Development Theory

At FastCo.Exist: It’s Time To Start Judging Nonprofits Like For-Profits

A rant on the tight hold "overhead" has on nonprofit financials and giving decisions I wrote with my colleague is up on Co.Exist. An excerpt:

When considering donations, people often make harsh assumptions about nonprofits that spend on marketing and overhead. But maybe those expenses means the organization is doing a good job?
Every year around this time, a batch of articles comes out talking about how to maximize your year-end giving by focusing on nonprofits with super-low overhead, so you can rest assured that every cent you donate goes directly to the cause.

But I’ve spent the better part of my career as a nonprofit tech warrior, from volunteering in the Peace Corps to a variety of domestic and internationally focused NGOs and nonprofits--small and large. I’ve had contract, full-time, pro-bono, and board positions, and have been on both the grant-requesting and grant-reviewing/giving sides of the equation, and I can tell you that this isn’t entirely fair. The problem is this overhead supports the cause, and zeroing it out means that the 99% non-overhead may be spent poorly or non-strategically, especially in smaller organizations. Programmatic costs may pay for the work, but overhead pays for the tools to do the work well.

read more.

As a follow-on, if I ever hit the jackpot, I want to build a foundation that only invests in the most boring line-items. Toilet repair? Computer upgrades? Then, pair the information about what's not getting funding with social innovators looking for unmet needs, and you create something interesting.

The Art of Failing

I have a critical flaw - not being able to say no to helping out worthwhile projects get their technological house in order.

I've left a trail of wikis, content management system-run sites, and creative cabling across three continents. One such effort was in the pre-iPhone world of the early 2000s with a creative social enterprise that empowered artisans to realize the full market value of their goods (often undercut by middlemen taking advantage of innumeracy, a need for liquidity, or both). These goods are then shipped to the US to sell. The NGO takes a small cut for its operations and the shipping cost, and everyone benefits. Beyond dealing with the unpredictability of the Nicaraguan electrical system, they were efficient in their offline practices, but saw the need for inventory tracking. That seemingly basic task is both a key to empowering online sales and other scaling activities, but is no short order. The system must be able to know what items were stored in what locations in the US and in Nicaragua, and meet the needs for a geographically disperse set of volunteers to sell those items at events. It also has to have a simple and largely foolproof way of adding inventory from the Nica office that can absorb a backlog of work if the power or Internet connection is off.

Web 1.0: Cue Cat No problem - totally doable. For the US side, we work with a Salesforce Foundation volunteer to create an online, cloud-based inventory system where the volunteers can log transactions live on the site using a re-purposed cue:cat barcode scanner -- the cue:cat itself being a dotcom-era QR code wannabe, best summed up by Jeff Salkowski of the Chigao Tribune as "You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can." and by Wired’s Leander Kahney as "a cheapo bar-code scanner that looks like a marital aid."

On the Nica side, the staff can add the inventory on a spreadsheet and batch upload it into SalesForce whenever they have power. This gives them an offline backup, and lets work continue (on a laptop) even if power cuts out. The Excel sheet automatically creates a code that can be barcode-ified for matching by the volunteer sales staff without painstaking scribbling of notes.

We’re in this to save and improve lives, not make a profit. If a plan fails, it’s lives lives - not just bank accounts -- that are not enriched.

Perfect, right? With so much time spent on the “challenging” part of the equation in Nica, not enough thought went into the sales side - often outside, at craft markets, sometimes in the rain. Not happy environments for laptops, rarely enough electricity or battery power to last the day, and never any wifi to actually connect to the Internet to track sales in realtime.

Times have changed, and the plan, like the cue:cat itself, may have a new life in our 3G-saturated world with QR Codes and Square point-of-sale gadgets replacing the bulky laptop, but at the time, it was simply a failure.

What do you do when your project just falls flat? Moving on and hiding it is the wrong answer. The right answer is that you get up in front of a crowd of your peers, donors, and investors (past and potentially future) and spill the beans. In the startup world, some amount of failure is expected, and even welcomed. Learning from failure is, after all, the best education out there. But in the do-gooder space of non-profits and international development organizations, failure is not an option.

The challenge is that we’re in this industry if you will to save and improve lives, not make a profit. If a plan fails, it’s lives lives - not just bank accounts -- that are not enriched.

There are obviously failures in development, as evidenced by the mere fact that we’re five to six decades in to concerted global efforts, and still working on it. More ICT4D projects fail than ever scale beyond the pilot stage. The World Bank bravely released its internal study revealing that while most of its projects succeed overall, in the ICT4D category of projects, only achieve their intended outcomes 30% of the time. Some of those may be wildly successful in unanticipated ways, others just complete flops.

Katrin Verclas has done the community a huge favor in creating and open-sourcing the concept of the FailFaire.

The Failfaire celebrates and de-stigmatizes failure by loosening lips with some alcohol and then throwing people on staqe for a tightly scheduled 5 minute moment of candor. Thanks to the open-source philosophy, these have spread to internal organizational events as well as a few public failfaires, most recently one hosted by Inveneo’s Wayan Vota in DC at the World Bank itself, and another coming up this December in NYC hosted by MobileActive.

