Non-Governmental Imagination

Why I’m at BlogHer: Mommyblogging!
July 29, 2006, 6:49 pm
Filed under: Blogs, Imagination

So BlogHer is about women and blogging and I am not a woman. So what am I doing here?

Well, besides all these reasons, I’m really curious about this whole Mommy Blogging thing. I view the Internet as nothing more than a tool for connecting people, and moms have utilized this like no other (with geeks, politicos and 13 year-old girls being the only possible exceptions in my opinion). I view mothers as extraordinarily busy people doing the most important work on Earth: raising kids. But as they will all tell you, that’s only one piece of their lives. And they find time to not just blog about it, but to make real connections with other moms.

Blows my mind. Although I have no intention of ever becoming a mother, I am thoroughly impressed with the value they get out of the internet.

If I were to become a mother (ignoring the whole “I’m a guy” thing), I’d be scared shitless. How do I care for this little ball of humanity? How do I raise him/her right? How do I keep other areas of my life fulfilled? What the hell is a wiggle, and why does it conjure up violent thoughts in my head?

I could go read some book by a PhD in cognitive development or some celebrity who became a mom. Or I could, for free, read about how everyday schmos like me answer all these questions. Brilliant.

I’m not just curious for curiosity’s sake. I’d love to find a way to emulate their kickasshood with my efforts at work. But I am still very curious on a personal level, and I’m hoping to do a lot of listening today.

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Am I A Tech Conference Whore?
July 29, 2006, 5:40 pm
Filed under: Imagination, NGO Blogs, Web 2.0

Yup. ‘fraid so.

Today (and last night) I’m at BlogHer. In the past year I’ve been to the Blog Business Summit, nearly every Net Tuesday event, an NTEN happy hour, the Craigslist Nonprofit Boot Camp, the Net Squared Conference, WineCamp, Vloggercon, and maybe one or two others that I’m forgetting right now since too damn early to be on Caltrain (heading to BlogHer).

That’s a lot of tech conferences. Interplast pays my registration fee if I can’t wheedle out a free ticket due to my nonprofit-ness or in exchange for volunteering. That usually works, but not always, and I’ve probably made our donors shell out upwards of $200 for me to attend these shindigs. So why do I go?

  1. Schwag. I like free stuff. Depending on the conference, I pick up all kinds of lovely corporate-branded stuff, some of which I use. It’s funny, at the Blog Business Summit Microsoft gave us all these really suave laptop bags that seem pretty expensive. At WineCamp, an un-conference meant to bridge the gap between NGOs and software developers, we got t-shirts. They know who butters their bread. Disclosure: while I might abhor some of Microsoft’s business practices, they allow NGOs to get any of their products for unbelievable discounts, so they’re definitely awesome in that regard.

  1. Ladies. It’s funny, these conferences tend to be pretty male-dominated (BlogHer being a notable exception) yet I usually hang out with females. Maybe I’ve just grown more accustomed to their ways since I work at an organization that is 90% female. Or maybe they are more interested in helping me work out Interplast’s technical and marketing challenges (a greying community, distant clients, limited time, money and expertise, etc). Regardless, since living with a woman and working with lots of women has done little to give me anything approaching a decent knowledge of women, going to tech conferences helps elucidate me.

  1. Food and drink. I like buffets, and I like free drinks. Technology conferences usually have both. I can honestly say that well over half of the valuable contacts I have met have been either waiting in line for food/booze or consuming it. If I don’t know anyone and am feeling particularly shy, I hang out by the food. It never asks me if we’ve tried to get on Oprah/Rocketboom and always makes me happy 🙂

  1. Fun. There’s often a palpable excitement in the air at these events. Things are changing. Fast. And everyone is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It’s a fun time.

  1. People. While the rest of these are quasi-joking, this one is serious. I learn very quickly when people explain or show me things one-on-one, and not so well just fooling around with it on my own. I’m not a very smart person, especially when it comes to technology. There’s plenty of web-based tutorials and explanations of CSS, Drupal, Creative Commons, Wordpress, OPML, Second Life and all the other stuff I’m sorta curious about these days, but dammit, I can rarely glean much from them. Net Squared does a great job of this, but I still find it much easier to learn from people. Folks at technology conferences are very approachable, and are usually pretty interested in helping out (if they have the time) if you work at an NGO. We all like to use our skill set to help save the world, and techie types have an enormous amount to offer in terms of raising productivity, increasing the scale of communications, reaching donors in more meaningful ways, making collaboration easier, etc. They want to help the world, I need help from them so I can help the world better.

