A Fine Blog

I'm Not Sure We Are Having an Election
Journalism 2.0
Case Foundation Walks the Talk
Very Disappointing MySpace Election
GiveWell Behaving Badly
Election Rain Clouds
Children's Book "Oscars"
Evaluating the Value of Social Networking Causes

I'm Not Sure We Are Having an Election

My friend, Micah Sifry, writes here about the woeful information on the Board of Elections websites for New York State. According to the Board, the next primary election in New York is last September, to match last November’s election. It wouldn’t be quite so woeful, I guess, if the primaries were scheduled for next fall, about a year away, but we’re having a presidential primary in New York State in two months!

This is similar to what I saw and wrote about in California on Election Day (here), it didn’t appear that California’s officials who decertified almost all of the machinery used on Election Day, have a game plan for their primary that also happens in about 60 days.

This may be one of the few instances when when we should be thankful that the Board of Elections in New York State is so utterly incompetent — at least we haven’t spent millions of dollars on election machinery that doesn’t work!

Journalism 2.0

When I speak to groups this question inevitably comes up, “I don’t know what information to trust online.” Fair question. I also struggle with the opposite problem, there are so many information sources that I feel overwhelmed trying to read through them. Well, wait five minutes in the Connected Age and someone will have a new application to solve any problem. Welcome NewsTrust!

NewsTrust has taken the idea of social networks and applied it to journalism. In their words it is:

The free NewsTrust.net website features daily feeds of quality news and opinions, which are carefully rated by our members, using our unique review tools. We rate the news based on quality, not just popularity. NewsTrust reviewers evaluate each article against core journalistic principles such as fairness, evidence, sourcing and context.

NewsTrust presents news articles to their membership who review tools using criteria such as fairness, evidence, sourcing and context. Reviewing articles takes some time and consideration on the part of members – but thoughtfulness has never been time-free. NewsTrust is built upon two powerful characteristics of the web: the power of reputation systems (ratings systems that a large number of users or customers can help shape and increase their trust over time), and the power of social networks to help build and shape large communities over time.

The folks at NewsTrust did a lot of testing and research prior to their launch. The site is based on solid research that indicates that citizens who are not journalists can provide valuable feedback on the quality of news articles. According to its website, NewsTrust had initial seed funding from the Mitch Kapor Foundation, the Ayrshire Foundation and the Tides Foundation, as well as Craig Newmark (Craigslist), Doug Carlston (Public Radio International), Fabrice Florin and other private donors. It recently secured multi-year funding from the MacArthur Foundation for $450,000.

NewsTrust is one of the most exciting developments I’ve come across in a while – it really does have transformational possibilities.

Case Foundation Walks the Talk

The Case Foundation (full disclosure: I am currently working on a project with the Foundation) announced yesterday a new grant challenge aimed at catalyzing a large number of donors to give this holiday season. Beginning last year, Case has focused on providing opportunities to highlight and reward the power of individual giving and activism.

As the Washington Post reports (registration stupidly required here) this morning. Here’s the gist of the article:

The Case Foundation, the philanthropy of Steve and Jean Case, is promoting America’s Giving Challenge, which aims to draw people who do not consider themselves to be philanthropists to donate as little as $10 to charities around the world. The foundation is working with Network for Good and GlobalGiving, nonprofit groups that allow donors to conduct online searches for charities to support.

The foundation has also begun a similar challenge on Facebook. Facebook users can donate to any of 1.5 million charities through the site’s “causes” section and have their donations and causes displayed as part of their personal profiles.

The Case Foundation is giving away $750,000 in the two online efforts, which start today and end January 31. People who recruit the most friends from their social networks will each receive $50,000 to donate to charity. The 100 charities that garner the highest number of online donations will each get $1,000.

There are many exciting aspects of this grant program. One in particular is recognizing the power of friends instead of just dollars to support causes. Young people in particular are not only not in a position to fund causes with large dollars, but don’t see the world through that lens alone. That’s the power behind the social networking sites; friends are their commerce and Case is recoginizing that and bringing that same passion to their causes.

Very Disappointing MySpace Election

Just when you think folks are getting the power of social media and social networks, companies come along and suck all the life out of them. Six months ago, MySpace announced that it would hold the first presidential primary on January 1st and 2nd just prior to the Iowa Caucus. Cool, I thought, let’s throw some new century flavor into the dowdy primary campaign season.

