Category Archives: communication

Well spent?

Many of us dance between thinking and writing about our work and being the practitioner fully focused on doing the work.  With this dance in mind, I took most of last year off from writing while focused on growing Sou Digna/ I Am Worthy and our partnership with an amazing community of women in Salvador, Brazil.  (I wrote about a previous visit with these women in February 2012.)  In addition, a few of us Seattle-based NGOs have grown the Collaboratory Network, building the capacity and connection of small NGOs working across cultures.  The dance continues, but I am excited to share what I can in between sets.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking with a group of women working to improve the lives of women around the world.  Our topic was “Financial Accountability Across Cultures,” and what follows are the notes that I shared based on my experiences bridging the reality of small NGOs working in poor communities with funders somewhere else in the world.  Am I missing anything?  Please share…


Small NGOs are structured communities trying to address some problem in their society.  Their long term success depends on providing the services needed while building their internal capacity and external connections to deliver those services into the future.  Donors play a critical role in keeping an eye on the long term in the face of tremendous immediate need.

What should you look for in the finances of a small NGO to know if money is well spent?

First, “well spent” is in the eye of the beholder and culture-bound.  It could be interpreted to mean:

  • A lot is happening
  • Financials aligned with budget
  • Audited financials
  • Low percent going to administration

A financially-healthy organization has diverse markers in place.

  • A lot is happening, both tied to impact measures and not.  Remember that a lot of social change happens at the margins of pre-determined programs.
  • Capacity to track financials (staffing, technology)
  • Evaluation plan and practice in place
  • “Clean” reputation of local leader as determined by local people
  • Regular opportunities for exchange across cultures and borders

How do you give an international organization voice in explaining its work within the exchange of financial reports? 

Power and perceptions of power permeate the donor-donee-local partner relationship.

  • Look for ways to have direct conversations (in person, via skype)
  • Keep an eye on partnerships where one side is always speaking for the other side
  • Encourage local voice as a part of grant arrangement
  • Keep power in mind in cases of negative information
  • Put financial reports in perspectve… what matters is impact, not the exact accounting of funds in budgeted line items

How can donors help good organizations become more financially healthy through targeted investments?

Fund the internal infrastructure needed to sustain financial health.

  • Fund the administrative costs tied to financial oversight
  • Fund evaluation of programs
  • Fund capacity building and staff training
  • Fund staff exchanges in both directions

Take a learning approach.

Shhh… We may be talking about social change

In my work as a consultant, I often encounter non-profits that seem surprised when I start talking about social change. Social change suggests revolution, taking a blunt knife to a societal problem when all we really need is a scalpel.

Yet more non-profits than we think are working for a permanent solution to some problem rather than a short term fix.  Finding the will to end cancer, making the arts an integrated element in our lives, alleviating poverty, creating sustainable ways to educate our children about the world, and protecting the environment all involve making a permanent change in how our society currently operates.  They all involve some level of social change, or changing the balance of power and money to allow a different way of doing business.

One way to think about the relevance of social change to any non-profit organization is whether that organization’s mission is about changing behavior or about providing something simply nice to have.  On one extreme, you have an organization like Out2Play mentioned in the New York Times story about nonprofits going out of business upon meeting their mission.  Out2Play set out to create 40 playgrounds near housing projects, “nice to have” spaces for children, and then closed shop when they reached that goal.  They weren’t out to change the circumstances that cause children to live in housing projects in the first place.

On the other extreme are poverty alleviation projects that bore down into root causes of hopelessness and address the capacity building that needs to take place so that local people can address their own most pressing problems.  They look at the interwoven complexity of economics, power, and culture and try pull at the threads of education, social support, and fair wage work in order to shift the context in which poor people live.

Between playgrounds and poverty, however, lie a whole lot of other non-profits that are doing important work.  Arts organizations, public affairs institutions, disease awareness and research funds, etc. address aspects of our society that are important for our collective well-being.  Looking at them through a lens of social change challenges us to think deeply about their purpose and whether or not they are about changing long term behavior or simply about adding something nice to have if resources allow.  While few of these non-profits talk in terms of social change, their ability to think in terms of social change may make the difference between surviving and thriving.

