THE BLOG

Crowdsourced Philanthropy: If You Ain't Cheatin', You Ain't Tryin'

12/13/2010 01:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Al Davis, the owner of 1970s Raiders was willing to do anything and everything to win. He (allegedly) bugged the visiting team's locker room, watered the field to slow faster teams down, spied by helicopter, and used dirty pile tactics. The Raiders dirty reputation inspired Glenn Dickey to write Just Win, Baby, a book dedicated to Al Davis' approach to the game.

"If you ain't cheatin', then you ain't tryin' " still rings true in football today. Coaches still cover their mouths with their playbooks when talking for fear of lip readers on the other team and any player not on steroids is at a disadvantage. A little bendiness is apparently part of the unwritten rules of the game.

Different Rules: Crowdsourced Philanthropy Cheating

This article is not about football. Replace "football" with "crowdsourced philanthropy". Crowdsourced philanthropy is the buzzword for an online voting competition that determines the distribution of grant money to good causes. Currently these competitions only comprise about 1 percent of United States philanthropic dollars, but this number continues to grow as more companies, such as Pepsi, Kohls, American Express, Best Buy, and J.P. Morgan Chase, join the game.

Online voting competitions tax an organization's resources because, to have a shot, they require organizations to rally their fan base to vote in lieu of taking other potential actions ("Online Voting: The Organization Who Cried Wolf"). These competitions are like mini-democracies: a handful of candidates pleading with the electorate to vote. Winning depends on getting out the vote -- an organization pulling its fan base into the game.

Like football (and politics), there are ugly winning strategies. These dirty tactics manipulate the technical weaknesses of the voting systems and exploit grey areas of rules.

How to be like the 1970s Raiders

I am tired of great not-for-profits (NFPs) competing honorably against groups that compete using a different set of rules (you can guess how I feel about steroids). To level the playing field, here are the top four ways major crowdsourced philanthropy competitions can be gamed:

  1. Proxy Voting: A proxy vote traditionally means that a voter transfers their right to vote to a third party. In crowd philanthropy competitions, it means that eligible voting accounts can be controlled by an organization (or individual). This becomes a problem when proxy voting accounts are aggregated over time in contests that keep the same sign on system.

    These massive lists of proxy accounts can be managed by a single person simply logging in one by one and voting. Imagine if political staffers could collect permission to vote on behalf of voters in a district in perpetuity -- not really the will or action of a crowd, but highly effective.

  2. Computer Macros: A macro is a program that you can setup on a computer that goes through a series of clicks and keyboard strokes on a timed interval. If a voting system doesn't require a captcha (include pic) or other human test -- a macro can be created to go through a voting cycle unabated. An example of a macro program can be found at the following address: http://www.macroexpress.com/download.htm.

  • Email Generators: For the least secure voting systems that don't have strict email confirmations there are ways to generate emails quickly. Any single Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo or normal domain email address can be made into thousands of emails by adding a "+" or "." after the name and before the "@" sign. For example, yourname@gmail.com can be changed to yourname+anyword@gmail.com and the email will still be delivered to your address. There are also sites that will generate emails for you on demand if a domain is blocked, such as http://mailinator.com.

  • Outsourced Voting: For a nominal amount of money, an organization can purchase votes or emails through 'Vote Brokers'. These groups will do your bidding in the same way they translate audio to text or do other simple outsource tasks for companies. Here is one marketplace: Elance.
  • Now what?

    This was a risky article to write given that DoSomething.org (the company that I work for) has competed in many of these competitions and even won some of them. I am proud to say that we've never cheated.

    I'm even more proud to say that when I showed these game weaknesses to our team, and proved how easy it would be for us to win big money, our staff unanimously voted to opt out of our participating in these competitions. DoSomething.org has taken the position that it will not be entering into any crowdsourced philanthropy competition that has not been responsibly built and undergone a third party security evaluation.

    This post is an attempt to get crowd sourced philanthropy competitions to wake up and level the playing field between those organizations who have played by the rules and those who are using the backdoor tricks.

    Hate the game, not the player

    Recently a small school in Brooklyn was removed from the 'Kohls Cares' contest losing out on $500,000 due to its use of some of the above tactics. This was an honest school that saw the opportunity to bend/break the rules to help their school win a sum of money that could vastly improve its education system. While the NY Post article paints them as villains, some of the fault lies with the weak voting systems in place.

    My request to all crowdsourced philanthropy contest designers is to adhere to a responsible architecture for these competitions. Flawed designs increase the probability of cheating. It puts organizations unfamiliar with or unwilling to use these tactics at a distinct disadvantage. Don't make organizations (and their supporters) decide whether the ends justify the means by making it so easy to cheat.

    Unfortunately, these broken competitions won't be revamped tomorrow because companies are not incentivized the way Ticketmaster, Paypal and other online systems are to prevent fraud. Hopefully, if these tactics are shared enough, organizations will learn, as football coaches did, that they need to watch out for lip readers, or simply not play the game at all. And crowdsourced philanthropy creators will step up their game.