Friday, November 22, 2019

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 51: Dena Jones Trujillo

Dena Jones Trujillo
Twenty years ago, it was hard to imagine that there could be a place where almost anyone in the world could pitch - and possibly get funding for - an initiative to improve their community.  That dream is nearing reality.

GlobalGiving has now facilitated support for more than 24,000 community-based projects in 170 countries, with total funding surpassing $400 million and on its way to $1 billion. The team at GlobalGiving has gotten much of the credit, and deservedly so.  But there are a couple of people who have played key roles in the background, and Dena Jones Trujillo, our first program officer at the Omidyar Network, is one of them.

GlobalGiving got some of its most important initial encouragement and funding from Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, even before he set up the full Omidyar Network. Like many startups, GlobalGiving struggled in the early days. It was hard to find good tech people in Washington DC, and in any case the technology at that time was  primitive and slow. User interface, product management, and marketing skills were also hard to find. Online financial systems were still in their infancy.

As a result, our ambition to serve everyone - not just in the US but in the entire world - seemed ridiculous to many people.  To be honest, we ourselves wondered at times if we had bitten off more than we could chew.  Some of our enthusiastic early supporters went quiet or abandoned us.  Others were quick to say "I told you so." At times it was very discouraging; the uphill battles were more than daunting, and it was hard to blame people for losing confidence, or even engaging in a little bit of schadenfreude.

Yet we endured because of the vision: Why SHOULDN'T there be a place where everyone in the world could go to have their voices and ideas heard?  We endured because there were a few people who never lost faith in both the vision and our ability to achieve it, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Dena Jones Trujillo was one of these people. Dena advocated for us in our darkest hours.  She bucked us up when we were down. She was a steady and persistent advocate among our most important backers.  She foresaw what GlobalGiving could become - something many couldn't imagine - and she has never wavered.

Over many grueling years of hard work and dedication, the GlobalGiving team gradually created a world-leading technical and operational platform that has enabled nearly a million individual donors and 300 leading companies and foundations to support community leaders almost anywhere. These leaders now have access to training and knowledge resources that used to be available only to organizations in rich countries.  Those leaders can now talk with their peers across borders about what works best.  And, along the way, GlobalGiving has crafted a sustainable business model that allows it to cover the costs of its own operations.

How was this possible?  There are many answers.  But one of the most important is Dena Jones Trujillo, who has just announced she is stepping down after 18 years at Omidyar to rest and consider her next adventures in life and work.  While we stay tuned to see what she does next, let us all pause to reflect on the fact that she played a substantial role in dramatically expanding the ability of people around the world to have their ideas heard and possibly supported.  Dena: You have put a made dent in the universe - and the universe owes you a huge debt of gratitude.

Monday, November 11, 2019

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 50: John McArthur

John McArthur, 1934-2019
John McArthur kicked my butt, watched my back, encouraged me to try great things, and steered me away from impulsive actions that would derail my efforts.  He was much more senior than I, but when I called him for advice he would often say "What are you doing for lunch today?"

I met him at the World Bank, where he was a trusted advisor to the president, Jim Wolfensohn, with whom he had been business school classmates in the late 1950s.  John was later Dean of the Harvard Business School from 1980 to 1995.

For some reason, I was appointed head of the new products group of the World Bank in 1997.  I tried various initiatives that went nowhere.  One day I met John for the first time, and he asked how things were going.  I explained all the various plans I had.  John was kind of like a Canadian Sam Ervin; he gave the impression of being slow-witted but was usually the smartest guy in the room.  He replied "Those things sound kind of bureaucratic to me. I thought you were in charge of doing things different?" I smiled weakly, explained I had to go to a meeting, and left immediately. But his question kept nagging at me.

The first time I went to lunch with John, I had three burning questions on my mind.  I had even written them down so I would make sure to cover them all.  Alas, as soon as I sat down John launched into a long yarn about his early days at Harvard when the town council refused to give him a zoning variance he needed for a campus construction project.  The story had many twists and turns, and it lasted 45 minutes as we ate our cheeseburger and fries (he always wanted to eat a cheeseburger.) When the check came, John said "Well, it was great talking to you.  Keep it up and don't let the bastards get you down."  The only problem was that I didn't get to ask him about any of the three issues on my mind.

