Non-Governmental Imagination

Exxon-Mobil Still Hasn’t Paid for the Valdez?
January 28, 2006, 3:25 am
Filed under: Jerks

So tonight last night I was biking home from an N-TEN event and I went past the 9th DIstrict Court of Appeals. There were some people hanging out on the steps with signs about salmon and Exxon, so I went over to see what they were up to. They said they were here for the Exxon trial, and then there was this pregnant pause as if I knew all about it. I asked what was up, and they said they were here for the appeal of the Exxon Valdez spill. Wait a minute, wasn’t that like 15 years ago? Oh yeah, it was. 17 years to be exact. Anyway, the fisherman were huddling around on the steps when the marshall came out and told them “Get off of my steps”. Last I recalled it was regular taxpayers who were paying for those steps, while the oil companies continue to get billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks from the Republicans in Washington.

Today the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments in yet another Exxon appeal. Exxon is appealing the ruling from a jury that awarded $9 billion to local Alaskans. After numerous appeals it the amount is now down to $4.5 billion. Seems like a lot to me, but then again, if I was making $45 million per hour in quarterly revenue I might feel sorta bad about spending millions of dollars in legal fees to fight fisherman about punitivie damages. But that’s just me.


Dead Whales, Greenpeace, Paul Watson and Macgyver
January 24, 2006, 8:22 am
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Blogs

Japan has been whaling a lot recently, and Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have been blogging from the Antarctic hunt. While both groups are basically doing the same thing, there is no love lost between the two, although Sea Shepherd has a pretty extensive page of Christmas wishes for Greenpeace. Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, was one of the early pivotal members of Greenpeace.
One of Sea Shepherd’s main beefs with Greenpeace is that they are more concerned with publicity and hanging banners than actually accomplishing real change. Sea Shepherd explains the difference thusly:

“Sea Shepherd is not in the waters of Antarctica to protest whaling. We are there to intervene with the purpose of upholding international laws protecting the whales.”

Their spat is indicative of the NGO world. As groups morph from a small group of committed pioneers to a professional organization, the culture changes and hard-charging personalities may find that they are not as welcome or comfortable with the new buttoned-down, donor-friendly approach.

Both are trying to save the whales, a campaign I greatly respect. I think Japan’s claims of whale-hunting-as-research are tenuous and ridiculous. Different tactics and levels of slickness appeal to different people.
Where do I stand on the big vs. small, change-the-system vs. work-within-the-system debate? I don’t really know yet. Part of why I started this blog is to work it out in my head and out in the public.

I do know this though. Greenpeace definitely has a sense of humor.


But in the category of most impressive reason to back an anti-whaling direct action NGO, I gotta go with Macgyver (See “Ticket Prices”).  See, Sea Shepherd?  Fame and celebrity are powerful forces for shaping public opinion!

Sea Shepherd / MacGyver: 1
Greenpeace / Japanese Embassy in Berlin: 0

Does Nonprofit Snail-Mail Propaganda Get Ignored?
January 18, 2006, 8:40 am
Filed under: Donations

I spend a fair bit of time at work creating, editing and mailing newsletters that are sent out to our entire mailing list.  I also spend much less time writing and editing eNews publications which are emailed out to our contacts.  I have often wondered which is more effective, and which is the better use of my time.  Jeff Brooks at Donor Power Blog seems to have quite a strong opinion on the effectiveness of snail-mail campaigns to random people.  His argument seems to be that the groups that engage him as a real human being build a relationship, while others demonstrate that they apparently have too much time and/or money on their hands.

I think he’s right, I just would love to know the best way to engage people.  I feel like a younger donor base appreciates a more personalized and informal approach executed perfectly by Unitus with their holiday appeal post, but I think that older (read: richer) donors dig the heartstrings approach.  Quite a delicate balancing act, since NGO communications budgets aren’t huge unless you’re one of the Big Boys.

PS – I’m not a “Big Boy”, so any advice is always appreciated.

Can NGOs Be Effective Substitutes For Government Services?
January 15, 2006, 9:51 pm
Filed under: Health, Imagination, International Aid

The New York Times had an interesting article about NGOs in Cambodia that have taken over large swaths of the health system. Apparently, Cambodia has hired a bunch of NGOs to run health districts to provide more efficient health care for its citizens:

“If childbirth is a miracle of nature, then the thriving, honestly run network of clinics and hospitals here is a human marvel, managed not by the government but by one of the nonprofit groups it has hired to run entire public health districts.

