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A U.N. Agency’s Radical Experiment In Addressing The Refugee Crisis

The Hive, an initiative of the U.N. Refugee Agency, has bold ambitions: Solve the refugee crisis, and use data to transform nonprofits.

When I meet Brian Reich at a restaurant in Manhattan, I ask him what’s new. “Just trying to solve the refugee crisis,” he says casually.

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The first half of Brian Reich’s CV sounds like something out of Parks and Recreation. In 1997, at 18, Reich became the youngest member of Bill Clinton’s speechwriting team. He took time off from college two years later to become Al Gore’s briefing director at the White House. “I grew up working in politics,” is how he puts it. He cut his teeth fretting over swing voters, and still refers to Bush vs. Gore as the time “the Supreme Court took my job away.”

Brian ReichPhoto: Katie Donnelly

After his young political career and college, Reich spent several years bouncing around different agencies, working with clients as disparate as corporate brands like Volkswagen and charities like the Red Cross. Throughout, Reich always nurtured an interest in human behavior: How could you convince someone they wanted a car? How could you convince someone they should vote?

Gradually, Reich fused his various interests into a growing passion: how to shake up the world of nonprofits.

The Problem With Philanthropy

Reich came to feel that nonprofits were ignoring some of the new insights coming from the world of political and brand campaigns. The whole philanthropic world, he came to feel, was a “philanthropic-industrial complex” stuck in very set patterns of thinking. In particular, there was an obsession with getting people to donate money–an understandably important metric, but perhaps not the only one worth measuring.

“It’s like dating,” Reich says of the typical nonprofit mindset, which asks for money as soon as anyone expresses interest. “In the world of nonprofits, I assume you’re going to sleep with me right away. ‘Oh, you kind of like me? Sleep with me.’ Over and over again. In a real relationship, you meet the friends, the friends have to like you, you have to not screw up birthdays…”

Reich came to feel in particular that the world of nonprofits was overlooking a key demographic: something like the altruistic equivalent of a swing voter.

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To explain, Reich draws a pair of concentric circles. The innermost circle represents the core 10 million Americans who tend to be actively engaged with philanthropy, and open to being solicited. An outer ring represents the next 10-15 million of so-called “lookalikes”–people who resemble the actively philanthropic and are deemed worth targeting by most NGOs.

Then Reich draws a third ring. He calls these “persuadables,” people who are kind of on the fence about being altruistic at all, but could–possibly–be persuaded. Reich came to feel that attending to the behavior of persuadables should be the next frontier in nonprofit development. There’s potentially a huge number of them, after all, and he believes that if you could spend resources persuading the persuadables, then those “lookalikes” one rung in would topple toward do-gooding naturally, like dominoes.

The only problem? No one had really studied persuadables in the nonprofit space. And no one really knew how to study them. It was unlikely that you could get them to donate to a cause right away. But you might get them to become aware and educated about it; you might even get them talking to their friends about it. And years later, Reich posited, these persuadables might blossom into financial donors to a cause.

A few years ago, Reich teamed up with Ari Wallach, who runs a consulting firm called Synthesis Corp., with some clients in the nonprofit world. Wallach shared many of Reich’s feelings about nonprofit sclerosis. But one of Synthesis’s clients, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, had displayed a willingness to experiment with new forms of outreach. Wallach pitched the UNHCR for a significant amount of funding to fuel a startup-like operation experimenting with educating the American public about the current global refugee crisis. The UNHCR bit the bullet, and Reich and Wallach launched The Hive in late 2014, with guaranteed funding for two years.

The Hive and a “Manhattan Project for Nonprofits”

So what is the Hive, and what does it do? It’s a team of 10 people working out of New York, exploring the universe of “persuadables” in the context of the refugee crisis. Reich and his colleagues are always asking, “Who can we get to engage around this issue that the UNHCR might not otherwise target? And how can we measure their behavior?” Its hiring practices are unorthodox, for the nonprofit world, at least. “We have the first full-time data scientist in a nonprofit in the U.S. focused on engagement,” says Reich.

The Hive has a wide berth to experiment with things that an august body like the UNHCR might not typically try. It made a “Jesus Was a Refugee” bumper sticker, riffing on a line of the Pope’s, and distributed it around the time of his U.S. visit. During the Major League Baseball playoffs, the Hive launched targeted social media ads explaining that the number of people forced to flee their homes each day–42,000–was about the same as those that would fill a baseball stadium. One of the Hive’s biggest successes came from piggy-backing onto the “Straight Outta…” meme that circulated around Facebook during the release of the NWA biopic. The Hive circulated images naming the cities refugees had fled or the camps they’d been resettled in.

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If it’s not seeking donations from the people it targets, how does the Hive measure its success? Reich’s first answer is that, for now, it’s too early to tell. Most businesses with vision think in terms of the “lifetime value” of a customer, and Reich thinks it would be smart for nonprofits to think that way, too. Reich and his colleagues are interested to see who clicked or shared, but they’ll be even more interested to see if that person donates or shows up to an event years down the line. The Hive is still slicing the data, teasing out patterns and insights. Each test is scientifically designed, complete with control groups. Science makes progress at its own pace. Recently, the Hive ran an ad campaign that got “literally zero clicks,” says Reich. It was a success, in a sense: “We learned a lot.”

The Hive may find its greatest success if it inspires other large nonprofits and NGOs to invest in similar initiatives–or to invest in the Hive itself. Reich thinks the greatest investment nonprofits could make is to collectively fund research; he speaks of the need for “Manhattan Project for nonprofits,” where pooled resources could usher in a new science of altruism.

“That lack of collective intelligence is so significant, it’s borderline dangerous,” says Reich of the fumbling and sometimes off-putting way many nonprofits interact with potential do-gooders. “If many organizations really cared about solving the issues they were advocating for, most of them would put themselves out of business tomorrow.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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