Friday, September 28, 2007

Having an adventure, or donor engagement

So here's a topic that's been obsessing me lately, and although it has been hitting me on two very different fronts, it's actually the same issue. One is what one of my board directors called "having an adventure." In his mind, there are 3 questions he asks himself when he does public benefit stuff, one of which is, "Am I having an adventure on this?" I thought it was a great question, and in fact a question I implicitly answer yes to every morning when I come into work.

Now how does this connect to donor engagement on GlobalGiving?

Well, the thing I have been struggling with lately is how to get donors, many of whom have never given before internationally, to get a feel for what a high-wire act international development, let alone social entrepreneurship is in the developing world. In some ways it's a miracle it happens at all. And it's a miracle not only because some countries are in such dire straits that wars, natural disasters, political unrest make everything iffy. It's a miracle because the exact concatenation of factors that makes a CFW clinic viable in a particular location depends at times on the personal situation of one key person--and talent is sometimes so scarce in the developing world that things like turnover that most organizations in the developed world more or less can cope with can turn out to be showstoppers. And while I don't want things to stay that way, the fact that almost every project leader on GlobalGiving deals 10 such crises before breakfast makes very success and victory very precious. And I want donors to understand that, and don't know how to convey it.

It even extends to understanding the very mundane--forget the high-wire act. I've always said that it's a really expensive proposition being poor in the developing world. That's because even if you're poor in the developed world, odds are you can get access to reasonably clean water pretty easily. In the developing world being poor means you spend 1/2 your day getting clean enough water (and sometimes not clean enough) for your family. And sometime we have a hard time conveying this too ... here's an exchange that started with a user asking about what was behind a donation option to the Dazzling Stone School project. And here's their response ...

thank you very much for your kind enquiry.the soap,toothpaste,bath items are very useful and important need for the children,these are daily using materials actually we need more money for the say below 100$ is good then only we give 90$ for that. I give the expanses step by step.
we have 100 children and 10 staff. We need the follow items for soap, toothpaste, and bath items for one month.
1- washing soap (125gms ) - IRS 8.50
2 - Body soap (100 gms) - IRS 15.00
3- Washing powder(1kilo) -IRS-20.00
4- Sampoo 1packet - IRS 2.00
5 - VVDcoconut oil ( 200 ml)- IRS-34.00
6-Bleeching powder 1packet - IRS 10.00
7 -Phenoil ( for sterlizing) - IRS 30.00
8 - Acid (bath floor washing)-IRS30.00
9 - Tooth paste(100gms) - IRS 27.00
10 - Tooth brush - IRS 10.00
11 - Face powder - 50grams = IRS 16.00
12 - Baby powder - 300gms = IRS 90.00
we need 1 washing soap for 10 children,1 soap for 5staff /DAY - Total(10x1 +2X1) x30DAYS = 360 numbers - IRS-3060(78$)
1 body soap for 25 children &1soap for 10 staff /day - 5x30daysxIRS 15 = IRS 2250(58$)
need 1 kilo/day - 1x30daysxIRS 20 = IRS 600(15$)
need 400 packets sampoo(weekly twodays) - 400xIRS2 = IRS 800(21$)-
need 400 ml coconut oil /day for all - IRS 34 x 2x30 = IRS 2040(52$)
need 2 packets Bleeching powder/day - IRS 10x2x30 = IRS600(15$)
need 1bottle /day - IRS30x1x30 = IRS900(23$)
need acid 1/2 bottle/day - IRS30x1/2x30 = IRS450(12$)
need 300 gmsTooth paste/day - IRS27x3x30 = IRS2430(62)
need tooth brush 110 numbers/month - IRS110x10 = IRS1100(28$)
need 50 grams Face powder /day - IRS 16x30 = IRS480(12$)
need 600grams baby powder/month - IRS90x2 = IRS180(5$)
Total for all needs = 381$
Washing brushes,Eye pro,creams,body spraies,bath towels,napkins and etc also needed.
The electricity charges changing every time.Now we are using electricity little purpose only ,mainly for lights and fans only.we are send the the children to free schools ,so some fees only they collected ,so the education charge is low.

