Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Zeitgeist of the Universe (and the SROI application)

I'll admit -- I was taken with the blog post title "I will blow your mind in 17 minutes." Its hard to ignore, especially when it comes from my collection of major dorky but all favorite social innovation blogs. Beyond wowing my technology mind, and more importantly tingling that hard to touch sense that lies between the cerebral and the spiritual, I found myself obsessing about the technology that surfaces, as I see it, the "zeitgeist of the universe."

For those without the 17 minutes to spare, I'll give you the quick and dirty such that I can connect it to my thoughts on SROI. Humans around the planet are using social media and social networking tools (flickr, youtube, blogs) as a form of self-expression and individual story telling. Jonathan Harris (and I'm assuming some other cool folks) are building software that collects thoughts and images and aggregates them for a variety of purposes).

"We Feel Fine," for example, is a program that searches text in the digital expression universe for the phrase "I feel..." The software collects that full sentence, determines what it can from the demographic of the user (male/female/age...), pinpoints the location of the user (geographic), the time of the post, the WEATHER at the time of the post... etc. You can see the aggregation of this data in a number of different forms -- a "cloud" of feelings rushing through the universe... feelings depicted in weather icons (sun, rain, snow, clouds)... feelings by geographic location. You're able to see what feelings are in abnormally high proportion, e.g. at a given snap shot people were feeling "used" 3.3 times more than any other feeling.

In short, users can tap into the soul and well being of planet earth.

What are the applications of this technology? Well, like the creator, we could transmit it, via binary code and super duper spotlights into the universe. Slightly less spiritually (though Contact is one of my all time favorite books/movies), I think there is somehow a potential application for measuring social return on investment (SROI).

SROI is all too regularly snubbed pie-in-the-sky measurement in my world (i.e. the nonprofit world). There is often the gross generalization made that social investments are not efficient simply because they can't be measured (if a tree falls...) The comparison is obviously the efficiency gained by a bottom line measure in the private sector. Its not that we can't measure outputs and outcomes of nonprofit work; its that (1) most outputs and outcomes vary by sector and program, and (2) outputs and outcomes rarely get at the uber question -- has the life for the beneficiary improved? And the problem in getting at that question is this: there is a power dynamic between funder, grantee, and beneficiary that predisposes us to distrusting any collection mechanism that would collect and aggregate that data.

Now... imagine if quality of life for a group of people could be measured by aggregating individual self expression inputted via social media tools? There are, any number of "practical" reasons this wouldn't work, e.g the targeted beneficiaries are often the most poor without access to digital media tools. However, wouldn't it be fun to ask, a la my favorite strategist, how this could work, rather than state why it won't?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I'm a rather lame blogger -- as this post is about the YouTube/ CNN debates that took place TWO whole days ago. Things are humming at the Maine Women's Fund and it took me two nights to watch the recorded program (love my dvr....) However, I liked it, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

1. I felt involved. I felt like there had been a paricipatory process in which citizen voices were heard. It made me feel good about the democratic process and it made ME want to participate. This is a slightly huge landslide, as while I consider myself a civic activist, I carry out my activism more often in venues other than the political one, e.g. through my consumerism, blogging, and professional life. So while I didn't post a question, (and in all honestly didn't even know about it until I read the newspaper Monday morning), I felt like I could have been involved.

2. To some extent, it demonstrated that Americans can be something other than a herd of sheep (Scott often says I'm too harsh... whatever could he mean). Rather than taking lip service from the candidates and than being moved out to vote, Americans actually put forth the questions and shaped the conversation (albeit with some intrusion from the CNN production team.) They had to be active, responsible, and take some initiative. Now, I really like that.

3. Though... only 3000 submissions were recorded, which seems like a relative few. Definitely few compared to the YouTube community. Perhaps if I hung out on You Tube a bit more, I might have actually known about it -- but I didn't. Poor marketing? Or intentional (sorting down from 3000 to 39 must have been a tough job...)?

