Archive - January 2008

Birddogging and Blogging the Primaries
Mapping Worldwide Thought
Dems Voting Via the Internet
The Tragedy in Kenya, the Hope of Young Kenyans
Evaluating the Value of Social Networking Causes
Children's Book "Oscars"
Election Rain Clouds
GiveWell Behaving Badly

Birddogging and Blogging the Primaries

(This article can also be found here on the Personal Democracy website)

Do you know which sector is the tenth largest biggest business sector in the country as measured by its revenue and number of employees? It’s the nonprofit sector, a sprawling, incongruous group of causes, agencies, universities and hospitals linked together mainly by the tax code that gives them all exempt status. And until now, it would have seemed implausible that nonprofits and presidential politics would go hand-in hand.

Activism is ubiquitous in communities; yet, on the whole the organizations that facilitate and conduct it are ignored by policy makers and politicians. That’s where the new V3 campaign spearheaded by Robert Egger, the founder and President of DC Central Kitchen, comes in. Nonprofits need to be seen by public officials as “not just as good deed doers, but as a vital part of the economy in every part of America.” Activist organizations need to insert themselves in the public policy conversations, which they are legally allowed to do, but not as individual causes and organizations as has been done in the past, but as a unified industry that supports and enriches every community in the country. As Egger says, “Communities are going to look up and find that ten percent of their constituents work for nonprofits (and putting millions into the treasury through payroll taxes) and most of them volunteer.”   Nonprofits need to press candidates and elected officials to regard the nonprofit constituency as important a community player as Chambers of Commerce.

I am often asked the question, “What does leadership look like in the Connected Age, and is it only for young people?” The answers are a) different, and b) no. And the best example I can give you is Robert Egger.

By nature and temperament I am not given to idolatry, but if I were, Robert Egger would be atop my list of candidates. He is the founder and President of DC Central Kitchen, where unemployed men and women learn culinary skills by cooking meals for indigent residents of DC from food donated by restaurants, hotels and caterers. According to its website, since opening in 1989, the Kitchen has distributed 17.4 million meals and helped over 605 men and women gain full-time employment. He’s been called one of the “Real Sexist Men Alive” by Oprah, and hailed as Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. And yet, when you talk to him, it is always about the needs of people and community that are of interest to him. His passion for helping other people and alleviating the pain of those who are suffering is palpable, and he doesn’t’ just talk, he makes a difference, in big, bold, collaborative and visionary ways.

Two years ago he helped launch the Nonprofit Congress housed at the National Council of Nonprofit Associations ( The purpose of the Congress was to develop a common voice for grassroots nonprofits on the importance of the sector to American communities. The Congress had its first national convening in 2006 and out of that meeting came the idea of the Primary Project (video description here). And it worked. For months, volunteers in New Hampshire asking candidates for the presidency three questions as reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

  • What role has a nonprofit organization played in your life or career?
  • How would you strengthen the economic and social capacity of such organizations?
  • How would you work with nonprofit groups to achieve your vision for America?

Using blogs, video technology and perseverance, the Primary Project was able to raise the issue of the importance of the nonprofit sector to the American community with candidates during the New Hampshire primary. Organized locally by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, tens of volunteers fanned out across the state on the last weekend before the primary to ask candidates questions and capture them on video for a variety of blogs. You can view responses from John Edwards, and Rudy Guiliani on Eggers’ blog.

It would have been unimaginable as recently as the last presidential election that a local association of nonprofits and its supporters like Joan Goshgarian, Executive Director of the NH Business Committee for the Arts, would have taken such an active role in the primary election wearing their nonprofit hats and used new media to capture their interactions and share them so broadly with the nonprofit community and beyond.

New Hampshire was phase one for this effort. Now the project moves into the second phase with the launch of V3 funded out of Eggers own pocket to encourage and enable nonprofit advocates around the country to ask candidates for local, state and federal office to get candidates what their plans are to work with and support the nonprofit community.

When I first came across this project about a year ago, I wondered if the country really needed another constituency, another issue group to insert their own agenda onto party platforms and into elections. In talking directly to Eggers, though, it is clear that his vision isn’t to propose a single piece of legislation or create a new issue-driven cause, but rather to think creatively and broadly about the future of communities that are going to be facing what he calls the “triple whammy” of an economic downturn + increasing loss of white collar jobs overseas + an aging population. He envisions public officials finding ways to create robust, growing, healthy local communities and economies with nonprofits a vital, dynamic, economically important part of the equation.


Mapping Worldwide Thought

I’m a very visual person, and although I have absolutely no sense of direction, I love looking at maps. I love seeing the relationship of one street to another, where cities are located within a state and, of course, how nations fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the world (is Uzbeckistan really that big?)

So, I was thrilled yesterday when my friend Phil shared with me a site called Wikipedia Vision. It’s an almost real time visual presentation of where around the world people are making edits and updates to Wikipedia. As I watched people and their editing processes pop up around the world (although primarily in the US and the UK) I was struck by two thoughts: 1) I am watching the world shrink before my eyes, and 2) what is we were all working on the same problem or issue at the same time? Imagine if all of these smart, committed people decided to take a day or a week or a month and tackle, say, climate change by contributing, wrestling with and vetting ideas on a wiki.

Sometimes I feel so grateful to be living in the Connected Age!


Dems Voting Via the Internet

I love the PoliTicker, the weekly newswire of Politics Online because it always has delicious tidbits that I’ve missed like this one, “Dems Hold 1st Global Online Primary”.

For the first time, Democrats living overseas can vote in a primary for president being held from February 5-12. According to this article, voters will have the choice of voting online, by mail or at polling places in 100 countries. Voters log into the system created by Everyone Counts, Inc. in San Diego, receive a unique identifying number and then vote.

So, rest of the election world, and I mean you, Secretaries of States, Election Assistance Commission, voting reformers, PAY ATTENTION!  The future of American democracy is right here in front of us, I just hope I don’t have to move to Estonia to practice it!


The Tragedy in Kenya, the Hope of Young Kenyans

Last month the people of Kenya voted for a president only to have the election overturned by a presidential commission and power retained in the hands of President Mwai Kibaki. There is more information on the disputed election from the Washington Post here, It’s not a new or intersting story, we’ve seen it before over and over again worldwide. Party in power refuses to give up power, voters feel betrayed and angry, and sadly in Kenya the dispute turned into ethnic fighting and killing around the country.
But here is the interesting story. The young people of Kenya have taken publicizing the violence around the country into their own hands. Nancy Scola has the amazing story here at WorldChanging. Nancy writes that in a country like Kenya where the press is a tool of the powerful elite, the opportunities to tell the stories of oppressed people are limited. A few weeks prior to the election Kibaki shut down all live radio and television broadcasts of the election. Home Internet access is prohibitively expensive for most Kenyans. What’s the answer? Cell phones. Almost all Kenyans have one and texting is extremely inexpensive unlike in the U.S.

One of the results of Kenyans texting news to one another is the website that is mapping violence across the country, city by city, incident by incident.

The efforts of Kenyan citizens to tell each other and the world their plight using their own mobile devices is awe inspiring. Despotism, violence, repression continue to plague the world, but the courage of citizens to capture and share their stories gives us hope that a new day of accountability is dawning.


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!


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 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.


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 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!


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.


Copyright © 2019 Allison Fine