The risks of failure in development work are clearly weightier than Q3 profits,which makes the relaxed, raucousness of a failfaire that much more important. For a community that has no normal mechanism for learning across the various implementers, the only way we can advance the whole cause is through these commiserations over good goals, good people, and solid technology completely failing - and learning from them.

This was best encapsulated after the event. One presenter discussed his media-darling pedal-powered phone booth for remote villages, which was a complete failure. Another Failfaire-er approached him afterwards to commiserate on similar problems - their own popular bike-powered computer system actually took almost seven people pedaling to reliably power the system. While bikes garner tons of often-misguided warm feelings and media popularity, they aren’t necessarily silver bullets -- a lesson for the road.

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Open Source Society

Open Source all the things

This is a rough summary of my talk Tuesday night at DCWeek's Hot Tech Trends. Read more about the panel and continue the discussion over at quora

The trend I'm most interested in right now is actually as much offline as it is on. It really hit me a few weeks ago as I was reading through the minutes of an Occupy General Assembly. Here was a huge meeting with multiple viewpoints that was being successfully self-facilitated, prioritizing issues and moving quickly. This was a committee that was being collaborative, open, transparent, and still ... effective.

It really got me thinking on how we are are becoming accustomed to new social constructs in movements, government, and business. These concepts are familiar to anyone who's delved into the nuts and bolts of open source software -- like collaboration, shared or no ownership, team-building, and radical transparency -- but they're popping up everywhere offline.

So, I want to tackle the convergence of these concepts offline with the democratization of tools online

By democratization, I really mean simplicity and open to all. An important pre-condition to this is basic access, but we are increasingly living in an access-rich world, thanks to mobile. This year, Africa surpassed both European and the Americas and is now the second largest market for mobiles - behind only the Asia/Pacific region.

But beyond access, there is a new "digital divide" if you will -- the ability to create and engage in a participatory experience. Things like Twitter and blogging have long been low barriers of entry for getting your voice heard online. The exciting development in this arena is that it is mindbogglingly easy to create complex sites and apps with drupal and wordpress, at least compared to the work this would have taken 10 years ago.

This combination of a simple toolbox and open social constructs is powerful.

The past few years have been accelerating this convergence. Blogs and Wikipedia have permanently altered publishing, Twitter, Facebook and foursquare have opened up your social life, and Yelp and Tripadvisor have changed your customer service interactions with travel and dining destinations.

But more importantly, crowdfunding models like Kiva and Kickstarter are toe-in-water steps towards creating collaborative business models by seeking out customers and supporters in a very early stage and rallying their support around potential projects and products. Co-working spaces provide entry-level incubation for young startups with great perks of cross-startup networking and talent sharing. These fast prototyping models reduce overall risk and create engaged, evangelical customers and partners.

The social change sphere has jumped in to this intersection and is spawning hundereds of really exciting co-creation models. We've seen this in crisis mapping (Snowpocalypse, Haiti, Thailand), protest movements (Moldova, ArabSpring, OWS), open data mashups combining entrepreneurs and civic data (Apps4Democracy, UN Global Pulse), and even countries crowdsourcing their own constitutions (Iceleand and now Morocco)

The availability of these easy to use platforms and expectations of openness and co-creation is forcing new levels of engagement in all sectors. People are no longer OK with occasional, reactive, or superficial engagement.

My first human interaction with a brand shouldn't be after I post a negative tweet - nor should it be a annual 10 page user survey that never changes anything. I want to help build their business and be engaged at a strategic level, even though I'm "just" a consumer

If that sounds a bit insane and totally unscalable, just replace business with government and consumer with citizen and it suddenly sounds less crazy.

Business, non-profits, social enterprises, and governments will all need to open up not only their data or their superficial interactions, but begin to fully collaborate with their communities on their policies and business plans.

This means that 2012 holds a huge potential for global co-creation and new organizational frameworks, and anyone who doesn't begin to engage customers, supporters and citizens in this way is going to be shut out by organizations that aren't merely building their business with their users in mind, but building their business with their users.

With these concepts of shared ownership, highly functional teams, collaboration and transparency, combined with online structures that parallel these same values, we have a world where decentralized, democratized power structures forming across the digital/analog borders. This changes governance, economics, social change and business.

Holy shit, this is going to be a wild, fun ride.

"All the things" courtesy quickmeme with the amazing original comic by Hyperbole and a Half

In the Global Mirror, the #OWS 99% looks a lot like the 1%

Occupy DC

Let me be clear - I have a difficult relationship with the Occupy movement.

On the one hand - it's about damned time. Finally we have a large, sustained protest movement nation-wide and even globally that's rightfully upset about some core problems. It's not politically aligned, it's well-spoken, and it has been resilient enough to overcome being ignored by the media and has crafted its own story. That it has been inspired in part by the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square in particular, which were inspired in part themselves by MLK's non-violent protests gives a heart-warming feeling of global solidarity and social justice.