So maybe I am a technology conference whore. In my mind, I justify what I do at these things as work, even if I don’t spend every minute pimping out InterplastDisclosure: I don’t get paid overtime for these, and I with one exception I pay for my own transportation and non-free drinks.  But it’s a fun style of work, where the capacity to learn is high and the schwag runs wild and free.

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Rideshare from SF to BlogHer in San Jose tomorrow morning?
July 29, 2006, 5:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

So maybe 10:30pm the night before isn’t the best time to do this, but if anyone who’s going to BlogHer from San Francisco has extra space in their car tomorrow (Saturday) morning, I’d love a ride.


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Update: no love.  Caltrain it was. 

Should NGOs buy recycled paper?
July 28, 2006, 7:18 am
Filed under: Imagination, social responsibility

I’m in a book club. I had to buy the book for our next meeting and I found myself deciding between going to my local book store and buying it for like $15 at my local independent bookstore or by buying it on Amazon used books for $2. I like to support local, independent businesses and artists who contribute to society. I also like money. Call me a bitch, but the cheapness in me won. It wasn’t the money as much as the hassle. Amazon ships to my door, but the bookstore is near the train station, a place I only visit when I’m in a rush.

Anyway, tonight I went to a book reading thingy by Annalee Newitz at City Lights book store. She wrote a new book that sounded sorta interesting, but by the time I got there (work was pretty crazy today) she was finishing up her talk and taking questions. I listened to the Q&A for a while and then tried to leave City Lights. But…..I couldn’t. I picked up one book and started reading the inside flap, and then another and another. Although I almost ended throwing down $75 on books, I ended up escaping with only one book (about an idealistic NGO worker who gives up and then travels the world trying to lure refugees into work at a high-falutin’ sex club). I know I could’ve bought the book on Amazon (or gone to the library) and spent less money, but I actually wanted to help out City Lights. It’s like I wanted to thank them for hosting readings, having snacks (I drank quite a bit of their juice, it was really delicious), and profiling interesting books. In a similar vein I paid in cash even though credit is more convienient for me, just because I didn’t want them to get charged the 3% or whatever the credit card companies charge merchants I get cash back on my card, so I gave up money so they wouldn’t have to pay more. I viewed my purchase as helping an artist make a living and a local bookstore keep its doors open so it could continue contributing to the community, etc. Helping a local bookstore deliver good books to me and helping local authors finding audiences seems like a clear mitzvah of community service. It felt like philanthropy, and it felt good.

Can all such purchasing decisions provide such piece of mind and moral clarity? Is donating money to non-profit organizations necessary to help people, give one warm fuzzies or assuage guilt due to privilege? Do you help the world more by buying organic produce at local farmer’s markets or by shopping at chain grocery stores and donating to environmental NGOs?

Or here’s a harder question: should charities pay premiums to help other causes unlreated to their missions? Every day people who work at charities make purchasing decisions. As is always the case regarding money, these choices have moral consequences. Would donors be ok if our newsletter was less neat-looking if they knew it was printed on recycled paper? Would they want me use open source software tools even if they took me more time to learn? Would people be ok if their $5 went to buy fair trade coffee for our caffeine addicts instead of freeze-dried crap? Should we buy books from City Lights or used book sellers? None of these things are inherently related to an org’s mission, and people could have chosen to give to orgs who focus on those other areas. So does making ethical purchasing decisions violate donor intent?

I don’t think so. Most people that donate to charities give to more than one, so I think people are ok with one group’s resources being slightly spent on non-mission-related activities as long as its within reason.
But I don’t really know, I’d be curious to hear what people think. There are so many businesses that are great bulwarks in our communities, and others who do comparatively little except put out good products that make people like me do my job better. It’s hard to find the ones who do both at the same time. So where do you draw the line? I definitely judge coroporations based on their perceived corporate social responsibility (call meit hypocritical if you want, but I hate Wal-Mart and tolerate Target). Should we do the same for NGOs? Does anyone care about nonprofit social responsibility?
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Final Tally on ACS Virtual Walk For Life
July 28, 2006, 5:13 am
Filed under: Donations, Imagination, NGO Blogs, Visionaries

$40,000. That’s US dollars. Pretty damn impressive.