with love,
I'm racked with how we can convey this quickly and easily to donors so they can get a real "feel" for the world that's contained in GlobalGiving ...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jane Austen's heroines *were* happier

So this article in the NYtimes perfectly captures the debate my friend April and I have been having for over a decade now. We love the choices we have as women in the 21st century, but we read and re-read our Austen novels, and can so easily imagine ourselves as Elizabeth or Emma, and wonder, "Could we have been happy as Austen characters, with the very limited choices they had?"

And there's a quote in this article that pretty much sums it up:
Ms. Stevenson was recently having drinks with a business school graduate who came up with a nice way of summarizing the problem. Her mother’s goals in life, the student said, were to have a beautiful garden, a well-kept house and well-adjusted children who did well in school. “I sort of want all those things, too,” the student said, as Ms. Stevenson recalled, “but I also want to have a great career and have an impact on the broader world.”
Opportunities are great, but it turns out you have to actually make choices (and eschew buyer's remorse), not actually count on or hope for doing it all to actually be happy. And as I may have blogged about before, one of my favorite books, The Paradox of Choice, makes clear, in a lot of cases--especially as regards not so important choices, less is definitely better. What's not so clear yet for me is whether in practice it's also true for more important choices too ...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

People you would like to meet in your lifetime

So my husband and I have a game we like to play every now and then, usually when some wonderful author or other public personality dies. It's a very simple game--it's just a list of people (in our case, mostly authors) we would like to meet. And it can't include people like Jane Austen, who died long before we were ever born, much as many of us fantasize about meeting her. And of course, Madeleine L'Engle just died, which prompted another round of the game. Here's our latest list of people we really regret not having made an effort to meet them while they were alive:
  • Madeleine L'Engle
  • Penelope Fitzgerald
  • Douglas Adams
  • Richard Feynman
  • Walker Percy
  • Shelby Foote

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Broken Buildings Busted Budgets

So I've been debating with myself whether I ought to blog about the travails of building a house. But the fact is that trying to build a house while you have a full-time job 70 miles away from the construction site actually means you have very little free time for anything, including blogging. And to be honest, the further I got into the construction process, the more, well, contingent the whole process felt, so that although my general contractor and subcontractors were extremely unlikely to be surfing the web and reading about my muttered complaints about their ways, I really didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the process. Plus it wasn't clear if I was compounding the problem by not being vigilant enough ...

But now it's built, it has passed occupancy inspection, and my favorite blogger Tyler Cowen has just posted a review of a book about the construction industry that pretty much sums up my extremely limited (but heartfelt) insight into the process. Here's the part of Tyler's summary that really sang to me:

The key problem is that building or new construction owners become completely dependent on information provided by their contractors. The contractors experience cost overruns and the commissioning owners have to suffer delays, cost increases, and the general feeling of having been screwed over.

The interesting part, though is that what he says next is not, I think, actually true in my specific case:

Opportunism and recontracting are rampant. According to the author, no institution successfully helps commissioning owners distinguish between good and bad contractors.

I actually don't think my contractor was particularly opportunistic, and I'd be hard put to say he was "bad." But his m.o., and the ways of his subcontractors were totally unsuited to allow me to exercise control over the process effectively (e.g., no itemized estimates, lots of "typed up" proposals that I could see were extremely difficult to change on the fly and keep track of changes and tradeoffs) so that even absent the opportunism and recontracting, it was impossible for me not to feel screwed over at times. Now that it's all over, and it's so nice when it stops hurting, I think I will actually examine the microprocesses that made the thing so unwieldy.

Hey, what's the use of mistakes if I can't learn from them, and now, anyone else reading my blog can?