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There’s a dizzying energy around start-ups in America these days – New York City’s Silicon Alley, tech corridors in states throughout the country, and of course Silicon Valley are all abuzz with new ventures, young entrepreneurs, brilliant ideas for mobile applications, cloud services, and social media spin-offs. When the blogs are abuzz with stories of nine-digit investments and IPOs, it’s easy to forget that there are millions of people throughout the world that subsist on next to nothing. 


So what can a creative, entrepreneurial scene like New York’s start-up community do to help people who survive war and famine halfway around the globe? Recently about 30 people from the advertising and start-up world dedicated a weekend to those millions at the NYC Famine Hackathon, an event to develop online fundraising projects that raise money for famine relief. 


The event followed the model of start-up weekends, a growing phenomenon that brings developers, designers, and marketers together over a weekend to make functioning online projects. Start-up weekends are intended to get the blood going, fuel creative thinking around what to make, and even jumpstart companies built on the projects incubated over the weekend. This particular event is the brainchild of entrepreneur Farrah Bostic, and is part of 5050 Make or Break, a site that invites anyone to submit online fundraising projects. Its goal is to encourage the development of 50 online fundraising projects in 50 days in time for World Hunger Day on 16 October, with all proceeds going to UNICEF.


The group that took part in the Famine Hackathon weekend was comprised of coders and developers, marketing strategists and creatives, and even a poet. Some were young and idealistic, and others brought years of experience and expertise. They heard about it through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and word of mouth, and decided that they’d spare a weekend for a good cause and a creative experiment.


They gathered on a rainy Friday evening in a brand-new co-working space called Grind. The space was wide open and pristinely white, populated with long tables for focused working, pod-like couches for quiet conversation, and round tables for discussion. On the walls, interactive displays showcased projects from the graphic designers, web developers and other creative people who work there during the week.


Bostic and Stuart Eccles of British social media agency Made by Many, who started the 50/50 project, kicked off the weekend by sharing other fundraising ideas that had been made for the larger project. A man in Mexico pledged to eat what a refugee in Africa would eat for 50 days, and invited people to sponsor his pledge. Another project encouraged people to get sponsorships to stay off of Facebook for 50 days. Another automatically donated to UNICEF with every Amazon.co.uk purchase. All the projects coexist at 5050.gd, with the number of backers and the money raised listed. 


Then representatives of Foursquare, Etsy, and other young internet companies presented demonstrations of their APIs and services that the group could build upon to raise money. Ideas began to bubble up – an Etsy store with crafts from countries in East Africa! FourSquare check-ins that rack up donations!


Armed with this creative inspiration, pizza and beer, the group broke up into teams, gathering around tables to sketch out possibilities. Teams debated what would take their project from discussion to fruition to donation. The low hum of conversation permeated the room over tunes pumped out of Spotify. “Turn the music up a little, it gets the energy going,” one of the organizers said in a bid to fine-tune the atmosphere. With the Sunday deadline still 48 hours away, the energy was positive and the pressure is low.


Throughout the weekend, the teams honed in on their ideas and worked to turn them into compelling – and functioning – online fundraising tools. But the weekend was more than a way to raise money for one cause.


“The 5050 project comes out of the ‘small bets’ hypothesis—instead of investing in one big idea, try out lots of little ones,” explained Bostic. “We don’t know what fundraising idea will be the most successful—so let’s try all of them and maximize for success.”


Over the weekend, the teams learned to embrace this approach, where each idea is a testing ground for what could work, rather than a definitive answer. In two days, five teams had created five projects that will contribute to the bigger experiment in what works and doesn’t in online fundraising. As the 4pm Sunday deadline loomed, teams were still putting on final touches as they demonstrated how an idea became a online fundraising tool in a matter of 48 hours.


The projects varied widely, from funny to serious, from utilitarian to fantastical.  My personal favorite, Karma Equalizer, is a Facebook app that lets you identify all the bad things you’ve done – everything from stealing office supplies to driving a Hummer—and ‘neutralize’ them by donating money to a good cause.


One Every Six takes a more serious approach. A timer ticks and the image of a child slowly fades under the headline “One child dies every 6 minutes” in the famine; a donation will stop the ticking clock.


The five projects from the NYC Famine Hackathon weekend are all accepting donations here. The site also hosts other projects from around the world, and is open to anyone for submission of a project idea.

Anita Schillhorn van Veen is a strategist at an advertising agency in NYC and a culture aficionado. You can follow her on twitter at twitter.com/anitasvv


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