Misinformation, Ebola is thy name.

The Ebola Survival Fund was an emergency fund set up to deal with the misinformation created in the wake of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The goal was to raise awareness using the platform of the Hunger Games to promote intelligent conversation about the real issues behind the epidemic.

Our launch included front-page articles on Time.com, People.com, Entertainment Weekly, Upworthy, Daily Mail, and others, successfully reaching over half a million people.

Currently Reading: Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

Feynman is one of the great iconoclasts of science - always following his own path regardless of the opportunities and expectations of others. A brilliant physicist constantly searching for the deepest and most pragmatic truths of the universe and himself, this is a compilation of his personal stories from learning to draw nudes to winning the Nobel Prize in physics. (Working on the Manhattan project as a precocious young physicist he often ran off into the Los Alamos desert to play bongo drums and howl at the moon). This is a classic, powerful collection of narratives from an unapologetically brilliant mind trying to understand what it means to be human.

Amazon - SYJMF

Currently Reading: Poor Economics

Ever been carried away by a moment of compassion - struck by a plea for help from a needy organization promising to help the poor? Ever been inspired to make a difference? Most of us have. We all think about the plight of the underserved, to some degree, and it’s one of the most confounding things to consider the complexities of actually making an impact. We all hear stories (many spoken about in this blog) of good intentions gone horribly awry. And then there are the theories, about whether or not giving - or aid - even helps the poor. Fortunately, there is a light in the darkness of speculation. Esther Duflo and A. Banerjee have found a way to extract solid data from hundreds of studies - showing us the truth about what can actually help people. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in changing the world.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of Poverty on Amazon


Currently Reading: Willpower


A book that draws on solid recent science on goal setting and accomplishment. Full of techniques to establish the right habits, it shows willpower is a muscle, and flexing it gets easier: you’ll need less conscious mental energy to avoid temptation. That’s neither magic nor empty self-help sloganeering, but rather a solid path to a better life. Hardcover, awesome.

Amazon - Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest-Human Strength


Supporting Entrepreneurship Vs. Giving it Away

Do you have an opinion on how you should spend your dollars to make a difference? There’s a debate raging on how to do it effectively, and It’s a shouting match with a lot of emotional players. Get in on the action below.

One side: Entrepreneurship is the poverty cure

Poverty Cure is working on promoting a new model fo aid distribution which falls very well in line with the social entrepreneurship movement and microfinance. It’s a clean, bold video. Primary criticism: Not everyone is born to be an entrepreneur. Also local businesses can’t touch bigger public health problems (and often exacerbate them).

Another side: Giving it away is good

Toms has made its rounds recently as a business model with teeth and impact, distributing over 1 million pairs of shoes to developing countries. Primary criticism:Lack of sustainability and destruction of local markets. You can imagine how local cobblers (or the shoe manufacturers in the previous video) might feel about the free shoe drops destroying local demand for their products.

The third side: DATA should help us make decisions.

A lot of this is conjecture and really really hard to scientifically test. One of my heroes, Esther Duflo of MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, has what I feel is a reasonable answer to this question while framing the debate in a smart and concise way. Just so you know - this is a talk and not a promo, but watch it.

(Click play, then click the timestamp 56:56 to find the video.)

Backed up here in an amazing book: Poor Economics

(Backed up here: http://www.povertyactionlab.org/publication/the-price-is-wrong)

Apphilanthropy: iPhones for the Poor

It’s impossible for me to deny that the iPhone has improved my life.

It’s shiny and helpful. Since I purchased my first one a few years ago I have learned to love it, from eliminating the need for a music player to giving me seamless email and calendar management, a networked camera and a bajillion apps, it’s done great and useful things for me. I am looking forward to the next one, because I keep breaking mine.

I’m miraculously on what is my 5th iPhone, after dropping, losing and crushing several different 3G’s. The last time my phone did a faceplant and splintered the touchscreen into several hundred fragments, I was just about to go on a trip to Cambodia, where I have worked for a number of years with poor farmers.

Rather than getting the screen replaced in San Francisco (which would have cost over $100), I decided to wait, and while I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and ended up getting the whole thing refurbished for $35 bucks, back to front. The kid that fixed my phone knew exactly what he was doing, had access to every spare part he needed, and knew more about recent IOS versions than your average hacker in California. My phone was basically brand new.

This kid, along with all of his friends, were more excited about iPhones than any Mac fanboy. Even old original iPhone 1G’s were in substantial demand, after being carried over on the black market and sold at a ridiculous markup. Several friends in-country have asked me to traffic phones back to Asia for them, since they’re comparably so cheap in the US. I find that weird because they’re manufactured in China, which is basically right there.

Apple gets some flack for not doing much as a company to actually help solve any problems outside of the developed world. If anything, people say they do the opposite. IPhones parts are made from Coltan sourced from conflict areas in Western Africa. Manufacturing conditions in their Shenzhen factory have been called poor and worker suicide is a problem.

