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Clubhouse Is Disrupting Another Industry: Charity Telethons

A Clubhouse charity drive raised more than $140,000 for Texans hit by disaster

When Harold Hughes first heard the winter weather predictions on February 14, he was skeptical — what exactly did they mean by icy weather in Austin, Texas? But when Hughes looked out the window that night, he could already see the snow coming down. The next morning, he estimated six or seven inches were coating his yard.

This is real, he thought.

In the days that followed, the state’s electrical grid flirted with collapse, leaving millions in the dark amidst freezing temperatures. Hughes considers his family fortunate since they never lost power and had enough time to prepare before their water was shut off. They stocked up on water bottles and filled pots with snow, which they boiled and used to flush their toilet to his son’s amusement.

“We were in a great position, a great, great, great position,” Hughes told OneZero the following week. “So I was thinking, like, ‘How do I take my position of privilege here and connect some resources to help others?’”

He decided to leverage his active social networks. The same day his family lost water, he hosted a room on the audio-only app Clubhouse. What started out as a single fundraiser turned into a week-long initiative dubbed “Clubhouse Loves Texas.” Organized and promoted by some of the burgeoning app’s biggest influencers, the events ranged from performances and conversations with celebrities to a book club and a doctors roundtable. By March 1, the initiative had raised more than $140,000 for multiple Texas organizations.

The success of this grassroots effort reflects the platform’s promise for galvanizing communities, a trait that holds particular power in times of crisis. But, as other social networks have previously proven, it can be a double-edged sword.

“Twitter is pretty asynchronous, I can’t really get as much engagement, but if I open up a room on Clubhouse, I’m going to get 1,500 to 2,000 people in there.”

Clubhouse has seen its popularity surge in recent months, despite the fact that users still need an invite to join. That, in turn, has put a premium on invites, which have even been sold on eBay. Users who get one have access to create or pop into a seemingly endless slate of “rooms,” which can range from a small group of friends chatting to thousands of strangers listening to a famous billionaire. Having catered largely to the Silicon Valley set in its early days, many of Clubhouse’s most influential members have some combination of “CEO,” “Founder,” or “strategy” in their bios.

Hughes, who is a CEO and founder himself, was a Clubhouse early adopter last spring, and he was able to snag the likely coveted handle “@startup.” He’s a co-creator of the Black Founders Club, which hosts weekly events for its thousands of members and was featured in a CNBC article headlined, “How Black users are saving Clubhouse from becoming a drab hangout for tech bros.” So, when he was looking for a way to spread the word about Texas, he turned to the app.

“Twitter is pretty asynchronous, I can’t really get as much engagement, but if I open up a room on Clubhouse, I’m going to get 1,500 to 2,000 people in there,” Hughes explained.

His fundraiser caught the attention of Kat Cole, the former COO and president of Focus Brands, who is also active on the app with more than 1 million followers. Cole had just recently wrapped a Clubhouse fundraiser of her own and reached out to offer advice from her experience. She made the first donation to Hughes’ charity of choice — the Austin Area Urban League — and he made the second. As they started promoting the fundraiser on Clubhouse, tens of thousands of dollars came in.

“It was just, like, look at this intersection of technology and community,” Cole told OneZero, noting that it was clear there was potential for more efforts like this on the platform.

Building off that success, Cole, Hughes, and other high-profile users decided to expand the fundraiser beyond just Austin. In a different Clubhouse room that Saturday, a group of ad-hoc organizers began brainstorming for a week of action. Texas residents helped identify which organizations they should support. Noelle Chesnut Whitmore, who directed and led production for the Clubhouse-exclusive Lion King: The Musical, offered to put together a benefit concert.

Since Clubhouse offers no in-app linking, they set up their fundraiser through Pledgeling, which allows users to donate by texting, rather than having to read out a URL for people to manually type in. Then, they created graphic overlays for their profile photos, which included the text-to-donate information.

“The news may forget about us, but Clubhouse won’t.”

Gabriele Almon was one of about 3,000 participants in that room Saturday and found herself struck by the emotion of the speakers, as well as the ability to hear their activism in action. Almon worked in humanitarian aid emergency response and homeland security for a decade, including serving on the FEMA National Advisory Council, and now runs a business helping creatives tell stories about crises. She said she was impressed by the conversation she heard in the room noting, in particular, the focus on making sure the efforts would reach those most vulnerable.

