Monday, December 18, 2006

Porcine excess

So this is the article that started it all. I read it in the Washington Post over 2 years ago, and I was entranced by the idea of being able to roast a whole pig. Maybe it was because I knew Pam, the butcher at Brookville Market, and I thought she was an awesome professional--just like the kind of butchers I'd grown up with in Italy and in Japan who knew just about everything about meat, except she was a woman! Or maybe it's because my Japanese upbringing will out and although as a culture we're obsessed with food and plenty, most of us don't have the type of room to actually be able to roast a pig in its entirety--and that just really made it exotic for me (while those of you who grew up with pig roasts here in the US think nothing of it except that you have to get up at hte crack of dawn to do it.)

In any event it stayed with me for 30 months until Dennis's brother Dan asked me what could we do differently this Thanksgiving, and I blurted out, "cook a Cuban pig in a Chinese box." So Dan drove up a 60lb pig from Carrboro NC, and Jane was an amazingly good sport about it all in spite of being a vegetarian, and we set to work assembling the Chinese box, injecting the Mojo Criollo into the pig, and resisting the urge to open the box for 3 straight hours while the magic box did its pressure cooker imitation. (The metal lined box holds the pig and all the steam inside, while the heat is applied from the top of the box.) And sure enough, 4 hours later, we had a fuly roasted pig.

I don't know if other cooks feel this way, but I love the transformation that cooking involves. I also love the things that go into cooking--the rich smells, the textures, and the freshness of stuff--but I love the fact that in many ways cooking is like a perfect black box; inputs go in, outputs come out, and what happens in between is something that the cook needs to be able to visualize and imagine and predict. In my best cooking moments, I can feel and imagine the ingredients transforming under the heat or the pressure or the chemical reaction, and I know exactly when things have to be taken out of the oven or tastes have to be corrected. This wasn't quite there--we didn't fix the pig right in its little holder, and we forgot to add another batch of coals at 2hr 30min as the instructions did say, upon closer reading--but it was quite the tour de force anyway.

So two tips for other Caja China rookies:
  1. Coals need augmenting at 60mins, at 120 mins, and at 150 mins before you can open the oven at 180mins. We missed the 150 mins mark, and I noticed the external temperature of the coals had dropped by the time we opened the box at 180 mins. If we had remembered the 150 in fillip, I think the pig would have roasted in 3hr 30 mins as advertised. As it was we were done in 4hrs.
  2. The Caja China comes with 2 wire racks that you fix on the outside of the pig by way of 4 s-hooks, and the wire racks have little legs. In our haste we faced the legs into the pig instead of out, which made it harder to actually latch the s-hooks on, but more importantly, it meant the pig didn't sit above the metal floor of the box, so that parts of skin on the bottom got soggy rather than dried out, and didn't get perfectly crisp after it was turned to the heat source in the last 30 mins. Legs out.
Can't wait to try it again, though. Dan, I hope you're bottle feeding the next Thanksgiving piglet.

And in late breaking news (well, not so timely, but I just found it), here's the article that should cap this experience--the Piggy Confessional.

Why I blog

I hadn't quite realized it's been over 45 days since I last blogged about anything ... but it's time to get back. And if nothing else the hiatus has helped me figure out why I blog.

In no particular order:
  • I blog because it reminds me of a time when I was in junior high, and my best friend was in 6th grade. We didn't get to spend any time together at school even though our school was K-12, so the only time we got to spend with each other was on the long train rides back to each of our homes). So to make up for it we kept an "exchange diary," (trust Wikipedia to have a reference for an obscure Japanese custom common among high school girls), and writing my blog feels like keeping an exchange diary, except with all my friends
  • So fundamentally I think of my blog as a relatively public journal. And as such, I like to write about all sorts of different things that shape my view of life, rather than going narrow and deep about one particular thing, even if that thing is as important as GlobalGiving.
  • This is in contrast to other people like Elisa Camahort, whom I admire greatly, and currently maintains, at her count, 8 blogs. I had the privilege of meeting her in person last week, and asked her how she did it, and understood more clearly that Elisa's audience is segmented into different elements of who she is and what she does and is a maven about so she actually feels responsible to keep her blogs on topic, as it were. This is why I'm not a professional writer, much less a professional blogger, like she is. I'm in awe.
  • And because I'm an amateur, I do stupid things like set my blog comments to be moderated (because I had been warned about spammers), and not realize that the moderation requests are going to an email address I had set up solely for the purpose of setting up a Google account and which I do not check at all. So Tim, Elisa, Daniel, and Beth--public apologies for letting your comments lie fallow for so long. And here I was thinking nobody read my blog anyway ...
And one more thing. Because this blog is really about my life, but the part of my life that I am willing to show anyone in the world, it's not deeply personal in that it doesn't expose anything about anyone else that they would not make public themselves, or about anything I wouldn't mind some stranger coming up to me and talking to me about. Which means that sometimes things or events dominate my life that I don't really care to blog about, which relegates blogging to 10th or 12th place in my life. But then time passes and you have to blog again, just because it's fun to share your thoughts.

Motome, are you reading this?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Eli goodbye

I will not see another pomegranate again without thinking of Eli and her great pomegranate cook-off. To me the event epitomized so many things about her, starting with:
  • Take-no-prisoners approach to competition. As I mentioned, this was a friendly cookoff with friends. But she planned and strategized for this like Hannibal plotting his course over the Pyrenees.
  • Her love of food. This came up again in my last trip with Eli to California, when we went to a vegan restaurant for lunch. As we drove away from that meal I started musing about how much healthier a vegan lifestyle was ... and she interrupted me with a very serious, "But Mari--we're foodies. Who are we kidding? We come across the best ever cheeseburger, we're gonna HAVE that cheeseburger." Touche, Eli. And the care with which she constructed the pomegranate dinner menu was proof of that--she was as obsessive about food quality as she is about the quality of projects on GlobalGiving.
  • Her love of people and ability to create communities. This cookoff was a long-standing competition she had had with friends, and she and her friends had managed to create a tradition out of it and kept to it in spite of busy schedules and changing lives. She's done the same in the supply fortress at GlobalGiving. It's always been one of the things I have most admired about Eli.
So as you can see, all of these things will stand Eli in great stead as she makes your migration north. Portland IS the next San Francisco as foodie haven, and being able to scale the Pyrenees will be a great asset in the Western mountains of Maine. And the Maine Womens' Foundation will be an incredible beneficiary of Eli's ability to create communities around her wherever she goes.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Gender and Prominence

Two things came together for me several weeks ago about gender and prominence.

One, I got asked by a former intern who is a grad student at University of Michigan if I could recommend a speaker on international development to him. He and his colleagues had already lined up Joseph Stiglitz, Guy Pfefferman, Allan Meltzer, and Stan Fischer--and he wanted my help in rounding out the group with someone with a critical view of the international financial institutions, preferably a woman. And even though the students had managed to line up a male foursome--an impressive male foursome at that--I had a hard time coming up with more than two. Nancy Birdsall and Jessica Einhorn were the only women I could come up with who had the kind of stature I felt the other panel members had. And as I thought about it, it bothered me that I could think of other possible panelists, but they were all male.

The Slate article also asked "Why aren't there more female CEOs?" a couple of days after my intern's query, and just yesterday, the New York Times covered the dearth of female bosses. The articles do a much better job of exploring the whys and wheretofores than I can, but it's a lot more disquieting to be asked to come up with options yourself, and discover that you can't do it. That's when you can't just blame the board members of the companies for not being imaginative or inclusive enough. Damn, damn, damn ...