Well, as noted here on TechPresident, what a disappointment! Here’s the link to it. It looks like a generic online survey that companies would use to get your email address. It has the feel of, “Are you for America, or really for America, or really, really for America? Click and tell us and you’ll win a lot of junk mail in your Inbox!”

The idea of allowing a vibrant social networking site like MySpace to hold the first online primary was so exciting. It could have been a way to engage, inform and legitimate the political views of millions of mainly young people online. It could have created online chats about the candidates, links to position papers and videos from the debates.

And, before the critics get chomping at the bit, I’m not suggesting that this kind of primary would or should take the place of the retail campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire but as a supplement, another way to get people involved in the process, Maybe this is a sign of the Murdoch-ization of MySpace, hopefully it’s just a huge lost opportunity. Sigh.

GiveWell Behaving Badly

Oh, to be anointed and dethroned in such quick order!

On December 19th, the New York Times gushingly, glowingly lauded the efforts of two young “hedge fund veterans” (can you really be 26 and a business veteran?) who created GiveWell a grantmaking organization with an interesting premise. GiveWell is intended to do two things fundamentally different, hopefully better, than has been done in philanthropy before: 1) to be transparent about why it has chosen certain causes to give to, and 2) to share these criteria with other potential funders. Their intention was to go beyond 990s and other financial metrics and get to the heart of results in certain, specific issue areas. Admirable, if a bit exhausting for the potential grantees. But, if it were to take off, the advantage to selected nonprofits who wouldn’t have to go through due diligence one funder at a time was clear. I was not familiar with the organization until the article in the Times, although I have to admit that my first reaction was, “Holy cow these guys are self-righteous and heavy handed!” As only twenty-somethings can be, they had it all figured out, of course we can bring transparency to philanthropy and then we’ll go viral and be the Facebook of philanthropy! But then hubris raised it’s ugly head.

It turns out that the CEO, Holden Karnofsky, was caught in the act of astroturfing, pretending to be a user to promote GiveWell’s services. He posted a heartfelt apology on his blog here. The board decided this week to demote Karnofsky from CEO to program officer and require he complete a training program.

The crime of the century? No. It’s not like he was raising money for his family in Nigeria that needs TO GET OUT RIGHT NOW OR RISK GREAT HARM TO THEIR CHILDREN. And certainly there are a host of other CEOs of businesses, such as Whole Foods, who have been caught red handed doing the same thing and recovered. But this is different for several reasons:

1. Trust and transparency are at the heart of GiveWell’s mission. Karnofsky laid waste to both with his actions.

2. Nonprofits should be held to the highest possible ethical standards, particularly for causes like GiveWell that portend to advise others, since the very existence as tax exempt entities rests on our public purpose and trustworthiness.

Lucy Bernholz, a board member of GiveWell, was her typically smart, pithy, transparent self in writing about the incident on her blog and asking readers what actions the organizations should take in light of Karnofsky’s transgression. I don’t envy Lucy’s position but I do disagree with the board’s ultimate decision to demote Karnofsky and send him to training. I think that a breach of public trust of this magnitude for an organization with transparency and accountability at its core is irredeemable. I can certainly understand that the board was facing a repentant young man who genuinely wants to make the world a better place to live, but our community has to have the very ethical highest standards, not Wall Street or even Main Street standards, but the highest possible standards that put our efforts above reproach — because our trustworthiness is our greatest asset, but once squandered, is almost impossible to recover. If your organization doesn’t have written ethical standards get them, now, today from Board Source or your local nonprofit support organization or National Council of Nonprofit Agency( NCNA) member. Really, download them now, right now, there is no excuse for not having written policies regarding ethical behavior for your organization, and intentionally misleading readers, donors, bloggers, funders, whether online or on land, is an unacceptable, fire-able offense whether you’re the CEO or a summer intern.

For more years than I’d like to admit, I have been calling on nonprofit organizations to become self-determining and proactive about self-assessment. I have pleaded with organizations to raise their ethical standards, measure their own results in rigorous and thoughtful ways before the regulators, watchdogs and hand wringers do it for us. We have largely failed to do this, to take self-assessment seriously enough, to measure our results rigorously and energetically enough, to punish our own transgressors quickly and strongly enough.

As a startup, GiveWell will be hardpressed to survive this imbroglio, and frankly, I’m not sure that they should survive. Transparent philanthropy’s time has come, whether GiveWell survives or not.

