Friday, March 19, 2010

Thank You, Eureka!

We got this envelope today.  There was no letter, just the money.  It's hard to say thanks because there is no return address on the envelope, either.

But in case the donor is listening, I want him/her/them to know that we appreciate it.   And since it is International Women's Month, we will make sure the money goes to one of the best investments anyone could make: educating girls and women.

International Women's Day
International Women's Day
In honor of International Women's Day, make a difference by creating opportunities and enhancing the lives of women and girls all over the world.
give now

Thursday, March 18, 2010

When Bigger is Better

"And if we are going to make the kind of change in the world we all dream of seeing, it will be through taking risks, trying new approaches, and growing big."
That is Priya Haji, founder of World of Good, which she recently sold to eBay.  Priya says:
"[O]ur responsibility is to engineer ideas and organizations that can create big solutions to big problems without compromising the social mission with which the endeavor was started.  As entrepreneurs working to address large issues, we gain momentum and strength through partnership and connection.  World of Good cannot do alone what it can now do with the strength of a company like eBay."
The full story is here.  (Thanks to Donna Callejon for the tip.)

Once more unto the breach...Tivo Edition.

Earlier I wrote about the great online music service, Pandora, and how its team brought it back from the brink many times; it is now on the verge of becoming a financial success. A couple of days ago, Mari sent me this story from Slate about Tivo, another great service that millions of people love, but which has struggled financially.  In fact, between 2000 and 2008, Tivo lost around $600 million.

Just like Pandora, however, the Tivo team toughed it out, and its backers stood behind it, and now they have gotten some breaks that have dramatically changed the equation for them.  They could go from hemorrhaging cash to being a cash cow. Read the full story here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lucy's "Open Manifesto" about Philanthropy

"We need a Freedom of Foundation and Nonprofit Information Act."
That is from Lucy Bernholz's Open Philanthropy - A Modest Manifesto.   In it, she nails six theses to to the door of the philanthropy cathedral.  As usual, philanthropy is lagging behind other fields in the area of openness and transparency.  This is ironic, because you would think philanthropy would lead rather than follow.  Yet many of the established foundations continue to operate in a closed and inward-looking way that would render them obsolete in the modern market economy.

Lucy's salvo is long overdue and most welcome.  Now comes the hard part of putting it into action.  As I read through the theses (and their sub-points), I asked myself the following questions: "To what end?" "What should be the top priorities?" "Which one or two of these would be the most catalytic?" and "What business model would support the rollout of these ideas on a broad scale?"

PS:  Here is a copy of the manifesto that Mari and I wrote in 1999 that led to GlobalGiving.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Easterly: Dissonance (and Resolution?)

I'm listening.  First, while I believe a critic should use a variety of tools in a critique — reason, logic, evidence, Economics 101, anger, humor, satire, snark, compassion, evaluation of individual projects and organizations, and systemic analysis – it’s also important to get the mix right. The feedback I hear is that I have recently gone too far in the satire/snark dimension and am not using enough the other dimensions, and I need to adjust.
That is Bill Easterly, responding to some of his own critics.  His response reminded me of the following passage I read in a nice book called Introduction to Music Theory:

Figure 3: In most music a dissonance will resolve; it will be followed by a consonant chord that it naturally leads to, for example a G seventh chord resolves to a C major chord, and a D suspended fourth resolves to a D major chord. A series of unresolved dissonances, on the other hand, can produce a sense of unresolved tension.
Moving from a dissonance to the consonance that is expected to follow it is called resolution, or resolving the dissonance. The pattern of tension and release created by resolved dissonances is part of what makes a piece of music exciting and interesting. Music that contains no dissonances can tend to seem simplistic or boring. On the other hand, music that contains a lot of dissonances that are never resolved (for example, much of twentieth-century "classical" or "art" music) can be difficult for some people to listen to, because of the unreleased tension.
Even though I am a friend and great admirer, I, too, find some of Bill's posts too snarky - too dissonant, too negative, sometimes slapdash. But then I remember his superb books, The Elusive Quest for Growth and White Man's Burden.  These are exceptionally analytical, thoughtful, measured, and well written.  Despite their critical nature, they point in a constructive direction, toward a new development aid framework that has not yet been articulated by Bill or anyone else.  In some sense, those two books have been the "resolution" to previous periods of dissonance.  So the natural question is: when will Bill's next book be out?

Friday, March 12, 2010

On the Shoulders of Giants - Scott Guggenheim Edition

Breakthroughs and successful inventions usually derive from assembling existing technologies or approaches in a novel way at just the right time.   To the extent that we at GlobalGiving have pioneered breakthroughs in aid and philanthropy, we are no different: we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Some giants in our field are well known, but some of the most important are known by few.  One of these is Scott Guggenheim, a former colleagues at the World Bank whom I admire immensely because of what he did to help regular Indonesians get their voices heard.  At GlobalGiving we have recently started piloting SMS tools that allow beneficiaries themselves to provide feedback on how projects are affecting their lives.  The next step is to ask them ahead of time what projects they want to see next.  This is very exciting, and potentially revolutionary.  But we did not invent the concept; we are only extending Scott's work now that new technologies are available.