P.S. I suggested both Nancy and Jessica to my intern, and added Manish Bapna to the list feeling that I wasn't giving him enough wiggle room given that people's schedules are so booked. After all, I was as interested in injecting more diversity--any dimension of diversity!--into his august panel as he was.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Update from the Olympic Village

So we have a little more than 24 hours left in the GlobalGiving Olympics, which has been going on now for close to 3 weeks. We were fortunate enough to have an anonymous funder put up prize money of up to $75,000 for this event, where $50,000 will be given to the project leader on our site who raises the most money, and $25,000 will be awarded to the country "team" that raises the highest amounts of money in the aggregate. As you can see, India is leading, followed by Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia, and the West Bank/Gaza.

We wondered when the Olympics opened whether this type of competition might favor the largest countries, but also noted that the largest countries have the largest splits (e.g., India will have to split their country prize 55 ways, whereas if Pakistan wins, their split is 18 ways).

And as we near the finish line, we've seen that the projects that have most actively competed for the prize have come from all over the world:

And there are more. Now that we're nearing the finish line, if you have favorite projects on GlobalGiving, check them out before 11:59pm October 31st to see whether you can put them over the line.

Monday, October 09, 2006


This is a post that I'm very sad to be writing, since as people may know, the whole thrust of my blog hearkens back to the unbearable sense of optimism I had working in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Something in the air in Russia in those days just fit me like a glove, and I've called my blog The Beginning of Spring in honor both of one of my favorite writers, Penelope Fitzgerald, and that feeling in the air.

This post is about the curtain coming down again. And I don't mean the geopolitical iron curtain that Chuchill was talking about, although that, too, may come. I'm talking about the curtain on Russian souls.

Anna Politkovskaya was one of the bravest journalists working in Russia until this past week, when she was gunned down by someone who by all accounts carried out his job like a professional. There's a good article about the political context for her murder by Anne Applebaum in Slate, as does the New York Times.

But beyond the fact of the murder, which I'm heartbroken about because there's one less person in Russia ready to oppose the slow slide back to national self-censorship, I'm sick over the fact that only 1000 mourners showed up for her funeral, and that almost all there were middle aged or older, and that Putin and others in the government are now going around claiming that this was a provocation by ill-wishers to make the Russian government look bad. The LA Times captures it here. Most people don't even know what a loaded word "provocation" is--it probably just sounds like delusional thinking, I suspect, but it rings sadly oh so familiar to us ex-Sovietologists. This is just the kind of thing that the Soviet press told their citizens about any happening, any statement, any fact that was inconvenient and didn't fit the pre-masticated view of the world they presented to their citizens.

The sad thing is, when I was, in fact, a Sovietologist in the 80s and 90s, I thought that the Russian people just didn't have a chance to know any better, and that if they had access to real information, the Government's lies would be seen for what they are. The fact of Soviet oppression of its people was depressing then, but the even more depressing conclusion I'm coming to is that perhaps I was wrong about the people. There are a couple of sobering posts on this in Global Voices; it's not even that people are disputing who was responsible (the Chechens, the Government, various ill-wishers of Russia) but that so few people seem to be stepping back to realize that whether they agreed with Anna or not, events like this, and official reactions like this, bode well for the continued existence of an independent civil society in Russia. That the only posters who seem to realize this are expatriates is even more sobering still.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Supply side economics?

Well, the title of this post is, I admit, a bit misleading. I'm not about to start pontificating about how trickle-down theory works in a global marketplace for philanthropy.

But it's a question I have as we embark on a new initiative called the GlobalGiving Olympics for project leaders at GlobalGiving. There's a bounty prize for the project leader that raises the most money during the next 3 weeks of $50,000. There's also a $25,000 prize for the country "team" that raises the most money (to be distributed across the team), and we've already seen project leaders mobilizing their networks to have a shot at the prize. In GlobalGiving internal jargon, that's "supply" mobilizing "demand" because we believe that every project leader and organization on the site has their own networks, and the marketplace is greater than the sum of the networks. We're trying to mobilize two potentially disparate forces: the competition that every project leader is in with every other project leader on the site for every dollar given; and the fact that networks can and do add up to more than the sum of its parts.

In one model of the world, businesses agglomerate because as Willie Sutton said, "That's where the money is." Translated into the GlobalGiving context, project leaders come together on GlobalGiving because we create a place for donors to come to, and thereby create opportunities for project leaders. But in this world, it's every bank robber and project leader for herself.

In another model of the world, businesses agglomerate because they are in businesses that require specialized inputs (whether materials or labor) and either of those factors are concentrated there. Obvious examples are oil industries in the Middle East, or the financial industry in cities like London or New York (aspiring investment bankers know that's where they should go after graduation ...). We're working on creating some of those dynamics here at GlobalGiving, by bringing services and knowledge here, but I doubt we're there yet.

In yet one more model, businesses agglomerate because when they come together they are greater than the sum of their parts. This happens, for instance, when Persian rug stores locate in a certain area of town. On the one hand they are competing fiercely with each other for customers, but by locating together, they can catch customers who might not have found what they wanted in one store, and are happy to walk out and walk into the next store becuase they really want to find that one carpet that fits their living room decor. That's when one store's "pull" and their network of customers can benefit the other.

Of course, none of these models exist to the exclusion of all others. All of these factors apply at one time or another. But the results of the GlobalGiving Olympics might give us a clue as to whether the last model has any meaning in a global philanthopic marketplace.

Stay tuned.

Rock Drills and Attention Deficit Trait

I read business management articles when I can--and I came across two really good ones today. I started doing this after being shipped off to HBS for executive education against my will by my old employer, the World Bank, and I discovered that what I had held in contempt in my callow undergraduate days was actually a lot more useful and engaging than my stints at more academic graduate institutions.

Anyway, here are my two finds. The first is about rock drills, cited in a Slate article about Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial. John Dickerson cites Jay Garner going through "rock drills" ex post when trying to figure out all the things they had not foreseen when they originally invaded Iraq. And as the Stars and Stripes article explains, a rock drill is essentially a dress rehearsal carried out on a game board. And this concept was really appealing to me because I have long felt that when I have led initiatives or events or projects, the most effective ones have been the ones where I have somehow been able to structure drawing out all the different pieces coming together, and getting the team to come along on talking/walking through each of the steps, and relying on everyone in the team being able to spot the gaps or the missing assumptions. I now have a name for my favorite managerial tool (although my staff will tell you I'm actually obsessed with matrices instead.)

The second management article I came across today was on Marcia Conner's website--I was migrating my remaining blog subscriptions from Bloglines to Google Reader and I had to look up Marcia's blog address. Well, I got distracted along the way and saw her recommending an HBR article about Attention Deficit Trait--the syndrome where really high-performing people suddenly start manifesting distractibility, inner frenzy, and impatience, because they are multi-tasking too much. Feels very much on point, and the article suggests concrete ways of dealing with it.

Jay Garner

Friday, September 29, 2006

Contest over: Google Reader wins

A good friend of mine had been bugging me to recommend her the best blog reader. And I was debating for quite some time about the relative merits of Bloglines and Google Reader, and as I kept adding blogs to read I began to dislike Google Reader's lack of aggregation more and more ... The only drawback of Bloglines was that somehow they were slower in getting RSS feeds than Google.

