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Social Games for Nonprofit Marketing

Lori Halley 18 November 2010 2 comments

Entertainment has always been one of the prime motivators for people going online, and the move to mobile just makes it easier. Waiting for appointments, commuting time, all those odd moments that used to mean offline time are now the prime time for your supporters to catch up on news, to connect with friends, and, yes, to play games... 

So, how can you help your cause to compete with Farmville?

Should your nonprofit get into "social gaming"?

Games are Big Numbers

  • Marketers will spend $293 million worldwide in 2011 to advertise in social games and applications (not including mobile apps), predicts eMarketer.  Could some of that cash be directed to nonprofit sponsorships and donations, through social games for social good?
  • MMORPG (massively multi-player online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft) players invest the time equivalent of a part-time job in pursuing their passion, an average of 22 hours of play per week – see Hours of Play Per Week: Nick Yee, The Daedalus Project, for more data.
  • There are more Farmville players than there are Twitter accounts,” Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, told DICE 2010 in a fascinating presentation called Design Outside the Box: “Facebook is very large indeed.”  [Facebook itself says over 200 million active users now access the social network by mobile devices.]

Jesse Schell also spoke to CBC Spark’s Nora Young last spring on the psychology of video games, and the “gamification” of, well, just about everything in our lives these days, which reminded me of game designer Jane McGonigal’s inspiring TED talk on a similar theme, Gaming Can Make a Better World.

Social Games for Real-World Social Good

McGonigal points out that we’ve now got a whole new generation of young people who are self-trained as expert game players – by definition, people who believe that they are individually capable of changing the world. “And the only problem is that they believe that they are capable of changing virtual worlds and not the real world.”


“What about games makes it impossible to feel we can’t achieve everything? How can we take those feelings from games and apply them to real world work?” 

Are You Having Fun Yet?

In Game Mechanics for Non-Profits, Christopher Penn talks very specifically about how nonprofits can use the  SCVNGR Game Dynamics Playdeck – a collection of 50 elements which “make games fun and addictive” – to tap into those same powerful motivators.

If we’ve learned anything from the rise of social media and social networking, for instance, he says, it’s that “people love to show off their status.” Even a small member-based organization with next-to-no budget could make effective use of leaderboards or badges, for example, to engage and reward its donors and supporters. 

Penn suggests that nonprofits should look at a variety of metrics for which they might publish a leaderboard:

For example, you have top donors, which is of course useful, but what about top social sharers, folks who might have more time than money? What about top referrals to your web site? What about top networkers who bring new people to your Facebook page? Find ways to implement leaderboards for all the metrics that matter to you and publish them to encourage people to compete!

Humans love progress bars,” says SCVNGR founder and CEO Seth Priebatsch (The New Games People Play: How Game Mechanics Have Changed In The Age Of Social): “If you see a progress bar, you want to complete it.” 

Nonprofits know this, intuitively. If you think about it, that digital progress bar built into your favorite video game is no different, psychologically, than the traditional fundraising “thermometer” graphic, where a rising color bar charts the progress of donations toward a campaign goal.

And if a progress bar, leaderboard or points system will motivate your fans and friends to complete an action to support your cause, that’s a good thing, right?



When the President of the micro-lending site Kiva said that their biggest competitor for attention is a social gaming company, Karl Bunyan (Kiva: The Gamification Of Microfinance?) had this reaction:

I would expect the feeling of satisfaction that comes from a social investment is much stronger than one that would come from gaining a badge or seeing your name on a leaderboard. Although there are things that these give a user – clear direction on being steered, feedback on making a good decision, and a place for social recognition –  I believe there are better ways to deliver these without clouding the user’s perception of what their end achievement is.

You may have heard similar comments within your own organization. In an ideal world, we’d love it if all volunteer action and financial support were to be motivated by pure altruism. Bunyan’s point about the risk of clouding the user’s perception of what their end achievement is – of muddying the message – is a particularly important one, not to be overlooked.

But nonprofits shouldn’t be quick to dismiss gamification as a way to promote their cause and encourage support, be it financial support or creating a community with larger longer-term goals.

We’ve Always Done It This Way

After all, social gaming in marketing is nothing new, as consultant Renée Warren points out, although the Internet (and, now, the rise of the mobile web) is giving it a new spin:

In the “old days”, businesses successfully employed strategies such as “buy ten, get one free”.  Credit card companies, retail stores and similar businesses began to offer (and still offer) savings, rewards or bonuses for using their product.  These practices are successful in building and retaining customer loyalty, and it is no surprise that they are still used, often in new ways that involve online gaming.

Games for Change has been serving as “a platform for organizations, individuals, government agencies, academics, journalists and the game industry to share best practices, exchange knowledge, incubate new projects and provide access to those seeking to use digital games to positively impact society” since 2004.

Free Rice, a vocabulary-building game in which sponsors donate 10 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program for every right answer to a multiple-choice question, has been helping to feed the hungry since 2007. From its origins as a single-user game, Free Rice has since gone social, giving users the ability to login to join groups (teams) and track totals (scores), with a leaderboard of “top players” displayed in the sidebar.

And there’s no shortage of success stories about nonprofits who use Causes... or ideas for how nonprofits can use Foursquare, Facebook Places, or any of a bewildering number of other game-inspired apps for online giving...


Offline, too!

Nonprofits have been using game mechanics in one way or another since the dawn of public philanthropy – even if we may have a different name for what we’re doing:  “donor acknowledgement,” “thanking our members,” or “volunteer appreciation” and so on.

What are the achievement awards given out by the local Chamber of Commerce or Real Estate board to their members, if not “leveling up” in the game of entrepreneurship? Bonus points for a photo in the local newspaper.

And the last time you looked at your Alumni magazine, what filled a good number of the publication’s pages? A list of donors’ names, ranked by the value of their gift, most likely. Looks like a leaderboard to me!

Got Game?

Since you’re tracking your donations, membership referrals, and volunteer hours in any case –  how could your organization “game-ify” what you’ve already got?

Or have you already experimented with “game mechanics” in your nonprofit marketing?

Share your stories and ideas in the comments!

Learn more:

The World's Largest Game of Online Tag [Allison Fine @ HuffingtonPost.com]

Make Your Nonprofit Fun Online [Cherita Smith]

How Social Gaming Uses Virtual Giving to Get Real Results [Simon Mainwaring]

Social games That Sway Behavior [Kristina Grifantini @ Rightways]

SocialSquared: Productive Gaming on Facebook [Scott E. Hartley @ Standford Social Innovation Review]

NPCGames Google group [NonprofitCommons.org]

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 18 November 2010 at 7:01 PM


  • Pablo Edwards said:

    Sunday, 21 November 2010 at 6:51 AM

    Thanks for the heads up.  I have no clue how this works, or that it was even available.  Sounds like a great plan.

  • Betsy said:

    Friday, 07 January 2011 at 2:09 PM

    How true is it that we need to compete against Farmville to get our cause across to those who are most able to help? Way to think outside the box and come up with ways to make things happen!

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