Non-Governmental Imagination

Vote for cool projects at NetSquared
April 11, 2007, 10:36 pm
Filed under: Donations, Imagination, Resources, social responsibility, Visionaries, Web 2.0

My good friends at NetSquared are doing a really cool project. Lots of projects/ideas/websites that have a social benefit have been submitted, and the top 20 vote-getters get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Net Squared conference in May, where conference participants will dole out $100k to the groups that they decide are worthy.

I feel pretty lucky to have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are doing neat and bootstrappy things. They’re all telling me to vote for their project. I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for or how much time I’ll invest poring over the 120ish projects, but until I figure it out, please vote. Votes are only accepted through April 14.  There sure is lots of talk about changing the world through social tools, and it’s wonderful and rare when someone puts up actual US dollars to back an idea as chosen by a community.

The one thing I will say at this point regarding my vote is that I will not choose projects that already made it big, either in terms of financial sustainability or name recognition. This is an amazing opportunity for the little guys who have no other resources, and I sorta look negatively on the big boys on this list for whom the price of a ticket to the conference is negligible. Ahem.



Photography By Blind People Interactive Game This Weekend In NYC
March 14, 2007, 11:47 pm
Filed under: Imagination, Visionaries

Do you live in NYC? Are you interested in photography, blind people or photography by blind people? If so, check out the Seeing Beyond Sight Photo Challenge and Party this Saturday from 2-5pm in Brooklyn. The idea is to blindfold yourself and wander around your world, taking pictures of what you see/feel. You can always do it on your own, but this event is more social.

Seeing Beyond Sight is a fascinating project by Tony Deifell. Basically, he gave cameras to blind teenagers and taught them about photography:

The students would ask questions about their surroundings, feel their subjects, and listen carefully to the hush and noise around them.

It was as if they were listening for “sound shadows.”

When I saw Leuwynda’s pictures of the sidewalk, I thought they were a mistake. Perhaps she had intended to capture a classmate or one of the large oak trees scattered across the campus. I was wrong. As soon as Leuwynda had her camera, she knew what she wanted to do – photograph the cracks in the sidewalk.

The pictures were proof of the damage, and she sent them along with a letter to the Superintendent. “Since you are sighted,” Leuwynda wrote, “you may not notice these cracks. They are a big problem since my white cane gets stuck.” Leuwynda asked for the cracks to be fixed – and they were.

The fact that I had not noticed the cracks in the sidewalks at Governor Morehead School has stayed with me for years. Leuwynda’s story is about more than cracks in a sidewalk; it is about all the cracks that go unnoticed.

I really don’t know many people in NYC, but if you do, spread the word about this little adventure this coming weekend. I’d go if it wasn’t 3000 miles away.

–cross-posted at NetSquared.

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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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Antidote for burnout: Power to the Peaceful Festival
September 6, 2006, 7:38 am
Filed under: Health, Visionaries

This upcoming Saturday is Michael Franti’s annual Power to the Peaceful Festival in Golden Gate Park. If you live anywhere near the SF bay area, you should definitely check it out. It’s free (suggested donation: $1), and there’s lots of great bands (check out Brett Dennen), orgs, people, artists and food.

One of the issues I’ve been wrestling with recently is burnout. I’m pretty much exhausted all the time, and I’m so busy trying to spend enough time with Erin, my friends, my family, Interplast, my hobbies, my reading, my softball team (The Matzah Ballstars) and my dreams that I end up doing all of them an injustice. I feel like I have a ton of acquaintances that I’ll never really become friends with because I just don’t have time. So I rush around trying to sqeeze everything and everyone in.

It’s not working. And it’s not healthy.

It’s important to take time out to take a breath, go to a park and just chill out. At the recent Craigslist Nonprofit Bootcamp, Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights gave an immensely inspiring talk (anyone wanna come with me to their gala on 9/14 in Oakland? I need a date) in which he mentioned the need to take breathers.

So this weekend I’m gonna take his advice. I’ll be at the park. I’m not gonna sweat getting there on time, I don’t care where I sit, I’m just gonna hear some music, talk to some people, eat some food, and get (re)inspired.

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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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July 22, 2006, 5:09 pm
Filed under: Donations, International Aid, Visionaries

So I haven’t posted here in months and months. I’ve been very bad, I know, and with starting up a new vlog (more on that in the near future) and other stuff, I’ve neglected this blog. That’s ok, not much in the world of philanthropy has happened recently, so I’m sure I didn’t miss much…