“You can hear people loading things in their car, you can hear the rain or the weather outside, and so it adds a sense of authenticity,” Almon told OneZero. “It compels you as a listener to want to get involved and to want to help and to believe what this person is saying.”

For Denise Hamilton, one of the Texas-based organizers who personally lost power for five days during the storm, centering those voices was essential in this effort. It was about raising funds, the WatchHerWork CEO later told OneZero, but it was also about raising awareness of the stories she felt were going untold outside of the state.

“The news may forget about us, but Clubhouse won’t,” she promised during the kickoff concert the next night to a crowd of a few thousand listeners. By the end of the five-hour event, which included appearances from rapper 21 Savage and Justin Reid from the Houston Texans, more than $75,000 was tallied on the Pledgelink page.

Reflecting on the event later that week, Hamilton likened it to a telethon, with the ephemeral nature of the event eliciting “FOMO” that fueled interest in the #CHLovesTX hashtagged events that followed.

One week after Hughes held his original room — the fundraiser broke $100,000 during an event with celebrities Terry Crews, Mike Judge, and Andra Day.

“The fact that we’re able to capture thousands of people in multiple rooms over the course of multiple days is so superior to me than a static Facebook group is, like, it’s apples and oranges,” she said.

On Wednesday, February 24 — one week after Hughes held his original room — the fundraiser broke $100,000 during an event with celebrities Terry Crews, Mike Judge, and Andra Day. More came through during rooms with Austin Mayor Steve Adler, former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, and representatives from the beneficiary organizations, like the Houston Food Bank. Jessica Dominguez, the annual giving manager for the food bank, joined a #CHLovesTX room at one point to talk about how they were helping the community in the wake of the winter storm.

“I actually learned to use Clubhouse during that update,” Dominguez said, adding that it was “actually very exciting” to provide real-time updates to an engaged audio audience.

Of course, organizations like the Houston Food Bank already understood and utilized social media for fundraising. Dominguez pointed to the ease of Facebook in particular, which allows the organization to reach both donors and those in need of help through just one post, as well as the ability to create a fundraiser directly on the site. It’s a space the social network has leaned into during the past decade, launching a “safety check” feature, a Crisis Response page, and an on-site donation option, not to mention the popularity of its Groups feature for survivors.

But as OneZero previously reported, Facebook has struggled with keeping bad actors out of these transactions, whether it’s fraudulent posts for help or those that target and take advantage of disaster survivors, often trying to get them to turn over sensitive information. These sorts of issues have also popped up on other social platforms, as well as popular fundraising site GoFundMe. And Almon sees Clubhouse as an attractive target for those looking to run these types of post-disaster scams, thanks to its emotional appeal and the current lack of verification on the app. The Los Angeles Times reports that this is already a problem, albeit not in the disaster aid space, with users forming volunteer “anti-grift” squads to combat it. The app has also faced significant backlash over moderation issues, with multiple users reporting harassment that has gone largely unpunished.

Cole said the Clubhouse Loves Texas organizers did consider these concerns and took steps to address them. These included speaking directly with Clubhouse, which she said agreed to take down any rooms that were using the hashtag inappropriately and looked “shady” (Clubhouse did not respond to OneZero’s request for comment). As for the money itself, James Citron, the CEO of Pledgeling Technologies, said his platform only allows donations to vetted nonprofits, which then receive 100% of the funds. He added that the money raised last week is already being dispersed, and Dominguez confirmed that the Houston Food Bank has started to receive its portion of the proceeds.

Hamilton, acknowledging the criticisms of Clubhouse, expressed her renewed confidence in the platform due to this experience.

“This week proved to me it is not about the tool, it’s about those that wield it, right? And this environment is just perfectly, perfectly poised for good people to share important stories and to benefit humanity,” she said.

Cole said she and the other organizers are keeping the site up for now in a nod to the ongoing need in the state, but they have discussed plans to “responsibly close out” the fundraiser in a “number of weeks.”

This will be another challenge for Clubhouse, albeit one all social sites have struggled with: How to sustain support for a disaster-struck community in the long-term, when the need is still present but is no longer trending.

Colleen Hagerty is a freelance multimedia journalist specializing in disaster reporting. More at www.colleenhagerty.com.