Wednesday, December 2, 2009

With Blogging Comes Responsibility: New FTC Advertising Guidelines

Yes, it's been a while. Over three months since I've written anything--although it's not to say I haven't thought of things to discuss. Let's just say I've been slow to act. Between moving into a new apartment during that dreaded September 1 time frame, starting grad school, working full time and yes, I admit, a sheer sense of laziness at times, this endeavor has taken a minor back seat. But I've decided to dive back in, so to my two loyal followers (thanks, mom and dad), sorry for the delay.

Back when I was just "thinking" of topics to potentially discuss, I stumbled across this article from the BBC in October about the tenth anniversary of Blogger which chronicled its evolution from a tool to aid in-house communication to a "personal printing press" for the masses. Interestingly enough, the Boston Globe recently explored how bloggers are now being mandated by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose to readers the acceptance of any free products or payment they've received for writing about an item. As blogs have progressed from their humble beginnings, it appears they may just need to start obliging to some journalistic standards. (The new guidelines also apply to endorsements by celebrities and those on Twitter.)

This has rubbed some bloggers the wrong way, according to the Boston Globe:

Fueling the controversy over the guidelines is the fact that mainstream media such as newspapers and magazines are exempt. Some bloggers are offended by what they perceive as an attack on their ethics. Others acknowledge the problem but chalk it up to a few bad apples.

A whole new can of worms has been opened--especially in terms of defining the role of blogs in journalism. It's clear that blogging has squirmed its way into a respected form of media in many senses and, in other ways, it still remains a tool that has steered clear of journalistic norms and ethics, maintaining its free-spirited, anything goes vibe.

But if you're looking to be heralded as a respectful contributor to media, don't you need to be held up to some respectable standards? It comes with the territory.

And no, this is not an attack on bloggers' ethics. It is exactly the opposite. It is that idea of transparency for consumers which lets them know you have nothing to hide. This is a way of upholding ethics.

During some of my intern days at a consumer public relations agency, we did blogger outreach with some of our products and for the most part, writers made it a point to disclose that the products were given to them to be reviewed and as consumers, shouldn't we all be expecting that? It's not to say that every free product received by bloggers has received rave reviews, but ethically speaking, the danger is there for that to happen if there is a lack of transparency.

This is why media outlets have Codes of Ethics. The New York Times Code of Ethics states:

Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

PBS' Guidelines states:

Audiences must be able to trust the information in our programs, but that trust could be jeopardized by the appearance of commercialism. At one extreme would be a perception that the program was created primarily to sell the funders' productions and services. Thus, a producer must avoid any arrangement in which an entity is paying for placement of its product or service in the program. If a producer needs to use products associated with the content of the program in the course of making the program, best practice is to cover the names of those products, but if that is not feasible, then the funders products can be used so long as they are treated no better or worse than other brands. The use of particular products in a program to demonstrate a point is an editorial decision. If products are donated, proper recognition belongs in the credits. Nothing in this rule would prevent the appearance of products in the course of reporting a story about the products themselves, nor would it violate the rule if the product appeared naturally in the course of shooting a location.

Why should bloggers be faced with anything different? Why wouldn't they want these types of guidelines if they want to be taken seriously? This is of course one of the fundamental issues of blogging--a lack of a code of ethics.

But the paradox is that blogs don't have a code of ethics because it is in many ways impossible. While anyone can start a blog, the same ease is not permitted in establishing a media company. Magazines and newspapers are exempt from the new guidelines but they are held accountable through their companies by their code of ethics. This is not a viable set up for the online world of bloggers, where the majority have no one or nothing to hold them accountable. Thus another fundamental issue: how do you enforce such guidelines on the black hole that is the Internet?

That's grounds for a whole new discussion!

Nonetheless, the new FTC guidelines are at least a step in the right direction. Yes, there will be some gray areas that need clarification but you need to start somewhere, right?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sound Off: From the Donor's Perspective

I'm a little irked. I'll tell you why.

For those who live in the city, we're all used to the street teams that organizations use to collect random donations.

Do you have time to save the whales? Polar bears? Or children? Or what about stopping global warming?

You know the routine and when you see them on the street wearing their t-shirts and grasping their clipboards, you avoid all eye contact, play with your phone, anything to divert their attention from you.

For the most part I'm guilty as charged when it comes to avoiding these fundraising attempts but recently I caved in. Walking down Huntington Avenue, a notorious spot for street teams to linger, I stopped. Why, I'm still not sure, but the important thing is, I did.

After being pressured to make a donation to sponsor a...well, for all intensive purposes of keeping this organization anonymous, let's say I was pressured to sponsor something ridiculous like a computer...I insisted that I don't have the funds to make such a commitment, which is the truth. As much as I wanted to save the, uh "computers," I just couldn't commit but I was happy to make a one-time donation.

While I don't regret giving to a good cause, I'm a bit peeved with the treatment of donors by these street teams. I was barely thanked for my donation. It appeared that because I wasn't going to make a long-term commitment, my donation wasn't really good enough but they would take it anyway. In fact, I even had to repeat several times that I was willing to give some money as he kept badgering me to sponsor a "computer." I was about ready to withdraw my offer and leave him with nothing.

My story doesn't end here.

Over the next two weeks, as I walked down Huntington Avenue like I do every day, this same organization hounded me for more money on three separate occasions. I even ran into the guy to whom I originally gave my donation. I responded politely that I had already given money to them. Rather than receiving a "thank you" he said, "Great! Now you can sponsor a [computer]!" This happened with each run-in I had until finally, one woman said, "thank you."

That's all I needed. My anger has subsided...a little.

It is one thing to follow up with donors to see if they would be interested in continuing their support. This is absolutely necessary in nonprofit development and it was an appropriate question to ask me when they attempted to stop me. But it is another thing to completely disregard a donor's initial support and pressure them into more without even an inkling of gratitude.

