2013-09-03

How Mark Pincus Is Turning Gaming Addiction To Social Good

With the Zynga nonprofit arm, Zynga.org, the online gaming giant is finding ways to convert people's play into generosity.

At Zynga, it's game—and give—on. Not only can you outmaneuver and outscore your friends but you can also outgive. Bragging rights included. Mark Pincus, founder of this online gaming company, hopes the friendly battles will help make the world a better place.

As an entrepreneur creating online consumer products and services, Pincus says he strives to create an Internet treasure, “a service people can’t remember life before and can’t remember life without.” Whether he will succeed still remains to be seen; however, he has already made a positive dent by enabling gamers to donate money to organizations and generating a unique revenue stream for nonprofits.

“The dream for me and a lot of my peers is to actually be able to see the products we create directly deliver good in the world. And even more powerful than that is to be a platform for other people to make positive change in the world,” Pincus says.

Like many tech entrepreneurs today, he hopes to establish a new model for philanthropy. His efforts at Zynga.org, the charitable arm of the gaming site, reflect his dream of linking his philanthropic efforts to his professional ones.

“The last century model is that you spend your career trying to create valuable products and services and shareholder value, you achieve personal wealth and then at some point you flip the switch when you have time to focus on something else,” Pincus says. “Rather than that model of making it a second career, my dream was to make it something that related to my day job.”

Taking a cue from lessons he's learned from other tech-leaders-turned-philanthropists, like Bill Gates, Pincus believes ideas, creativity, and sweat equity have greater value than money in terms of world impact.

“The level of leverage and impact that we can have on the world comes with our games and our tens of millions of players,” Pincus says. “If we can unlock the power in our network to enable our players to engage in positive ways, it would dwarf what we could do physically as a couple thousand people in our organization.”

With Zynga, Pincus believed there was a market for charitable giving. As with any new product, the next step involved testing to discern interest and to avoid wasting resources and engineering on products that players would not use.

“We wanted to connect the dots between world causes and our players’ interests and our games,” Pincus says. “We wanted to start experimenting with ways to let our players not just get the virtual item they may want but actually also the pleasure of knowing that they were directing the money they’re spending towards a cause that they may care about and be able to show off the fact that they’re doing that to their friends.”

The initial test program for social virtual goods allowed players to purchase dog vests with the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) logo on them to help raise money for the organization. The higher-priced SPCA dog vests far outsold the regular vests.

To scale the social program, Zynga offered virtual sugar beets for players to purchase in FarmVille that benefited two on-the-ground organizations in Haiti, FATEM and Fonkoze. They raised $427,000 in less than three weeks in October 2009. In January 2010, Zynga.org raised $1.5 million in five days for Haiti Earthquake Relief and started distributing money within 48 hours.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire

“It was powerful for our company and for our players,” Pincus says. “When an artist saw that she could take her talents, make a beautiful crop and flag, turn that on in the game in 24 hours and see that in a matter of hours money was being given out to people in Haiti, I would argue that was the best use of her time to have impact on that cause.”

Social goods have become another core Zynga service that players—and employees—expect and value. When the Japanese earthquake struck in 2011, Zygna received emails within hours from players requesting a similar relief program. Zygna teams went to work in the middle of the night so that seven of its games could start to benefit victims of the earthquake. To date, over a million players have participated and given money to Zynga.org.

Zygna’s mission of connecting the world through games goes beyond the social virtual good. They also want to show people that they don’t have to compromise and that they can utilize their talents towards helping the world.

“I hope my company and I can leave a legacy that delivers current good in the world but delivers something that could have lasting directional impact and value,” Pincus says. “I hope that we’re blazing a trail for companies to enable knowledge workers a way to apply their day jobs and these amazing skills people are developing around software and other things to help people in the world solve big problems and enable these workers to do that without having to give up their passions and jobs to go do that.”

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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