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Interview: Mark Root-Wiley, Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell

Last November, The White House Office of Public Engagement and mtvU announced the first ever Campus Champions of Change Challenge, part of President Barack Obama’s goal of “helping America win the future.” “All Across America, college and university students are helping our country out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” President Obama said. ”I hope this challenge shines a light on their efforts, and inspires Americans of all ages to get involved in their communities.” The Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell, a student-led microfinance organization based in Grinnell, Iowa, was one of 15 finalists. SEG provides local and international loans and has loaned over $37,000 to nearly 200 individuals in 44 countries. You can learn more about SEG on their website, http://www.segrinnell.org/, or listen to an interview with founding members Mark Root-Wiley and Jeff Raderstrong by Voices of America.

Grinnell College is the smallest school represented in the Challenge with 1,600 students, yet ranks second with 21,413 votes. UMass-Amherst (27,000 students) leads the competition with 27,158 votes. SEG has sustained momentum in the competition with simple, frequent calls to action: vote + tell your friends to do the same. It has created a sense of inevitability that they will win by tapping the fervent zeal of Grinnellians (students and alumni), overcoming long odds as the Cinderella of this (almost) March Madness. You can vote in the competition at http://bit.ly/vote4seg. Voting ends Saturday, March 3rd at 11:59 p.m. EST.

Mark Root-Wiley, founding member of SEG, reached out to me last week about leveraging social media to encourage people – especially the diaspora of Grinnell alumni – to vote. I spoke to a Grinnell alumna the following Monday and she had heard about voting for SEG several times. “Oh, it’s your fault,” She told me. I spoke with Mark about how he and SEG have used social media to spread the word about the competition. Full disclosure: Mark and I have done business together. He built the website for United Way of Grinnell (grinnellunitedway.org) and Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell has received funds from United Way of Grinnell and I serve on the United Way board.

Dan: Why did you start SEG?

Mark: I was one of a group of six or eight people who came together in 2007 to start lending money to entrepreneurs across the globe through the website Kiva.org. We were excited about the possibility of making sustainable economic change through microfinance, and Kiva made the barriers of entry to doing that unbelievably low.

At Grinnell College, where we started, there’s a tradition of people going door-to-door in the dorms to collect money for the weekend’s parties. So because it wasn’t odd for someone to showup at your room asking for money, we decided to take the idea of dorm-collection and use the funds for social good. The first time we did it, we collected something like $600 and got an incredibly positive response. For the first year or so of the group, the only social networking we did was person-to-person and door-to-door.

SEG is on Facebook and just relaunched their website, but I think those in-person connections laid the groundwork for SEG’s success, and they still go through the dorms once a semester as well as regularly “tabling” outside of the campus’s only dining hall.

Dan: How did SEG enter the White House Competition? How did you learn you were a finalist?

Mark: I wasn’t directly involved, but I think it was a relatively straight-forward process. The White House has run some vote-driven competitions for “What Questions Should Barack Obama Be Asked on YouTube” and other stuff like that. I’m pretty sure they’re using the same system for this. I think there’s a danger that these can turn into beauty contests or popularity contests, but a Grinnell alumnus, Seth Gitter, had some good thoughts about this critique on his blog post encouraging people to vote for SEG.

Dan: How did you initially get the word out about voting?

Mark: The group is trying to leave no rock unturned. There’s been a heavy push on Facebook including the creation of a “Send SEG to the White House” event (362 attending at this moment). We’ve also overhauled the website.

Since those initial pushes, we’ve helped get the College behind the group by reaching out to personal connections in the Alumni and Communication offices.

Kevin Bacon
Will Kevin Bacon vote for Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell? (Image via The Bumpy Ride)

Individually, everyone in the group is emailing or Facebook messaging (or both) their friends, family, and coworkers asking them not only to vote for SEG but to share it with others. In one case, I asked my father who asked a group of friends and one of those friends even emailed 10 people he thought might be interested. It’s amazing to see how far we can reach out of our networks. Hopefully we’ll get Kevin Bacon to vote for SEG by week’s end.

Dan: Why do you think the Grinnell College community is so engaged and passionate?

Mark: I think SEG is the little engine that could! We looked up the numbers and Grinnell College’s student population is about 3% of the biggest competitor, the University of Minnesota. However their project isn’t even doing that well. I think the project is a good example of concentrated interest. It’s a small group and so anyone with a personal connection feels very invested. At this point, with the number of votes we have, it’s as if every Grinnell student gave us 10 votes, and there’s still 3 days left in the competition!

I think the College in general is a tight-knit community. I won’t go as far as saying that we have an inferiority complex, but I think the Grinnell alumni community gets really excited anytime a fellow group, alumnus, or student receives positive media attention, whether that’s SEG or a comedian [Kumail Nanjiani '01].

Dan: How did social media amplify your efforts?

Mark: I think I mostly take Malcolm Gladwell’s view of social media. Facebook and Twitter are amazing tools for making connections we otherwise might not make, but the mechanics of making those connections has remained mostly unchanged. It’s about finding the common threads that link us to each other, whether that’s through friendship, family, or shared interests.

Student-Vote Ratio, 2/26/2012

Student-Vote Ratio, 2/26/2012 (graph courtesy Mark Root-Wiley)

Facebook and Twitter—and I should also include email here too—have made getting the word out FAST! I think the “Share,” “Like,” and “Retweet” buttons have all made it incredibly easy to share and reshare our message. That ease of use has certainly helped us get people to participate who wouldn’t have otherwise. But with that said, I think we get more meaningful connections through emails, and the most meaningful of those are highly personalized.

Making sure to have a clear message is important, but having personality and acknowledging peoples’ individuality seems equally important in this effort.

I wouldn’t consider myself a social media expert by any means, and I’ve learned a huge amount through this campaign.

Dan: What are your recommendations for others in using social media to promote microfinance and social justice efforts?

Mark: Ask and be direct. I was nervous at the start of the campaign about being spammy and overexposing people to the campaign, but I haven’t received a single complaint so far, and I haven’t heard of any from other group members either.

When I started, I was timidly asking people to vote. They might vote, but that was it. Then the message evolved into a request to vote and reshare with their extended networks, and I’ve been amazed at how effective it’s been. The reshare rate probably isn’t even at 20% but it’s meaningful enough to make this work warranted.

If there’s a caveat, this wasn’t just an ordinary, everyday ask. This was for a national competition sponsored by the White House. Most people I’ve contacted probably have never received an email like this from me (asking for votes, signatures, likes, etc.) before and a majority of them won’t ever again. This meant that we could keep our messages fairly short but still have them communicate the significance of the competition and their need to vote.

In the end, I think there are lessons to be learned here for everyday social media outreach, but I don’t think campaigns of this magnitude and intensity are completely applicable to organizations with multiple annual campaigns and asks.

But with SEG’s success so far, hopefully that’ll translate into the need to run some more big campaigns in the future!