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Fundraising with the Internet crowd

Leonard Hyman at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab
Leonard Hyman, center, won second place for Crowdvocate at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab’s 2012 CRUNCH Design Challenge.

After the financial crash of 2008, Leonard Hyman developed a strong interest in economics. He decided to combine that with his longtime affinity for politics by pursuing a Master of Public Policy degree from the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Hyman MPP ’12, who graduated in May, fused these interests with his background in communications to create Crowdvocate, a novel and promising way to fund advocacy efforts for a variety of causes. It’s an approach that combines crowdsourcing — the mass solicitation of contributions online — with crowdfunding, people pooling their money to support a cause.

“Basically, it’s a website designed to give nonprofit organizations a means for tapping into the enthusiasm of their supporters, and to fund and create advocacy advertising,” he said.

Hyman, the project lead, and developer Kunwar Aditya Raghuwanshi from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering were awarded second place for the website at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab’s 2012 CRUNCH Design Challenge, and received $10,000 to further develop the site.

When Crowdvocate, formerly called FlashPAC, launches in the fall, organizations can post pitches on the site about their need for campaign ads and notify supporters. Individuals then will have the opportunity to pledge a donation on the site, as well as tell their friends about the campaign through email and social media. When pledges reach a specified level, donors will be charged.

At the same time, potential filmmakers will create ads and post them on the site, and donors will have the opportunity to vote on them. The money collected will be used as a prize for the filmmaker of the selected ad and to pay for the ad’s media placement.

Hyman credits two courses he took at USC Price in helping him to conceptualize the project: Sherry Bebitch Jeffe’s course on communicating public policy and Dora Kingsley’s course on political management.

“They both gave me insight about how communications influence public policy and about how someone with a communications background could influence the political process,” said Hyman, who held writing and public relations positions before entering the MPP program. “Most germane to Crowdvocate was information in the political management course on how to think and plan strategically. It was also very helpful in navigating the world of legal language, institutions and constraints on campaigns.”

To Kingsley, the most impressive aspect of the concept is that it informs the public of opportunities to help others make a positive impact.

“It collapses the hierarchy between those who know a lot and have special information and those who don’t,” she said, “connecting talented organizations with a generally interested person of the public.”

Kingsley also lauded Hyman’s participation in class, particularly “his incessant questioning of ‘why would this work?,’ ‘what do you think about this?,’ or ‘how do you make that better?’ Even as he worked through projects for other classes, I would answer questions about social media and consulting practices.”

While developing Crowdvocate, Hyman also served as communications director for the political campaign of Brent Tercero, a friend and MPP classmate who ran for and won a seat on the Pico Rivera City Council last November.

“From that experience, I learned how many moving parts there are in a campaign, how you have to respond on a dime and that I could trust my political instincts,” Hyman said. “It gave me confidence in being able to do that going forward.”

This summer, through a Google Policy Fellowship, he is working with the Internet Education Foundation, which educates lawmakers about Internet policy. One assignment is to develop panels and topics, and recruit speakers for the organization’s upcoming “State of the Net” conference.

When he returns to Los Angeles, Hyman will concentrate on Crowdvocate.

“In the long run, I believe the site will be self-sustaining,” he said, “and hope that it will become a full-time job.”

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