The approach is catching on in a growing number of poor countries around the world, from Bangladesh and Afghanistan to Congo and Rwanda, to Bolivia and Guatemala, reaching tens of millions of people.

These contracted services have allowed international donors and concerned governments to cut through dysfunctional bureaucracies – or work around them, and to improve health care and efficiency at modest cost.”

This absolutely fascinates me. Corruption is a huge problem in the global south, and I definitely know how corrupt governments siphon off resources from the intended benficiaries. NGOs can be more efficient by not having to deal with as many layers of intermediaries and bureaucrats taking their cut, but should they be real substitutes?

Cambodia is paying the NGOs as independent contractors. While this seems better for the patients in the short term, doesn’t it just make Cambodia more dependent on aid from the global north in the long term? I’d be interested in hearing about how much interaction the NGOs (such as Health Net International and Save the Children Australia) have with local administrators.

Health Net International has chosen a user fees system to work within the Cambodian Ministry of Health’s health coverage plan:

“The Cambodian Ministry of Health has designed a health coverage plan. The coverage plan describes a minimum package of services and activities (MPA) that should be carried out at health centre level. The MPA consists of basic preventive and curative services such as immunisation, family planning, antenatal care, nutritional support and simple curative treatment for diarrhoea, acute respiratory tract infections and tuberculosis.

The ADB money is a loan to the Ministry of Health to implement the coverage plan. With this loan the effectiveness and efficiency of contracting NGO´s is tested in order to find out which system works best;

Contractors that have complete responsibility for the total health care, contractors that work within the Ministry of Health system and have to strengthen the existing district structure or contractors that depend entirely on the services of the District Health Management Team and the Ministry of Health.

Within this project, HNI has designed and managed a user fees system. This system seems to have the potential to increase utilisation by the poor and decrease their out of pocket expenditures on health care….

The Ministry of Health, with financial support from ADB (Asian Development Bank) will contract in the near future the public health system in Mondulkiri to a private organisation. HNI´s intervention will assist the Provincial health Department to prepare for this change of the public health system. HNI´s partner NOMAD, is planning to turn its organisation into a Cambodian NGO, working with a team of locally based staff. HNI plans to continue the cooperation with NOMAD in the future and support their development.”

From the Save the Children Australia website, it seems like they’re trying two models with varying levels of local collaboration in order to decide which works best:

“No small affair, this project pilots two models for health service provision in Cambodia allowing a comparison of two management styles: contracting out in Memot, where we recruit, manage and train all district health staff and contracting in in Cheung Prey, where we train and manage the district health staff already employed by Cambodia’s Department of Health.”

There is a lot of debate about developing nations privatising public resources (ie water), with the loudest voices doubting the wisdom of moving control to foreign multinational companies. Does that apply to health as well? Does it matter if the contractor is a publicy held company or a nonprofit organization? How much control do local people have over their health now as opposed to before? How has accountability changed?

I am all for finding creative and effective ways to improve health care infrastructure in the global south. This idea is definitely creative, and sounds effective, although I haven’t heard from any Cambodians on the issue.

I am a little cautious about this because the potential for long-term dependency seems high. If Cambodia can snooker NGOs to providing its health care, why should it bother with improving its own system?

Nonetheless, I plan to watch this and try to learn more. If anyone has any opinions on this, I would love to be educated more on the issue, and I plan to invite Health Net, Save the Children, and the NYT author to respond to this post, so we’ll see what they say.

NetSquared NetTuesday NetQuiche
January 14, 2006, 4:37 am
Filed under: Blogs, Food, Imagination, Web 2.0

me at netsquared
On Tuesday I went to the Netsquared NetTuesday event. I’m not sure about the spaces and capitalization with these, but I’ll just roll with it.

Netsquared in their own words:

“Today, we recognize a turning point in nonprofit technology adoption. Through the immense possibilities of the Internet, nonprofits can turn hundreds of supporters into thousands, access new reserves of volunteerism, and give their constituencies tools to take charge of change.

This site is the online home of our effort to highlight projects around the world that succeed at the intersection of pervasive access, new tools, and new audiences.”

I hope to really dig in and learn how to better utilize tagging, RSS and other web 2.0ish things that I keep hearing about and can only semi-intelligently talk about. But for anyone out there who is interested in how these emerging technologies can help nonprofits expand their message and tap into widespread grassroots networks might want to give them a shot.

