Tag - techpresident

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Lessons and Thoughts on the Egyptian Protest
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The Online/On Land Disconnect
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Wikileaks ≠ Transparency
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Blurred Definitions of Social Good Organizations
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Demand Question Time!
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Nonprofits are Falling Behind Gov 2.0
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The Wiki That Isn't on Change.gov
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10 Questions for the Candidates

Lessons and Thoughts on the Egyptian Protest

I’ve been watching and reading about the protests in Egypt with awe at the courage of the participants and fear for the reprisals they may face. Perhaps it’s too early or easy to generalize, but that’s never stopped me before! Here are a few thoughts about the Egyptian protests, and what makes it similar and dissimilar to recent protests in Yemen, Tunisia and Iran:

  • Are heroic leaders always necessary for overthrowing dictatorships?  The protests appear to start in similar fashion. A long-simmering unhappiness, catalyzed by an economic or political event that is spread and catalyzed side-to-side in part because of social media, particular text messaging, that spills out into the streets. This progression mirrors those from twenty five years ago in Eastern Europe. However, one drawback to the  lack of an opposition party, is that it is unclear to whom the protesters expect power be handed to. Lech Walesa, Vaclev Havel, Nelson Mandela personified their country’s opposition forces. And, in the Nobel Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, it appears the country now has it’s heroic leader. No clear leader emerged in Iran and the protests were beaten back. Is a heroic figure an essential ingredient to success?
  • How valuable can social media ultimately be for social change if access is to easily denied? What is different about these protests from those a quarter century ago is how easily and quickly the protests can grow and spread because of social media, But just as easily as social media can be a catalyst for spreading protests, the access to social media can be cut off instantly and without explanation or recourse. This applies not only to the protests, but also to the recent skirmish Wikileaks had with American companies trying to cut off its Internet access. Although the Pew Center for American Life and the Internet now considers online social networking tools, “standard tools for political engagement,” they are also easily blocked by countries or companies. We do not have open, unfettered access to the Internet here or abroad, and these recent events should support the argument that access to the Internet is a fundamental right not a privilege. It should — but, sadly, it won’t because the corporate world has a stranglehold on the democracies, and the dictatorships control the rest. If you want to be scared about the stranglehold that the telecoms have on politics and the Internet here watch Susan Crawford talk about it here
  • I wonder if there are common characteristics to the protests, protesters, countries, circumstances, dictators that make the overthrow of a dictatorship possible in some places and impossible in others? Can anyone point me to any studies on this?

It’s a fast changing world in some ways, but some things remain stubbornly the same. The desire of people to be free is certainly something that has never, and will never, change or dimish.

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The Online/On Land Disconnect

Nancy Scola wrote a terrific post about a new report from the Berkman Center called Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing.

The paper is a great primer on political activism in repressive regimes, how change happens and what makes it so hard and risky.

Nancy nails the key, and most provocative, argument in the paper: “We might, in other words, watch in awe as  video of Neda Agha Soltan’s death during Iran’s post-election protests goes viral, to give an example, and be too quick in seeing in it evidence of some sort of powerful social and political resistance, when the actual facts on the ground might not bear that understanding out.”

Here is one of those videos just as a reminder:

But what changed on the ground, politically as a result of the protests? We’re not sure, certainly not as much as the protesters or the watchers hoped in the moment. Of course, as the authors of Political Change in the Digital Age quoting Marshall Ganz point out, these kinds of regime-change movements take a long time to realize. So these protests may have planted a seed, created supporters, put into motion future change that we won’t know about for years.

The authors hit on the key issue facing activists using social media. This is what I’ve called Phase Three in the development of social media for social change. Phase One was the wonderful euphoria at the beginning of this century of discovery of social media. Look at this amazing stuff, we shouted. Look at all of these free, ubiquitous, easy-to-use tools that enable regular people blog and have a voice they’ve never had before. Watch them create videos, make their own playlists and share songs, and then watch them connect with new and old friends online and create their own social spheres.  Wahoo, look at power seep from institutions and move towards individuals!

Phase Two was seeing what all of these tools did to organizations that embraced them. That’s why Beth and I wrote The Networked Nonprofit, to understand and examine what happens internally and externally to nonprofits that are organized more as social networks than stand alone institutions. In short, wonderful things happen as outsiders get out and insiders get in. Networked Nonprofits include wonderful organizations like MomsRising.org, charity:water, Surfrider Foundation.

And now we’re inching our way into Phase Three. We’re connecting, pinging, poking, friending, fanning, running for our causes – made much easier in countries like ours that encourage free association and speech – but what is it all adding up to? In other words: so what?