But the contest just ended today with Google's launch of their new Reader, which does exactly what Bloglines does (aggregate). Bloglines is still visually a little cleaner than Google, but because of their lag issues, I'd now recommend going with Google ...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Creating markets and the Amazon Honor System

Tyler Cowen's post on how to make school choice work has really crystallized some thinking for me on how we run the "supply" side of our operations here at GlobalGiving. For us the "supply" side is the project side; donors demand projects, and we ensure that there's enough of a selection of projects that everyone can find what they are looking for. But the points he summarizes from Caroline Hoxby's paper:

* Supply flexibility, which means that schools should have the ability to open where there is demand for them, expand with increased demand and contract with reduced demand
* Money should follow students, which means that funding policies must be designed so that schools that are in demand have the funds to expand and those that are not in demand lose funds and must contract; and
* Independent management of schools, which means that schools must be free to innovate in a range of areas, including pedagogy, teacher pay, budget allocation, and the way the school is organised.

speak directly to my thoughts about how we structure the incentives for project leaders on GlobalGiving. It's critical that they can respond to demand--so access to good information about demand is critical--and that they can exit/enter easily. And the flexibility to expand/contract argues for certain types of projects/programs. I think on point 3 we're OK--because by definition we work with autonomous agents and have no central program of our own.

Now on a completely tangential note, I also discovered the Amazon Honor System on Tyler Cowen's blog, and from what I can make out, it's a micropayment functionality that allows producers of content to collect voluntary payments from people who produce content. I'm not even sure I grok the full implications of this, but it's fascinating (including how subtle the Amazon branding is. If I weren't such a big customer of Amazon I doubt I would have recognized the swoosh.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Aid: Can it work? (NY Review of books)

How and whence you come to something makes a huge difference on how you look at things. My co-founder Dennis and I both came to GlobalGiving from the ur-international aid bureaucracy, the World Bank, and that has colored everything, from our perpectives on impact evaluation (can of worms), our networks (we know lots of economist/public policy specialists and people at other aid agencies), to the very reason why we thought GlobalGiving was important enough to create.

And in our GlobalGiving lives, international development obsessions matter maybe about 10% of the time. But when pressed to explain how we "fit" into the ecosystem, we'll talk about what's broken about aid and how we can be part of the solution. So it was with great pleasure that I read Nicholas Kristof's great review of some of the most important recent books about international development, because it does our work for us.

And occasionally, when the international development world collides with the social enterprise world (as it will this coming fall at the Net Impact conference) it sets us up for a dilemma, because how do the positions we have staked out in international development overlay (or not) with the fault lines in social enterprise, or bottom up philanthropy, or nonprofit regulation (btw, Lincoln Caplan points out that in some cases can "escape" nonprofit regulation). Fortunately I'm not the hook to talk at Net Impact--Dennis is--so I'll leave it to him to 'rastle with that one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Promises to keep

Having now spent about 6 years immersed in the nonprofit world, I have noticed that there's quite a bit of personnel turnover in grantmaking foundations. I don't really know what's behind it, but I wonder if it is at all related to the turnover that happens in politics. Egor Gaidar was acting prime minister of Russia for a number of months in the earliest years of the Yeltsin presidency, at the very beginning of the market reforms. A real monetary and fiscal hawk, he was considered to be the best possible hope for macroeconomic stabilization of the then very fragile Russian economy. Nobody, least of all Gaidar himself, expected him to stay in office very long--after all he had been appointed acting prime minister by the president because everyone perceived him as having very little public support. So it was no suprise when Victor Chernomyrdin was appointed Prime Minister a couple of months later, but it was definitely a surprise when Gaidar himself commented that it was just as well he was leaving the post of Prime Minister, because frankly he had made many promises that he really shouldn't keep (i.e., budgetary allocations to state-owned enterprises and other interest groups), and he would be off the hook now. Even a self-described fiscal hawk found himself relieved to be leaving office so he wouldn't have to face a tradeoff between personal integrity (his word) and fiscal austerity.

So a question: do program officers at foundations ever feel like Prime Ministers in highly inflationary economies? Or do they just get worn down by a job that requires them to say no so much more often than they say yes?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Groundhog Day at Harvard

This last Tuesday, I hiked up to Cambridge to present on a panel about "Pursuing your Passions," at a workshop sponsored by a Harvard undergraduate group, The Women's Leadership Project. This undergraduate group was started in 1988, the year after I graduated from the college, but at a time when I was still at the University attending grad school. 37 extremely bright, put together, thoughtful young women, and 4 panelists, ranging from an SVP at a major financial firm, a management consultant turned professional cook and business owner, a TV producer for ABC, and me, talking about what drives us to do the things we do every day, and how we took the decisions we did that got us here. Very inspiring for me--I don't usually get to just sit down and open up about how I got to where I am, much less hear how other accomplished women made unorthodox choices that allowed them to pursue their passions.

And here's the other thing. In theory, you would imagine that I might have been one of the 37 young undergrads who applied to attend this weeklong workshop on developing leaderhip potential (let's see ... 20 years ago ... ouch), had the group existed when I was an undergrad. The truth is, I wouldn't have. At least one reason why is that I was in something of a Holden Caulfield funk through college where so many people and things struck me as being phony it was a wonder I got out of bed and went to classes. I was on the management team of the Harvard International Review because I loved to put things togeether--I was the production manager--but after holding almost every conceivable leadership position in high school I was soured on the concept of leadership by college, let alone women's leadership at the time. And in fact, I was asked very emphatically to run for the co-editor-in-chief position with David Cutler, and I got shirty and refused to run. [And I can genuinely say, that it was one of the stupider decisions I made in college, and I made many.]

So I felt particularly lucky to have the option to go to Harvard on Tuesday and participate on the panel. Life gave me a second chance to participate in the kinds of richness that I turned my nose up at when I was there as a bona fide student. I'm not sure what I did to deserve it, but I'll take any second chances I can get.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Career women and Jane Austen

The internet is abuzz about the Forbes article, "Don't Marry Career Women," just as it was when Linda Hirschmann published her article on "choice feminism" being a cul-de-sac in the real march towards gender equality last year. What both of these articles brought to the fore for me was a long standing debate that I have had with a very good friend about whether we would have been happier as characters in a Jane Austen novel, or ourselves.

Both of us are are career women, and by happenstance we were trained as Russia experts in graduate school. Today she's one of the world's authorities on private sector provision of health services, and I'm one of the co-founders of GlobalGiving. She "ran away" from small-town America, I've taken refuge in the US from familian and cultural expectations in Japan. Over many years of relishing our careers (including their unexpected turns that have taken us both far from our original focus in grad school), and puzzling over exactly how we balance our professional and personal lives, we've always used Jane Austen characters as our counterfactuals. Why? Because we both love Jane Austen, identify strongly with her heroines, and it's the easiest way for us to imagine having far less choices than we have ever had in our lives. And it has never been clear to us that we would have been actually unhappier as Jane Austen characters.

Of course, Jane Austen isn't a particularly grim writer, but the nub of our question was around choice--an issue that has been perfectly framed by Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz makes the case that too often we are made unhappy by too many choices because the more choices we have, the more we second guess any choice that we make.

But I think where I come out on this choice issue these days is not that I'd rather I was Emma rather than Mari. There are some choices that are worth having, for which I definitely have to thank women who came before me, and that is the choice to set off on your own. This is a choice men have had forever, and if we were to flip the Forbes article on its head, we'd be counseling women not to marry career men, but to go out there and find house-husbands because they appear to be less inclined to divorce. My favorite corollary to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has always been "a car of your own" if ever you decide you want to set off on your own--and you can't have a car of your own unless you can earn your own way. So yes, Michael Noer may well be right, and it's just as well.

[Sorry, Jane!]

Unintended Consequences

There are so many stories of unintended negative consequences in development, whether it's dams and resettlement, or the Green Revolution as well as stories of efforts that had no impact, that it gives me real pleasure to talk about intiatives that had unintended positive consequences. One is an old story, the other one far newer, at least to me.