At NetTuesday (it happens on the second tuesday of each month) I met some interesting people who have had a lot of experiences at nonprofits, for-profit companies that do cool stuff and just cool people in general. They also had a huge platter of these mini-quiches that weren’t very good but just tractor-beamed me into eating them. Everyone there seemed to already know each other, so it seemed a lot easier to hang out with my trusty friend Food than to mingle. But I left Mr. Food to go hang out, and got a lot more out of the evening.

One of the things that struck me most was how the folks I talked to there admitted that they didn’t know any of the answers. They just seem to be trying like all the rest of us to make sense of it all. I think that the geek world makes a habit of using intimidating and confusing language that scares off normal folks who don’t inherently know what “CMS” stands for. Netsquared attempts to make complex concepts like Web 2.0 and RSS (simple my ass) understandable for the people who are actively working to change the world. We need more groups like them, and I highly encourage anyone to poke around their site.

What I Learned From Hitting A Homeless Guy
January 12, 2006, 3:09 am
Filed under: Imagination

So, I must admit, it’s a little ironic that a week after starting a blog about nonprofits, NGOs and how they can do a much better helping the world, I hit a homeless guy while biking to work.

I know you’re already thinking that I’m a big jerk. How could you hit a homeless guy! Jerk.

Well, he walked right out in the middle of the street without looking to his left, and while I was swerving around him he sped up to get past oncoming cars and ran right into me. Or maybe I ran into him. Whoever hit who, we both fell down.

He immediately asked me if I was ok, and he apologized profusely. I wasn’t hurt, but I didn’t know what to say. He kept apologizing for a couple of seconds and eventually I asked if he was ok, told him that I was fine and I apologized for hitting him. I asked him if he was ok, he assured me that he was, we shook hands and went on our merry ways.

What occurred to me as I continued biking (without further incident) to work was how I didn’t expect him to be polite. I had this image in my head that anything done to homeless people is mean-spirited, and would be taken as such. But the first thing out of his mouth was an apology and a statement of concern for me.  I didn’t really give him credit for being a good guy, but he genuinely felt bad for hurting me.  We all make mistakes, and the biggest among us recognize them.

A few months ago I was biking to work and I saw a car hit a homeless guy (my commute is always interesting); knocking him and his cart down. I dropped my bike to go help the guy out, but the dude in the car just stayed put. The homeless guy needed help righting his bottle-laden cart, and didn’t seem to be hurt. The driver was very reluctant to get out of the car, and when he finally did, he responded to the events by wiping the broken glass off his hood. Meanwhile, other homeless guys came out of the woodwork, leaving their carts unguarded to help this guy pick up his bottles.

Every person and group makes mistakes. NGOs make plenty of mistakes (there’s no shortage of examples, stay tuned) but they rarely admit them. It’s really unfortunate, because by admitting mistakes and talking about them, everyone could learn how to do things better. The best employees are honest ones, and honesty means recognizing mistakes.

In the non-profit world, there tends to be a distance between those in the climate-controlled cubicles of the head office and the people/species that they are supposed to be helping. Sometimes the biggest screw-ups really wake people up and make them pay attention, thereby causing real change.

So here’s to you, homeless guy. You’re really nice, and I profusely apologize for hitting you and initially thinking that you were a jerk  If you were in charge of things there might be some real reform. Not that I’m advocating hitting homeless people on your way to work.

Note: check out The Homeless Guy, he offers a perspective into homelessness that most people never get.

National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy Rocks Out Again
January 7, 2006, 8:36 pm
Filed under: Imagination, Media

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy rocks out again. They called Frist out on his pseudo-charity back when no one cared, and they are doing it again now:

“At the time, NCRP alone among the national nonprofits challenged Frist, though we hadn’t had even a peep of support from the supposed nonprofit leadership groups when we took on DeLay, Senator Blanche Lincoln, Senator Saxby Chambliss, or even Jack Abramoff for that matter. We suggested that Frist’s fundraiser, whether he intended it or not, would serve as a venue for donors to buy invaluable “face time? with senior Republican lawmakers, some 10 or so from the Senate to be the featured attractions at the World of Hope fundraiser. We criticized Frist’s pledge not to accept lobbyists’ donations as meaningless, since the corporations that hired lobbyists would be able to make the donations directly to buy access. We raised questions about the AIDS charities that Frist had preselected for support, noting one’s leadership by a pastor known for his high-profile support of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, another run by the son of Rev. Billy Graham. And we noted that the Senator’s charity was run not by AIDS services professionals, but by Frist campaign operatives.”

Way to go, NCRP. Keeping an eye on the industry and calling it like you see it. You were absolutely right, and have thus earned a place in the hallowed halls of my blogroll. Keep going, and don’t back down.