I live in San Francisco and work in the world of Social Ventures, where everyone seems to think that considerations about the supply-chain of your product can actually improve its consumer appeal, and bottom-line. I think that’s generally true for undistinguished products, but in Apple’s case, they really don’t have any reason to care since they basically own every market they’re in.

I actually think this is okay, or at lease forgivable. I mean, they have kick-ass products, and I understand that quality comes with cost. Like I said, I love my iPhone. And so does everyone else.

So, through sheer awesomeness I think we need to recognize how much potential their product and approaches have to change the world. This is where I think Apple should do some stuff that is innovative, unexpected and potentially profoundly good for its bottom-line.

Get Apple’s older-generation iPhones distributed for cheap throughout the developing world, and do so as a tax write-off. Don’t give them away, but get them to a point of reasonable affordability. This will likely involve getting refurbished inventory out the door and into the hands of third-party vendors in developing countries. You may need to crank out a cheaper version of the iPhone or reinstate the first generation. I know the handsets are expensive, but with economies of scale and existing refurbished inventory you could get your price point down to a reasonable level. Regardless of how, airlifting iPhones into developing countries by the truckload is a really good idea. Why? Because it could do far more than one would expect. 

First of all: it’s a massive business opportunity. Just as apple was a loss-leader in education in the US at first, it became the dominant educational brand by introducing computing to classrooms early on. If such a program existed internationally, iPhones would be the first real computer to touch the hands of millions of kids in the developing world. That is seeding demand and growth opportunities in a very real and tangible way.

Second of all: it could change the way people deal with poverty. The innovations behind the iPhone’s hardware have been substantial for sure, but the most remarkable thing about it is the problem-solving ecosystem that Steve has created around its software. The App Store itself may be one of the most successful entrepreneurial engines we have ever seen. The barrier to entry is relatively low, and the payouts are potentially huge for individual developers. Apple could have never designed and created its most successful apps in-house. Why? Because it’s impossible for a company to see every possible use of its product. Similarly, as outsiders interested in solving problems throughout the developing world, we cannot legitimately expect the UN or World Bank to externally create a solution to combat poverty from a think-tank in DC or NY. These things rarely happen from the top-down.

What we need is the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the App Store coupled with the tiny supercomputers called iPhones in the hands of precocious young minds in the developing world. With the right distribution and resources you could find people using the same tools to build educational products and solid development solutions from the bottom-up. What we need is an App Store to fight poverty.

People have often asked me my opinion on how long it takes for people to escape poverty. My answer has consistently been that it only takes one generation with the right conditions. How is that possible?

Poverty is circumstantial and crippling, but providing opportunity to a child and feeding their hungry mind early can completely change that trajectory.

You ever give a touchscreen smartphone to your little niece or nephew to play with, you’ll see how quickly obsessed they become with the device. If it’s game playing or photo taking or just swishing from screen to screen, they know this crazy little piece of glass in their hands is worthy of their obsession. Any kid in the developing world has the exact same experience. They want to figure it out. 

The difference between developed and developing worlds is that kids here are taught to think that it’s not that amazing and quickly move on. In the developing world that magic little portal does not cease to be magic. They are usually the most powerful computers the kids have ever touched, and are a gateway to a complex and amazing universe we take for granted. With the right support, that nugget of innate interest will often bloom into a full-fledged educational thread, which may include engineering, computer science, and any other number of applied skills as they try to figure out how that little device works.

These kids are often budding entrepreneurs, thinkers and problem solvers. With a tool like an iPhone (or an Android-powered smartphone for that matter), intermittent access to the web and a little training, could develop applications to solve problems in their communities which we would never expect.  One of my favorite blogs, Afrigadget illustrates some of this innate ingenuity in a tremendous way, sans advanced technology.

Currently nonprofits, NGO’s and other institutions try to engineer solutions to poverty-related problems from the outside-in. No one knows how to solve local problems better than local entrepreneurs, as long as they have the tools to do so. The iPhone could be that tool.

A note on boredom: I remember the first time I found myself in front of a computer as a bored kid. Between word processors, bad games and navigating DOS, I became a obsessed enough to code my own text games in the simple programming language Basic, which eventually led me into the world of web technology, which is one of the most valuable skill sets i’ve ever learned. That was with a very crappy old computer, in my spare time to combat boredom. That computer now fits in my pocket and is thousands of times more engaging and powerful. I know many entrepreneurs with similar stories: When it comes down to it, time boredom and opportunity for discovery is a potent mixture for unlocking potential.

At a recent local hackathon in Estonia, a bunch of kids put together an application called Bribespot, which is a smartphone app allowing you to anonymously report bribes and corruption nearby. As these devices begin to permeate the developing world, these kinds of applications could help solve some of the more tenacious and intractable problems of our times.