The old story is about the story of Tripod and Ethan Zuckerman. Tripod, as you can read on Ethan's page, was originally intended as a edited content site but took off as a homepage site (and was eventually sold to Lycos) when Ethan and his techie team were fiddling around with a DIY homepage, made it available to the readers of their "content site" and discovered one day that they were about to exceed their bandwidth limits. When they investigated what was causing the massive traffic pileup, it turned out that far more people than they had ever expected had decided to set up their own homepages.

The new story is one that I read on a newly discovered blog of Christine Herron's. Although GlobalGiving is an investee of the Omidyar Network, I hadn't come across Christine's name until another friend started asking me advice on how to find the right people at O/net, and asked me about her. A little googling, and I found Christine's profile on O/neet, but better still her blog, and the wonderful story about Flickr. You should read more about it on Christine's blog, but in a nutshell Flickr intended to build an online multiplayer game, and the photo sharing function was just one of the tools for the game. But because they intended to be a game and based in an online community, they made a point of welcoming new people, teaching them how to navigate the site, etc. Although I still believe Flickr's tagging technology is a killer app and should be credited with their amazing popularity, I am also psyched to hear about the unintended consequence of their original intent to build an online game. And at least they got part of what they were aiming for--a real community.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Why we do projects

People ask us often why we focus on projects on GlobalGiving, instead of just letting people give to organizations, which is the traditional way that fundraising and giving is done to nonprofits worldwide. We also recognize that it can sometimes be a hassle, and there are many NGOs that don’t join our community because their strategy is to seek funding for their organization, not for discrete projects.

We insist on projects for two reasons. One, we’re asking people to consider giving beyond their boundaries—by far the majority of donations on our site involve resources being moved from one country to another. In that context, providing a clear statement of what the money will be used for is, I think, an important way for people to become comfortable about going “out of the box.” So that’s on the donor side. But even if it didn’t necessarily make people more comfortable giving beyond their boundaries, I still think it would be worth doing. And I believe it would be worth doing because at the end of the day, GlobalGiving is dedicated to increasing transparency and accountability. And although projects can strike people as being an awkward construct, in some ways (perhaps in not the most sophisticated ways) it is a way for organizations to put a stake in the ground about their own theory of change. By outlining a specific activity, they are putting the organization on the line that “this” is what they believe will make a difference, and when the funding is provided and the activities carried out, we can 1) ascertain whether the activities were carried out, yes or no; and 2) in the longer run, see if it lead to the outcomes the organization set out to affect. We’re so young we still are focused on 1—were the activities carried out, yes or no, and if not, why. And crude as that is, it DOES reflect on the organization’s and project leader’s accountability. We wouldn’t even be able to capture that measure of accountability if we didn’t insist on projects. It's not perfect, but it’s measurable. And that’s integral to the way we think of GlobalGiving.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Anita Borg, BlogHer, and mir tesen

There's a Russian saying "Mir tesen, a sloi tonkii," which roughly translates to "It's a small world," but the Russian version more subtly suggests that the world is small because the social 'layers' in which one inevitably operates in is a narrow thin one. It was always true when I was working in Russia that there were a limited number of competent public officials, and regardless of who ended up being appointed finance or economics or even Prime minister, the same public officials usually showed up in the technical slots.

Now I find it's true in my own little space of technology, social impact, and scalable solutions. Here's the story.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to serve on the jury panel for the Anita Borg Social Impact award to be given out at the Grace Hopper celebration of women in computing, coming up this October. It's the second time I've served on this jury, and it's the second time I've not subscribed to the majority view. Here'

I reviewed 12 applicants this year, and in my view it was no contest. There was no question in my mind that BlogHer was the only possible winner. I had never heard of the site until I reviewed the proposals, but it dinstinguished itself among the 10 or so other qualified applicants--all of them really fantastic women who were science or technology professionals in their own right who clearly had had to overcome obstacles to get where they are today. And they were all engaged in some sort of mentoring or other development programs for girls and young women either at school or in the workplace, and in many cases had devoted years of their life outside of work and family to make them happen. What inclined me so strongly to the BlogHer submission was that it was a radically different approach. It did not seek to create a structured program for anybody, but created an enabling environment, filled with active, passionate, intelligent women that invited women, but especially young women, to come and join them on an equal footing. It was not yet another "mentoring" project, but a platform that clearly met young people where in fact they are perceived to have an advantage (expressing themselves online) and gave them a really wide range of role models to choose from.

The fresh subversion of that approach--as well as its potential scalability and startup status--was exactly what I thought should be encouraged. In other words, from all I had heard about Anita Borg (and I am sorry I never knew her in person), I think she would have celebrated and supported such an approach, and in fact I feel that awarding Elisa Camahort the prize would be like supporting the young Anita when she herself was young and bucking trends. It is, I think, far more valuable to recognize potential (and risk the possibility that the initiative might never pan out) than to award a prize to something tried and tested--but not particularly earthshattering in its consequences. It takes more courage to risk to fail, but it also takes more courage to attempt to deliver higher social impact in the midst of that risk. I felt that's what Anita would have inclined toward, were she in my place.

So that's where I got my little spike of loyalty for BlogHer as the underdog in the competition. Imagine my surprise when my colleague Sombit Mishra got up at a staff meeting, and explained that he had met someone at TechSoup in Second Life who decided to interview him and post the interview on a BlogHer post. And I was vindicated in my preference for BlogHer for the award when I discovered that this interview was the first natural result now for "Sombit Mishra."

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the world is small indeed. But I also wanted to register my thoughts as I served on the Anita Borg award panel, and to give kudos to Sombit for getting himself featured in what I thought was a really really cool site.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Long Tail

At GlobalGiving, we spend a considerable amount of energy trying to find out what donors like, and how to help them find what they like. We also try to find out why certain projects appeal to donors. I’ve seen them as two sides of the same coin, and I’ve never questioned the value of following up on those lines of inquiry.

I just read another article about the long tail in the New Yorker—and as the article itself attests, this is hardly the first time we’ve heard about the long tail. In essence, it argues that technology has drastically reduced the cost of offering more choices to people so that niche markets are much better served today than before, whether the market for obscure art house movies on Netflix, low-print editions on Amazon, or obscure collectables on eBay.

What struck me today though, was that while it may still make sense to try and find out what donors like, and how best to help them find what they like, maybe we shouldn’t concern ourselves with why certain projects appeal to donors. Cast in the light of this article, it sounds like trying to discover why some (very few, I suspect) like to watch the early Soviet era movie “Man with a movie camera.” Frankly, I suspect Netflix doesn’t care why, it just cares to know that some people want it, and the cost of stocking a very few copies of “Man with a Movie Camera,” is minimal compared to the loyalty they can get from those few consumers who really care about that movie (and probably other obscure movies). What’s different today from 15 years go is that Blockbuster, given its business model, couldn’t deliver obscure movies to most of its customers, but Netflix can, making both Netflix and lovers of art movies happier today than they were 15 years ago.

So the analogy for us may be—with two important caveats below—to stock as many and as varied projects as possible and just note whether they attract donations or not. We shouldn’t care to know why.

Caveat 1 is that movies, books, and even collectables are all more common currency than development projects. What this means is that they exist in an ecosystem where movies, books, and music are discussed in traditional and non-traditional media, and that helps people decide whether they think they might want to see/read/listen to it or not. Or in our internal GlobalGiving language, they have a lot of "choice helpers". Plus it’s a lot easier to design a search for things that are talked about. So if we put up a whole bunch of projects on GlobalGiving, people may find it harder than ever to find the project they like.