Election Rain Clouds

As exciting as it was to see young people turning out in record numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, there are difficulties ahead for youth turnout. In particular, given how well same day voter registration worked in New Hampshire, I was appalled to learn that last Friday, over three weeks before the primary, voter registration in New York closed. I think there’s going to be a great outcry from young people here who find as the primary gets closer that they can’t vote. Even more appalling is that even after Micah Sifry led the outcry that the New York State Board of Elections was woefully out of date with information about registered to vote for the 2008 primary (only information about 2007 primary voting is up) it still hasn’t changed

Moveon.org released a fantastic tool last week called Vote Poke (not vote puke as I first thought!) It’s a database to find out whether you or a friend are registered to vote. Of course, it’s not much help for people in states like New York who have missed the deadline!

Children's Book "Oscars"

I’m very fond of the American Library Association. They’ve embraced new technology enthusiastically and continued to nurture local communities in marvelous ways. So, to show my appreciation, I wanted to share an email I just received from a friend:
Today, the American Library Association (ALA) announced the 2008 Newbery (Best Written) and Caldecott (Best Illustrated) Awards, among its Youth Media Awards.

These Oscars of children’s literature are a great guide for parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians-to-be, indeed, everyone who wants to get kids together with great books.

Look for the gold and silver medals on the cover and you’ve got this year’s—and past—best written and illustrated children’s and young adult books chosen by the experts you can trust: America’s librarians.

Check out www.ala.org for the names of this year’s and past winners. My son’s now 17 and well-thumbed Newbery and Caldecott books are still front and center on his bookshelf.

Evaluating the Value of Social Networking Causes

As usual, Beth Kanter, is having interesting thoughts here and here on her blog about measuring the effectiveness of social media. I think for me the biggest question is how to do justice to the need for activists to learn how well they’re doing and how to improve while also acknowledging the need to think and act in an evaluative way that fits the open, networked way that connected activism works. (Please note: I am specifically thinking here about how to get our hands around the effectiveness of social networks for creating social change.)

Of course, all evaluative work begins from the same question: what do we want to learn? Beth’s thinking has been from an organizational point of view, more specifically, what return are we getting organizationally from our investment in social media? In Momentum, I urged organizations to take any opportunity to talk to and learn from their constituents, clients, communities about their services, not to wait for the perfect controlled environment to do so. Now, I’d like to start to think about evaluating value of what is developed through the network that is created by using social media for a social cause.

So, I’ll make up a simple scenario here to play with, and hope you’ll play along with me:

A group of students at Drake University creates a cause on Facebook, Project Green Ribbon. The goal of the PGR is for students to wear green ribbons on their own campuses on April 15th to protest the high interest of student loans and pressure their colleges to increase their subsidies of tuition (really, only applicable to private institutions with substantial endowments, but, nonetheless, a tangible outcome.) So, Project Green Ribbon friends start friending other friends. Eventually 3,200 students across the country post the ribbon on their facebook pages and wear a green ribbon on April 15th. A few write letters to their school newspapers about the cause and two hold rallies on their campuses. So, how would one evaluate the efficacy of this effort?

At a very basic level, something happened, several thousand students self-organized around a cause they care about and raised the visibility of that issue on their campuses by wearing the ribbon, publishing letters and standing around while people spoke. But, since no university was moved to reconsider its tuition policies, it wasn’t a total success. So, maybe, in traditional evaluation terms it would be graded as a B, a nice start that could be improved next year.

But, it’s more than that because there is value in the creation of the network itself that is overlooked in traditional measurement terms. First, social networks are powered by the nodes, the key intersection points that power a network. In this case there were about 30 students who were passionate about this cause, invited triple the number of friends on average than other participants, and made sure the letter writing and rallies happened. The nodes need to be identified, and assessed to truly understand what happened to build this network. In addition, by identifying the nodes, a cause is set to build on their prowess and success next time, and also to engage these super activists in another cause.

Second, the network isn’t owned by the cause, and it may not be very active after April 15th, but the participants were tied to one another, tightly and loosely, for a time by a common interest. Participation is an important, human experience, and a good experience leads to more participation. So, the very nature of the network and its workings is critical to understand for this and other causes.

I recognize that some success of networked activities is serendipity; the timing of a cause, the time of year, other news events that makes the cause more urgent. Nonetheless, there is a lot to be learned by the nature of the network itself, how and why it worked or didn’t, that can’t be overlooked.

These are just the beginning of some thoughts I’ve been having on this topic. I need your help to continue to work on this. Please send ideas and any links to other sources of info on network effectiveness. Thanks!

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