What can charities learn from the peer–to–peer revolution?

The growth of peer–to–peer websites is changing the way people engage with businesses and institutions. For charities, this is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Branding | 5 read | Michael Gough

What can charities learn from the peer–to–peer revolution?
What can charities learn from the peer–to–peer revolution?

I’m off on holiday to Morocco, after reading recommendations on Tripadvisor. I’ve left my dog with a family through the dog–sitting network DogVacay, and caught a ride to the airport with the ridesharing platform BlaBlaCar.

I’m towing the suitcase I borrowed from a neighbour through Streetbank, and the satchel I bought from a designer on Etsy.

Over in Marrakech, my Airbnb hosts are laying out the towels.

A revolution?

Okay, DogVacay is niche – but it is real.

Peer–to–peer alternatives are available in a growing number of sectors.

Chances are you’ve used one yourself this week. Maybe you’ve looked something up on Wikipedia, or bought something on Ebay.

Both use the power of crowds, cut out the middlemen, and challenge established markets.

Charities are no different

Airbnb now sleeps more people each night than the Hilton. The banks are beginning to look over their shoulder at the crowdsourced lending companies like Zopa. Charities are making a mistake if they think the peer–to–peer revolution won’t affect them.

There’s a limited pool of attention out there, and there is plenty of peer–to–peer competition for your potential donors and volunteers. Perhaps it’s from Kiva, the micro–lending platform that allows you to choose the specific person you lend £20 to.

On any visit to Facebook, you might have a choice between sponsoring a friend on JustGiving, and another inviting you to join them on Causes.

Why it matters

It’s no secret that older generations give more to charity. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, the over 60s make up half of all donations, a situation CAF likens to a ‘generation time–bomb’.

Young people aren’t stingy or unaware of charitable needs. Research, such as the Millennial Impact Project, suggests that they are generous and want to do good in the world – they just do that in different ways. They’re far more likely to engage with people, especially people they know, than institutions.

As Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms explain in their analysis of shifting power, they’re quick to affiliate. But, crucially, they might not be signing on for the sorts of decades–long support that charities have enjoyed in the past.

In other words, future supporters are likely to connect better with the peer–to–peer approach. We’re in the middle of a cultural shift, and many charities risk being left behind.

Peer–to–peer values

Social media and peer–to–peer services are both a response to and a cause of this cultural shift.

There is a broad and long–term move towards more dispersed power, and more collaborative ways of working together. That’s a shift in values as much as a change in behaviour.

An active social media presence won’t be enough, even with the occasional crowdfunding project thrown in. The change will need to be deeper, aiming for more direct, personal connections between supporters and work on the ground.

Here are three peer–to–peer characteristics to consider:


Is your organisation lacking a human face? Do people know who you are? Open up a little about your corporate life.

Are your impact reports personal? Rather than ‘our new project fed 500 children’, focus in and tell ‘Jamal’s story’. You could give the facts about a situation, or you could get someone on the ground to share their first–hand experience.

Take YFC. The international website for the Christian youth charity puts its human stories front and centre, rather than its programmes and resources.


When people engage with you, is it all in one direction? For example, they do the donating, and your organisation takes it from there? Or are you actively seeking ways to work with your supporters?

Take a look at the homepage for Cancer Research. It’s all about pulling together, showcasing what other people like you are doing already – from miles run, to bags of clothes donated, to pints of beer not drunk in their ‘dryathlon’. This is what we can achieve together, it says.

It’s not just about fundraising either. Have you got ways for people to contribute their time, perhaps through a volunteering scheme? Make people feel part of something. And wherever you can, make it fun.


Peer–to–peer services manage to get strangers doing business with each other because they have reputation mechanisms built in. If an Ebay seller lets you down, you can give them poor feedback and others will be warned. The thumbs–up or thumbs–down icons on reviews or comments allow the crowd to filter our voices.

If you’re going to work more collaboratively, that will mean greater transparency. What can you open up? How can you let people into the processes? Are projects priced in a way that clearly demonstrates how money is spent?

Consider Oxfam’s policy and practice pages, where their research, policies and even internal staff guidelines are made public. They’re not exciting, and neither are their research or policy blogs, but it’s all out in the open. Everyone knows where they stand.

The opportunity

Adopting a more peer–to–peer approach can be an energising process, stimulating thought about how to engage people in genuine collaboration. It’s exciting, and done well, it can be inclusive – bringing in a new audience without alienating older supporters.


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