4. Not shocking -- I don't like candidates who skirt around a question, rephrase a question, or ignore it completely. I liked the accountability of specific vloggers in the community who Anderson would occassionally call on with a "did the candidate answer the question?" I like that.

5. I think all the candidates suck when it comes to the gay marriage question. "Senator Obama, not too long ago, interracial marriages were illegal, would you not support gay marriage based on similar discrimination?" (goooooo Anderson!!!!!) "I believe that civil unions provide all of the same benefits as marriage, but we should keep marriage a separate institution between a man and a woman." Is a black candidate SERIOUSLY argueing for separate but equal in a political campaign?

Those are all my rants not specific to individual candidates. Would love to hear others perspectives on the debates.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A article in the Portland Press Herald caught my attention a few weeks back:

Youth Alternatives and Ingraham, two social services here in Maine, have agreed to merge.

As a nonprofit-innovation-phile, I'm generally interested in nonprofit mergers, since a the sector is growing rapidly and has failed to fully recognize the value of an ecosystem (i.e. most nonprofits will expand their missions to cover new program areas rather than adequately partner with others already providing those same programs). I'm interested because despite the above failure of the nonprofit sector, I'm not convinced mergers are the answers. Here's why.

Firstly, I have yet see true value generated -- either value for the beneficiaries or real value for organizations. Blame it on the Portland Press Herald, but I don't see the increased value in the merger. The two organizations merged under the auspices of reducing operating costs and expanding services. However, both organizations are maintaining their base of operations, combining staff, and maintaining the current scope of programs and services. They will be laying off 4-5 people, but maintaining their combined budget of roughly $4 million. Any money saved by combining operations will be directed into program costs, but with the facts I have -- even if calculating potential unreported redundant costs in administrative and financing -- the "money saved" on an annual basis will most likely be less than 3% of total costs, and certainly less than the legal fees associated with the merger itself.

This could simply be the limited information presented in the press release -- but I recently picked up the Summer edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review which reviews "the merger proposal," cases for and against nonprofit mergers. I was struck that of the example given to support nonprofit mergers, the primary return on the merger was a 20% increase in assets the first year, which has not grown since. That is, the two organizations increased their combined annual fundraising budget from $2.4 to $2.9 where it has remained the last few years.

Furthermore, I'm intrigued that I've yet to see a case demonstrating how nonprofit mergers improve and expand services for beneficiaries. Perhaps the one value of small nonprofits is the power to touch individual lives. I'm not saying larger organizations can't do this -- but (1) no evidence has ever been made to indicate that they can and can do it better -- which ultimately should be the value proposition of the merger, and (2) our experience with other behemoths is that they can't -- the value of a clinic over a hospital, the intimacy of your personal physician compared to an HMO.

And finally... I doubt mergers solve for what's really gnawing in people's craw. I know in Maine, the philanthropic sector is calling for mergers because the sector is growing faster than many other sectors. It employs 12% of the population and contributes $43,000,000 million to the economy. The government is simultaneously shrinking its support of many direct service organizations and the philanthropies are suddenly being asked to fund (and perhaps being criticized for not funding) direct service and municipal projects (which is apparently beneath their strategic focus).

Across the world, the sector is growing rapidly, and the services (particularly the financial services) supporting the sector isn't growing or innovating. This isn't a new topic at all -- many have been talking and writing about it for almost a decade now. And there are the few innovative folks who are actually doing something about.

But its far too early to either shut down or consolidate this growth. I found it slightly ironic that those arguing for mergers do so under the auspices of increased application of business principles to the nonprofit sector. And those same people are the very people who should understand that the growth brings innovation and that innovation is good. Our problem is not the need to consolidate. Our problem is information and resource flows and the failure of nonprofits to "destruct" in the process of "creative destructive." In the private sector, capital will not flow to the services/products left behind by innovation. People will not buy them and investment firms will not invest in them.