Three reasons why more non-profits should think in terms of social change:

1. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.  Buried deep within strategic plans and staff agendas is some notion that begins: “What we really want to happen is….”  A local symphony isn’t just about performing symphonic music for people who buy tickets.  It really wants to expand the role that music plays in the lives of diverse audiences, including those who never otherwise would have been exposed to a symphony.  A public affairs organization isn’t about lectures and meetings.  It really wants to make knowledge about the world a critical aspect of every citizen’s decision-making, thereby building the foundation for a more respectful and peaceful world.  By closing our eyes and thinking big, and we achieve a level of focus that makes more happen.

2. Focusing on society as a whole forces you to expand your community.  Many of these middle ground nonprofits have a certain following that cares about its programs.  Arts organizations have subscribers or patrons; public affairs organizations have people who come to them because they care about world affairs or public policy; disease funds attract individuals with family members affected by that disease.  Once you focus on society as a whole, however, you have unique opportunities to get creative in drawing in sectors of society who never would have bought tickets or seen themselves in your cause.

3. Expanding your view gives you a better case for raising money.  Times are tough, and each and every organization is up against each other for charitable dollars.  As more and more donors direct their dollars to human service organizations both locally and internationally, non-profits outside of human services need to tell their stories in ways that demonstrate how their work builds a foundation for a better world in the long term.  “Nice to have” activities rely on continual charity to keep them running.  “Must haves” must be funded in ways that are sustainable over the long run.

Non-profit leaders are used to living in two worlds, one defined by the reality of raising money from generous donors who have benefited from society as it is, and the other constructed within our imagination, exploring the kind of society or world required in order for our non-profit to declare mission accomplished and need not exist.  Thinking in terms of social change—or deciding not to—allows for critical conversations at all levels of an organization.

Trust, A Word Which Here Means…

It is not everyday that one can quote Lemony Snicket and a Harvard Business School working paper in one piece of writing, and yet that is exactly what I am about to do in order to explore the issue of trust and ways to stay out of a soup pot.

“It is true, of course, that there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not you can trust someone, for the simple reason that circumstances change all of the time.  You might know someone for several years, for instance, and trust him completely as your friend, but circumstances could change and he could become very hungry, and before you knew it you could be boiling in a soup pot, because there is no way of knowing for sure.”

The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket (p. 73)

 At the heart of successful social change work is the relationship between us and them.  It is people from impoverished communities who need to drive the work since they will need to sustain whatever social change emerges.  They, in turn, need our support financially and otherwise to create the space for them to do this work.  How we form and sustain our collaboration will determine our effectiveness over the long term.

Trust is the ubiquitous term that many use to label that glue that holds these cross-cultural collaborations together.  Clearly both sides of the partnership must have confidence that the other is going to follow through on their commitments and give the other the benefit of the doubt in times of strain.

But as Lemony Snicket warns, there is no way of knowing for sure if someone can be trusted as circumstances change, which they do all of the time as small grassroots projects grow into mid-size organizations with expanded reach into broader communities, or as economies struggle and force difficult financial decisions.  How do you sustain trust over time?  In other words, how do we keep ourselves or do they keep themselves out of a pot of boiling soup?

Roy Y.J. Chua, Michael W. Morris, and Shira Mor give us some non-soup related food for thought in their working paper entitled, “Collaborating across Cultures: Cultural Metacognition & Affect-Based Trust in Creative Collaboration.”  They focus on the “collaborative dyad,” or two people working together across cultures to create innovations that draw on each partner’s unique skills, resources, and worldviews.  The concept well describes the collaborations of many small, community-driven social change projects where two communities in very different cultural and financial circumstances joins forces to enact some sort of social change.