One of my mentors at the World Bank introduced me to Scott in Jakarta in 1998, warning me ahead of time "Don't judge a book by its cover.  Even though he is an anthropologist type, he is a good guy." (The highest status people at the World Bank were economists at that time.)  Soon after arriving in Jakarta, Scott took the audacious and unprecedented step of taking his team out of the fancy main World Bank offices in the Stock Exchange and relocating them to what he considered a more appropriate space in the city for his work.

So what did Scott do that was so revolutionary?  He and his progressive colleagues in the Indonesian government simply put up signs in all the communities participating in the Bank-funded Village Improvement Program.  The signs told people how much money was being spent on what (bridges, schools, water wells, clinics) and invited them to meetings each month to talk about how things were progressing and about what else the people felt their village needed.

Of course, there were many forces at work to corrupt the process.  Until then, public investment projects were controlled by insiders, costs were inflated, and the people were never consulted.  But Scott and his team held fast against these forces, and over the course of a few years, villagers in the affected areas became empowered as never before.  If they thought costs were inflated, they would take action. If they thought a bridge was more important than a irrigation ditch, they could prevail.  In a real sense, it was the beginning of the Democratization of Development.

Here is a nice paper that Scott wrote about the approach.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in beneficiary (citizen) participation and feedback.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

To What End?

The three words that have served me best throughout my business and nonprofit careers are "To what end?"
That is Mario Morino, one of the most astute social entrepreneurs, funders, and commentators out there.   Though Mario and I work in different spheres of the social space - and have only met a couple of times - the impact of his thinking, advice, and moral support have had an outsized effect on me.  What I particularly admire in Mario is his willingness to get out there and experiment vigorously, learn from the experience, confront things that did not work, and amend his approach accordingly.  In the end, that is how we make progress:  Gain an Insight ==> Experiment ==> Learn ==> Develop a New Insight ==> Experiment ==> etc.

Further, Mario does this in a public way to encourage others to emulate him.  In the essay from which the above is quoted, he concludes that non-profit funders (himself included!) have put far too much emphasis on measurement by grantees, and not enough on gaining clarity about what the grantee is trying to achieve.  He argues that, as a result, many grantees are performing better and better against the wrong outcomes.  In a subsequent piece, Mario provides some thoughts on how to turn the ship around.  Both pieces are well worth reading.

PS:  Feedback to VPP:  It is hard to find Mario's essays from your home page.  Since they could have so much impact, you should consider making them front and center.

PPS:  For an excellent treatment of the Gain an Insight ==> Experiment ==> Learn ==> Develop a New Insight ==> Experiment ==> approach, I strongly recommend a new book called Getting to Plan B, by John Mullins and Randy Komisar (Randy was a key early advisor to Mari and me when we launched GlobalGiving.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

What distinguishes innovators

The key qualities that separate great leaders from not-so-great ones can be developed...
That is according to researchers from BYU and Harvard Business School, who surveyed 500 innovative company founders (including Pierre Omidyar, Michael Dell, and Jeff Bezos) as well as 3,000 execs who had not launched a business or invented a product.  There are many interesting findings, but one stands out:

One key characteristic among the visionaries? The tendency to ask questions -- a lot of them -- and to challenge the status quo -- plenty.
Here is an article reporting on the study.  (Thanks to @chuckfrey for the tip.)

Once more unto the breach...

It was a surreal moment for Mr. Westergren, who founded Pandora, the Internet radio station. For most of its 10 years, it has been on the verge of death, struggling to find investors and battling record labels over royalties.
That is from a great story in today's NYT about the great website Pandora.  It shows how fortunes can change dramatically, depending on circumstances and the external environment.  And the bottom line is the value of perseverance, and the importance of going to Plan B when Plan A doesn't pan out. Too much of the popular perception of entrepreneurship is dominated by the big overnight successes - eBay, Amazon, and Google, for example. But the reality is that most success stories are long in coming, and occur only after many failures - and an almost irrational determination to succeed, despite the odds.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

What Tips People Into Action?

What tips people over from having good intentions into acting upon them? More than two-thirds (68%) say personal experience has been a major impetus, with 40% saying their motivating experience was a positive one, as in "Someone did something good for me, and I want to give back." A family member or friend's request (33%) and learning about an issue from the news (28%) were other catalysts. 
That is from a nice piece in today's Parade Magazine called Compassion Counts More Than Ever. (Thanks to my friend Julie for the tip.)

Monday, March 01, 2010

Running Shoes: Back to the Future

Sometimes innovation means less rather than more.  Here is a nice piece from Time Magazine about Galahad Clark, a GlobalGiving supporter who is emerging as a leading innovator in the running shoe business.

While many shoe companies are concentrating on fancier and fancier shoes with more and more bells and whistles, Galahad's company, Terra Plana, is concentrating instead on what works best for runners.  Along with a couple of other innovators (especially Nike), Terra Plana is at the forefront of developing minimalist "barefoot" shoes that help emulate the way our feet and legs naturally strike the ground.