How conservation can learn from digital communities

A thought piece by Sasha Sebright, an external innovator collaborating with the Luc Hoffmann Institute to investigate the role digital innovation can play in shaping conservation efforts. This research feeds into The future of conservation NGOs initiative.

New global communities are rapidly emerging around a decentralised, digital planet. These digital communities present a desire to embed philanthropy, transparency, empowerment, and democratisation within their interactions both on-and-offline. If the conservation sector wishes to remain effective and relevant in an increasingly digital world, it is critical to better understand these communities and unleash their skills for environmental good.

The philanthropic nature of digital communities

Conservation organisations recognise the importance of social media for their engagement and fundraising strategies, but only two of the fifteen biggest conservation NGOs are interacting with two of the most dynamic global communities. These communities can be found on Discord, the fastest growing website in 2020;¹ and Twitch, the 20th most visited website in 2021 which raised US$83 million for charity in 2020 alone.²

Twitch launched in 2011 with a focus on live-streaming gaming content. Each year its users unite in ‘Games Done Quick’, a series of video game marathons completed to raise money for a selected charity. This year they achieved a personal best, raising US$3.4 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation in just 8 days.³ All from the ground-up, led by the community, and without being orchestrated by a traditional NGO.

In 2018, Twitch branched out from the gaming sector and dedicated a space to ‘Animals, Aquariums, and Zoos’, which allows users to celebrate the world of non-humans and learn about the conservation of species and habitats. Even with Twitch featuring tools such as Tiltify (a digital fundraising platform) and their ‘joystick philanthropists’ ² showing an appetite to engage with environmental efforts, the conservation sector remains notably absent.

Engagement within these communities involves an inbuilt system of cooperation, co-creation and information exchange. From this, the conservation sector has much to learn. Strikingly relevant for considerations around the future conservation NGO is how these communities display a clear drive towards a decentralised and democratic future, and are forging the way with a continuum of purpose-built digital innovations. 

Shaking up the status quo

The Gamifying Nature Conservation project revealed that modern digital communities require a level of transparency in their transactions that the current conservation business model struggles to accommodate. There has been a barrier between the desire to help environmental causes, and action. Until now. These communities are taking matters into their own hands and creating new ways of engaging with the conservation sector by designing and mobilising digital technologies such as blockchain, which is inherently suited for this decentralised vision of impact.

In the search for transparency, blockchain provides a way for financial transactions to be clearly and immutably traced from start to finish. It also opens the door to novel methods of fundraising and engagement including the trading of digital assets called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Wielding NFTs for environmental fundraising is not free from controversy, with concerns about the energy requirements needed to fuel the blockchain process. Despite criticism, projects utilising these technologies for good, such as impact NFTs, continue to thrive.  

These endeavours tend to be built from the ground up by the community itself, with countless examples of digital communities uniting to promote social good. One such venture is Fishy Fam, which raises funds for ocean conservation and galvanises a community of over 70,000 followers to clean beaches and waterways around the world. Another is Belugies, a collection of 8,000 NFTs created by a 14-year-old female artist. With the support of the Belugies community, Abigail has fundraised over US$242,000 and, more recently, created a not-for-profit NFT campaign, ‘One Planet For Ukraine’, that donates 100% of funds towards humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.⁴⁻⁵

Online interactions, offline impacts

While offering an insight into a future of decentralised decision making, these online interactions may have offline impacts which do not reflect such equality. If the communities disproportionately comprise technology and time-rich individuals from certain demographics, then the physical and intellectual benefits gained will exacerbate global imbalances in power and digital literacy. When engaging with these new communities, the conservation sector must identify and mitigate against inequality by incorporating opinions across a range of diverse digital spaces.

During these interactions, it would be detrimental for the sector to under-value these progressive audiences when reconsidering the current model of one-way charitable giving. Integrating digital communities’ motivations and skills within the sector could accelerate environmental innovation and ignite the transformation of funding streams focused not on donations, but on the considered purchase of conservation services. In co-creatively exploring the ever-developing potential of blockchain technology, conservationists can play a role in ensuring future applications are designed with environmental and social good at their core.

Instead of focusing on these new communities as conventional engagement tools, the sector should aim to learn from the transformative changes that these communities actively pursue. If successful, conservationists could not only benefit from the skills and digital innovations of these communities, but secure the ongoing relevance of conservation organisations in an increasingly digital future.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, The future of Conservation NGOs initiative, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.

References

1. Grothaus, M. (2021) These were the top 10 fastest growing websites in 2020. Fast Company.

2. Strub, C. (2020) $83M+ Raised And Counting In 2020: Are Twitch Streamers The New Philanthropists? Forbes.

3. Michael, C. (2022) Awesome Games Done Quick 2022 raises record $3.4 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Dot Esports.

4. Belugies Market.

5. Poux, S. (2021) 14-year-old artist uses NFTs to raise $50K for Alaska beluga conservation. KTOO.