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Case Study By
Janet Northen for McKinney
February 2011–present (still going strong!)
Urban Ministries of Durham
Project Title

The team consisted of 11 nimble souls, including three agency partners, two programmers, a designer, art director, copywriter, producer, PR manager and developer.

For purposes of this case study, the core team at McKinney included:

  • Nick Jones, art director
  • Jenny Nicholson, copywriter
  • Carmen Bocanegra, producer
  • Able Parris, designer
  • Josh Barber, programmer
  • Matt Hisamoto, programmer



Tens of millions of people each month play games like Farmville and Mafia Wars, harvesting virtual sweet potatoes and fencing virtual goods. We had a hunch that the characteristics of these fun social games could help us completely upend the way people think about the decidedly un-fun issues of poverty and homelessness.

Urban Ministries of Durham provides food, clothing and shelter for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Unfortunately, when places like Urban Ministries ask for help, it can be tempting to dismiss the people they serve, to assume they have given up, to think in terms of “us” and “them.” And most advertising about poverty and homelessness only perpetuates those assumptions: the conventional strategy being to make people feel guilty for how much they have and therefore moved to help those who have nothing.

The only problem? The guilt trips don’t really work. Even though the poverty rate in the United States is at a 15-year high, poverty is seen as a matter of personal responsibility—people like us work hard to succeed, so people like them must be doing something wrong. Except the difference between “us” and “them” can be as thin as a layoff, a divorce, a medical emergency.

It takes an incredible amount of energy and ingenuity to balance on the razor’s edge of survival. And the difference between holding on and losing everything often has less to do with personal initiative and more to do with influences beyond your control.

The belief that “I’ll never be that person” is a tenacious one. Until, of course, you are.

That’s where SPENT comes in.

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With a monthly budget of only $1,000, SPENT players are challenged to make the kinds of decisions that force ordinary people into debt or homelessness.

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Screenshot of the homepage for and the online game SPENT, created by McKinney for the Urban Ministries of Durham.

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Logo for the game SPENT designed by McKinney.

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The game SPENT illustrates how difficult it can be to live on $1,000 per month. This screen points out the costs of rent and commuting.


The project was done entirely on a pro bono basis. McKinney has worked with Urban Ministries of Durham for the past two years, lending our support on everything from clothing and food drives to traditional advertising. SPENT was a result of wanting to help Urban Ministries of Durham tap into the power of social media and gaming to reach a new group of possible givers and volunteers.

This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Art Works.


SPENT is an online game that puts players in the position of balancing on the edge of homelessness.

The goal: Start with $1,000 and make it through one month with money left in your pocket at the end.

Sounds easy, right? But try doing it while facing the dilemmas that bring people to places like Urban Ministries of Durham. Dilemmas like choosing between feeding your family and keeping the lights on. Like paying a hospital bill you can’t afford because you didn’t have health insurance. Like finding childcare when your child is sick but you can’t afford to stay home from work.

Of course, it’s hard to do it on your own. So, we let people ask for help on Facebook, by posting messages like, “I can’t pay all my bills this month. Can I borrow some money?” and “My kid and I got evicted. Can we crash at your place?”

This social media tie-in not only served as organic advertising for the site, but also packed a surprising emotional wallop. We discovered that the very same people who had no problem posting updates about lost sheep and asking to borrow a shovel found it difficult to ask for help when it felt real.

“I know it’s just a game,” one player said. “But I was still embarrassed.”

Players who finish the game—whether they run out of money before the end of the month or make it through with some money left—are invited to “help someone living SPENT today” by donating or learning more about Urban Ministries of Durham’s mission.

We launched the site in February 2011, with not a single penny of paid media. As it turned out, we didn’t need it.


SPENT has been played more than one million times. The average time on the site is well over 10 minutes. It’s been played in 194 countries, from the United States to Uruguay to Ukraine.

It’s been featured on CNN, NPR, ABC News, Fox News, Mashable and The Huffington Post.

Educators across the country have played SPENT with the students in their classes, from elementary school through college.

A prominent credit card company used SPENT to help their employees build empathy for the people they call about overdue payments.

The game has raised more than $20,000 for Urban Ministries of Durham, all from donors they never would have reached before, and from places as far-flung as Alaska and Africa. And visits to Urban Ministries of Durham’s website have increased over two-thousand percent.

After playing SPENT, a client at Urban Ministries of Durham looked up and said, “That’s my life. You captured my life.”

SPENT has helped more than a million people out there understand exactly what she means. 

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