The Berkman paper focuses on the use of the Internet to strengthen and power nongovernmental organizations and efforts to reform authoritarian regimes. There have been significant limitations to these efforts, largely because these governments simply shut down the sites and flows of information to the networks of activists. As the authors note, “Efforts at digital organizing in Iran do not appear to have been effective. In the run-up to the disputed election, the Mousavi campaign sought to use Facebook to rally supporters. The government responded by simply blocking access to Facebook. Online communities that congregate at a single URL are easily dismantled; organizations that rely on a centralized nodes and hierarchical structures are trivial to break up.”

Although our government is less likely to shut down sites, at least publicly, we still haven’t connected all of the dots from outrage or empathy or concern expressed online and political success on land. We know they need to be connected, that social change actually happens on land, always, but how we make that connection and whether lighter engagements, all of that pinging and fanning (derisively called slactivism by some), actually makes a difference in and of itself is the next set of questions to be answered.

Lucy began this discussion a few months ago. And it needs to continue. Here are a few first steps:

  1. Organizations need to o consider more carefully how to integrate their online and on land efforts.
  2. We need to overcome our addiction to online analytical tools, all of those pretty and instant charts and graphs and engage in more traditional evaluation methods to find out what people knew as a result of their online engagements and what, if anything, they did as a result.
  3. Most all, I want to know what is working, where is social change actually happening (distinguished from acts of loving kindness, like collecting coats in winter time, which are wonderful, necessary things to do but not social change.) Where and how are all of these efforts actually making a difference?

Don’t be cowed by the difficulty of these tasks. As I wrote above, we’re just at the beginning of Phase Three, so we have time to explore it and figure it out. It’s good to know, at least, what phase we’re in!

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Wikileaks ≠ Transparency

As much as I hate using “gate” moniker, I want to discuss what is being called “Cablegate” because its ramifications for organizational life.

If you’ve been leaving beneath your bed for the last few weeks, you may not know that Cablegate refers to the release of thousands of secret State Department communications by Wikileaks. Here is good synopsis of the lead by Time Magazine.

Wikileaks first came onto the world’s radar screen by posting a video of American soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians. This is whistleblowing. The American military it appears had done a terrible thing and then covered it up. This is what journalists do, they uncover the bad things that companies and governments do and shed light on them. Daniel Ellsberg is one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers, having released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times to reveal the lies that the US government was telling the public about their administration of the war in Vietnam.

Cablegate isn’t whistleblowing, it isn’t righting a wrong, unveiling unethical or immoral behavior. It is the theft of regular communications that makes it nearly impossible for the State Department to function.

One of the smartest people I know, well, actually one of the smartest people anywhere, Esther Dyson, discussed the downside of what she called “radical transparency” at Transparency Camp last year a double edged sword for organizational leaders. Beth Kanter reported Esther saying at the camp, “Esther Dyson said that transparency should be able the results and any deals, but there is a place for private discussion.   “We could all go around naked and look like angels, but in the real world that doesn’t happen.”  Transparency has its benefits, but so does privacy.  As Esther Dyson said, “There is a need for respect – of relationships, to get trust, and further understandings.   You can’t be fully transparent all the time because you need to give people a safe place to have the discussion without disrespecting others.”

And there is why I respectfully disagree with my friend and colleague, Micah Sifry, who wrote yesterday on his blog on TechPresident, “…there is a danger rising both to internet freedom and open government here, but that is not because of Wikileaks. It is because people who are threatened by more transparency want to stop this trend before it is completely uncontrollable.”

Leaks like Cablegate might be inevitable, however they are not honorable or constructive. Street crime might be inevitable but that doesn’t make it right. It also makes the word of transparency advocates, like Micah, much harder because it masks the true beauty and value of transparency which is to enable outsiders to get in and insiders to get out in order to make the work or product or law better. Transparency is not an academic exercise or window dressing for show, when done well and right, for instance in the ways that the Sunlight Foundation works, it makes the work better. Releasing every day cables of conversations within the State Department doesn’t make anything better, it just makes the work harder to do at all, much less do well.

The leakers, including Wikileaks, should be punished for it. How is any organization or government agency supposed to do business, to wrestle with complicated situations where the answers aren’t clear cut, in other words deal with the world as it is, if every conversation, every thought, every musing is going to be public.

The shame as Micah points out is that this kind of behavior provides cover for anti-transparency forces to have an excuse to become more opaque. They would would head in that direction anyway. News organizations should not have printed these leaks, it wasn’t news, it was a crime.

OK, folks, start disagreeing now!

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Blurred Definitions of Social Good Organizations

Nancy Scola of TechPresident sent me a link to her post, “Why Should Non-Profits Get a Break?” which asks interesting questions about the differences, and different treatments of, socially responsible businesses and nonprofits.

Nancy makes an excellent point when she writes, “the nature of work is changing faster than our old categories for what it is we’re all doing to make a buck (even if we re-invest that buck into our organizations).”