It's all about the execution. Donors want to feel appreciated. It doesn't mean a song and a dance over how great they are for forking over some cash. It is simple recognition that the donor has given what they are capable of giving and no matter how small the amount, it is helpful to the organization.

If my money isn't making a difference, why donate?

I take into consideration that the response, "I've already donated," is probably heard on a frequent enough basis by street teams, if they even get a response at all, and the possibility that it is an outright lie people tell to be left alone is high. Fair enough. But that is the risk that is taken when using this type of fundraising technique. Therefore, the golden rule should be to thank every person that offers such a response because sometimes it is the truth and it is a bigger risk to irritate donors.

So, to the woman who actually thanked me for the donation I made, I thank her for her gratitude.

I'm ready to step off of my soapbox now.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Holocaust vs. Rwanda: Perceptions of Genocide

It's a sad reality that the phrase "Never Again," which rose from the ashes of six million lives lost during the Holocaust, is, in many ways, an empty one. Although there has not been such an industrial, systematic attempt at wiping out an entire group of people since WWII, there have been many genocides that followed and, in some instances, are still continuing.

So, it needs to be asked: What makes Cambodia, Rwanda and currently, Darfur, so much different than WWII? Why, despite all of the lessons learned and policies passed, has the world been so slow to react to other acts of genocide?

In July I finished reading an extremely intense book that really got me pondering that very question along with the different perceptions of genocide. "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" is an in-depth examination of the 1994 Rwandan genocide that delves into the personal stories of survivors in addition to peeling away the many layers of political red tape and cultural unrest that led up to the genocide and hindered the recovery process after its devastation. But it also puts the reader face to face with the complete lack of response from the rest of the world.

Written by Philip Gourevitch, the book covers a lot of ground and I have to admit it may take a second read to truly grasp a better understanding of Rwanda. But, nonetheless, it opened my eyes to some of the problems surrounding international aid as well as perceptions of genocide in general.

The most noticeable factor when examining these mass killings, at least to me, is the developed Western world versus the underdeveloped third world. The Holocaust was so shocking and appalling to the world not only because we had never seen anything like it, but also in a sense because the Western world views itself as such a civilized society. The Holocaust was barbaric, repulsive and inhumane--surely something a cultured and refined people would never even dream of, never mind actually carry through.

Then there is Africa. A place where tribal and ethnic groups span across the massive continent living a very different way of life than many Westerners. Unfortunately, these tribal lives can sometimes be viewed as barbaric or uncivilized to our culture when really, it is simply just another way of life--neither better or worse--than our own.

But it may be that very mindset that changes how people perceive the Holocaust versus Rwanda or even present day Darfur. When ethnic or tribal clashes lead to something as devastating as 800,000 murdered in only 100 days in Rwanda, it is sometimes seen as just another day in Africa. A lack of understanding on the Western end leads to a dismissal of human life. It is viewed as just one tribe killing another tribe which then brings retaliation and a vicious cycle ensues. There is no rationalizing with such savagery so it is best is to leave them to their own devices:
"Except for the names and the landscape, it reads like the same story from anywhere in the world: a tribe in power slaughters a disempowered tribe, another cycle in those ancient hatreds, the more things change the more they stay the same...The generic massacre story speaks of 'endemic' or 'epidemic' violence and of places where people kill 'each other,' and the ubiquity of the blight seems to cancel out any appeal to think about the single instance. These stories flash up from the void and, just as abruptly, return there. The anonymous dead and their anonymous killers become their own context. The horror becomes absurd."
Hitler's "Final Solution" was no less absurd so it is distressing to see complete indifference to the other attempts at ethnic cleansing. Gourevitch notes that despite the stark contrast between the Holocaust and Rwanda, they both tell disconcerting tales about the capabilities of human behavior, which should raise a red flag for all of humanity:
"It has become a commonplace in the past fifty years to say that the industrialized killing of the Holocaust calls into question the notion of human progress, since art and science can lead straight through the famous gate--stamped with the words "Work Makes You Free"--to Auschwitz. Without all that technology, the argument goes, the Germans couldn't have killed all those Jews. Yet it was the Germans, not the machinery, who did the killing. Rwanda's Hutu Power leaders understood that perfectly. If you could swing the people who would swing the machetes, technological underdevelopment was no obstacle to genocide. The people were the weapon, and that meant everybody."
Gourevitch's observations came years before Darfur's crisis erupted but they are still just as relevant today as they were in 1998 when the book was published. The mantra "Never Again" still rings loud after over sixty years and efforts such as the Genocide Convention that have sprung forth from the total devastation of the Holocaust have served more as a nice piece of decor in the house of politics than as a functional tool. Its idealistic premise to protect humanity has turned a blind eye to many human lives, leaving blood on the hands of many nations and Gourevitch boldly asks, "Whose world were the drafters of the Genocide Convention--and the refugee conventions, which soon followed--thinking of?"

It certainly has not been victims of genocide.

Speaking of Darfur, be sure to read this editorial in today's Boston Globe, written by Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College who has devoted years to research and advocacy about the genocide.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More on Micro-Lending

To build upon what I discussed in my last post about micro-lending, I thought I'd include a new study that takes a closer look at the effects it has in helping people out of poverty. The results conclude that it may not be helping as much previously thought.

Given my background in journalism, I do like to play devil's advocate and present both sides of any story. In their working paper, U.S. economists, David Roodman, of the Center for Global Development, and Jonathan Morduch, of New York University, take a look at the studies conducted in Bangladesh about the impact of microcredit in households and conclude that although it does not do harm, there is a lack of evidence that it improves the lives of the poor.

Here's more information from Newsweek where you can also view the working paper by Roodman and Morduch.

