Non-Governmental Imagination

Thoughts on the Squidoo/Net2/Get Active 59 Smartest Orgs Online
January 17, 2007, 11:37 am
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Donations, Imagination, NGO Blogs, Resources, Visionaries, Web 2.0

Squidoo, Get Active and Net Squared teamed up to announce the top 59 smartest orgs online. It’s an interesting list, and while there are several orgs that are noticeably absent, all present seem to be doing interesting things and/or have big enough presences that they get to be noticed. There’s no cash prize, and people can vote charities up or down as long as they are, or want to, become registered Squidoo members.

But wait a minute, can’t this system be gamed? Sure. All you need to do is get your friends/colleagues/mailing-list to sign up for a Squidoo account and PRESTO, your charity, as long as it startedsomewhere on the list, is now ranked above Donors Choose, winner of the 2005 Amazon Nonprofit Innovation Award, which at the time of writing was ranked #55 out of #59 with negative one point.

All groups started with (positive) one point. So either two individuals think Donors Choose is doing a bad job of utilizing the internet to affect social change. Or two folks voted them lower because it would improve their own group’s ranking.

I’m not aware of anyone thinking that Donors Choose is either a bad idea, badly executed, or not in a position to utilize the internet to bridge the web 2.0 and philanthropy worlds. So obviously, there is some manipulating going on here.

That’s interesting. Is it ethical? I don’t know.

There’s nothing at stake here except for pride, and there’s no rulebook that says “don’t get your fellow charity staff members to create Squidoo accounts just to vote up your charity and vote others lower”. In fact, some organizations (which are ranked quite highly) are quite obviously pandering to their community to vote for them, even by mistakenly implying that there is a financial benefit for the group to do so.

So that seems wrong to me. Obviously, each of the people in charge of marketing or communications at these orgs got a pat on the back when their bosses learned what happened, especially at small orgs (look, we’re better at communicating online than The One Campaign/Gates Foundation/Greenpeace/etc). But what else is there to be gained by cheating?

I know, there’s no rules, it’s not illegal, blahblahblah. But it feels wrong.

Is your group great? Sure. When I saw that Interplast made the list at #31, I signed up, voted, hit the ‘ole refresh button and watched us jump to #25. My coworker did the same and we were at #18. Pretty good for 15 seconds worth of marketing. It was fun, but it left me with no illusion that we do a better job of empowering people to change the world than Kiva or TakingITGlobal. We eventually jumped peaked at #10, and we never voted anyone else down. Were we unethical? I don’t think so. We honestly believe that we are doing a good job, and I’m sure that Squidoo is more than happy to let us vote in order to bag a couple of new subscribers. We didn’t spend much time on it, got a good chuckle and a warm fuzzy, and went back to work.

But we used to have five points, and now we have four, so again, even though there’s nothing at stake an I shouldn’t really care, someone’s screwing with the system.

It looks like someone who either works for or is a supporter of some group near the top is voting everyone else down. At the time of writing, 12 groups were at -1, which means that two people voted them down.

But here’s the problem with your plan, evil voter-downer-people. If any person familiar with nonprofits, technology, web 2.0, fundraising, marketing, etc sees a list with (all rankings current at time of writing):

Then they will simply dismiss it as an unreliable source and ignore it. If, on the other hand, they see a reasonable list where groups at the top seem to be really innovative, then the story might get picked up by bloggers, MSM journalists, and other chattery types who would catapault the list and all orgs on it onto their radarscreen and into their publications. Everyone wins.

Seth Godin, the founder of Squidoo, made a big hubhub a while back in the nonprofit blogosphere by questioning the way that many charities market themselves, especially the ones that didn’t have a Squidoo lens. That didn’t win him many friends in the NP blogosphere, but it sure garnered him lots of links, discussions and yummy stuff which he probably prefers.

I think Seth Godin is really smart, and although I don’t quite get Squidoo and why it presents a credible alternative to blogs and/or wikipedia, I think that this list is a smart move. Squidoo will garner new subscribers like me or folks who like ferrets, and people will talking about Seth Godin breathlessly as innovative and clever, which he certainly is. (see? It’s already working.)

I’m curious to see what the list looks like six months from now, and I predict that Donors Choose will slowly climb the ranks until it rivals Kiva. What do you think?

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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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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.