I’m not suggesting we forgo traditional humanitarian initiatives and exchange mosquito bednets for iPhones. Nor am I suggesting that air-dropping smartphones into Africa would somehow bring about a panacea of poverty elimination. However, I do think that significantly increasing local access to this technology could be a game-changing accelerator to growth, and might actually deliver on the real promise of Nicholas Negroponte’s over-designed vision of One Laptop Per Child.

I’m not so naive as to think that IOS and Apple are not the most likely candidate to enter this market. Android operating system is growing far faster internationally and their handsets tend to be much cheaper than iPhones. The Android marketplace is still relatively fragmented and messy, which is why having Apple’s attention focused on this space as a potential market would be enormous for application developers, even as a side-project.

some iphones, please.

But think about it. The vacum of education that exists for kids throughout the developing world is possibly of the largest pools of untapped potential we have. Without needing to change educational institutions in governments, simply by providing access to incredible little computers and some tools for self-learning, we could unlock an alternate educational system focused on auto-didacticism and indigenous problem solving.

Steve Jobs created something amazing and built one of the most important devices we have. Apple has an opportunity to give back far more than shareholder profit, and extend Steve’s legacy to the rest of humanity. Apple might hear the echoes of Steve in staying foolish and consider doing something brash that just might change the world. I suspect a few million hungry minds would thank them for it.

When the Charity Machine is Built to Break

If you haven’t heard or read anything about this in recent days, there is a rumble that has been echoing about the social sector that began this weekend. That one book, Three Cups of Tea, which has been an amazing best-seller for a number of years, about that guy named Greg Mortenson who has been trundling around Pakistan and Afghanistan building schools for the last 15 years, has been the subject of a 60 minutes expose’. The ruckus is the sound of a hero and icon crashing to earth. 

Let me summarize the findings on Sixty Minutes:

*Also, that Mr. Mortenson has made a good deal of money from this stuff, and does poor and unexplained accounting of his programs and finances.

For many reasons, this is an enormous deal for the whole charitable sector. Greg was considered to be one of the best examples of a nonprofit with a great story and enormous policy impact. Obama gave a big chunk of his Nobel prize to his organization (the Central Asian Institute), and Mr. Mortenson’s book is required reading for service members in Afghanistan. To effectively get to that level of notoriety and influence is no small accomplishment, particularly while running a moderately unprofessional development operation. But this is the power of the story, one which is so compelling we really want it to be true. Lets consider the impact of the story itself.

If we were to look at the raw data on his organization’s programs at the Central Asian Institute (if the data existed or was ever actually tracked/monitored) we’d likely find a moderate rate of failure of his schools and other projects, which is somewhat common - though rarely mentioned - in development projects. The truth is a lot of these things fail, or barely succeed, regularly.

Based on our hypothetical data, lets tally up.

  • Impact of Greg Mortenson’s Story = Unquestionably Large.
  • Impact of CAI = Questionably Small.

However, I think that this ‘scandal’ illustrates a much larger dynamic that is in play in charity / nonprofit work.

  1. Donors are in charge of funding projects.
  2. Donors are usually poorly educated on how to make a difference with their dollars.
  3. Donors rely on stories to make inspired decisions when giving.
  4. Inspired stories are not the same as organizations that change lives.

This is about is donor behavior, and the truth is that stories motivate action very well and data on impact is pretty boring.

This is the reality of the social sector: We want to believe in heroes. We want compelling stories to attach our ideals to. We use them as vessels to project moral context upon the world. This does not make them any better at doing actual fieldwork on a large scale. That work is hard. It requires data, foresight, and tremendous diligence. It does not lend itself to fundraising or even storytelling very well. That is the larger problem with the way we do business in this sector: “success” is rarely complete success, regardless of how much we want it to be.

For the record: Greg Mortenson’s books are factually incorrect. That is wrong. Based on the hyperbole around his life it’s likely that his charity has not done a very good job at administering its projects. He should have done far better, and not let his personal star shine above his organization’s accomplishments. NGO’s and nonprofits as a whole should do better. But we need something more, because it’s not simply about the principles, it’s about how the machine is built to break.

A Better Way

We are missing a good system for distributing funds to good projects. The charitable sector is the only industry in which we pay upfront for services and accomplishments that we never ask to see. This can be done better - much better.

I propose a system of funding programs that focuses on results. Forget administration ratios. Forget more IRS reporting and regulation. Instead, build a cash-on-delivery method of “see your success”. Establish guidelines for evaluation up-front, agreed upon by the organization and the donor. Pay out operating costs. Track benchmarks over time, then pay out a bounty for success of 25% or more depending on what metrics were agreed upon. The result will be actual data, and an incentive for the organization to perform.

