Kiva President Premal Shah is worried about the drastic change that internet has taken since 2005, the year the site first launched.
In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Shah noted that with game mechanics increasingly the norm and social games reaching an unprecedented audience, companies like Zynga are a stronger competitor to the micro-lending site than any other non-profit. He notes that it’s often difficult to get Westerners to care about important issues. It’s not that they’re selfish, but most are already overburdened with the stress of the daily grind and constantly hearing only the most negative stories on the daily news. Successful social games like Zynga’s Farmville or Playfish’s Pet Society encourage people to enter into a temporary collective fantasy where they can have fun, interact with friends and family and still feel like achievers as they earn points and unlock new rewards. This phenomenon is not lost on Shah, who wants Kiva’s focus to shift to game mechanics to help bring Kiva back as a contender.
Shah knows that people generally do want to help and do good, but need to be shown how their small actions in the present can help someone else for the rest of their lives. He acknowledges that people tend to only think about non-profits and donating during holiday times. Kiva plans to create top-lender leaderboards, a series of food group badges, a complete system of achievements and a feedback loop to allow people to see the impact of their donations. The hope is to completely revamp the site within one year and encourage people to make it a part of their regular routine. Included in their 5 year plan is increasing the level of engaging game mechanics, continuing to encourage teams and healthy competitors amongst fundraising groups and helping users feel more directly connected to the people they’re helping in the developing world.
If successful, this sounds like an awesome opportunity for the whole world. Many prominent speakers and designers (including Jane McGonigal, one of the keynotes for the Gamification Summit) have discussed ways to use games to create good, but what’s most exciting about Kiva gamifying is that they start from a position of great strength. With 300,000 monthly users and $170 million donated so far, Kiva has the market leverage to take games-for-good and make them truly a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, the service can make use of ideas like engagement and virality against a benchmark – something new sites frequently have trouble doing.
Obviously, the game mechanics themselves and Kiva’s final design may be somewhat controversial. The leaderboard suggestion raises some hackles (see my discussion on leaderboards in my Virtual Goods Summit video) and competition seems a bit far fetched for me in the context of donations. But whatever Kiva and Premal decided to do will ultimately provide exciting insight for those of us in the for-profit social world as well.
Hear more about Shah’s plan in his interview on TechCruch TV