“The creative potential in a collaborative dyad comes from the differences between the two people – surface demographic differences such as nationality or ethnic background correspond to deeper differences in people’s knowledge of the world, their capabilities, and connections.”  Chua, Morris, and Mor arrive at an important conclusion: that each partner’s self awareness of his or her own culture and cultural assumptions leads to the kind of trust that supports cross-cultural innovation.

Indeed, the kind of trust matters.  As they explain, “cognition-based trust” is confidence in another based on perceptions of their ability to deliver.  This is the kind of trust based on reading someone’s resume and seeing that they have the skills and past experience to do the job.  “Affect-based trust,” on the other hand, is confidence in another based on “concern for the other and comfort in opening up to them.”  These authors conclude after in-depth study that it is affect-based trust that allows for contextualized flexibility of thought, the kind of thinking that fosters innovation in dynamic, cross-cultural settings.

These findings have a direct bearing on our work as social change leaders:

  • As individuals, we must develop and sustain well-honed cross-cultural skills, making time for self-reflection that allows for change over time.  This might involve spending time in cultures outside of our region of focus or developing learning communities that keep our perceptions in check.
  • As communities, we must invest in face-to-face communication that fosters and sustains trust.  Tightening budgets result in calls for more efficient spending, and international travel is expensive and time-consuming.  Long term collaboration, however, depends on high quality relationships.  Each collaboration needs to find ways to foster these relationships within their budget realities.

Lemony Snicket has an endearing way of explaining complicated terms in his A Series of Unfortunate Events children’s books.  When using a term that most kids won’t know, he follows his use of the word with an explanatory phrase like, “A word which here means….”

If Mr. Snicket were writing about trust across cultures, I imagine he could write any series of explanations.  He could write, “She trusted him, by which I mean to say that:

(a) she assumed that he would be predictable in his actions.”
(b) she knew that he had all of the qualifications needed for his job.”
(c) she understood the limits of her own understanding and gave him the benefit of the doubt that he must know what would serve the best interests of his community.”

How would you explain the sensation of trust that you have with your partners?

Building a Worm Bin

One of the less glamorous realities of working in a small non-profit office lacking any cleaning service is finding a place to put your banana peel or apple core after lunch.  Too many times have I returned to the office after a warm summer weekend to find a cloud of fruit flies hovering within my trash can.

Managing her leftover crusts, however, isn’t a problem that Jeannie Berwick, executive director of One Equal Heart Foundation, has to deal with anymore.  As a part of her transition into an office space outside of her home, Jeannie missed the ease of tossing food waste in her home worm bin.  Why not avoid the hassle of transporting food waste home or to the building “clean green” bin in the basement.  Jeannie took a plastic sweater box, drilled some holes into it, and created an office worm bin discretely placed within her new workspace.

As Jeannie sees it, her worm bin is more than just a place to throw scraps—it is her field project connecting her with the cycle of life and the realities of the day-to-day work done by her partners in Chiapas, Mexico.  Indeed, she is replicating an initiative started by her colleagues in Chiapas, where each staff member has a field project that gets them out of the office and into direct contact with diverse people and the issues defining their lives.  While staff members may manage finances or write grant reports most of the time, some of the time they collaborate in the building of community gardens, manage bee hives, or lead trainings on the building of worm bins.  Staff and the community they serve have regular opportunities to share one space, building relationships that unite them around a shared mission.

I wonder how the conversation about poverty alleviation would shift if each of us working within this sector had a field project that allowed us to share the same space—either physically or spiritually—with those living close to the earth.  What would policies and practices look like if aid decision-makers regularly took an hour out of their work week to tend their worm bin or otherwise collaborate on a shared project with someone receiving aid.  I imagine that better and more sustaining solutions would result.

You can see Jeannie’s worm bin for yourself – and learn more about One Equal Heart at their Open House being held on Wednesday, September 28th at their new offices on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

What Am I to You?

What we call the people with whom we work says a lot about the lens through which we view them and their role in our shared effort.  The words we choose place those individuals within a context of influence defined by our worldview.  Making the cognitive shift from development to social change invites us to consider terminology beyond the traditional marketplace.