Subsequent lunches followed the same pattern.  I would have some type of crisis or tough decision and call John.  He would take me to lunch and tell me some long story - about convincing older tenured faculty to retire to make way for younger faculty, or about some convoluted legal issue he had been dealing with.  Each time I would leave scratching my head and kicking myself for not getting my questions answered.

Over time, it dawned on me that his stories were in fact about the questions on my mind.  John had an uncanny ability to anticipate the issues I was facing and to come up with a story that provided insights.  When I look back, many of the decisions I made were guided by what happened in his stories.

John died, aged 85, on August 20.  There will not be another mentor like him.  But his legacy lives on.  To the extent I have achieved anything in the last twenty years of my entrepreneurial life, John's influence is plain to see.  And when people come to me to ask for advice, I often tell them long, seemingly pointless stories.  They are not as good as John's, but I hope they provide some insights.

As I contemplate my own next steps, I wish I could call up John and have a cheeseburger with him. Right now, I really could use one of those long pointless stories of his.  But since he's not around anymore to tell them, I will have to return to what he said the first time we met and ask myself "Am I doing things different?"

Monday, September 09, 2019

Feedback and Equity

For me, feedback has always been about inclusion and equity, though I realize that the link is not always clear – or automatic. So as I step back from my day-to-day duties as CEO of Feedback Labs, I would like to reflect on the question of how feedback in aid and philanthropy can amplify the voices – and power – of those excluded from equal participation in the decisions that affect their lives.

When I started my career in international aid 35 years ago, the vast majority of people in developing countries had little say in how they were governed. They had even less to say about the programs funded by foundations and aid agencies. 
Democracy has spread rapidly since then – even if it still often works poorly. From a historical perspective, the idea that regular people should have a real say, backed by a real vote, in what happens to them is revolutionary. We should celebrate it, even as we press to make democracies work better.
Over time, people and governments have begun to realize that democracy (for all its messiness) is not only the right thing to do morally; it’s also the smart thing economically. The emergence of democracy is closely correlated with an astounding rise in human welfare over the past two centuries. In their landmark book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson examined centuries of evidence and concluded that prosperity was “spurred and sustained” only in nations where “the government became accountable and responsive to citizens and the great mass of people.” 
Why shouldn’t we apply the same logic to programs funded by aid agencies and foundations? That question is what united the groups that came together five years ago to create Feedback Labs. The march of democracy shines a beacon of hope for justice and equality before the law – and these groups felt that beacon of hope should also light the path ahead for aid and philanthropy.
Most democracies have a great deal of unfinished business when it comes to inclusion and equity. By learning from democracy’s imperfect history, we can accelerate the way in which feedback enhances equity and inclusion in aid and philanthropy.
The 1776 Declaration of Independence by thirteen North American colonies proclaimed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
This Declaration was followed, thirteen years later, by the U.S. Constitution, which emphasized the “We the people…” This Constitution was based on the idea that the power of government derives not from a king or an elite class, but from the people themselves. Two years later, a Bill of Rights amended the Constitution to enshrine certain liberties of individuals to express themselves and be free from coercion. Those amendments, along with others passed since then, served to prevent the government, or even a majority of voters, from infringing on certain basic rights and dignities of people.
That newly independent country’s soaring ideals set the stage for unparalleled economic and social progress over the next two centuries, with incomes and living standards rising faster than ever in human history. Yet those ideals set also standard that the country itself failed – glaringly at times – to live up to.
As Jill Lepore notes in her new book These Truths: A History of the United States, up to fifty million native Americans had already died from the diseases brought by Europeans by the time the United States declared independence in 1776. Many more were forcibly displaced to reservations. Nearly twelve million Africans had been forcibly brought to the U.S.; most were enslaved on arrival. All of the signers of the Declaration were white men, most wealthy landowners. Many in the elite class at the time wanted the colonies to be free from their overlords in England – but they did not want to change how the elite in their newly independent states governed the underclasses. 
These realities were reflected in the compromises made under the pathbreaking new Constitution: slaves, native Americans, women, and illiterate and landless white men were all denied the right to vote in most states. Adding insult to injury, these groups were explicitly or implicitly excluded from the other privileges and protections offered by the Bill of Rights. 
The history of the last two centuries has been the struggle to address these injustices, extending full rights to all citizens.
In other words: the last 200 years have been a struggle for inclusion and equity
This struggle has been marked by a pattern of “two steps forward, one step back,” with those in power trying to undermine and reverse progress at every stage. Though blacks were formally freed from slavery in 1865, there would be 100 more years to come of formal and informal laws restricting their full rights. Even illiterate and poor whites were excluded from voting for many years by literacy tests, poll taxes, and other measures. It took until 1920 for women to gain the right to vote, but many women weren’t allowed to establish their own bank accounts and credit cards into the 1970s.
Despite their hard-won constitutional and legal equality, people of color still suffer from both explicit and implicit biases and prejudices that keep them from equal opportunities to lead and have their voices heard. Though black households have made steady progress in terms of household income and educational attainment, they still on average hold less than a tenth of the assets of white households. Many native Americans still live with murky rights over the lands and their lives. Though women are gradually making their way into the inner sanctum of government and the private sector, they remain grossly under-represented in most institutions. The severity and frequency of sexual harassment and even exploitation women face is only now emerging exploding into public awareness. People of different sexual orientations and gender identities have made progress at the legal and even constitutional levels, but their dignity continues to be challenged in the courts, on the streets, and in the workplace. 
This is where feedback can make the difference at a societal level. 
Even as we make progress on inclusion and equity at a legal level, feedback can elucidate where informal biases, prejudices, and injustices continue to exclude people from their full rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Even as we resist efforts to suppress the votes of some marginalized groups, many people still don’t believe that our elected governments “listen” very well. Feedback can help them keep governments more accountable and responsive between elections. People increasingly want to be part of the process of creating and proposing new ideas themselves – not only responding to ideas and programs proposed by their elected representatives. 
Involving people early and often is key. Feedback must not be solicited only after the details of a program are finalized and implementation is under way: Did you like this? 
Leaders need to ask people up front What do you want to make your lives better?Then leaders need to find ways to explore how the tacit knowledge of the people themselves can be combined with the insights and experience of experts to design effective programs. As with any product or service, a pilot phase of the program will often be helpful, with rich feedback from users so that the design can be refined and improved before wide-scale implementation. Additional improvements will come from feedback during implementation. And then, at longer intervals, leaders should convene longer conversations: What have we learned? What should we do differently next time?
Making feedback inclusive and equitable is not easy, but it is central to achieving the ideals set forth in the US Declaration of Independence and similar documents from other countries.
It took extraordinary vision to write those documents, and it requires exceptional leadership to manifest that vision, namely that all people are created equal and have basic human rights. 
Progress requires new ways of thinking and acting, and the past five years has yielded much new thinking and experimentation in service of genuine inclusion in equity in philanthropy, aid, and government programs. Let’s keep the momentum going.
[Adapted from my blog post at Feedback Labs.]