Caveat 2 is that books, movies, and collectables aren’t time bound the way projects on GlobalGiving are. Projects happen in a certain place at a certain time, and frequently will not make sense later, or the cost of letting an init languish is measured in human welfare, not in foregone royalties. It’s not always easy to “let the market decide” in this context.
What keeps us going though, on this marketplace centered approach, is our conviction that it is better to have a market than not to the extent that this opens up a new avenue of support for social entrepreneurs worldwide. And it certainly gives the average donor more choices than they had before. And that’s got to be better than a world without a market for international philanthropy. Which sums up, I think, my attitude going into this conference on social investment markets where I will be meeting up with some old friends from DonorsChoose, Modest Needs, GiveIndia, PCNC, Keystone, Greater Good South Africa, HelpArgentina, and the Omidyar Network, as well as new market friends I hope from Brazil and South Korea.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Indonesia earthquake

"The latest reports put the death toll from the Java quake at over 5,800 and sources estimate that some 647,000 people have been displaced and are in need of basic food and shelter." -- Indonesia Help blog

What's distressing to me and my colleagues at GlobalGiving is that somehow this disaster has not attracted the kind of attention or generosity that other disasters have recently. Perhaps we're all struggling with the relentless sequencing of disasters following one upon another; perhaps there hasn't been as much dramatic footage on the news.

But the encouraging part for us is that the response on the ground has been both immediate, and selfless. Project leaders are leading community efforts to help the displaced and injured, even as they have suffered their own personal losses. Project leaders have lost their own homes and had to evacuate relatives, but are able and willing to pitch into helping the community.

I feel a little odd using this blog to write asking people to give, but you can see this has hit a nerve, so here goes.

Until July 5th, all donations to Indonesia earthquake projects posted on GlobalGiving will be MATCHED!! A GlobalGiving community member has generously offered $5,000 in matching funds to double all donations going to these projects. Important earthquake recovery efforts are still in need of funding to provide food, clean water, medical care, and education and trauma recovery for children, so please donate and provide support to earthquake survivors: Donations will be matched up to $250 through July 5th or when the $5,000 limit is reached. If you have any questions, please contact Dana Messick for more information.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Identity mashup conference: an assessment

So a couple of final comments about the conference. I expected before I went that I would find it interesting, but I wasn't sure it would be particularly relevant. I think in hindsight it was both interesting and relevant, in part because of the following.

People you don't know usually can teach you more things you don't know than people you already know. Mark Granovetter pointed this out back in 1973 through his insights about the strength of weak ties, but it always goes against my introvert's grain, and I have to be reminded of it. I got to Cambridge, listened to a lot of smart people talk about things I didn't really know anything about, and although I didn't learn anywhere enough to be able to hang in many of the conversations, I got a good feel for the disciplines and the fields of inquiry people were drawing on to sort out the issues in the identity space, and got a couple of insights that I think will be key to figuring out how I can frame our thinking around identify, reputation, and community on GlobalGiving.

I was also struck--really struck--by the fact that to a person, attendees of this conference believed (and acted on the belief) that technology is not a constraint. And I mean that in 2 ways. One, that technology can pretty much solve any technical problem anyone could have. Two, that technology solutions can be implemented by anybody--by this I mean that even if the whole solution requires an interaction between people and a technology, the behavioral changes that need to accompany the technology will pretty much happen. I can see how this could happen if the problem being addressed is really really huge--and a lot of the things being discussed at the conference were, in my view, really really huge--but I wasn't sure if anyone outside of the conference would share that view. On the one hand, the optimism about technology was really freeing. But on the other hand, it felt removed from reality.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Smartocracy -- Eureka! (Identity Mashup Conference Day 3)

So I have to make an online confession. And in particular this is for Brad DeGraf, whom Dennis and I have now known for years, who has been a real fellow traveller on our adventures with GlobalGiving. The confession is that I was invited to join Smartocracy in its beta phase a couple of months ago, and I could not make head or tails out of it. And I was interested in understanding it--stuff that has to do with wisdom of crowds, etc. is of intense interest to me, both professionally and personally.

And when Brad announced at our Identify Mashup conference that Smartocracy would be used to figure out what the next question was, I groaned internally because there were so many things going on, and I had little faith I would be able to sort this out in the midst of all the hubbub. And I think of myself as being a relatively good lay person with technology and figuring out how stuff works.

But it worked--for me, I mean. [And there's another post I want to make about "things working for me" where I'll go into this, since it also has something to do with the conference. Will post link as I publish the next post.] And maybe it was because the implementation was different than the beta test, but here's how it worked for me, and what was neat about it.

Brad created identities for everyone at the conference, so they were preloaded into the system. He put up some random (and some not so random) questions to vote on, and explained that we had 10 proxies to hand out. The proxy was where I got stuck the first time--I couldn't figure out whether by giving my vote away, I was losing my one vote (which I think I was reluctant to give up because I'm a Japanese national and absentee voting in Japan is very difficult [and I don't follow Japanese politics closely enough to cast a responsible vote even if it was easy], I've grown up never having voted in any government elections anywhere). This time, the list of people to whom I could give proxies to was clear, and the fact that I could enhance their vote by giving them proxies was also clear. Suddenly, this became like "awards" I could give out.

And if it had not been in the context of a conference, if it had been strictly virtual, I would have ended up giving proxies to people I knew. Which would have been fine, but kind of boring. Because this was a conference, I could give proxies to people I thought had said thoughtful things at the conference. It was a bit like kudos, and fun at that. I got to let them know I thought their vote was worth more, and in some cases I got to reconnect with people I hadn't met in a long time, like Jan Hauser.

And how this links back to GlobalGiving. We've been thinking of different ways we could decentralize the vetting of organizations and project leaders. Currently we do that ourselves, and through project sponsor partners, with whom we have signed legal agreements covering how this is done. How could we broaden that without compromising quality? Well, maybe Smartocracy is a way for us to organically develop a network of trusted partners who can be given specific proxy weights by people who know them well who in turn, could nominate worthwhile organizations. Or another such group could undertake to review the credentials of project orgs that want in. Either way, the smart crowd will be a lot "deeper" and "broader" than any of our direct contacts.

Very cool idea.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why am I not warming up to My Virtual Model? Identity Mashup conference Day 2

So I'm trying to figure out why I've been having such a negative reaction to My Virtual Model, which was introduced to us yesterday. There are very many cool aspects about it:
  • the reliance on visuals is intuitively really appealing, and maybe it removes inhibitions about buying things like clothes online
  • you can imagine a world of seamless media--you see a dress on an actress in Sex and the City, and you go from the show site to a place where you can get the dress online, and "try it on" your own virtual model to make sure that's what you want
  • people can use their avatars to imagine what you would look like after losing weight--great motivation
But I had a negative reaction when I went to their site and figured out that you can't "just" create a virtual model, you can only do so by committing to a particular vendor that they have partnered with. Had there been a vendor that I actually buy products from, I might actually have gone ahead and seen what it could do. But I was turned off at that point--I really didn't like the idea that I had to commit to a vendor to use this.

And today they made the point that the Virtual Model has allowed for information to travel back to clothing manufacturers about what people want to see on themselves, etc. and how you can go from 2D to 3D, etc. And my reaction today is: what is My Virtual Model adding that Threadless isn't doing already, in a much less hi-tech, but equally satisfying in the real interactions you can see between T-shirt designers and consumers of T-shirts?

Still not getting it--will have to keep thinking about it some more ...

Information: public good and private good (Identity mashup Day 2)

So I just got an insight from the Trust, Fairness and Sanctions in Digital Communities session that I think we need to think through in creating a reputation system on GlobalGiving. (Our first experiments around that are around the feedback systems we created for progress reports by project leaders.)

