May 3, 2012

Facebook's Support for Organ Donation Offers Philanthropic Inspiration


By: The Bridgespan Group

I remember seeing the little sticker on my mother's driver's license when I was a child:  "Organ Donor."  This phrase immediately terrified me with its connotations—that my mother could die; that someone else could have a piece of her.  But over the years I grew proud that my mother made that choice, and as soon as I could, I also elected to be an organ donor. 

So the move that Facebook made this week to let users post their organ donation decision to their timeline strongly resonated with me. I wondered what prompted it, as it seems rare for the company to use its tremendous platform in this capacity. The answer may be as simple as what drives a lot of great philanthropic decisions: The coupling of personal values with taking advantage of unique opportunities and relationships.

In terms of the values, The San Jose Mercury News reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was apparently influenced both by his girlfriend, Priscilla Chan (a former medical student) and by his friendship with Apple's Steve Jobs (an organ donation recipient). Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg also apparently reconnected with college friend Andrew Cameron, a transplant surgeon, at a recent reunion. From these personal connections and values was born a yearlong plan to launch the program.

Better yet, through Facebook, those values have access to a unique opportunity for impact.  My decision to become an organ donor was deeply influenced by knowing (and coming to terms with) my mother's own choice.  How many millions of people will be swayed in a similar manner by a friend or family member's Facebook-announced decision? 

As Torie Busch pointed out in a recent Slate article, Facebook's platform may offer an even more compelling value proposition than just peer pressure. She argues that "the real positive here might be providing further proof to a grieving family that a newly lost loved one truly did intend to donate her organs."

While the Facebook organ donation move is not a traditional philanthropic strategy, it reminded me of something we see in strong philanthropic initiatives—that often the passion of those involved and the creative use of unique skills, relationships, and influence can trump actual dollars.

And the effort seems to be getting results. USA Today reported that on launch day, more than 100,000 users shared their organ donation decision, and 6,000 people enrolled to be organ donors with Donate Life America, up from their typical 400 per day. 

Alison Powell is Bridgespan’s Philanthropy Knowledge Manager. Follow her on Twitter @abp615.

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