Do a Google search for "YouTube for Good" and you won’t get too many relevant hits. There certainly isn’t a landing page on YouTube. But YouTube can be a platform of change, even in the midst of thousands of cat videos and people doing bedroom renditions of Beyonce songs. So says Hunter Walk, the director of product management at YouTube and head of YouTube’s Social Good Initiative Team.
I spoke to Walk at the Social Innovation Summit, where he explained what YouTube for Good (founded in 2011) is all about. "It’s really more about YouTube as a whole than a separate program. It’s comprised of some efforts to ensure that nonprofits, educators, and activists are as successful on YouTube as entertainers, comedians, and athletes," he explains.
If it’s not a separate program, where can we find YouTube for Good in the larger YouTube universe? One place to start is the YouTube Nonprofit Program, an initiative that gives accredited nonprofits additional features for their uploaded videos, including donation buttons, live streaming, call to action video overlays, channel branding, and community forums.
A "Playbook for Good" available on the nonprofit program site gives detailed information on how nonprofits can best leverage the video platform. Instead of having a separate customer support team for the nonprofits, YouTube solicits volunteers from its pool of employees. "It’s more about a horizontal than a vertical effort," says Walk.
Walk’s YouTube for Good program has also launched product-facing initiatives that affect users outside of the nonprofit world. Algorithmic face detection and blurring, a feature that’s incredibly valuable to human rights nonprofits, is now available for the general public. Livestreaming is also now available to the larger YouTube community.
A big piece of the initiative is integrating nonprofit into the aforementioned larger community—or as Walk puts it, "moving some of these types of users from people’s back lobe to their frontal lobe." As he points out, most users can recall inspiring YouTube videos—clips that made them cry or spurred them to action. You just have to remind them. "Our efforts aren’t about forcing YouTubers to eat their vegetables. It’s a fertile garden," he says.
At the Social Innovation Summit, Walk got on stage with the creator of Caine’s Arcade, a viral short film about a 9-year-old who created a cardboard arcade in his father’s used auto parts shop. The film inspired thousands of people to donate to Caine’s college fund, and it generated the Global Cardboard Challenge, an initiative encouraging creativity in kids. No force-feeding was necessary; this went viral because it was fun and inspiring.
That’s part of Walk’s challenge: ensuring that nonprofits with few resources can make just as big of an impact as nonprofits that deploy big, splashy campaigns. Invisiblepeople.tv, a campaign to document homelessness, has been successful not because of its star power and production values, but because of its emotional pull. The creator, who was at one point homeless himself, didn’t even edit the films on his computer—it was repossessed. He used a Flipcam to record everything. Judge for yourself whether the films are effective.
Just because a nonprofit goes viral on YouTube doesn’t mean it deserves all the donations it receives. Who can forget Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video, which has been accused of egregiously distorting facts? Invisible Children is a real charity, but that doesn’t mean it’s a worthy one. As on the Internet at large, users need to exercise their best judgment when considering whether a YouTube-savvy nonprofit is worth a donation.
The question of whether online video can truly change the world is still up in the air, but there’s no doubt it can make a large-scale impact. Just ask Caine, who now has more than enough money in his scholarship fund for a four-year college degree.