There was a short back and forth amongst the panelists about the value of information that is widely available vs. known only to a few. Judith suggested that information widely known is not as valuable--and Bill suggested that actually the opposite was true. I think it actually comes down to the type of information we're talking about. Judith was probably thinking about the point she made yesterday, about fashion being a signal of access to information--in this context, it's really clear that the more people have access to this type of information, the less valuable it becomes. ("Oh that was so yesterday, everyone is wearing/listening to/watching it now.")

But some information, e.g., the knowledge that washing hands can prevent cholera, has public and private dimensions that actually change over time depending on how widely the information is shared. So to play out this exapmple further, here's what happens to the information about handwashing and cholera. When cholera is running rampant, there is huge private value in knowing that handwashing helps to prevent your catching cholera--you benefit personally from this information. And in addition to the absolute good of not catching cholera, you could also get additional satisfaction of surviving when others do not (there's a lot of literature in economics recently about a phenomenon that us ex-Sovietologists pondered for a long time, which is that people are happy when they are relatively better off than others).

As the information about handwashing and cholera becomes more widely shared, though, you get the public good emerging, which is that cholera becomes less prevalent, and the odds of your catching cholera (and that your obsessive handwashing helps keep cholera at bay) comes down. The public good has increased, the private good goes down.

Now not all information is like that, but I think Judith had a good thought that there probably is a taxonomy of information that can help us sort through the different implications of the private vs. public value of information ...

And that ties nicely into the conversation that Eli(zabeth) and I were having last night about whether project leaders should have control over what they reveal about themselves, and the reliability of self-reported information. I think the bottom line question for this is whether the information has any public good aspect that might override the private good of the project leader.

Monday, June 19, 2006

3 aspects of markets: Identity mashup conference Day 1

I always have such mixed feelings showing up at Harvard. On the one hand it's very familiar, having spent 6 years here--I learned to drive on Storrow Drive, for instance. On the other hand some of that time I was here I was rather unhappy, so it's always a bit startling to walk past familiar landmarks and feel the sensations of those years wash over me. But more on that later.

The biggest takeaway I got yesterday, not surprisingly, was from Doc Searls. He reminded us that markets have 3 complementary aspects (which he in turn attributes to Eric Raymond and Sayo Ajiboye):
  • transactions
  • conversations
  • community
I think this captures exactly what we've been groping towards at GlobalGiving as we keep talking about community tools and Web 2.0 on how to make sense of where to go next.

First, in my mind the 3 aspects, laid out in that order, sort of represent a Maslowian hierarchy of markets. At a basic level, markets have to support and facilitate transactions. I think we've nailed that at GlobalGiving if you think of the basic transaction on GlobalGiving as the transfer of funds to support projects and social enterprises worldwide. Going beyond transaactions to conversations and community begins to meet our higher order of needs for connection and identification--and is immeasurably richer.

Second, the 3 aspects also feel to me like a great "fit" with the whole proposition of giving. Giving is by its nature really suited to go beyond a transaction when done well, and I think it will help us stay out some of the problematic power dynamics that can emerge from the big asymmetries that exist in our space. (More on asymmetries later)

Third, I need to come back to the fact that Doc Searls cited Sayo Ajiboye in his presentation of the 3 aspects of markets. The fact is that the developing world is actually more in touch with the 3 dimensions of markets than the developed world is. So this opens up the possibility that because so many of the project leaders operate in the developing world, they can in fact play a huge role in teaching and leading us to understand the integration of these 3 aspects.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A really thought-provoking presentation about media

I heard Jim Brady of the give a presentation the other day about media convergence (a topic that is so hip/twee nowadays that there is a site devoted to tracking its incidence) that I thought really clarified the stakes a bit. He distinguished between:
  • Technical convergence: how devices were all combining/substituting for each other, listening to music on your cell phone, taking pictures with your PDA, tracking your calendar on your iPod
  • Audience convergence: being able to discover and connect easily with likeminded people, whether through MySpace or Facebook [in real life, I just lost about an hour while I went and messed around in Facebook--young people have been telling me what a time-suck it is, and I can now testify to it--see results here]
  • Competitive convergence: here I think the key driver is the web, and the fact that it can accomodate so many media, from video to podcasts to text to photojournalism. The result is that CNN competes with the Washington Post to deliver video images of tsunami even though one is a cable network and the other is a print newspaper
  • Information convergence: This is best summarized by mashups like Chicago crime stats displayed geographically.
The most charming thing, though, about Brady's presentation, was his energy and enthusiasm for all the possibilities this opened up. The WP started a year long program of coverage around "What it means to be a Black Man," and to kick it off brought a diverse group of men for a photo to be featured above the fold. What media convergence meant in this context, was that not only they could create a specialized site around this program, but that they could shoot a video of the photo shoot that brought these men together--a surprisingly intimate, touching 3+ minute slice of life. This beats conventional media any day.

Another very cool thing he pointed out was that the WP had for years maintained a congressional voting record DB. The journalists used it for their news analysis, but no one ever thought to do anything else with it ... until the hired the guy responsible for the Chicago crime stats above, and he discovered the journalists using it. A month later, it was up and running as a resource and incredibly rich content on A great lesson on repurposing content and looking at everything we do through another lens.

So here at GlobalGiving, we track statistics around projects and project organizations. It would take a bit of work, but we could start cleaning up the data and making it available to anyone who's interested. It would be interesting to see who is interested, given all the press lately about due diligence (or its absence) in the philanthropic world. Maybe it's because we don't present the data in interesting ways ...

Am really behind on my posts. Will see how confusing it is to people to start posting these posts backwards in time, like Time's Arrow.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why I find it hard to read The End of Faith

I’ve just started reading this book The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. I haven’t gotten far into the book at all, but there’s a story around that. Some very good friends gave Dennis the book for his birthday some months ago, and recommended it highly. These are people whose opinions I really respect, so I fully intended to start the book when Dennis finished it, which he did pretty quickly. But I found actually that the book was a hard one for me to embark on, because I found its main thesis hard to take—that the major religions have been the cause of most of the world’s ills from persecution to war, and that the fault lay as much with religious moderates as with fundamentalists because the moderates had, through their tolerance for inter-religious differences, in fact made it possible for the fundamentalists to prevail.

The story of why I found it a hard book to even begin reading, starts with my growing up with no religious faith of my own. Not that I was born into an atheist household, but Japanese religious faith is really about cultural habits, and since I spent a good part of my childhood outside of Japan that had a minimal influence on me. And while I loved the ritual and cadence of the Catholic faith that surrounded me in Italy when I was growing up, it was not really a religion to me, just a collection of founding myths with great cultural resonance (as far as I could tell there was no art in Italy that could not be traced back to Christianity or Roman mythology in one way or another, and there was a lot of it). It was only in high school that I decided I needed to become more familiar with the details on Christianity, after developing a mild affinity for the protestant urges that had driven Martin Luther (it just sounded so much more enlightened), especially for literary purposes, and I started reading the Bible. I started of course at the beginning with the Old Testament, and although Genesis was clearly not particularly consistent with evolution, I found it harmless, and kept on reading thinking it made some sort of symbolic sense in the overall corpus. Then I got to some of the other stories of the Old Testament, and the ethics of the Old Testament struck me as being ridiculous. I think, although I know can’t remember clearly, that it was the story of Sarah and Abraham pretending they were siblings and leading Pharaoh on, and God’s eventual punishment of Pharaoh that finally struck me as being more about proving that these people were chosen above all reason and compassion. (There is a great commentary on exactly these wild leaps in ethical logic by David Plotz right now on Slate) So I stopped my Bible study there, having lost any contingent faith I might have placed in the foundational Christian document.