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Is Second Life the new blogging for NGOs?
July 24, 2006, 7:20 am
Filed under: Donations, Imagination, NGO Blogs, Resources, Visionaries

About a week ago I went to a Net Tuesday event that featured Second Life, a virtual world that the residents build, which creates… well…a second life. There were about 20 people in the room, and about 50 or 60 avatars (virtual people) crowded around a stage, making it a “mixed reality” event. The room had a ton of equipment, cameras, lights, laptops, speakers, etc., and the speakers in real life talked into a microphone and looked at a camera so the folks in Second Life could watch the video feed of the speakers.

A number of people, both real and “in world”, spoke about how they use SL successfully for advocacy and fundraising. Groups such as the Library Alliance and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society discussed how they built tools for their constituents, raised money, and successfully marshalled people’s volunteer efforts.

As I watched that crowd of swaying avatars on stage, I couldn’t help but feel like a dinosaur. I was a little scared of this medium, in that it seemed so foreign to me and would require so much work to get a firm grasp of. I know SL is experiencing tremendous amounts of growth right now, and the people immersed seemed so comfortable flying around (literally) and building worlds and friendships that I had to ask myself “who are these people and where do they find the time to spend in Second Life?”. These same questions, mind you, are the same ones I asked about bloggers two years ago. Although blogging may have been a niche activity then, it’s not now. I guess I just reacted how lots of people do to new ideas they can’t wrap their head around. Will SL become the new blogging, a medium which is cheap or free and any NGO would be foolhardy to ignore as a means of raising awareness or money?

Jeska Linden from Linden Labs (the makers of SL) and Randall Moss of the American Cancer Society gave an excellent presentation at the Net Squared conference.The American Cancer Society seems to be the trailblazer in this SL. My understanding is that they just received a check in the mail for $2,500 from some folks active in SL. They hadn’t heard of it, so they poked around and found out that people were using the ACS logo and other materials without authorization and raising money. This was initially pretty alarming until folks (I’m guessing Randall Moss, he seems to be the main ACS-SL facilitator) started poking around and saw the potential. Instead of recoiling in fear, they began to accept it and treat this virtual world as they do the real one: a place full of advocates/donors and potential advocates/donors. They started a virtual Walk For Life, and raised $6,500. This year their walk is happening this weekend, and they’ve already raised $25,000, which means they’re basically tripling their money every year. That’s real money, and real growth, and there’s no reason to expect it to end anytime soon with SL itself experiencing similarly crazy growth.

Could it translate to any other NGOs? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly every NGO needs to find passionate advocates with the spare time, energy and heart to spread the word and SL seems like a great place to link up with such folks. And I don’t know too many orgs that couldn’t use an extra $25k.

ACS has a number of structural advantages over other orgs. Their cause touches everyone. 1 in 4 of us gets cancer, so unless you’re lucky or lonely, you know someone who has or will get it. That will make you care. Also, I bet that there are plenty of cancer patients that cannot leave the house as much as they would like who could really thrive in Second Life. These folks would be natural advocates, and their personal story would be really compelling. Lastly, ACS is huge and has tons of money. That allows them to hire really smart people like David and Randall and give them the time and money to take risks. It’s obviously paying off.

But as Jeska says, it’s not for everyone (excellent interview with her here). Comparing Interplast to ACS, our clients (poor children in developing countries) generally don’t have electricity, much less broadband. They’re not on SL spreading the Interplast story. And congenital birth defects and injuries are not as widespread as cancer. Maybe 1 in 700 kids is born with a cleft, and 1 in 200 girls in the global south gets a disabling burn (compared with 1 in 2000 in industrialized countries). That’s not 1 in 4, so it’s less people that have been indirectly affected. Lastly, limited resources. It always comes back to ROI, and its harder to find time to just walking around a virtual world talking to people if you’re in a smaller shop where everyone has a bigger comparative chunk of organizational responsibility.

But even with all this in mind, I wonder about the possibilities. Susan Tenby is a driving force behind the Tech Soup / Second Life interaction, and she wants to show everyone how successful this can be. There is clearly a huge potential benefit for NGOs. I guess what I would need to take the plunge is some sort of roadmap for how NGOs, large and small, can find supporters in a big virtual world, with time estimates clearly stated. I know Susan’s working on this, and maybe others are as well. Like usual, I need less convincing than my boss, who needs less convincing than her boss. Maybe I can convince a certain to-be house guest of mine to give me a little run through while we’re hanging out…

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Cool Idealware blogging tool comparison
July 22, 2006, 5:11 pm
Filed under: Blogs, NGO Blogs, Resources, Web 2.0

One thing that did happen is Idealware came out with a handy blogging tool comparison aimed at non-techie NGOs. I helped contribute to it, and it as excellent tool written in plain English.  Check it out.