In light of their findings I feel that this may be a testament that micro-lending is indeed a good method that just needs some tweaking and revising.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Micro Lending in Developing Countries

During my short time at a public relations agency that focused on nonprofit and mission-based organizations, I became aware of the term "micro-lending" and its effectiveness in developing countries. So, when I saw this article in the New York Times today, it caught my eye immediately. I'm not sure why I have never thought to write about this before, but it's never too late to do so.

Essentially micro-lending is the extension of very small loans meant for those in poverty to help cultivate business and entrepreneurship. This by no means is anything new and it has been the subject of many media outlets discussing the pros and cons of such a practice.

However, the article in the New York Times pointed out that while these loans can greatly help people, it is important to teach them business education. The combination of the loans and the knowledge is a more practical way to increase the amount of success people experience in stabilizing themselves financially and contributing to the rest of society.

While the story presented a couple of success stories, the major criticisms of micro-lending is that it can leave the small guy to be taken advantage of by big banks and it that there is no way to ensure that these loans are actually being used in the manners for which they were intended.

These are valid concerns and it's encouraging to see that organizations are working to improve the system., a micro-lending organization operated through the Internet, reassures lenders that these loans really are making a difference:
We are constantly working to make the system more transparent to show how money flows throughout the entire cycle, and what effect it has on the people and institutions lending it, borrowing it, and managing it along the way. To do this, we are using the power of the internet to facilitate one-to-one connections that were previously prohibitively expensive. Child sponsorship has always been a high overhead business. Kiva creates a similar interpersonal connection at much lower costs due to the instant, inexpensive nature of internet delivery. The individuals featured on our website are real people who need a loan and are waiting for socially-minded individuals like you to lend them money.
Other organizations such as WomensTrust, which is dedicated to helping the women of Pokuase, Ghana through micro enterprise, education and healthcare, also make sure to detail the process for lenders states on its Web site:
We employ a group-lending model that was introduced by the Grameen Bank in the 1980s. Potential clients form their own groups of four or five women and come to the WomensTrust office for an initial screening. In order to track impact, our staff records information about their businesses, their incomes, their families, their education, and their homes.

Once the group is accepted, each woman receives a beginning loan of $40 U.S. Each group member must repay her individual loan before the whole group is eligible for its next loan. We charge 15 percent interest for each four-month loan period. That rate is well within Ghanaian banking guidelines and is set purposely high to compensate microfinance institutions for the risk they are willing to assume making uncollateralized loans to the poor and very poor. It also discourages loan clients from gaming the money— i.e., loaning it out at higher rates to others.

Each of our loan clients is issued an individual ledger book with the date and details of her loan and weekly repayments. Once a group has successfully repaid their loan in full, they are eligible for the next loan of $60 or $80 and can progress up the scale to a maximum amount of $190.

There will always be kinks in any type of system which is why I think micro-lending can have more pros than cons. It needs to have checks and balances and people who are sincere and genuine in these efforts to help people.

On the other hand, for lenders, there is the issue of return on investment (ROI), leaving some to question if this type of philanthropy may focus too much on profit. This is perhaps a bit of an oxy-moron since the whole point of investing in something is to gain something back.

If a particular project isn't advancing, I'd be questioning why as an investor. Getting a better understanding of what the challenges are and what needs to be fixed is a more feasible solution than having investors pull out their support. This, ideally, is left to the organization but it is important to keep the lender as informed as possible. I figure if someone is already investing in a project aimed to help those in need, then it is most likely not all about ROI (maybe I'm being too optimistic but I'd like to think that this is how it goes) and he or she would be willing to stick it out--especially if steps are being taken to improve the small business.

These are clearly my observances as I can't claim to know the detailed process of exactly how the relationship between the lenders and organizations work. I understand it would take a lot of manpower, time and money from these organizations to maintain that level of transparency, but again, the process can evolve as time goes on.

Micro-lending can offer some promising endeavors. It's just a matter of whether we can perfect the system. For now, we know that it is doing good in many cases and I think that's justification enough to move forward.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Constant Battle for Women in Darfur

A while ago, I ran across this article in the Boston Globe discussing the recent study by Cambridge-based Physicians for Human Rights and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) which examines the long-term impact of rape and other sexual violence experienced by Darfuri women refugees. I've been meaning to bring some attention to it and while I'm a little late in doing so, I still see the importance of it.

The interesting focus of this study is not the numbers of how many have been raped or abused, (although it is no secret that the numbers are high in Darfur) but rather the effect it is having on the women who continue to live in fear every day. Eighty-eight women who fled to Chad from Darfur in order to escape the attacks on their villages, were interviewed for this study and were physically examined. While some were raped in Darfur, others were raped in Chad where they are seeking refuge.

Not only do these women have to deal with the repercussions that come with being a rape victim but they are also constantly dealing with the looming threat of sexual abuse even after. There is no relief and, as the study has found, that can have dire effects for these women both emotionally and physically.

To view the report and see the work that Physicians for Human Rights is doing for Darfuri women, click here.

Philanthropy 101 for College Students

If only these courses had existed while I was still in college:

Colleges and universities in Boston are embarking on a new trend that gives students first-hand experience in philanthropy, the Boston Globe reported today. I'm not just talking about whipping out the checkbook and signing away some money to a charity of choice. I'm talking about understanding the full scope of philanthropy from writing up mission statements to researching and evaluating organizations and then allocating the money in a responsible manner.

The Globe reported that Tufts University, Northeastern University (my Alma mater) and Boston University have all started these philanthropy courses and at least 10 New England colleges will start offering them next school year. As my eyes read over Northeastern, I stopped and thought, "Wait, how come I didn't know about this?" Well, that's because the university only started these classes last fall, after I had graduated. Bummer.

But no worries for me. I'm lucky enough to have a stint as a development assistant where I'm getting some first-hand experience on fundraising and philanthropy, albeit it's in the "real world" as a full-time job instead of in my former college lifestyle.