Monday, July 08, 2019

The Power of Connecting Networks

In an earlier post, I talk about Labstorms, and how they have enabled hundreds of organizations across aid, philanthropy, government and impact investing to collaborate and experiment. In this post, I want to talk more broadly about the funding and operational “architecture” that has enabled the feedback field (some call it a movement) to develop faster and spread more widely than many other initiatives I have been involved in.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published a nice piece about the creation of the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI), the launch of Listen for Good (L4G), and how FSI and L4G have listened to feedback to refine what they do. FSI has funded a number of infrastructure organizations, including Feedback Labs, and our founding partners GlobalGiving and Keystone Accountability. Together, the grantees of FSI have harnessed the power of thousands of organizations worldwide to explore and develop good feedback practices.
As I reflect on the last five years, a key takeaway for me is the power of funding a loose but cohesive network of networks. Each of FSI’s grantees has a distinct identity and focus, but they all share a common goal, namely to ask 
“What do people need to make their lives better? Are we helping them get it? If not, what should we do differently?” 
All of these organizations tackle this mission with different perspectives and strategies, but together, their impact is amplified. 
  • The SSIR article discusses how L4G has reached over 200 US non-profits (and is planning to expand). 
  • Feedback Labs has about 600 participating organizations across geographies, and sectors, funding source, specialization and approach. Some are domestic, some are international. Some are funded by philanthropy, others by government, aid agencies, private donors, or impact investors. Some provide tech infrastructure or ratings and insight; others work on policy; and many work directly on the frontlines. 
  • GlobalGiving has thousands of organizations on its funding platform, each of which gets rewarded for learning about or carrying out feedback practices. 
  • Keystone has provided in-depth advisory assistance to over 205 organizations.
Some wonder whether these individual networks should focus on their own sectors and geographies. This would be a mistake. Research on innovation suggests that breakthroughs are more likely to emerge from connecting networks, rather than depending on lone geniuses (or organizations). Each network feeds the others with insights, ideas, participants, and resources that could not come from within each network alone. Keeping these networks interconnected is what allows feedback practices to spread and thrive.
There are a few notable areas where connecting networks makes us better and faster:
  1. Ideation and Insights – How do we frame problems and issues? What would a better world look like? What are the key drivers of the existing situation as well as possibilities for bringing about a fundamental change? Big breakthroughs often come from borrowing insights from adjacent sectors and “weak ties” (sometimes those adjacent sectors can even begin collaborating in unforeseen ways.)
  2. Experimentation and Learning – These processes can happen in parallel so we can learn more, faster. Organizations and networks can also get together to look at and interpret outcomes of experiments.
  3. Experience and Resources – People and organizations can pool experience, time, money, and energy – dramatically expanding the terrain that can be covered and accelerating the pace of learning.
  4. Courage and Perseverance – When considering innovative approaches, networked people and organizations are more likely than an individual to be willing to be brave enough to try something new. And when a promising idea does not pan out right away, or seems overwhelming to one person or organization, other people in the network can be inspired by the idea or get a second wind.
  5. Faster Adoption with Lower Risk – Many funding, training, and certification platforms have tens or hundreds of thousands of users, and when they adopt partners’ ideas, the network effect can result in a much faster spread of new norms. At the same time, an “all or nothing” decision can be risky for any individual organization’s operations or business model. In a network of networks, individual risk is reduced because organizations can try different pieces – or watch and wait for others to try – without incurring huge costs of implementation.
Our “connected network” approach has been key to the momentum we have achieved in the past five years. As a community, we have explored how feedback can be the “right, smart, and feasible” thing to do. 
In the coming five years, we will grapple with how it can become the “expected” or “only” thing to do – and how that can fundamentally shift the power toward those we exist to serve.
[Originally posted at Feedback Labs.]

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Why Labstorms Work