In the mid-90s, I taught in the Philippines, a beautiful country marked by tremendous economic inequality.  While I came from a culture that referred to parents of school children as, well, parents, the principal at the school where I worked referred to them as patrons.

Patron: a person who is a customer, client, or paying guest, especially a regular one, of a store, hotel, or the like.

Placing parents in a place of economic power over teachers and staff diminished the type of collaboration and communication that would lead to a deeper and more socially tolerant education for their children.  Intentionally or not, it conveyed a consumer hierarchy that placed parents over educators rather than as partners with them.

I was reminded of this when reading a GiveWell blog posting yesterday in which a GiveWell co-founder discusses characteristics of Givewell customers, referring to people who use the site to determine to whom they should give their money.  (GiveWell is a charity navigator that I have mentioned in a previous post.)  The term customer caught my eye—one doesn’t come across it too often in most NGO work, with one exception.

Customer: a person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron.

Patrons and customers typically pay something for a service which is short term and transactional in nature.  As soon as one person calls another a patron or customer, that person can presume their place within that institution’s consumer hierarchy.  Institutions serve customers, they don’t partner or collaborate with them.

Curious what terms other charity navigators use to describe the people who use their sites, I visited  They refer to individuals who use their site as users and visitors, to foundations as members, and to non-profits and other companies as clients.

Client: a person, company, etc, that seeks the advice of a professional man or woman; a customer; a person who is registered with or receiving services or financial aid from a welfare agency.

Many micro-lending NGOs describe the people who they serve in poor places around the world as clients (or customers).  The term conveys the distanced, transactional nature of the relationship between lender and loan recipient.  It suggests a sense of empowerment in that consumers have choices to seek services or not, but the exact nature of that power is elusive given that recipients of financial aid or welfare lack power by definition.

All of this poverty alleviation takes place with an environment of other organizations and institutions that together make up the global development sector or industry.

Industry: the aggregate of manufacturing or technically productive enterprises in a particular field, often named after its principal product: the automobile industry; the steel industry.

The global development industry includes a broad cross-section of NGOs, corporations, and educational institutions with little in common other than each has at least one eye on the world’s poor to help, save, market to, learn from, or otherwise engage with.  To get a sense of the scale of the development industry, scroll through and see the jobs around the world, apparently to be filled by expatriate development workers.


The market approach to social development creates consumers of services, whether it be for information (for potential donors) or loans (for poor people), who operate within the development industry marketplace.  Terms with strong consumer connotations—customer or client—place recipients of these services within a hierarchy in which they have power to consume as long as the industry or service is in place. Implicit is the belief that this service is the gateway to considerable social gain, though these individuals are not citizens or members with right and responsibilities who work together on behalf of a long term social good.

Drawing on consumer terminology diminishes the reality that poor people live within a complex social web of non-economic institutions that limit their potential.  It promotes the construct that I have battled in many poverty-related meetings, that poverty is a simple factor of not having money.

Traditional models and hierarchies won’t get us where we need to go.  Our end goal should be people here and there collaborating and communicating across cultures to create solutions that address the complexities of poverty.  We need to shift our mental framework to make room for a diversity of people at the table.  The first step comes in the words we choose.  I choose words that convey  concepts of community.

Community: a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists

In this sense, a community is created when individuals comes together through shared interest and a shared sense of journey to a better world.  It is placed within a larger society, though not set apart from it.  One community might join with other communities to create a global social change community or sector, but not industry.

These NGO communities engage a range of individuals—members— in their work:

Member: a person, animal, plant, group, etc., that is part of a society, party, community, taxon, or other body.

Members come together with a sense of equality around that shared interest.  A community member bears a balance of right and responsibilities that serves the long term interest of that community.  In bi-cultural NGO communities, we use one term to describe individuals funding the project as well as the individuals receiving the benefits of those funds.  Members may also wear other hats—donor, participant, volunteer—but they share one identifier that allows them to find each other in a crowd.