Regardless, I'm a little jealous. I think this is really a great opportunity because students are dealing with real money. There's no Monopoly paper money in these courses. The money itself is being donated to students in a sense. The Globe notes:
Two national foundations interested in promoting the teaching of philanthropy on college campuses began donating money for the courses across the country in recent years. The Sunshine Lady Foundation, established by Doris Buffett, sister of famed investor Warren Buffett, has given colleges $10,000 a year to disburse since 2003. The foundation’s Learning By Giving program will double next year to include 15 colleges across the country, including Tufts and Holy Cross.
The people behind these large grants are going to expect their money to be used wisely, even if it is a learning experience.

While this can open a whole new experience for students, who may or may not have had an interest in nonprofits to begin with, I think some of the real value is teaching them to be responsible with money. Understanding how an organization works and how donations contribute to helping the organization reach its mission is important. It might not seem so pertinent to students now, given they operate on tighter budget, but this won't always be the case. And as they are able to possibly make philanthropic decisions in the future, they'll have a better understanding of it all. It was also pointed out in the article that this could be a great asset for business students who will need to have knowledge of how to spend money in the most effective manner.

Hopefully, this can also serve as a way to get people interested in philanthropy at a young age, even if they won't be flexing those muscles for years to come. It can at least plant the seed for now.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Few Reflections on the 65th Anniversary of D-Day

Sixty-five years have passed since the Battle of Normandy changed the path of World War II and it is evident that the effects of the war have lingered as generations have passed, especially in terms of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust has become the backdrop for all discussions on genocide and time has shaped how the dark history of that era relates to the present. A few of Michael Kimmelman's "Abroad" columns in the New York Times have offered some insight into how it has remained an underlying influence in European culture.

For Poland, a country where anti-Semitism has persisted, the Holocaust has become ingrained in its identity, despite the now diluted Jewish population that resulted from the impact of the war. While the country has struggled with its own sentiment of victimhood, it appears the view has started to shift to an understanding that while both the Poles and the Jews suffered, it is all part of the same history. Kimmelman writes:

“Of course there are historical reasons why the perception of Poland is the way it is,” said Andrzej Folwarczny, the forum’s president. “On the other hand, Communism taught Poles that Jewish suffering was only one part of the general suffering of the Polish people, and that the first 150,000 or so victims at Auschwitz were Polish political prisoners. So after Communism, when more and more Jews came here and said, ‘Auschwitz is our place of suffering,’ suddenly these two sides, ignorant of each other’s narrative, clashed over victimhood.

“But gradually more Poles have come to realize that their history is not black and white, that we should be proud of Poles who saved Jews but also be clear that other Poles killed Jews, and that something is missing from our culture” — he was now referring to the Jewish population of three million before the war, today barely a few thousand — “for which we have responsibility.”
Kimmelman then discusses a survey in which residents living where the Warsaw Ghetto used to stand noted that Jewish history is crucial to their sense of pride and home. The full article is here.

On the other side of the spectrum, Germany, the offenders, have had to grapple with the devastation they brought and the millions of lives that were murdered under Hitler's iron fist. It has understandably remained a sensitive subject but in some respects, it seems that time has allowed some healing.

Mel Brooks' slapstick comedy, The Producers, recently arrived in Germany, prompting Kimmelman to ask, "Can Germans laugh at Hitler?" And it appears they can. If Israelis can laugh along with the Americans, then why can't they, suggests some Germans who viewed the show. Perhaps laughter is the best medicine. The challenge is maintaining a line between tasteful and offensive and as time removes us further from those lost through such horrific means, the challenge becomes greater.

I often think of another Mel Brooks' comedy, History of the World Part I, a comedy that fast-forwards through some of history's most momentous eras in true Mel Brooks fashion. One scene is a musical rendition of the Spanish Inquisition, a violent and torturous era that started during the 15th century where Spain attempted to unite itself under Catholocism after the Crusades. Thousands were tortured and killed yet in the film, it has been turned into a song and dance. And we all laughed. It was funny. But is that because we are so removed from what happened all of those years ago?

The Spanish Inquisition occured in an entirely different time period with entirely different mindsets but it helps illustrate my point just the same. I don't think there is any right or wrong answer but I do believe that at some point, and in some way, in order to accept the past there needs to be a little bit of comedic relief.

When it comes down to it, the evidence is still there. There are the remaining camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, there are survivor testimonies and there are pictures and film footage that make it hard to forget. And that is good. We can't afford to forget. A little laughter is a healthy way to move on, especially since The Producers makes a complete fool out of Hitler, helping those of us who weren't there to live through it see the complete absurdity of his ideology.

While years continue to pass even after the 65 that have already gone, the sheer magnitude of WWII has left plenty of lessons to learn in the present day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Leveraging Social Media for Fundraising

Social media has played a critical role in keeping us all connected--whether it is the real-time status updates we receive on Facebook or the continuous buzz generated by user comments on blogs. That connectivity has also jumped to the nonprofit world, where fundraising is undergoing a transformation.

Social networking sites have morphed beyond just keeping people informed about who broke up with who and have tried to adopt more socially conscious applications such as Facebook Causes. But, there is an important to question to ask--does this work? The Associated Press recently considered the effect of social media on nonprofits:

With millions of users worldwide, the sites would seem fertile ground for fundraising experiments — especially ones where users aren't asked to make direct contributions.

But it's far from certain that social networking will prove as effective as more traditional fundraising methods such as direct mail, telephone solicitation and even e-mails to past donors.

One hurdle to overcome is the sheer deluge of information online.

It is true that there is an abundance of irrelevant information brought forth by these sites (If I receive one more invitation to guess my own date of death or one more notification that someone threw a rubber chicken at me on Facebook, I might just poke my eye out!) but for the sake of argument, this is the type of awareness and publicity that can be extremely helpful to organizations.

