Nonprofits & Gaming: Playing Your Way to More Funds, More Volunteers, and Solving the World's Problems

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 08/01/2011 - 10:25am

Casey Golden, CEO, Small Act

What if video games could change the world?

They already are. Nonprofits around the globe are using online games not to only educate the public, but to get donations and supporters – and even help find cures for diseases.

Why are games important?

Games "...may prove to be a key resource for solving some of our most pressing real-world problems," according to game designer Jane McGonigal in The Wall Street Journal. "When we play, we... have a sense of urgent optimism. We believe whole-heartedly that we are up to any challenge, and we become remarkably resilient in the face of failure." Gamers are exactly the kinds of people you want helping your organization succeed.

In his keynote address for South by Southwest Interactive in 2011, Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR demonstrated how game mechanics can motivate real-world action by distributing different-colored cards to the audience, giving them rules (no talking, no moving from your seat) then having them exchange cards until each row had the same color. A crowd of 2,000 accomplished this in less than 3 minutes.

Priebatsch even proposed how school could be improved by adding better game mechanics than those that already exist: for example, having a points system that allows you to "level up" rather than our current grading-average system, and building in an honor system to eliminate cheating (as Princeton has done, with huge success).

How can nonprofits use game elements to promote their cause?

Gamers are already helping tackle real-world problems, just by playing games. 57,000 gamers have outperformed supercomputers in the task of folding proteins in new ways that could lead scientists to cures for Alzheimer's, cancer and more. And 19,000 players have helped improve food security, increase access to clean energ,y and end poverty in more than 130 countries with EVOKE, an online game created for the World Bank Institute that's resulted in real-world solutions for key problems.

Even if your cause doesn't require that level of interaction, here are some other ideas for games to think about:

  • Trivia and quizzes to educate your audience about your cause
  • Points and levels for volunteers and donors and offering incentives and fancy titles/recognition for advancement
  • Competitions with other nonprofits to engage your base
  • Personality quizzes that help educate people about your cause
  • Games that put your audience in the role of one of your volunteers or caregivers, to help them understand your cause better

How are nonprofits using gaming right now?

WORLD WILDLIFE FUND: Find your inner animal

Purpose: Recruiting new members, viral awareness-building

World Wildlife Fund offers a fun quiz that helps determine your "inner animal," After the quiz, you learn more about the animal that best matches you – and some of them are truly bizarre, with over 100 species available – and post about it on Facebook and Twitter.


Save the Bay: Battle for the Bay

Purpose: Fundraising, education, advocacy

This game is a fast-paced challenge to "save the bay" in five time periods. Each time period offers five trivia questions and a countdown timer. Whenever you choose an incorrect answer, you sacrifice some time to continue answering. One player of the game will receive an iPad, the city with the most players will win a Save the Bay sponsored happy hour, and for every person who plays the game, two donors are providing $1 to the Save the Bay fund.


New York Public Library: Find the Future

Purpose: Engaging existing audience on a deeper level, recruiting a new generation of fans

In Find the Future, the New York Public Library pairs online and offline activity to get the audience to explore the library’s offerings by sending them on a scavenger hunt throughout the collection. "The game is designed to empower young people to find their own futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and objects of people who made an extraordinary difference," says Jane McGonigal.


Taking It Global: Millennium Development Goals match game

Purpose: Education

In this game, you match two tiles and then have to answer a trivia question correctly to progress. If you answer incorrectly, you have to rematch the tiles and answer another trivia question on the same issue. The questions drive home the scope and importance of the cause; your score is determined by how quickly you are able to match and answer all the trivia questions. Deliver the Net

Purpose: Bringing the cause to life

In "Deliver the Net," you are told to "race the sun and hand out as many insecticide-treated bed nets as you can to African families." Part racing game, part resource management, this game puts you in the shoes of the people who actually deliver malaria nets every day, and emphasizes how this small act can save a life.


DISNEY PROJECT GREEN: Play games, donate points and help a charity win $100,000

Purpose: Fundraising, awareness-building

Disney has partnered with WWF, Ocean Conservancy, Fauna & Flora International and UNICEFUSA to offer three games for kids: a Simon-like dancing game, a game where you catch flying laundry, and a game where you toss recyclables toward bins. Every time they play a game, players choose a charity to receive their points. The charity with the most points at the end of the competition wins.


How can your nonprofit harness the power of games to achieve its mission? Which examples do you find most inspiring?

Casey Golden's company, Small Act, empowers nonprofits and associations to nurture key relationships through its social media software, Thrive and Profile Builder, and various consulting services. A frequent speaker at national events who also donates his time to serve on several nonprofit advisory boards, Casey contributed a chapter to "Do Your Giving While You Are Living" and recently won the "35 Under 35" award for top entrepreneurs in greater D.C.