The beginning of spring

A blog about my work, where international development meets tech, and my life, where food, books, design, dogs, and friends (and the occasional pig) make appearances.

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 Google.org 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.