Already working on tight budgets, nonprofits need publicity which can come at a costly price. In tough economies--such as the one we're in right now--the first thing to be cut back on or cut out completely is the communication, public relations and marketing efforts, which seems a bit counterproductive. If people are not aware of what you're organization is doing, or better yet, that your organization even exists, then how are you to maintain donors or bring in prospective ones?

Enter in social media--a.k.a free publicity.

So, while it is perhaps over zealous to say that social networking sites are going to completely revolutionize fundraising and bring in droves of donors, it is accurate to say that it will strongly influence fundraising.

It is an easy route for organizations to take advantage of but it is necessary to understand what social media tools work best for each individual cause. A critical question is who is your donor audience and where are they most likely to spend their time online?

Awareness is the key factor to bring in money. The more exposure given, the more likely people will be aware of the cause. It is just a matter of being strategic and smart about it, which is another obstacle for nonprofits as they are tight on human capacity and it takes time and research to understand these tools.

Here are some other recent articles that explore social media's effects on fundraising:

Media Shift:
How Charities Harness Social Media to Raise Awareness, Money

New York Times:
Charities Reap Benefits of Contests on Internet

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Boston Globe Lives On

The Boston Globe reached a deal with the New York Times Co. early this morning. Unfortunately that means a 23 percent pay cut for employees. You can find the full story here.

I'm glad the paper is safe...for now.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Case for Blogging

On more than one occasion I have had the discussion with my brother-in-law and a couple of other family members about the point of blogging. Some of them don't see it.

I guess you could easily figure that I do.

I know I just posted about how sad I'll be if the Boston Globe ceases its print edition, and I will be, but I also think it's important to acknowledge the significant effects blogging has had on journalism.

While my brother-in-law argued that there are too many blogs out there serving as empty ramblings from people with nothing better to do (I'm paraphrasing here), I had to make the case that there are many that have made an important contribution to the industry as they have uncovered stories that the mainstream media has managed to overlook.

So maybe he's right--there are millions of bloggers out there who may use this platform as a means to sound off on anything and everything in which one might argue, who cares? But I still say more power to's not hurting anyone. It might not be contributing to anything in the larger sense but it's harmless.

It's the bigger picture that counts. Blogs have made a huge impact on how people absorb the news and how news is broken. Back in 2007, TechNewsWorld provided a roundup of the top ten news stories brought to the forefront by bloggers. The firing of U.S. prosecuters by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Dan Rather scandal in which he aired a false report on "60 Minutes" that supposedly provided valuable information about former President Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam were all brought to light by bloggers. I'd say that's a pretty significant impact they've made.

Recently, Marcy Wheeler from emptywheel helped break the story about the use of waterboarding by CIA interrogators on prisoners from Al Qaeda. She also had a role in liveblogging for the Lewis Libby Jr. trial. Apparently, Wheeler has had a tough time getting funding from major donors to help her put her investigative journalism skills to use, according to firedoglake. In response, a campaign has been started to raise $150,000 to support Marcy, another investigative blogger to work with her, and a researcher to help them. In less than two weeks since the post about her predicament was written, $63,000 dollars have been raised so far. The great part is, all of the donations have come directly from readers. It says something that readers recognize the impact that bloggers can have.

In addition, it's the analysis and dialogue that blogs generate that make them a valuable asset to the industry. A post on MediaShift summarized this concept well:
The blog has emerged as a powerful platform for journalists to provide context, analysis and interpretation, often including behind-the-scenes information that does not fit into the structure of a traditional news story. It has also provided journalists with a way to communicate with readers in a more conversational and informal tone, rather than in an abstract voice of authority.
All of this is important in journalism as it keeps the conversation flowing and guides journalists to be better reporters and investigators. By inviting readers to join in on the discussion, as blogs have a knack for doing, journalists help expand their reach for sources and information and often find that readers are willing and happy to be a part of something.

Blogs have continued to create that element of dialogue among those that I mentioned earlier whose main purpose is not to contribute to journalism. It still creates a sense of community among people, whether they've started a blog on vegan cooking or hunting or fashion and celebrity gossip or whatever else people feel the need to discuss. When it comes down to it, that can be valuable too as it promotes writing, thinking, creativity and a marketplace for ideas that people can share.

So while some may ask what's the point, there really doesn't need to be this cosmic, world-changing movement for every blog. What matters is that there will be some that do make a drastic impact and others that just keep the conversation going. With that in mind, where's the harm in that?

The Suspense Continues for the Boston Globe...

The May 1 deadline for the Boston Globe was extended to midnight tonight as negotiations continue to determine the fate of the paper. Here's the latest coverage.

Personally, I'll be deeply saddened if the Globe stops printing. I've lived in this city for nearly six years and I was an intern at the paper. It's been a familiar face throughout my studies of journalism in Boston and as a resident of the city. As much of a fan as I am for the online world of journalism and social media, I still see the value in the printed page and I hope the Boston Globe is able to stand its ground as the industry continues to change.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


The explosion in popularity for Twitter has allowed everyone to stay in tune with each other through the bountiful amounts of "tweets" but it is apparently being used for another type of tracking: people's illnesses.

SickCity specializes in "realtime disease detection for your city from messages on Twitter (and soon Facebook)." The site scans for messages about being sick ranging from a simple sore throat to the worst of the flu and allows users to track by city and illness.

Webware's Josh Lowensohn reported about this and also mentioned Google's attempt at tracking the spread of the common cold. Google's tracking depends on people's searches on along with historic data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. SickCity's data is provided in realtime and has the ability to drill down by city. Lowensohn commented that the combination of both Twitter's users and the results from Google could have some potential in the future.