This model may be for foundations as I am describing it, but individual donors should have buy-in as well. Considering the uproar over Three Cups of Tea, I think there’s a market opportunity for adoption.

Our desire to make a difference is one of the noblest things about being who we are. Giving is a fantastic impulse, and if done well can actually make a significant impact on people’s lives. Considering how smart we are, I think we can agree that our good intentions deserve better systems.

Japan: Our impulse to help vs. How we can actually help

We’ve all felt compelled to do something about the horrors unfolding in Japan. This is by far the worst disaster in the modern history of the country, and it’s difficult to not feel moved by the tragic images of destruction and human suffering.

As you’ve likely heard, Japan is probably the best equipped nation in the world to deal with this disaster. It is amazing to think that the size of the disaster has been larger the government’s capacity to deal with the crisis completely, but that is the nature of a tsunami generated by a 9.0 quake (the fifth most powerful ever recorded on earth). Don’t forget, however that Japan still has a very effective centralized system for a coordinated response: distributing aid and providing the services necessary to take care of its displaced population. The channels are still in place, and any aid organization that isn’t yet established on the ground trying to help has the potential to duplicate efforts.

There are a few basic things we should remember when we consider our response:

When you give to disasters, do not expect to know how your money is being spent. Focus instead on giving to highly reputable organizations with the following:

1. A track record of working in the country.

2. A track record of dealing with disasters.

Disasters often become a proxy for our realization that there is tremendous suffering in the world. The reality is that there is always tremendous need, and the organizations that are best equipped to deal with disasters usually already have established programs that have been funded partially by the flood of disaster giving in the past. Unrestricted giving to reputable organizations is the best way to ensure that disasters as a whole are managed properly when they occur. I’ll post some links to organizations that are doing this well shortly.

If you’re interested in actually having an impact that you can track and understand with photos and pictures, consider giving to an organization that is working on non-disaster related development interventions elsewhere, with a much longer window of opportunity. Disaster giving is notoriously ineffective when it goes to the wrong organizations. Ensure that your dollars are making an impact by giving to the right ones.

Money for Good

It’s nice when you’re introduced to great research that backs up your ideas.

There is a report by Hope Consulting which recently came out that sheds a tremendous amount of light on the relationship between Nonprofits and their donors. It’s called Money For Good and basically illuminates the market opportunity that exists through better management of expectations and giving donors the data they are interested in. We’ve been researching this for the last year and found almost the exact same thing.

Their estimate on the market opportunity: $45 Billion Dollars

Check it out

How Competition Breaks Nonprofits

Should nonprofits compete with each other?

A lot of people believe that nonprofits should behave more like businesses by competing to provide the best services. The theory being that since active competition between businesses lowers prices and improves distribution of services for consumers, the same thing should be said for nonprofits. Oddly enough, in the nonprofit space the same competition can have a nasty inverse effect.

Let me provide an example: A few years ago in Cambodia we were working with several local nonprofits to distribute Bio-Sand water filters to a large population of villagers who had opted-in to our program. We were trying to figure out who we could properly source filters from within the area, and began doing research on who might be the best fit. We weren’t the end-point consumer (the villagers), so we had to make a decision on their behalf based on who could produce the best filters locally. There were two organizations who were trying to sell roughly the same filter with the same program mission. Both were funded by separate Rotary Club grants and both had subsidized production down to nearly the same price-point.

They did not work together, despite the fact that one of them had great water testing facilities and the other had great production capacity. Between them, they would have made a great filter accessible to everyone in the region. Instead, there was a pride issue around who was really making the best filters, and for a long time they refused to collaborate. Since their funding sources were not market-based (demand was not a factor in production), the result was that there were two poor product offerings: one org that had well-tested water filters but few available, and the other org that had high volume but minimal testing. They were competing in a vacuum with no market to build on, despite being funded by the same institution. The net result was that it was costing both organizations more money to distribute a worse product, and everyone was suffering.

This dynamic plays out all the time, and is somewhat counter-intuitive. Since the nonprofit world is extremely fragmented, competition would seem to be a good thing (many players competing to deliver the best services). Unfortunately since the results of programs are not market-based, stagnation and ego-driven battles can ruin an otherwise great service delivery.

I believe it can be avoided if people are competing for the right things. Peer competition can be a great motivator, but it needs to be managed properly. Look at the X-Prize and the way that spurs innovation. I believe the same can happen with collaboration. A few donors should get together and make a regional C-Prize for collaboration by sector - a Competition for Collaboration. Nonprofits compete in teams against other regions for the most impact through collaborative delivery of services around a particular program. The winning region’s collective programs would be funded by the prize.

I believe the net result in efficiency would be enormous, not just for the winning team, but for all the participating teams that decided to tear down walls and work together towards their collective missions of competing to improve the world. As a donor, that would be major bang for your buck.