There has been an explosion in the number of new business that have social responsibility at the core of their business. There has also been a trend of many nonprofits organized to do work like corporations – with fee-for-service revenue and ROI at the core of their organizations.  There is a blurring of the lines between nonprofits and socially responsible businesses,  but there are still two very significant and important differences.

The first difference is about accountability. Lucy Bernholz coined the phrase, “embedded giving” whereby for profit businesses can say some portion of their profits are going to charity, but they are under no obligation to say how much was donated, or even to which specific organization. Even if a company pledges that 5% of the profits will go to charity, there is no way for a consumer to know if it actually did go or exactly how that 5% was calculated.

The second difference is that nonprofits are provided tax breaks for providing a public good. There is a clause in the tax code for public charities called the public support test. Basically, that clause says that at least one-third of all of the support for an individual charity needs to come from the public – not from one individual and not from business operations unrelated to its core mission like sales or subscriptions. Many nonprofits would fail this test if the IRS were paying attention – but the intent is that nonprofits have tax breaks because they provide a pubic good that is supported by the public.

There has been an explosion in the number of corporations that specifically have social responsibility at the core of their purpose. For instance, the increasing number of corporations designed as “B Corporations”. In addition, as President Clinton reported this week from the Clinton Global Initiative, corporations that don’t have social responsibility at the forefront of their purpose are finding that philanthropy is good for business.

But it doesn’t mean that these corporations have the same fundamental purpose as nonprofits.

One more important difference between nonprofit and corporations. Some nonprofits, not all of them, have as their mission doing unpopular work. Take Volunteers of America. They provide a host of social services, and have for over one hundred years,  for the hardest to reach, hardest to help people. People with severe physical and mental handicaps. People who will never hold a steady job or own a home. People who need never ending charity from people and organizations with never ending patience. Those organizations don’t have a profit margin the way a corporation does, and they shouldn’t, and they need to be protected to do their work.

The tax code bunches too many disparate organizations into one overall umbrella of nonprofitness. Universities, hospitals, advocacy groups, direct service providers are clumped under the same tax exempt designation. It doesn’t make any sense any  more. And there are some nonprofits that are organized like businesses that shouldn’t be tax exempt at all. But, then, there are organizations that are in the business of performing acts of loving kindness ever day. They provide almost no reward for their employees and volunteers but psychic ones that need to be protected and honored for their work and not lumped in with the rest of the business world.

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Demand Question Time!

As always, my friend Micah Sifry and his pals at Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident are up to some good fun!

If you didn’t see the debate that President Obama had with the House Republicans last week, you absolutely must. It was inspiring to see elected officials have real, civil dialogue about real issues. Here’s a clip:

This needs to continue, it’s good for the country, for the citizenry, for these kinds of exchanges to continue. to that end, Micah and friends launched a new site this morning called “Demand Question Time!” It’s pretty self-explanatory, let’s get our elected leaders to keep doing this. Micah asked me to sign onto the effort on Monday and it was a no-brainer for me. Of course, Micah has a cross-partisan group of supporters working with him on this including Mike Moffo, David Corn, Mindy Finn, Jon Henke and Glenn Reynolds.

Please go and sign the petition and share it on Twitter and Facebook – no more politics as usual!!

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Nonprofits are Falling Behind Gov 2.0

A few days ago, I tweeted my friend Marty to ask him about an article he had mentioned a while back on how the Department of Defense uses network structures to combat terrorism. I thought this would be a great example to get the attention of nonprofity folks: “Look, even the Dept. of Defense is embracing network structures, so, why are you stuck in your hierarchies!”

Within minutes, I got a tweet back from — YES — the Department of Defense!  A very nice tweeter named ArmyNYC was doing a good job of listening on Twitter and responded immediately and offered help in finding the materials I was looking for. The twitterer was in real life a public affairs officer at the Army Public Affairs office in heart of Manhattan.

The revolution in how government works is in full force right now. We really are at a historic moment in time wherein all of the pie-in-the-sky that I and my fellow geeks speculated about last year in our anthology on next generation government in Rebooting America is happening. Now, chronicled every day by the brilliant folks at the Sunlight Foundation and TechPresident,is Gov 2.0 for transparency. Conversations are fully embraced and, hopefully, maybe, a growing, trusting relationship and conversation between constituents and public officials on blogs, websites and Twitter is happening. It certainly helps that we have the tech savviest administration in history using the internet as effectively to govern as they did to campaign.  Check out Recovery.gov and Serve.gov is you haven’t already.

And then I saw this post from Katya: Nonprofit websites even worse than government ones . . . Turns out a new research report by a market research firm called ForSee entitled Trends in Constituent Satisfaction
with Nonprofit Websites: Building Membership, Donations, and Loyalty through the Web Channel
[Warning: very annoying and unnecessary amount of personal info needed to input before able to download the report!] reports that nonprofit websites score a mediocre 73 out of 100 on their quality scale, a point behind E-government sites!

