Project Agape, as we mentioned earlier, is a site that wants to empower people to further their political or social cause using the Internet.
The site remains secretive for now, but we spent some time with co-founders Sean Parker and Joe Green last week, and got a sneak peak at what they are doing, including a demonstration of their site. We came away impressed. This site is likely to have significant impact on philanthropic causes. We’d recommend any non-profit, or even for-profits working on good social causes, to get in touch with this company. You could call Agape a “meta” non-profit.
To piece things together, Project Agape is the new name of Philotic, a company we’d mentioned in January, when it got funding from the Founders Fund in January. Parker and Green confirmed they raised $2.35 million from that firm. Parker, 27, who is a partner at Founders Fund, is also a co-founder of the company. This puts Parker in the highly unusual position of investor and investee, but then Parker is an unconventional guy (as mentioned before). Philotic, in turn, was the evolution of an older company, called Essembly.com, which was founded by Green. That company was restructured into Philotic when Parker and the Founders Fund invested earlier this year. The Essembly.com site is still active.
Here’s the history: Green (pictured left), 23, a roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s at Harvard, almost became a co-founder of Facebook. However, he’d gotten in enough trouble with Zuckerberg, when they launched facemash.com, a site that popped up two student photos and asked people to choose who was more attractive (see our early story on Facebook, which recounts the history). Zuck was put on probation, and Green got a slap on the wrist and was let off. In 2004, instead of joining Facebook, Green decided to join the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry. Green, self-deprecatingly, notes that not only did he lose the states of Arizona and Nevada for Kerry, but also a Facebook stake worth in the many millions of dollars.
But Green, whose eyes this past Friday evening were bloodshot from overwork, is following his passion: Giving people a way to get their voice heard, at a time when political alienation and disengagement are greater than ever. Citizens perceive politics as dominated by money. Philanthropies and political parties court the older and wealthy, because they have the dollars; the average person is left with no medium to participate.
Green wants to change that. In 2003, he tried to convince Zuckerberg, his computer science roommate, to build a social network dedicated to empowering people in the political process. Zuck wasn’t interested in politics at the time. So after the Kerry stint, Green started Essembly.com. He built it over the summer of 2005, with six engineers. There, he experimented online with basic precepts of political mobilization: You start out with minimal commitments, getting people to answer questions. The more people give of themselves, the more you reward them, and the more you reward them, the more they get involved.
In short, Green dreamt of creating something akin to the townhall of the Internet, a democratic ideal where people’s voices are hard — and a goal talked about for years by early Internet visionaries, like John Perry Barlow — who hoped the Internet would be a transformative force for the good. But the Internet of political motivation remained elusive. Organizations like MoveOn.org exist, but they remain relatively small compared to the scale of a Yahoo or even a Facebook.
Last year, Green was in his hometown of LA, and hooked up with Sean Parker (pictured left), who’d left Facebook, and was spending time in LA before joining The Founders Fund as a venture capitalist. They hit it off, and started talking about Green’s vision. It resonated with Parker, who’d been thinking about viral causes since his days at Plaxo, and more recently, about online democracy. Parker returned to SF to work for The Founders Fund, and convinced Green to come to Berkeley. Parker went to work to help transform Essembly into a new company that could be invested in by his firm. He and the firm restructured Essembly, buying out its old shareholders, and placating them by giving them a small share in the company (Parker had learned this art the hard way — after helping Zuck do something similar with Facebook, but Facebook had been dogged by a lawsuit for years afterward). They kept two of the original engineers, and brought in two others to the new Berkeley company.
One of their goals: To change the model of fund-raising, to make it more efficient. Many charitable organizations absorb 20 to 30 percent of their received donations in overhead expenses. Online fund-raising can be more efficient. Yet only $5 billion of donations are online, even if it is growing quickly. Some $260 billion is given to charities each year, and 75 percent of that is from individuals. Most of what we speculated two weeks ago about Project Agape was accurate, though we’d say Project Agape is more Facebook, less Friendster.
Green is founding president of Agape, and Parker is chairman. They are co-CEOs. Green hangs out mostly in Berkeley, and Parker spends about a third of his time at the office, the rest of it traveling.
Finally, a note on the origin of the word Philotic: It comes from the Philotic Web, a metaphysical construct of the Ender’s Game series of works by science fiction author Orson Scott Card. In that work, kids who think they are playing a game find out that they are really being used to fight a major war. Only the kids have a chance of winning, because they’re the ones who can take the risks necessary to win the war. With two twenty-somethings attempting to revolutionize the world of giving with Project Agape, these Philotic Web references are more than apt.