Further, it's very exciting that Occupy comes at a turning point in history where our social constructs and technologies make it possible to really manage a movement through collaboration instead of by a hierarchy, and a world where people have a powerful online voice and the ability to shake things up if they get out of hand (not without challenges in the realm of privacy and government censorship ).

Don't just Occupy

Back from Dakar: How I built a Drupal 7 site in 7 days

Dakar. It's hot. Lots of goats. In 2-5 years, it could be a major tech hub -- sooner with some policy and infrastructure changes, but the core is there, from VC4Africa hosting meetups at co-working/social change hubs like JokkoLabs to a budding online community of drupal hackers. The infrastructure seems to remain a daunting challenge, with mobile internet lagging behind, banks not being innovative, and a fragile power system reliant on imported oil.

I spent just under two weeks working with Ashoka fellow Hamadou Tidiane SY, who was elected in 2009 to the News and Knowledge program of the fellowship. He has grown Ouestaf, a small independent news site to almost a household word in francophone Africa through amazing dedication to professionalism in journalistic standards and solid coverage of core issues, avoiding sensationalism. News and Knowledge director Keith Hammonds has a blog post on the model.

How to Build a News Website in Seven Days

More on bots saving the world at @FastCompany

Alexa and I have another article up at FastCompany on social entrepreneurs and bots, and their roles in thriving in complex environments -- and how that's critical in saving the world:

However, bots can also act as good agents for systems governance as long as two principles are in place: transparency and trust. First, if we are to depend on bots to manage these complex systems then this management must be transparent for anyone to inspect, challenge, and improve. Secondly, the trust in the system must similarly be distributed. We are long past the days where any one entity could simply say “trust me.” The bots must act within a trust framework, where any agent in the system can begin to assign trust values to other agents. Add back in transparency, and you get a web of trust which scales rapidly without the need for any central trusted-by-default agent.

But robots aren't the only things that can disrupt the system with a new kind of logic. There is already one agent of systems-change that’s working outside the traditional methodology in a way that can effect drastic change: social entrepreneurs.

The social entrepreneur is, like a robot, another type of actor accustomed to operating in complex environments. Social entrepreneurs tackle major social issues and offer new, innovative ideas for wide-scale change. They seek out what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. In this way they are both the destabilizing element and the control system.

The robots are coming

A colleague and I have the first of two articles posted on FastCompany - discussing the role of automation in job creation -- and destruction:

Look deeply into the beady little electronic eye of your vacuum-cleaning robot, and you’ll see a machine bent on world domination. For now, it focuses on finding and eradicating dirt, but every time it gets into a particularly extracted fight with a wall, your feet, or a house pet--you know it has larger ambitions. More concerning than the Roomba’s aggressive policy stance against furniture legs is what it as a product means for labor, job creation, and automation.

We’re used to a well-worn path in manufacturing, and business in general. An extra bright cave-dweller figures out how to use a round object to help move large things, early adopters begin to share the practice, and then pretty soon everyone is using wheels. Eventually, artisan wheel-makers find themselves out of a job when factories start pumping out robot-manufactured wheels, and we move on as a society--wheels are now a given commodity.

The thing is, those robots have taken over the factory floor, and are moving upstairs.

Read more: http://www.fastcompany.com/1781904/instead-of-just-eliminating-jobs-aut…

Panels to support for an amazing SXSW 2012

It's not to early to start making sure that your SXSW 2012 experience is fully awesome. How you ask? Why, by voting for awesome panels to attend.

To start off with some absolutely shameless self-promotion, I will be presenting with the my colleagues at Ashoka Changemakers on "Open Growth" and systems change. Create an account and vote for us here: http://bit.ly/ripcrowd .

Changemakers has a blog post on all our panels.

Some more panels worth voting for:

Care about there actually being some interesting tech talks at SXSW? Vote for Brandon Wiley's panel here: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/13647 on launching your startup completely in the cloud.

Want to talk pirates and innovation? This might be your ticket: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/12602

Is the state of journalism getting you down? Check these out: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/11846 and http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/11106

Is it just your content strategy? Hear some real content horror stories: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/11034

Just unhappy in general? Work with happiness to make your business better: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/9647

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Monitoring and Evaluation is broken. Let's really break it.

One of the sad truths that emerged at the Technology Salon on ICTs and M&E was that failure in development is rarely about the project performance, but about winning the next contract. This means that monitoring and evaluation is less about tracking and improving progress towards social change and more about weaving an advertising pitch.

This is not for a lack of frameworks, tools, mapping measurements against a theory of change, or even the need for more real-time data in development. It is about incentives. What is incentivized at the macro level is getting big numbers on the board and nice clean upwardly-trending graph lines. Micro-level incentives for filing reports to fill out the monitoring side of things focus on report filing as a requirement for salary payments or other basic carrot/stick-driven models. Neither of these actually encourage accurate, honest data, yet only with that accurate data can we remotely hope to tweak models and make improvements.

So, let's break monitoring apart from evaluation.