As I hand over the reins to Britt Lake, our new CEO, I would like to reflect a bit on the amazing journey the Feedback Community has been on together over the last few years. Though I am stepping down as CEO of the Labs, I will remain heavily involved with the Community as a Senior Advisor to the Labs. I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these posts at
In this first post, I want to describe the “ingredients” that make LabStorms – collaborative brainstorming sessions we facilitate every two weeks for the feedback field – so successful. In the next post, I will talk about how decentralized, distributed collaboration has been key to the field’s rapid growth. In the third post, I will reflect on how feedback can enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. 
Earlier this year, we convened our 100th LabStorm at Feedback Labs. 
LabStorms are collaborative brainstorming sessions at which members of the feedback community help each other solve challenges and push the boundaries of feedback practice. The 100th LabStorm was with RNW Media, a non-profit based in the Netherlands that helps give voice to marginalized youth in the Middle East and North Africa. The assembled group – about half attending in person and half online – helped RNW wrestle with three questions: How do we deal with imperfect data sets? How can we best manage the power dynamics inherent in our programs? And how can we be transparent about our data practices? A write up of the conversation is here.
Feedback Labs has now facilitated 108 LabStorms, including the most recent, which brought together 21 people from 14 organizations based in 10 cities to discuss the details of the Feedback Quiz, which is scheduled to go live in the coming weeks. All LabStorms are problem-driven: one organization presents a set of challenges, and all participants spend an hour trying to help the group address those challenges. 
Over the 35 years of my career, I have noticed that many important breakthroughs come from people and organizations that have only “weak links” – that is, they work in adjacent but not identical disciplines and geographies. Connecting people and groups across weak links has been key to the flourishing of the Feedback Community. For this reason, I love the fact that LabStorms span not only the US but the globe, both in terms of presenters and participants. 
The design of LabStorms is simple. Every two weeks, an organization presents a feedback-related initiative to about 10 peer organizations and asks for help on three questions or issues. 
Their peer organizations spend the next hour trying to help them. Since we operate under Chatham House rules, participants are generally candid about their challenges, as well as modest about their advice. Feedback Labs takes notes, discusses them with the presenting organization, and publishes them if the presenters think it will help them succeed. This atmosphere facilitates learning, a common sense of purpose (and often language), and even a common identity. 
In the 89th LabStorm, held last year, the presenter was Nurse Family Partnership(NFP), a US nonprofit. NFP nurses visit low-income first-time mothers during pregnancy and for two years following birth. NFP has already shown impressive results – for example, a ⅔ reduction in behavior and intellectual problems in children. But, like all LabStorm presenters, they are not content to rest on their laurels. They ask their clients “What do you need to make your life better? Are we helping you get it? If not, what can we do better or differently?”
LabStorm number 107 featured NEST, a non-profit based in the US that works globally to give voice to workers in small businesses and cottage industries worldwide. They got help from feedback pioneers from the Center for Employment Opportunities, LIFT, Keystone Accountability, GlobalGiving, Development Gateway and many others. In the process new professional connections were established – connections that often end in ongoing relationships and collaborations.
The generosity of time, attention, and candor participants give during LabStorms is not something we take it for granted. Our team obsesses over making sure that everything – from the video-conferencing technology to the temperature in the room – works well so that there are few distractions. Each time we set the stage with the main goal: We are here to help this organization, not to criticize it or to tout our own programs. We will lift each other up, and in the process, we will make our own work more powerful. We will spur each other on, and push the boundaries of the feedback field forward in ways that no one organization could accomplish on its own.
LabStorms are a key reason that the Feedback Labs network encompasses over 600 organizations that have attended our six Summits, shared ideas with each other online, and collaborated to drive the feedback field forward.
LabStorms create a space in which organizations feel assured that their peers will support their work without stealing their thunder. Collaborations, ideas, and approaches emerge. 
This is how real learning – and real progress – happens, and it has laid the foundation for the next phase of our work together. The stage has been set, and the best is yet to come.

