Rethinking The Role Of Tech Companies In The Refugee Crisis

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This op-ed was originally published on TECHCRUNCH, and is part of Brian's work as director of the Hive, a special project of the UN Refugee Agency focused on innovation. 

The urgent humanitarian situation in Europe has pushed the ongoing global refugee crisis to the forefront of U.S. consciousness. There are currently 60 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, conflict or persecution. Lots of people in the U.S. want to do something about this, but don’t know where to start.

Although we have no refugees arriving in flimsy boats on our shores, and we cannot pass out food to waiting families or volunteer at reception centers, the best way we can support refugees and contribute to lasting solutions is to use our unique place in the world as home of some of the most innovative companies.

Addressing the global refugee crisis is a shared responsibility — and a strategic opportunity for the U.S.’s most-forward thinkers in the private sector: tech companies.

Alleviating the immediate impact of this crisis and the other pressing social issues of our time requires money, yes, but durable problem-solving hinges on U.S. companies’ integrated investment in solutions. That is, using their knowledge and product and market positioning to change the status quo of humanitarian work and develop synergistic solutions for NGOs and businesses.

In September, President Obama addressed the UN General Assembly and challenged the private sector to respond to the refugee crisis. Swiftly answering this call, companies like Facebook and Kickstarter have made strides in the last few months by bringing Internet access to refugee camps and mobilizing the community via its platform (raising $1.7 million in one week).

Kickstarter didn’t just hand over a big check — it used its product and infrastructure in a way that delivered a better outcome not only for refugees, but for its company and community.

We can do even better, though. Greater integration between the corporate and public sectors will compound the power of the consumer behavior insights each holds independently.

"It’s time to attack problems like the refugee crisis with the ambition and strategy of a Fortune 500 launch."

The opportunities to make an impact go deeper for companies who make collaboration with NGOs a business imperative rather than a box to check. As Dennis M. Nally, chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, said in a recent report, “CEOs are…building diverse collaborative networks that embrace not just traditional partners, but customers, academia, NGOs and even competitors. Managing those networks will be increasingly important for future success.”

By engaging their products, brands, infrastructure and communities in a symbiotic way around pressing social issues, companies have the opportunity to make a measurable impact on global issues while reaching important new audiences ripe for brand engagement. One of the strongest opportunities for partnership lies in the most valuable assets companies have — data on their customers.

Leveraging Data For Profit And Purpose

NGOs are starting to take cues from the private sector to rethink ways to solve the global refugee crisis and other pressing social issues. This involves thinking like the most sophisticated brand marketers and leveraging some of the most advanced data available to understand how messages connect to people on their terms.

To understand their target audiences, NGOs typically have access to data collected from publicly licensed sources and their own polling and engagement efforts. The wealth of information tech companies collect about their users’ habits and preferences would provide invaluable insights to NGOs when shared and combined.

Data mixing empowers tech companies and NGOs to teach each other how to better reach and serve an engaged, overlapping audience. Such collaboration enables each partner to do its job better. As former U.S. chief technology officer Beth Noveck articulated, this means data can do “double duty as rich social assets — if shared wisely.”

The NGO sector is expert at raising awareness, and knows its market very well. But historically, its efforts have not translated to meaningful, measurable actions. While many cause-related efforts generate donations — always from the same select group of Americans — the potential benefits that could come from brands or companies are not being applied, or even pursued.

"Addressing the global refugee crisis is a shared responsibility."

If we who work to address global humanitarian crises can demonstrate better business outcomes for companies that get involved in addressing these social issues, then the public sector is poised to become the most valuable partner a business can have.

In collaboration and data sharing, there is far greater potential for brands and companies to contribute solutions to social issues precisely because there are financial and data upsides for the businesses themselves to do so.

In collaboration with brand marketers, NGOs like the UN Refugee Agency and others can:

  • Identify better messengers: Combining data from the world’s largest brands with their own insights on who engages around a given issue, and how, NGOs can help businesses identify more powerful channels and tools for delivering their messages, and identify and help to shape those messages that will resonate most effectively on an individual level.
  • Create new products: NGOs and brand marketers can combine data insights and strategies to create new products, systems and media platforms for engaging people on a crisis through products. Think using the Donors Choose model to bring solutions to market more quickly and tapping engaged audiences primed to read, share and contribute. Product RED built products with brands like Apple and GAP, working with brilliant designers to make merchandise people wanted, all while supporting the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Customers, in turn, loved those objects. While Product RED suffered from a lack of transparency, it demonstrated the power of commercial involvement in the social sector to create beautiful, meaningful items that stood for a powerful social message in the eyes of people.
  • Find new markets and possibilities: This expanded data set also can help NGOs identify entirely new markets of consumers and co-creators. In-depth attitudinal and psychographic modeling might allow brands to use predictive marketing to reach a consumer when he or she is most likely to take action on an issue or click “yes” on a survey, or might allow a brand to explore a new line of business to reach these primed and addressable audiences.
  • Co-create breakthrough media: The climate-change movement gained traction when it began operating and thinking like a business, rather than an issue. Moments like Vice President Al Gore’s global message from his documentary An Inconvenient Truth turned climate science into pop science and mass culture, paving the way for a company’s environmental stance to become a measure of trust and long-term viability.

It’s time to attack problems like the refugee crisis with the ambition and strategy of a Fortune 500 launch. True innovators will heed this call. Step up for global solutions — your brand, and humanity, will thank you.