Article by Balu Nayar, PGP 1989 -@BloodDonorsIn
A social media experiment
Blood Donors India (@BloodDonorsIn) is a network on Twitter that I had set up in 2008 sparked off by my earlier experience at Yahoo, when we were in talks to acquire Facebook – yes, that was a different era!
The concept that my wife and I discussed was that instead of a network of friends, could we create one of strangers helping each other?
So, this was a thought that stayed in my mind, but put it into action only when we returned to India. Working on the creation of the Indian Premier League took a lot of my bandwidth, but it also brought home the simple power of design to touch millions of people. While money is the obvious currency for help between humans, there are obvious issues there :-), so blood was the currency selected.
This was started on another popular social media platform but shifted after a year to Twitter in 2008. Two reasons – more action-oriented users, and the speed at which a message can reach complete strangers. This is critical when a blood request has to reach a donor or volunteer in some small town that you haven’t even heard of before – and in a few hours.
A mass movement with an anonymous leader?
A key constraint was that I wanted anonymity for a few reasons. Firstly, the Founder’s Syndrome that affects many social causes – where the founder’s identity subsumes the core cause. Secondly, in India your name and identity broadcasts many signals – and this could hinder the creation of a completely agnostic network that was committed to help people irrespective of religion, ethnicity, political leanings etc. And yes, there’s peace in anonymity.
I’ve had to give up that anonymity recently (after 9 years) due to a formal partnership signed with Twitter, where we agreed to co-host a press conference, and to work together on a technology product to reduce human error, automate the re-formatting using a little AI, and improve response times. And now, when trying to work on growth and a succession plan, reaching out to India’s leading corporates rules out anonymity.
The 10-year journey
The process is simple – patient’s families (or volunteers or NGOs) send a request to our Twitter handle @BloodDonorsIn, and I (or one of two trusted volunteers) send out the message to our network, re-formatted for best response rates. Five information elements are essential in every broadcast – #City, blood group, number of units, hospital, and mobile number. Other softer aspects such as age of the patient, specific illness etc. do help to improve response rates.
Twitter was pretty small in India when we started out, and after 65 months, we had reached 5000 members (I don’t call them followers) on our network – and my wife and I celebrated !
But then we saw the almost mythical hockey stick curve that most start-ups project – we grew 100x in the next 2 years, and doubled after that to cross 1 million users some time back. This was due a number of reasons – firstly, the smartphone revolution; secondly, the diligent use of celebrities who were tagged (typically, politicians across the spectrum for requests in their constituency, or actors/actresses and journalists etc. – all of whom re-tweeted), and thirdly because most of our key volunteers became mini-celebrities, who inspired many more to join and make an impact. The growth was entirely organic, with word spreading on the demand side that this network was helping to meet blood donation requests around the country when all else had failed – and on the supply side, that this was a uniquely fulfilling way to spend time every day on social media. There is a strong offline component to our volunteers’ efforts too – calling friends, colleagues, people on their database etc.
We’re followed by people and offices connected to the armed forces, police, UNICEF, as well as governmental and political organizations across the country. I have been approached by the Ministry of Health, as well as by a committed senior bureaucrat from the Ministry of Woman and Child Development, who wanted our help in addressing the emergency needs of women for programmes under the Nirbhaya Fund.
I met Twitter’s Chief Media Scientist a few years back (he’s also a professor at MIT), and he said that @BloodDonorsIn was the largest many-many community on Twitter globally – most Twitter handles are one-to-many, typically of a celebrity addressing his/her following.
Impact across India
First, a sizing of the problem – according to WHO, India faces a blood shortage of 3 mln units a year. In towns that are Tier 2 or lower, patients’ lives are at the mercy of brokers who step in for commercial benefit. An added issue – blood is perishable, to be transfused within 46 days, so many donations to blood banks are actually wasted – one of the reasons for this network’s focus on live donations. Additionally, with the growing diagnosis, incidence and treatment of cancer, there is a critical need for live donations of blood, platelets, marrow etc. At the Tata Memorial Hospital, which has one of the largest blood banks in Asia, the senior doctor there told me that even they constantly face a shortage of live donors for cancer patients – and this is in Mumbai.
The pressure on us increases with increasing demand, which is driven by overall awareness as well as the work of volunteers. There are no Saturdays or Sundays here – we’re typically the last resort, and responses need to be fulfilled in hours to save lives. Human error is an issue here (hence the tech product that we’re working on) – I still remember missing a request in 2015. That’s a solitary miss amongst thousands of requests over ten years, but statistics don’t matter here – that was for someone’s mother.
To put this in internet speak, this is a hyper-local, user-generated, free marketplace for blood that goes deep into Tier 4 India. Our growth has not just been due to an increase in members, but also due to greater engagement, enthusiasm and teamwork amongst the thousands of volunteers in the network across both the demand and supply side of the marketplace. This continues to be a purely online network, with no physical presence or interactions, except obviously of the actual blood donations at hospitals.
This is driven by donors, volunteers, NGOs etc, as well as well-wishers from 90 countries around the world – the US alone contributes over 12K members, who try to do their bit too.
From 2-3 donation requests per week, we’re now at about 50 per day – we’ve fulfilled requests in places like Tonk, Bagalkot, Ongole, Ariyalur, Sultanpur, Lakhimpur etc. Tonk is a small town in Rajasthan – the donor in this case took a 90 minute bus journey to donate blood to a patient in a small hospital there, and returned the same day to Jaipur.
Since we are typically the last resort for a patient’s family, a conservative estimate indicates that at least 8 lives are saved every day by our network.
The impact on those who help
Giving money to someone is actually painless – it touches both sides relatively lightly. With blood as the currency, there’s lasting emotion – on both sides.
Since the early days, there have been a lot of thanks received from patient’s families, including offers of donations, one of them from a Buddhist organization because we had organized multiple donors for a child monk. However, this is a unique charity that doesn’t need money but simply human involvement, so the response to these thanks and offers is simply to pay it forward. Many people who have been helped have gone on to join our network to help others – a magical virtuous cycle.
( This article was published in linkedin)