What we call the people we work with says a lot about how we view the world.  It also conveys to them the role we see them having in the solutions we (or they) are implementing within their communities.  The role of customer or client is a means to an end.  The role of community member is one that lasts.

From Crowd to Community: Part 2

This post represents the second of two exploring crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.  The first one can be found here.

Heather Gold, a comedian and speaker, caught my attention soon into my reading on crowd-related innovations.  Gold gives us the term tummler, a term that comes from Jewish tradition and means a “noisemaker hired to entertain and make sure everyone had a good time.”  Adapting this term to new media, Gold argues for a new way of engaging in critical conversations guided by a tummler, someone who helps make sense out of the vast amount of information now available.  The tummler moves the conversation forward, providing multiple points of entry and acknowledging diverse expertise based on experience and point of view.

This term resonated with me because it opens the conversation about the need to build new roles and systems for managing communities that respond to the needs and interests of crowd participants.  It is already extremely difficult to manage the exchange of financial and evaluation information between small grassroots project and its U.S. or European-based partner in the best circumstances.  Adding web-based crowdfunding projects onto a fragile bi-cultural infrastructure could damage the trust between partners.  If ever there was a need for an organizational tummler, it is now.

 I began to imagine how we could use crowd concepts within the two international development projects I know well.  While I have read that crowdsourcing techniques have been used to monitor elections in Afghanistan and are being explored as ways to monitor aid effectiveness in Africa, neither of those applications relate to social change work with which I have been involved.  The people I work with don’t have smart phones or even internet connectivity.  Nevertheless, I remain curious to explore further how modified crowdsourcing could be used to take a quick pulse of community needs or receive rapid updates following up on services in places where poor people have limited technology.

Crowdfunding, on the other hand, directly relates to what organizations already do: write grants.  I already need to create budgets, describe outcomes, and shop around proposals.  Why not do the same thing on crowdfunding sites, resulting in a whole lot of people funding that Lorena stove or water cistern?

I began my mapping the environment in which partner NGOs currently work:

I then overlayed the funding mechanism… the creation of projects on one side, and the adaption of these projects into funding proposals on the other side.  This image that shows my interpretation for what crowdsourcing and crowdfunding might look like with these small, bi-cultural partnerships:

In applying crowd concepts to my work, I am left with three thoughts…

Values, communication, and capacity.  The most effective NGOs already tackle these issues regularly with robust conversations at all levels.  Before inviting totally unrelated people into your community, make sure that you are clear on the values that guide your work, you have an effective communication plan in place, and you have capacity on both sides of the partnership to fulfill obligations with honesty and transparency.  Values serve as signposts guiding the way through difficult discussions, like whether crowdfunders should vote on projects or get gifts in exchange for their funding.

Projects + general operating=healthy org.  Every social change organization needs money to pay for the projects that deliver key services.  They also need general operating support to work their magic around the edges of these projects.  Social change results from the transactional and transformational needs of communities being met, and transformational needs are rarely funded through project grants.  I have come to believe that significant social change happens on the margins of funded projects as staff members exercise their informal power within their communities and unscripted relationships flourish.  Traditionally, individual donor funds tend to be used for general operating costs.  As organizations grow their individual project-based funding, they need to grow general operating funding to support critical capacity building.

Ownership.  The issue that first gave me pause with crowdfunding is the issue of ownership.  When people give money towards the production of an indie movie, they collectively own that movie.  They get a copy of the movie on DVD.  Crowdfunding applied across cultures requires a more nuanced and transparent position on ownership based on organizational values.  I think about the many organizations that use child sponsorship or animal underwriting as fundraisers; we must ask ourselves critical questions about human dignity, power, and individual vs. collective and local vs. foreign ownership.  Last year a crowdfunding organization told me that I could get $500 or so in donations in exchange for itemized food receipts from an impoverished community who buys all of their food in a public market.    This would have undermined the value of local investment and control, and $500 staff time would have been expended hunting down scraps of paper.

