmThis year, Pepsi decided to forgo its annual Super Bowl commercial in favour of supporting an social media charity initiative called Pepsi Refresh.  Obviously, Pepsi’s interest is the bottom line, so the idea that a social media charity project is on par with a super bowl commercial in terms of advertising value is AMAZING to me.

But, at first glance, I wasn’t super impressed with their approach.  Apart from the usual debate about whether corporations can truly participate in charity without changing some of their own business practices (namely, a focus on the bottom line), there are a couple of things about the site that rubbed me the wrong way.

I must admit, I’m pretty stuck in my ways when it comes to the type and focus of charities I support.  I like grassroots charities that support communities to take initiative themselves, and also charities that focus specifically on the social determinants of health and HIV/AIDS.  So, as soon as I went to the Pepsi Refresh site, I clicked on the health icon and started viewing the projects in this category to find one that met my criteria, so that I could vote for it.  The projects were displayed in a list of 10 per page, with the option to load more (reminiscent of a twitter feed).  After I hit “load more” a couple of times without finding what I was looking for, I tried to search for some of the charities I’ve supported in the past, but there was no search field to be found.

It is tedious to keep reading these projects after a while, and I bet others think the same thing.  And because the projects are ranked in order of most votes, the projects that are in the top 10 or 15 are the most viewed, and therefore probably also the most likely to continue receiving votes.  The projects that are at the end of the list may be great projects that would be popular, but they are virtually invisible because no one is going to scroll through every single project before voting.  Those who get a bunch of votes initially have the advantage in the long run, not because they are better projects but because voters are lazy!

I didn’t end up voting because I got so turned off by the projects that were available.  Currently, the second most popular health project (in the $5000 category) is funding to fund a fundraiser.  There were lots of example of this kind of thing, with people submitting projects to get start up capital fund their internet self help company, etc.  I understand that start ups should get their money from somewhere, but I think its really important that Pepsi hold their grantees to a very high standard before giving the funds.  Maybe this feeling also comes from my bias towards NGO delivered projects, which is certainly not a perfect model.

I can understand why this approach was taken – let the voters choose what’s important to them – but until the interface is more democratic, the process won’t be democratic.

ReplyForAll has taken a different approach which I think is pretty cool when determining where their charity dollars will go – they’ve selected 8 causes (cancer research, animal rights, HIV/AIDS, climate change, poverty, education, children’s rights, and education) and then worked hard to select one charity for each that is doing exceptional work in this area.  This recognizes that people are largely interested in the issue not the charity, and does the leg work about deciding who is working effectively in this area so the lay person doesn’t have to.  (Maybe I would be less cool with this approach if I didn’t already support Partners in Health, which is their HIV/AIDS fundraising recipient).

Pepsi has defined these “causes” but I feel that the projects available in each cause don’t represent my conceptualization of what the health cause needs to move forward.  Hopefully they can be better in the second round.  I urge anyone doing awesome things in health to submit their projects so that I can vote for them!  I recognize I have quite a bit of bias here, especially against passing off seed capital as charity and in support of an ngo model.  But still, I think that Pepsi can do better to make a bigger impact with the considerable funds their are providing, at least by my measure!

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