This approach made me think of the potential it could have in tracking illnesses around the world in impoverished countries. Could international aid organizations use tools like this to collect data and track the spread of certain diseases? Granted, the technology is new and in the development stages but it may have the possibility to be utilized by the health and international aid sectors. It would have to be adapted from just people "tweeting" about a sore throat or a runny nose to a more defined system but given the flexibility and innovation of technology, it's not a far-fetched idea.

A Dire Sign of the Times...

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Boston Globe is facing the threat of being shut down unless labor unions agree to pay cuts and ending pension contributions. According to the Boston Herald, the unions have until this Friday, May 1 to agree to the concessions.

It's just another sign of the times as print journalism struggles to stay afloat. As an intern in the now defunct Living/Arts section at the Globe in 2005, I remember when the first talks of downsizing were murmured among the the reporters. It's a little sad to see that four years later, the discussion has gotten much more serious. I personally hope that it won't come down to this but I guess we'll have to wait and see

Friday, April 3, 2009

April is Genocide Prevention Month

April is a commemorative month for some of the world's greatest atrocities. Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, the Holocaust and Armenia all have anniversaries in April and the Genocide Prevention Project has taken action to spread awareness by making it Genocide Prevention Month.

Along with efforts to remember those lost in past genocides, the awareness campaign also focuses on the need for a global prevention policy especially with the current crisis in Darfur. The spotlight on Darfur is a given since the project was launched by Dream for Darfur, an organization which has raised awareness about China's influence on the genocide.

Survivors and advocates will be hosting events all around the world. To launch the month-long vigil, the film, "The Last Survivor" was debuted on March 31 at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C. The film chronicles Darfuri survivors and their dedication to anti-genocide advocacy.

Ironically, I haven't seen much coverage about it. A simple Google news search for "Genocide Prevention Month" turned up 12 search results with none from the mainstream media. It's quite disappointing. With the need for advocacy and awareness as Darfur's conflict is embarking on its sixth year, an effort such as this is a newsworthy topic.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a very long but eloquent commentary by Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review. While I dont count this as coverage of "Genocide Prevention Month" he made some powerful points:
Though genocides are not uniform in character, they are all political. Genocide constitutes the most extreme possible terms for settling differences: a stronger party's decision to annihilate or extirpate the weaker. Genocide is organized. It entails a project, which in turn requires leaders with a purpose in mind and their acquisition of the means of death, including followers to do the dirty work.

We simply do not have to put up with this. By "we," let me be clear. I do not mean "humanity," although I would welcome the collective conclusion of mankind that genocide is unacceptable. I do not mean the "international community," although a decision on the part of all national governments to refrain from engaging in mass atrocities at home or abroad would be most welcome, as would a collective intention to stop and punish leaders or would-be leaders seeking to deviate from the norm. What I really mean by "we" is "we who are strong enough to stop the murderous bastards before they can get away with it."

This "we" is an inclusive group; everyone with a will and a way is welcome. But its purpose must go far beyond declaratory well-wishing. It is not a bad thing but a grossly insufficient thing to join in choruses of "never again," the familiar refrain after something really bad has happened—say, six million dead Jews, two million dead Cambodians, or 800,000 dead Tutsis. No, we must act to stop the malefactors.

And by "we," in the last analysis, I mean the United States.


So, in recent memory, "we" have acted effectively, showing that we can, and "we" have failed to act effectively, revealing a gap between our professed moral sense and what we are prepared to do to vindicate it. The test of progress for this generation is whether we will be able to extend the principle of regard for others by acting when necessary to prevent or halt genocide.


In 1946, with the dimensions of the horror of the Holocaust still unfolding, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution declaring genocide a crime under international law. Genocide "shocks the conscience of mankind," the resolution memorably declared. This effort to "internationalize" the crime of genocide might have been the world body's finest hour. The ensuing Genocide Convention of 1948 provides for "the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide" whether "committed in time of peace or time of war" and elaborates a definition, which includes "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

The convention isn't self-executing, in that it doesn't compel its signatories to take any particular action if the terms of the treaty are violated. But it does provide an international legal and, more important, moral framework for preventive action in response to the risk of genocide.

Breakthrough though it was, one unintended consequence of the Genocide Convention has been a serious problem. The definition of genocide is good as far as it goes, and the prevention mandate seems to allow latitude for timely action against would-be perpetrators. But whether "genocide" as defined in the treaty is actually occurring or about to occur is a complicated question both epistemologically and legally. For if you act to prevent genocide and succeed, there is no genocide—and so you cannot prove you have prevented one. Moreover, those you act against can claim you have violated their sovereign rights, and the argument will carry weight.

If, on the other hand, there is a legal finding of genocide, then it is too late for prevention. All that is left is mitigation. Moreover, if "genocide" is the trigger for action, then the bar is rather high: Atrocities short of genocide may somehow end up as tolerable, or at least tolerated. In 2005, a year after Colin Powell announced the U.S. finding of a genocide in Darfur, a U.N. special inquiry issued a report saying that while criminal atrocities had taken place in Sudan for which perpetrators needed to be held accountable, it lacked the basis for a conclusion that those crimes amounted to genocide. The bloodstained rulers in Khartoum were delighted to characterize the report as a vindication.

That's only the tip of the iceberg for Lindberg's commentary but it's definitely worth reading the whole thing. I focused on those particular parts because it raises the conflicting issues when combating genocide. Morally, we agree it's an atrocity, but actively little is done. Lindberg beautifully outlined the politics behind it all and those are the loose ends that are in dire need of being tied up if any progress is to be made.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Fun Way to Fundraise

My roommate passed along a solution to a minuscule problem in my life: what to do with those broken electronics that you can't throw away in the regular trash due to toxic chemicals.

Enter, EcoPhones' Green School Fundraiser. It's basically a win-win situation for causes that need to raise money and consumers who need to get rid of their old electronics--even broken and damaged items. Which is great for me because so far I have a phone I managed to drop in a puddle six months after buying and an iPod that died in the middle of my tour through Europe (just in time for the 10-hour drive from Switzerland to Paris).