[Cross-posted from Feedback Labs.]

Monday, March 25, 2019

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 49: Britt Lake

I am excited to tell you that Britt Lake has agreed to take the baton as the next CEO of Feedback Labs.

This announcement from our board has all the details, but let me reflect for a moment how far we have come - and why I am excited Britt will lead us into the next chapter. I will continue to support Britt, the FBL team, and the community on strategic initiatives in my new role as Senior Advisor.

Feedback Labs started in 2013 as a lunch group of innovative organizations and leaders exploring how they might ask three simple questions: “What do regular people want to make their lives better? Are we helping them get it? If not, what should we do differently?”

Thanks to early support and encouragement from the Rita Allen Foundation, Fund for Shared Insight, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the White House, Feedback Labs came into formal existence as a project co-hosted by Development Gateway and GlobalGiving. Other key founding organizations included Keystone Accountability, Ashoka, Center for Global Development, GroundTruth Initiative, Frontline SMS, Twaweza ni sisi, and Ushahidi.

Since then, our community has expanded to include international aid agencies, foundations, nonprofits, government agencies and impact investors. Over 500 organizations have now collaborated through over 110 Summits, Labstorms, pilots, and research projects exploring how good feedback practices can be the right, smart, feasible, powerful, and expected thing to do.  We have worked together in places including Houston, Boston, Austin, New York, Hartford, London, Chonqing, Addis Ababa and many more.

Financial supporters and collaborators have expanded to include Omidyar Network, the Packard Foundation, USAID, DFID, Siegel Family Endowment, World Bank, GIZ, Global Delivery Initiative, GlobalGiving, Accountable Now, Liquidnet for Good, Nurse-Family Partnership, the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, and the Oxford Said Business School.

Building on this momentum, the Labs is now focusing on helping the feedback community develop the tools and incentives to make good feedback practices the “only” thing to do. In this context, we have begun collaborating intensively with an expanded core group that includes Guidestar (now Candid), Charity Navigator, Listen4Good, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Lean Data Initiative, Steve Goodall (former CEO of JD Power), and Bridges Fund Management. At the 2018 Summit, this group discussed with the community a draft set of core feedback principles, and is working on additional common standards and tools for the field as a whole.

No one is more qualified to lead Feedback Labs at this juncture than Britt Lake, who has been involved since the early days of the Labs’s founding. As Chief Program Officer of GlobalGiving, she has pioneered scalable learning tools and incentives for thousands of organizations in 170 countries - experience and expertise that will now be available to our entire Feedback Labs community.

I have worked with Britt for nearly fifteen years, both in her role at GlobalGiving and in her role on the Feedback Labs board. I am thrilled that she will now be leading Feedback Labs into its next chapter.

Please join me in welcoming Britt. I am proud of what we have achieved together over the last five years, but the best is yet to come!

Dennis Whittle
Outgoing CEO and CoFounder
Feedback Labs