Organizations can chase crowdfunding much like they chase any funding; many non-profits sadly experience mission-creep because the money can be found just beyond the scope of their existing work.  With effective tummlers  in place, however, these same organizations can make the most of self organization, diversity of knowledge, and indirect collaboration  while keeping a clear sense of values and capacity to deliver.  They can take advantage of innovative opportunities to convert crowd members into “smart swarm” community members with the collective energy of a hive of honeybees and the unified focus of sparrows in flight.

What do you think?

From Crowd to Community: Part 1

This post represents the first of two exploring crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.

I do a lot of thinking about community-building—my whole approach to international social change partnerships involves the strengthening of communities as they go about achieving their mission.  But I haven’t thought a lot about crowds.  I was aware of, but it was only recently when I saw a list of 30+ such sites that I realized that there is a crowd-related movement afoot.

Last week I enjoyed a cup of coffee with Cognitive Policy Works founder Joe Brewer, and he thoughtfully shared examples of how crowdfunding is supporting a civic project on which he is working.  I nevertheless left the conversation pretty skeptical that crowdfunding would work in cross-cultural partnerships involving collaborative social change given the inherent power dynamic that comes in the crowd “owning” the product that they fund.

But every small non-profit person experiences a surge of adrenaline at the thought of a new money source, so I started reading about crowdsourcing and crowdfunding on-line.  I am now intrigued.  I want to share some of the ideas that I have been thinking about and invite your thoughts in return.  Part 1 of “From Crowd to Community” deals with definitions.  Part 2 will delve more deeply into how we might apply these definitions within small NGO partnerships.

From Crowd to ‘Smart Swarm’

To me, a crowd is not a community.  A crowd is a bunch of people gathered together, usually for a purpose, like to see the Christmas lights turned on downtown or to protest the WTO.  There is no interconnection between them—no mutual obligation.  They just happen to be proximate to one another, much like the rays of a sun connect to the center but not to each other.  A crowd left unto itself is not helpful to any organization because it lacks a structure through which to engage them.

It is a healthy community that sustains an organization over the long term.  Communities are defined by their social nature; members relate to one another through shared resources, shared governance, and shared culture.  Sustaining a health community is job one for every small non-profit.  Organizations are constantly trying to engage people from various sectors of society in their cause, attracting new community members who will contribute financially and otherwise.

While the terms ‘crowd’ and ‘community’ are used interchangeably by some (see Neil Perry, president of crowdsourcing video company, Poptent), defining their differences is key to understanding how small NGOs might use crowd-concepts in building their communities.  It seems to me that societies contain crowds—individuals who gather around critical events or ideas—and these crowds could convert into community members – crowd members that interrelate—in the right circumstances.  The $50 million dollar question for most non-profits is how to create the right circumstances.

This is where my thoughts go to another term that caught my eye: smart swarm.  Scanning the shelves of my local library, I stopped to look at Peter Miller’s The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make US Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done.  (A good summary can be found here.)  Miller defines a smart swarm as “a group of individuals who respond to one another and to their environment in ways that give them the power, as a group, to cope with uncertainty, complexity, and change.” (p. xvii)  As we shift away from traditional hierarchies, we need to redefine relationships and rethink systems.  From birds, fish, and insects we can learn critical lessons about self organization, diversity of knowledge, indirect collaboration, and adaptive mimicking, lessons that organizations can use to convert members of a crowd into smart members of our organizational communities.

The concepts behind crowdsourcing and funding are not new—social change activists and anti-poverty professionals have tapped their communities for quick-time updates and solution ideas since social change began; non-profit directors use table captains and house parties to provide opportunities for their community members to hook people new to the organization.

What is different is the new dimension that technology places on the exchange between crowd member and fundraising organization and that organization with its international service delivery partner.  Crowd-engagement requires a reconsideration of organizational values, modes of communication, and internal capacity to coordinate this new level of activity.  More on that in Part 2, coming tomorrow.

Some resources that I found interesting:

Beth Kanter on crowdsourcing
Lists of non-profit resources on
Analysis of crowdfunding