I did a survey in 2007 for the Overbrook Foundation that found that only 25% of the human rights grantees in our sample had a blog that allowed for comments. And I’m not sure the results would be much different today even though nonprofits are joining online social networking sites at a torrid pace as the NTEN survey revealed this week.

Why are we so slow as a sector to embrace Web 2.0? It’s confounding, but here are a few guesses:

1.We are an extremely risk averse sector. Foundations and large donors are by nature risk averse, and this trickles down to grantees. Web 2.0 feels too open and trasnparent to feel safe.  See, look what happened to Domino’s Pizza, after all?

2. We are terrible listeners. Ongoing learning, whether it’s the serendipitous learning of listening to the blogosphere and Twittersphere about your cause and issues, or the more systemic learning of evaluation, are simply not valued in the sector. If they were, we would have more data on what’s effective and how much evaluation is funded and done. We don’t. Period. Feel free to disagree. You can find the one shining example of an org. that learns brilliant on an ongoing basis. Trot out Teach for America and City Year for the umpteenth time. OK, that’s two, only 699,000 to go!  If you’re not focused on listening to and learning from your constituents, then embracing social media that enables that becomes less important.  I’ve never listened before, they seem to say, so why start now?

3. The generational divide is so much more prevalent and harmful to the sector than the digital divide. The Boomers that run organizations from staff or board positions don’t get it. It’s what their kids do, not what grown-ups should have to do.  They just want to close their eyes and go back to their Rolodex’ and date books and wish the whole thing would go away.

Of course, I don’t agree with any of these reasons!  But they are my best guess as to why we’re  falling behind even the government in making the transition to the new world. We’re like print media, desperately clinging to the shores of the old world in the hopes that the storm will blow over.

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The Wiki That Isn't on Change.gov

Working Wikily, a paper and idea crafted by The Monitor Institute and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (although originally coined by Lucy Bernholz), describes a collaborative way of working that is inclusive and transparent.

The Obama administration is putting these ideas to work using wikis and public policy on their Change.gov site reports Nancy Scola. Launched yesterday, the health care discussion with two members of the transition team, Dr. Dora Hughes and Lauren Aronson, on a wiki on Change.gov.  This certainly strikes me as more transparent and constructive than the black hole of resumes with which the site started.

I like the opening statement on the page, “Our policy teams will be sharing new developments with you, the American people, and asking for feedback. It’s up to you to respond.”  In particular, the “it’s up to you to respond.” part putting the onus on us, citizens, to participate is great.  Brava!

Here’s the part that I don’t like about this wiki:  it’s not a wiki.

This is a blog post, think Huffington Post not Wikipedia.  Here’s a wiki:  http://votereport.pbwiki.com/FrontPage.  This is what we used to organize Twitter Vote report and you can see the different pages that participants created throughout the project on the right side:  such as partners, media outreach, project tracker, user stories.  Volunteers created these pages, posted content, others revised and edited it.

Perhaps I’d let this technical issue go if the opening question were better. “What don’t we like about the healthcare system” is waaaaayyyyy too broad as a starter.  Here, I’ll give you all the answers and then we can move on:  It’s too expensive, not portable and doesn’t provide things we need, like medications, inexpensively.

OK, so it’s not a wiki and the opening question doesn’t work, is that all I’ve got?  Nope, here’s the big one, and the one that stops too many efforts from being truly transparent: Drs. Hughs and Aronson posted a question, invited us to wrestle with it, and . . . And, what?  What are they going to do with this conversation.  Without a commitment to listening it runs the risk of becoming a long thread that starts out with long, thoughtful responses (and these really are that so far) that will ultimately degenerate into something less civil and run the risk of petering out all together. Why not extend the challenge by posing several questions that people can begin to wrestle with (e.g. what are you willing to pay for health care? what are the pros and cons of a government-run system?  how can we reduce the significant liability risks that health care providers have now?) and asking people to wrestle with them online, and engaging groups like Public Agenda and Everyday Democracy to facilitate local disucssions and develop real proposals and solutions?

You had us at wiki, Change.gov, now really challenge and engage us, please!

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10 Questions for the Candidates

My friends at TechPresident have just launched a very cool new site called 10 Questions. Here’s the nub of it: Over the next month voters, citizens, people of all stripes and persuasions post videos on the site posing questions for the candidates, subscribers to the site will vote on questions winnowing them down to the top ten. The candidates post video responses to the questions, us real people spend the next month or so deciding and discussing whether they answered them at all, adequately or well.

In essence the site takes the YouTube debates to the next logical step of removing the broadcast media filter entirely and letting us wrangle with issues, questions, responses in the lovely, messy way a democracy is supposed to work.

I’ll be sure to keep a careful eye on how the questions are unfolding over the next few weeks!

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