That started me off on my “religion is an opiate of the masses” phase. It coincided nicely with a phase in my life where I got really judgmental about a lot of things anyway (I broke up with a long-standing boyfriend with whom I had spent all of the school year corresponding (I will date myself by admitting it was by snail mail, but I impress my older self with my youthful dedication) every day—over Thatcher’s position on the miners’ strike), so I lived with that for a while. Some years into this I decided that being as judgmental as all that was hard—hard on me and hard on my friends. In fact I lost touch with a lot of my friends during that phase, not only that boyfriend, and I count myself lucky to have been able to reclaim them now. (They, you see, were more forgiving than I was.) So I find Sam Harris’s main thesis hard to disentangle from my own intolerance and the personal costs I paid for it.

Now for what is interesting about Sam Harris’s book. I recently heard of an old study by Schelling that showed, through statistical modeling, of how residential segregation can come about with even a mild preference among people in a given community to live in a community that does not include more than 33% of people of another race. So the main take away from this study is you don’t need a whole community of Archie Bunkers to create segregated neighborhoods. My question then as I go into The End of Faith is, can some analogy of this dynamic be operating in the religious communities—if so, the fact that Harris may be overreaching on the thesis that religion has caused most of the world’s woes isn't that important. If this dynamic can somehow be proved to hold in this case, it raises the real possibility that radical religions of all stripes will be on the increase. It's as if we've passed some saturation point and everything will begin crystallizing into brittle shards ...

Friday, March 31, 2006

Finance4Change session

So final day, final session of the Skoll Forum. We're in the middle of a discussion of the development of a social capital market, and Tim Freundlich of the Calvert Foundation has previewed a really interesting tool for the sector. He started out by introducing an interesting service provided by a company called Venture One. Venture One gets VCs to come and provide details of closed deals, valuation, who's backing the deal, who's on the board, etc.--and Venture One (part of DowJones) takes the data, makes sense of it and sells it back to the VCs. Calvert's interpretation for the social sector is Xigi. Most of Xigi seems to be in beta phase behind a log-in right now, but the sneak peek looks really promising. One of the things that has disheartened me in the past is how we talk about collaborating and sharing information, but so far it's been in rather expensive face-to-face discussions in Geneva, London, or California a couple of times a year. This is the first time someone has taken the very logical step of creating a virtual platform where people can post news, information -- specifically about deals in this sector. Bravo Tim -- very cool.

Christy Chinn provided interesting context -- VentureOne started out as a DB that collected information about closed VC deals -- not a marketplace.

Interesting probing around the issue of whether this issue of social capital markets is possibly monopolized by Anglo-Saxons, which led to a question about whether attempts to make an emerging social capital market global will ultimately undermine interesting initiatives like Celso Grecco's Brazilian social stock exchange [warning: site will not launch on Mac :(].

Something that has struck me here at the conference. Almost to a person, everyone here talks of supply as the supply of capital , or funders, and of demand as the demand for capital, or social entrepreneurs/project leaders. Which is 180 from the way we think of it at GlobalGiving, where supply is the supply of giving opportunities, or projects, and demand is the demand of donors for appropriate projects to give to. I think we need to do this so that we can stay focused on trying to understand donors and what they want -- but it's one more way that makes me feel like I'm swimming upstream.

Social stock exchanges discussion here at Oxford

So in the discussion today at the Skoll Forum between Peter Wheeler, Mohammed Yunus, Ron Grzywinski and Celso Grecco about developing a social stock exchange -- Peter drew attention to a possible emerging schism about whether a social stock exchange needed to be as much like the regular stock exchange as possible, or whether it's a different culture, different context, a different beast etc. And in light of Peter raising us (GlobalGiving) as a potential social stock exchange, I've been pressed to reflect where we fall on this issue -- and I think we fall somewhere in between. Mohammed is clearly in the camp that if you go to a fish market looking for oranges, you're bound to be disappointed, and I have a great deal of sympathy for that point. I do think the reasons why people are moved to give v. the reasons why people are moved to invest are different. As to why I think we fall in between, I don't believe we need to "invent" a brand new model to serve the social stock exchange. I do believe that the eBay model comes really really close. The idea that people carry out commerce within the context of a community would have sounded crazy as a pitch before eBay, but it draws on a rather deep insight about why people purchase things like collectables (as opposed to, say, groceries or toiletries). To the extent that eBay was based on the collectables market, I think it draws on people's desire to express their identity and declare their allegiance and community among likeminded people. And I think the same is possibly true of philanthropy.

I had a personal insight about this when I was listening to the presentation two days ago about MDLF and realized how moved I was to buy one of their investment notes because I wanted to actually declare my allegiance and solidarity with their cause. I rarely feel that way about my stock or mutual fund purchases. And I actually wanted to find out who else felt that way. I could do that on eBay. And I'd like to be able to do that on GlobalGiving.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Colliding worlds

When I left my work in Russia I wondered if that world would close for ever to me. There were other things I really wanted to do but it was with deep sadness that I thought about losing those connections. Now here I am at Oxford at the Skoll Forum in my GlobalGiving identity, and for some reason Russia keeps coming back -- whether in the panel on social entrepreneurship in transition countries, press freedom in the world, and now on a panel on the rule of law in China. (By no less than Karen Tse, who has a project on GlobalGiving.) And it was bested only when I ran into an old friend -- Volodya Mau and his son Anton -- in the lobby of the conference hall. Volodya was here just to meet a conference attendee for lunch, so it was only the slimmest of chances that had me run into him. And as I reflect on the rush of gratitude I felt on seeing the work of an organization like MDLF -- and felt moved to support them especially given what they are doing in places like Russia to stop the reimposition of state control -- not to speak of my delight in seeing Volodya, I realize there's a part of me that's still back there. Or maybe more to the point, still a little bit of Russia in me. Some loyalties die hard.

Investment banking and eBay

The talk here at the Skoll Forum today and yesterday has been centered around bringing investment banking approaches into funding social entrepreneurship -- starting with Al Gore talking about his private equity firm and followed up by a series of sessions today around mobilizing masses of funds from the regular financial markets (e.g. by securitizing streams of income from microloan repayments). It crystallized for me when Jan-Olaf Willums introduced Jacqueline Novogratz from Acumen as one of the people actually getting funds for venture philanthropy from the common people -- and she had to demur by saying that Acumen probably didn't get funds from the common people, and in fact that the elite had a responsibility to help out the masses of people who live under $4 a day. And Jed Emerson noted that he had had to go back and brush up on his understanding of finance to be able to "hang" with the people he thought were key to solving the social capital market conundrum (i.e., bankers).

This makes me, of course, feel like a fish out of water. Or at least swimming upstream. The issues this panel has raised -- whether using grant funds to prime the pump to encourage private sector willingness to lend to sectors, areas, and income groups that the private sector would not otherwise lend to or invest in -- is exactly the kind of thing that the World Bank Group can and does do, and I lose heart listening to them for several reasons. First, organizations that have been officially tapped to do this sort of thing have been in this business for 50+ years and not yet made a real difference (cf Bill Easterly). So new organizations doing exactly the same thing will work only if the organizations that have been tapped to do this are structurally unsuited to the purpose or the new orgs are a lot more efficient. Second, it's demoralizing to think that the people who are notionally "in charge" (which makes me feel oddly leftist) are the only people who can make a difference. It's just a downer to think that the people with money and access are the ones who will come into save the day. Third, it perpetuates the power imbalance that has always ruled this space, and I have a hunch--which I can't prove--that somewhere, somehow, this power imbalance has a pernicious effect.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Recycling world bank reports

Years and years ago, one of my first bosses at the World Bank told me that he once published an economic report for Bangladesh after months and months of drafting, editing, and negotiations with the government. He was really relieved when the report was finally published, and arranged for half the reports in his office to be delivered to the government. It was only a week later when his wife bought some fish from the market, and he realized that the paper in which they were wrapped ... were pages form the country economic report that he had just gotten published. Today at the Skoll World Forum for social entrepreneurship, Bunker Roy (fast becoming a triple crown winner) noted that the hand puppets they use at the Barefoot College to communicate with illiterate villagers are also made from World Bank reports. I guess nothing goes to waste.