Schools, churches and organizations looking to bring in some much needed funds can simply start an EcoPhones fundraising drive in which people drop off their old and/or damaged goods which are then turned into EcoPhones for money.

According to its Web site, the Dallas company "is a leader in cellular phone, ink jet printer cartridge, laptop / notebook computer, iPod, digital camera & digital video camera recycling & fundraising."

I must say, they do provide a pretty penny for those electronics--up to $300 for a cell phone. For a full list visit here.

The other great aspect is that there is no cost for the organization. EcoPhones provides free marketing materials and free shipping and there is no cost to participate.

For donors it is a great solution because with money being tight these days, there is no need to empty your wallet to make a charitable contribution. Plus, you're cleaning out the clutter while helping the environment.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Staying Positive Might Be Hard, But It's Not Impossible

With the bombardment of bad news, I thought this piece by Daniel Stone from Newsweek was a great pick-me-up. Even when it's really hard to find the silver-lining in what seems like a black hole of bad news, you can still do it, and you should--if only to keep yourself sane.

Stone, who went on what he calls "a cool scavenger hunt" to "find the lost graveyard of good news," notes that there are the wallowers (those who "soak up the latest unemployment statistics the day they come out") and the deniers (those who "turn their heads, choosing to immerse themselves in the "Back to the Future" trilogy or scrapbooking , turning off the news altogether").

But through his quest to find the silver lining, he found that it's possible even in the worst of situations and it's necessary:

But psychologically speaking, it turns out that trying to see the positive in such a negative environment isn't that bad, so long as you do for the right reasons and don't become an outright Denier of reality. According to psychologist Steven Hayes, author of the book "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life," it's fine if you're looking at the positive just for the sake of learning something positive. "But if you're only looking for the good in order to keep the wolf at bay, then your mind will constantly be thinking about the wolf, and you don't really escape. It all comes down to your level of psychological flexibility." Some people need to keep up on the bad news so they feel prepared, or maybe more in control. It can be a way to brace yourself for even worse news, says University of Florida psychologist James Shepperd. But in most cases, the human tendency is to lean toward optimism, in hopes of a better day.

Read through the whole thing and maybe you'll find your own silver lining.

Non-Profit Newspapers

The Associated Press reported earlier this week about a bill proposed by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. that would allow newspapers to choose tax-exempt status. Given that newspapers are dropping like flies (with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News among some of them), this could be an alternative route to keep American journalism alive and well.

I approached this topic over a year ago when it was clear that circulation numbers were steadily dropping for some of the country's most renowned papers. Now with Sen. Cardin's proposal, perhaps this model of journalism will be here sooner than thought.

It's already been a successful approach for the St. Petersburg Times, PBS and NPR.

However, with nonprofits struggling in this economy, will nonprofit newspapers be just another branch within the sector doing it's best to tread the water?

The Associated Press also reported on this a few weeks ago noting some of the concerns of those within the journalism industry:

Several newspaper executives this month launched a public-relations campaign to counter what they call "gloom-and-doom" reports of the industry's demise.

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said in an online exchange with readers recently that the nonprofit model has serious downsides, including conditions placed by funders. He added that endowments are no insulation against economic hard times.

On a more practical level, skeptics question whether the millions and millions of dollars needed to create such endowments could be raised during the worst recession in decades.

The proposal mentions that newspapers could operate as nonprofits if they choose to do so and Cardin notes that it is meant to preserve local newspapers and not large newspaper conglomerates. This nonprofit status would also mean no more political endorsements, which was something that never sat well with me to begin with.

With this said, it is good to keep in mind that this approach might not be the best for all newspapers but it could work for some. It's clear though that it's being considered more seriously than it was a year ago.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Update: Beyond Good Intentions

Shortly after my previous post about Beyond Good Intentions, founder Tori Hogan responded to the email I had sent to her with some more detailed answers. I thought it would be best to share a little bit of what she wrote.

Hogan first came up with the idea after her frustrations with her own work in international aid made her realize that she either had to quit or find ways to improve the system. While Beyond Good Intentions was originally meant to be a book, she notes that circumstances, including a run in with Al Gore who stressed the importance of reaching out to an audience visually, led her to turn to film instead.

This is an important understanding as the world becomes more visual and interactive. Social media and the Internet have made it almost a necessity for companies, organizations and even media outlets to engage their audience beyond simple text and Web pages. Don't get me wrong--the written word will always be of great significance (I wouldn't have been a journalism major if I didn't truly believe this) but when it comes to really getting a message across visual aids have the tendency to be much more compelling. Especially in regards to international conflicts and issues that need world attention. I can read about a child in Sudan who has been orphaned and living in a refugee camp and think, "How awful!" but seeing it first hand tugs at the heartstrings with a bit more vigor.

Film also works as a better medium for this type of project because it really gets the dialogue going by seeing and hearing individuals talk about their approaches in different episodes. Reading this in one lump sum, while extremely interesting and valuable, just might not get the conversation flowing as easily.

Hogan had even originally intended to make the film feature-length but changed her mind:
Originally the film was going to be feature-length. But I began to realize that to make an impact, I needed young people to be watching it. I wanted to get a dialogue about aid started among the rising generation of changemakers and we decided that short formate on-line "episodes" would be a much more effective way to reach them.

Again, delivering the issue all at once might be effective, but it might not be the most effective method of starting a dialogue.

Hogan told me via email that the episodes will also be available via YouTube and that she is open to embracing outlets beyond the organization's Web site. She did not mention if anything is currently in the works or of any outlets she'd like to reach out to. Regardless, spreading the project will be a better route to go in order to reach maximum impact.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beyond Good Intentions

Nonprofits are in constant need of communicating the importance and urgency of their organization and this is mostly reflected in how effective the nonprofit is. Donors want to know how their dollars are being used, how the organization is being innovative and what type of results are being brought forth.

