03.18.10

The New Idealist Social Network

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes talks to Dana Goldstein about his new venture for connecting volunteers to nonprofits, Jumo, which goes up today, and why Obama’s Organizing for America fell short.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes launched Jumo, his new venture for connecting volunteers to nonprofits, Tuesday. Earlier this year, he spoke with Dana Goldstein about the project and why Obama’s Organizing for America fell short.

Among Facebook’s tight-knit group of co-founders, Chris Hughes has always been the idealistic one.

When the social-networking site first took off in 2004 and his roommates Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz dropped out of Harvard to make a killing, Hughes—a middle-class kid from North Carolina—returned to college and graduated, writing a thesis about Algiers. When candidate Barack Obama intrigued Hughes, he shocked Facebook CEO Zuckerberg by quitting the company to work in the unprofitable world of campaign organizing, where Hughes helped to build and run MyBarackObama.com, the candidate’s groundbreaking online organizing tool. When the presidential race ended and Hughes needed to chart his next move, he tried venture capital, doing a stint as “entrepreneur-in-residence” at General Capital Partners in Cambridge. But he kept asking himself what he could do to contribute to the greater good.

“We have a real problem when it comes to giving,” Hughes said. “People tend to give around moments of crisis, at the end of the year, maybe when they see a really dramatic photo or video.”

So Hughes traveled to Africa, India, and Latin America. He spoke to development gurus like Jacqueline Novogratz of the nonprofit Acumen Fund and Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist famous for his proposals on how to eradicate global poverty by 2025.

“I was constantly thinking, ‘What do I know and how can I use what I know to help these people?’” Hughes said of the social-welfare thinkers and activists he met during his travels. “I took some serious time trying to think through that question.”

Where he ended up was Jumo.com—a new networking site to connect nonprofits to the public and to one another. By fall, members will be able to use Jumo to learn more about social justice causes, donate money, and find out about opportunities to volunteer time and skills. The name means “together in concert” in Yoruba, a language spoken in Eastern Senegal, which Hughes visited last April and fell in love with.

On Jumo, Hughes says, a college student looking to volunteer during spring break will be able to type in the dates of her vacation, the regions to which she’d like to travel, and see a comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities. A lawyer fluent in Spanish might be able to help Latin American governments rewrite building codes to better protect against earthquake damage. A Washington, D.C. woman who gives regularly to Planned Parenthood could learn about related, smaller organizations that need support, such as Hughes favorite One by One, which funds the $420 surgery that repairs obstetric fistulas, a preventable condition caused during childbirth that can lead to a lifetime of stigma for affected women, who often leak urine and feces out of their vaginas.

Hughes recently relocated from Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood to Greenwich Village to be closer to friends, he says, yet—perhaps a sign of his desire for do-gooder, bohemian cred—“I felt sort of bad about leaving Brooklyn.” Jumo, a nonprofit, is now his full-time job, and since he decided to move forward with the idea in January, he has been able to raise about $500,000 from individual donors, hire two full-time staffers, and rent office space in SoHo.

Whether the nonprofit sector is ready to embrace a new social-networking platform remains to be seen, especially given these organizations’ often-limited staff time and lack of familiarity with cutting-edge technology. And there’s competition— Ning, for instance, allows nonprofits to build their own branded social-networking websites using pre-fabricated tools. But the most formidable rivals are Hughes’ old friends at Facebook, which already offers the application Causes, on which users can donate money and promote nonprofits to friends. Hundreds of thousands of nonprofits are members of Causes, and in the application’s first two years, 25 million Facebook users “joined” at least one of the causes. But according to a Washington Post report, the majority of Causes nonprofits have never received a single donation through the application.

Hughes says what sets Jumo apart is that there will be fewer distractions—activism is the only reason to be there—and that when there’s a single website people can visit to learn about how to do good, they will start to engage philanthropically more often. “We have a real problem when it comes to giving,” Hughes said. “People tend to give around moments of crisis, at the end of the year, maybe when they see a really dramatic photo or video, the quote-unquote starving child in Africa.

“The old way of doing this would be to put together a consulting firm and go to each nonprofit one by one and offer to build a website, Facebook page, and email program for them,” he said. “But the model we’re embracing is where we create a platform.”

Hughes knows from personal experience that not every launch is as successful as Facebook. He worked on the transition team that turned MyBarackObama.com into Organizing for America, now a division of the Democratic National Committee. OFA has been criticized for failing to mobilize its 13 million-person email list in support of health-care reform.

“It didn’t remain an independent organization, which I think it should have,” Hughes said, adding that OFA has been understaffed. “In the language of the campaign, we saw a movement of people who were hungry for change. They were much less concerned with the Democratic Party.”

For now, Hughes is looking for ways to make change outside of government. He is gay and has criticized gay-rights organizations for not being Web-savvy. Similarly, he says online tools like Twitter don’t make it easy enough for like-minded people to meet and organize in the real world.

“The basic premise” behind Jumo, Hughes said, “is that people have a genuine desire to be more involved in the world around them. But the Internet and opportunities online haven’t yet caught up with that desire for people to meet and engage.”

Plus: Check out more from Giving Beast, featuring news, video, and amazing photographs of people, places, and issues that need our support.

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.