New legal entity for social enterprise in UK

Just learned about a really interesting new development in UK regulation of social enterprises. Community interest companies are brand new, have only been around for 6-8 months . They are like for profit companies in that there can be shareholders, dividends (capped), but they are like non profits in that if they are sold they have to be sold to another community interest company. Need to do a lot more research, but if we had something like this in the US, it would be perfect for GlobalGiving.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The article in question

So back to the original reason I signed up for this blog, which was to sort out what I thought about the II article about the HIID scandal.

First of all, full disclosure: I know Jonathan Hay, Dima Vasiliev, Ruslan Orekhov, and even Jonathan's crazy lawyer Sokin. And most of them are exactly as described in the article. David McClintick has done a masterful job of reporting their foibles, mannerisms, and essence. And although I haven't read the depositions, every single word of his article is not only incredibly plausible, but rings true. But you can be right on all the facts and still miss the real history that was played out. Usually only nerds care about historiographical missteps--and I admit I'm a nerd. But first Vasiliev's fall, and now Summers's resignation has actually made the misreading of history a lot more obvious. Jonathan and Shleifer have a lot to answer for.

So I have every reason to believe that the facts of the article didn't lie. Jonathan certainly never evinced any uncertainty as to whether it was inappropriate, not to say wrong, for Elizabeth Hebert to be leading the first registered mutual fund in Russia. As the article clearly describes, Vasiliev was incredibly relieved to have a personal connection to Elizabeth through Jonathan--it was a chain of trust that gave him som assurance that the first mutual fund would not go up in flames of some sort of financial or legal scandal. The article cannot quite convey how every single Russian or Russian-associated business entity at the time was at the very least perfectly willing to engage in bribery to achieve its ends, and at the very worst involved in casual murder and every other felony in between. In that environment, Dima was not only pleased, he was overjoyed to register Pallada first.

Vasiliv, ever the incorruptible (one of the perhaps as many as 3 Russian officials I personally would have been willing to vouch were not on the take) was not and would never have contemplated benefiting from any of this himself. But Jonathan, as nested in the inner circle of the highest ranking Russian policymakers as he was, would not, in Dima's eyes, have been subject to that discipline. And in fact that is precisely WHY Jonathan was so valuable to Dima. Jonathan could spend AID dollars getting a decent office with modern furnishings and competent staff--one of the very legitimate uses of American assistance. Vasiliev couldn't. He had to work in the drafty (but extremely prestigious) offices right around the corner from Red Square, and minutes from the President's administration where his friend Orekhov worked, with staff whom he either could not retain if they were competent because he couldn't pay them more than a civil service pittance, or staff who could not be fired who were simply too incompetent to do anything more than get visitors tea. So Dima kept sending Jonathan the real work that needed to get done, first in privatization, then in the setting up of the securities market. And Jonathan could arrange for conveniences like a mutual fund led by his girlfriend, whom Dima trusted simply on the grounds that if Jonathan was hanging out with her, well, she must be be a revolutionary of the Russian transition as well.

This is what the author left out. It wasn't in his remit, I guess, to really understand what was going on in the policy circles of the Russian government, and how precarious it all seemed. How the whole transition seemed to hang by a hair, and if they didn't hit the milestones like slalom skiers slamming into the gates as they come down the slope, well, they were going to lose the race. And how people like Jonathan, who earned their trust, and could understand what needed to be done politically as well as policy-wise--were far more valuable than the millions of dollars foreign governments and multilateral agencies were willing to hand over to him. For there were assistance dollars that were being spent on studies and technical assistance to people who could never change regardless of how many workshops and conferences they attended, and it used to really infuriate the reformers. Perhaps less Dima than most, because I got the sense he was a real ascetic, but there were plenty of good men and women of the Russian transition who felt more than a little jealous and resentful of the fact that there were literally hundreds of foreign consultants tooling around Moscow, ostensibly helping Russian reform, who could afford to go to the emerging decent restaurants while they had to down yet another russkiy salat in the government cafeteria as they tried to keep the retrograde forces at bay.

And Jonathan? Well, I always thought he was envious of the way all these Russian businessmen were raking in the money, riding expensive cars and throwing their money about. To be honest I couldn't see him actually spending the money on anything like clothes or food, but I think he envied the evidence that they were "winning" in the larger game. So the possibility that Elizabeth would profit from it all didn't, I'm sure, bother him. And it should have. And I wish it had, because then it would not have led to Dima Vasiliev ultimately losing the fight with the Central Bank, and perhaps not to Summers's resignation. Although probably Summers's resignation was one of those overdetermined events.

One last thing. I admire Summers's loyalty. This isn't the first time he's stood by a protege and taken the fall himself rather than let his protege down. He did the same thing when he was Chief Economist at the World Bank and he took responsibility for the exporting pollution memo. He's a standup guy, and he was also a breath of fresh air at Harvard. His leaving takes away the hope I had that Harvard could become more honest with itself and more brave. And although I am as lacking in school spirit as you can get, I still care about my alma mater.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Well, my musings are answered: Time Magazine confirms that it was the Institutional Investor article that broke the camel's back. The saddest part is that the people who have lost the most in terms of their power to do good -- Dima V when he lost his fight with the Central Bank, and now Larry Summers losing the presidency of one of the most powerful private institutions in the world -- are not the people who actually tried to profit from anything ...

Summers resigns ...

As I've explained to anyone who will listen to me, I'm just so sorry Larry Summers has resigned as President of Harvard. So I'm casting about for answers. Heard that he didn't get along with the Fellows of the College, but looking at the list, that doesn't quite ring true. The list includes a Houghton (traditional Harvard name, libraries named after this family), a Keohane and a Reischauer (both faculty related, but neither of them names you'd associate with the politicization of issues around grade inflation, African-American studies, or feminism. And to top it off, Robert Rubin is one of the Fellows. So go figure. I'm sure the answer's probably somewhere else entirely.

This is just me casting about for clues because I think Larry was one of the most dynamic presidents the university has had in my memory of presidents (Bok, Rudenstine, and Summers) ... notwithstanding that I had to field a question from a young woman I was interviewing for admission into Harvard about what I thought about his comments about women in the sciences, I really admired his energy and drive. Yes, he could have been more diplomatic, but there are plenty of diplomatic presidents that don't actually DO anything beyond reinforcing existing trends and platitudes.

Well, I was going to start with some musings about the Insititutional Investor article about HIID, but this sort of blew it out of the water. Actually, the energy I had around that article did translate to this, because I was worried that the whole HIID scandal had sabotaged more than the careers of Jonathan Hay and Andrei Shleifer, Dima Vasiliev ... and now Larry Summers. I'm surmising of course, the II article may have had nothing to do with it. I guess I'm just fulminating about how hard it is to do good.

And I didn't intend to start out this blog by being all about Harvard, either. Well, time enough to fix it all later.