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Shaifali Puri And Kristen Titus Fight For Social Causes In A Social Media World

Shaifali Puri, left, and Kristen Titus, shot by Andrew Eccles at Core: Club, N.Y.C., on December 7, 2012.

Shaifali Puri is executive director of Scientists Without Borders, an organization with an online platform that connects scientists and laypeople to combat poverty in developing countries. Kristen Titus is executive director of Girls Who Code, which aims to arm high school girls with tech skills and resources. Before that, she worked at Jumo, a social network that matched people with causes. We asked them to discuss the difficulties of using technology platforms to address social causes.

Shaifali Puri: We try to engage people around collaboration—platform-enhanced collaboration. We had been enamored with the idea that we could let users openly frame their own challenges to the community. But it was harder for them than we thought. Our users moved us to a Q&A format, like a Quora, which allows them to get information they need, but also to contribute by saying "I really like this answer." The call to action was simpler and the rewards higher. People like weighing in. It was a wonderful lesson for us. We can't push users to get involved in the way that we want. We have to trust them.

Kristen Titus: We found very early on at Jumo that content was the key to engagement. We watched Quora closely, and the Q&A model does make such sense, because the barrier to entry is so low.

PURI: Otherwise you lose people so quickly. If people come in looking for something and don't find it, it becomes really hard. So you have to give them some kind of clear, intuitive, and gratifying call to action. That gives people a much more natural point of entry. They're bringing a problem which can translate into a question.

TITUS: What does that call to action look like?

PURI: Well, it depends. We're saying to people, Don't just press like or sign a petition. Instead we have users who are saying things like, "We are looking for a better way of doing water purification in a slum in Uganda. Here are the solutions that have been tried. Can you all think of a better way?"

TITUS: It's that 360-feedback loop! It feeds on itself in so many ways.

PURI: Exactly. What's really great about it is if you get engagement even at a low scale, it's meaningful. And it impacts the community at large. They can see that something is happening and it works. There is something that I can do, because someone like me did it. Over time, I've become okay with the fact that thousands of users is a really good thing for us, rather than trying for the millions.

TITUS: I think this is one place where we learned a lot early on—that fostering the kind of engagement you want at such high levels is impossible at the outset. Impossible. I think 90% of people would define engagement as a Facebook like; which simply means, "I care about this cause." But how do you move people up the ladder once they engage? How do you incentivize them to make content or to share? Only then do you get close to defining your audience. When you start out with such an open platform, you can't define your audience. You have to let them come to you and show you the use case. You tailor your product to meet the needs—watch the platform to decide who you're serving and what they need. That can't be done at the outset.

PURI: Having 10,000 people properly leveraged can have far, far more impact than a million followers. It's such a passive idea, followers.

TITUS: I don't even like the term, to be honest. It doesn't suggest a community.

PURI: Funders ask us all the time, what's your social media following? It comes up again and again. How do you help traditionally risk-averse funders understand what we're doing? They don't understand the metrics with which you define success. I mean, this is a technology product. If we were to compare ourselves to a startup, the ability to pivot is critical. And the funders need to be able to say, "We're okay with you pivoting."

TITUS: There's a huge movement around the word failure. Celebrate failure. These aren't failures! This isn't failure, this is how you build a company. This is how you build a product. I think we need to get funders away from the idea that something [tried and abandoned] is inherently a failure.

PURI: The funders have a set of issues. But for our own community, the technology-driven social-impact organization, I've become hard on us, too.

TITUS: Absolutely.

PURI: We have to ask ourselves, Are we needed? Are we required? And are we the best people to be doing what we are seeking to do? In our world, we start with a mission, and that mission should change after we have made a dent. Not that we need to go out of business, but we should be taking on new challenges, rather than drag on the old challenges for a really, really long time.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.