Information and resources do not flow the same way in the nonprofit sector, and this is the problem that needs addressing.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

WYSIWYG Love Fest...

Yeah -- so this isn't really a commentary on WYSIWYG. I was just trying not to use "autheniticity" for the 1 millionth time on this blog. A few interesting posts relevant to authenticity and nonprofits in the blogosphere today.

Katya's blog gives a brief (and slightly unhelpful) introduction to authenticity in nonprofit marketing. On the uptake, it does direct us to Mark posting a Authenticity Carnival on Sea Change Strategies. The carnival actually provides some great example of how to be truly authentic and some good links to other blogs. And Mark also directs us to the May cover story from Fast Company on the challenges and benefits an authentic. All in all good reading for your lunch time festivities.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Texting 4673. Calling for hope. Calling for Gore.

Dana alerts me that an interview in Fast Company indicates that Al Gore is pretty convinced that he's not even thinking of running for President. I haven't seen the article and immediately txt Scott to see whether or not we've recieved this particular edition. In doing so, I realize that the number for texting Gore -- 4673 -- are the same numbers for texting hope. Sigh. It's a sign, obviously.

"We Need Al Gore."

Great post by James Boyce in the Huffington Post which sums up why I am in the Gore camp and would not only donate and vote, I'd also campaign (which is saying a lot for this non-political-activist.) I've pulled out a few of my favorite points.

"Hell, how about a campaign that isn't run by, for and about Washington and instead have one that is by, for and about the people? Paging Al Gore."

"We also need a Democratic candidate who publicly and loudly called the Iraq War a mistake right from the beginning. We need a candidate who didn't vote without reading the intelligence and is now trying to correct a mistake."

"We need a Democratic candidate who understands how the issue of climate change is impacting our world from a security standpoint, from a poverty and education point, we need someone who can use signing statements for someone other than torture. Al Gore springs to mind."

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I recently moved to "the Hill" -- the eastern side of the Portland peninsula which provides amazing access to Casco Bay (George has been swimming ever night, and has since learned to swim as well as to fetch and retrieve). Even on its hottest days, which really only max out at 80, there are strong cold sea breezes that waft through my apartment with the overly addictive smell of sea air. It's lovely.

And in this environment, I have finally found my will to read for pleasure again -- starting off with a Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. This is Hosseini's second book following the much celebrated Kite Runner. A few things struck me which I thought I would share.

His happy endings. I'm not really giving anything away here. Both books really dive into the depths of human suffering -- describing circumstances that kicks the reader in the stomach, and leave you grasping for air. Most of us know only too well that the circumstances aren't fantastical, but a stark reality for so many. But I'm struck that both books don't leave you in a pit of despair -- they bring you back to the surface for air and hope.

Interconnectedness (my favorite theme). Related to his happy endings, its clear to say that its not a happy ending for everyone. Only a chosen few, who's happy conclusion comes at the expense of so many others. Hosseini is subtle about the chosen few's gratefulness and recognition of this, which for me is a celebration of the interconnectedness of people and communities. I loved that.

A women's perspective. Anyone out there read She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb? I remember myself, and the cadre of regulars at Emerson Book being so surprised that a man could so well know what it is like to be a 13 year old girl. I think I was 13 at the time, which made his cognition seem so miraculous. But others too were struck by it. Hosseini tells his story through two women, and while I don't know if the experience of being an Afghani woman is accurate, he captured dynamics between mothers and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends and wives that are all too familiar for me. I was as impressed by his omniscience as I was by Wally Lamb.

June, 2001. At some point in the book you realize that its June 2001. That September 2001 and the US's invasion of Afghanistan are not far away, and the subtle reference made me want to cry with relief. Shocking -- as I have never considered myself a supporter of the current US foreign policy and its war on terror. But the switch was made in my mind that the US probably did more good than harm in Afghanistan that year. I still, however, don't think the same is true for Iraq.