When I came across Beyond Good Intentions, I was impressed by the extensive and in-depth attempt to answer what is effective and what is not. Founded by Tori Hogan in Cambridge, MA, Beyond Good Intentions is a nonprofit that attempts to answer "What really works in international aid?" through film.

I contacted Hogan via email in February to get some more details about the organization and its film series but unfortunately have not received a response. Since I feel like this is a really important idea that's being explored, I figured I'd share what details I do have.

Documenting Hogan's efforts to travel to ten different countries over a year of filming, the series is set to launch on April 1 with ten five-minute episodes which will be aired on the Web site each week. During her travels she interviewed 63 organizations in order to look at the innovative and effective approaches to international aid.

What is notable is the range of organizations, countries and issues that she and her team were able to cover. Everything from small non-profits to large multi-national institutions that spanned from North America to South America to Africa to Southeast Asia were examined. The team covered a wide variety of issues as well, including HIV/AIDS, unemployment, education and health among many others. But the main focus was on the approaches to solving these social problems which is perhaps the bigger issue.

As far as I can tell, the only outlet that Hogan plans to display her work is through the Beyond Good Intentions Web site. I feel this may limit the reach that her work could potentially have and was curious to know her reasoning behind this.

Despite that, the series will be a great contribution to the nonprofit world as it struggles to stay afloat during these hard economic times.

Check out the trailer:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Multimedia Look Into Darfur

Returning to my journalistic roots, I'm impressed by some of the multimedia I've recently stumbled across that examine the atrocities in Darfur. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has an in-depth display of interactive journalism that really educates people in a more stimulating manner than just reading a news article or watching a two-minute news segment on television (not that these basic journalism methods aren't important).

Released in August 2008, Failing Darfur burrows deep into the five-year conflict with eye-capturing timelines, videos, photo essays and maps along with informative Q&A's and HRW Reports that have chronicled Darfur throughout the years. One of its more compelling displays is "Smallest Witnesses" which looks at the damage caused through the eyes of children in Darfur. In 2005 HRW investigators gave children paper and crayons to keep them entertained only to find that the drawings they created reflected the unwavering violence and destruction they had experienced.
The first child Human Rights Watch encountered, an eight-year-old named Mohammed, had never held a crayon or pencil before. So Mohammed gave the paper to his brothers. They drew—without any instruction—pictures of Janjaweed on horseback and camel shooting civilians, Antonovs dropping bombs on civilians and houses, an army tank firing on fleeing villagers.
In addition to Darfur, HRW has some other compelling displays that look at the dire situations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Georgia.

The value behind this type of multimedia is that it is a powerful education tool as it is a one-stop shop of visual and engaging information. I wonder if classrooms, whether at the high school or collegiate level, use sources like this when examining foreign affairs, conflicts and genocides. Are these valuable tools able to reach a broad audience or are they staying within a more niche audience of human rights activists?

Another interesting attempt to educate people about Darfur is a viral video game that launched in 2006 and is aimed towards a younger audience. Darfur is Dying was the winning submission from a group of students from the University of Southern California who entered the Darfur Digital Activism Contest sponsored by mtvU, the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group.

I actually ran across this game in the spring of 2008 when I began research for my story on Google Earth's Crisis in Darfur map and unfortunately, I'm just getting around to discussing it nearly a year later.

The game is meant to put you in the shoes of the 2.5 million displaced Darfuris who must fend for their lives in refugee camps. In my attempts to play, my body tensed as I became a young Darfuri girl who must fetch water outside of the camp where the threat of being raped and/or murdered follows her day in and day out. While this is just a game, I found myself thinking that if I'm feeling the stress of this virtual life after 15 minutes of playing, I can't even begin to imagine the fear and anxiety those in Darfur have been living with for over five years now. This is the whole point of the game--to make people more socially conscious. It is a great way to really get people to pay attention and empathize and hopefully, take action. Again, the question is how much outreach was the game able to get?

With all of these great ways to spread information and bring awareness, the more pressing issue is how do we make people aware of these tools?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Some Optimism For Today's Economy

The endless stream of depressing news stories about the down economy is unnerving for everyone but I'm hoping to maybe spread a little inkling of hope to the nonprofit world. According to Fortune, corporate responsibility is managing to survive the financial crisis--which might not be enough to ease the anger of Americans after hearing about the excessive perks Wall Street executives have received despite the $700 billion dollar bailout--but perhaps it's a very small start.

Fortune reports:

As recession-battered companies struggle to cut costs, money spent on microfinance projects in India or using more expensive environmentally-correct packaging might seem like obvious ways to save.

But a surprising number of companies see corporate responsibility as all the more important given the financial crunch, even as they reduce spending elsewhere in their businesses. Indeed, proponents of CSR like General Electric, Intel, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) are sustaining or expanding their commitments, at least for now.

"Corporate responsibility is a nearly recession-proof commitment because it's become so mainstream," says Bennett Freeman, senior vice president for social research and policy at the Calvert Group, a leader in socially responsible investments, with about $13 billion under management. "That said, the resources to back the commitment are not recession-proof, and even the most committed are no doubt going to look for ways to cut costs."

To be sure, some companies are revaluating their efforts. Many will likely reduce their commitments to matching-grant programs for employee charitable giving, disaster relief funds, or business units focused on sustainable investments.

The encouraging news is that companies are starting to view corporate responsibility as a key component to their business, especially as consumers are losing faith in corporate leaders.

With that said, I thought I'd highlight a local effort at raising money. Virgin America Airlines is showing its support for Boston nonprofits through its What's Your Revolution? contest, which coincides with its new Boston service. Local Boston nonprofits are fighting for votes from everyday people for the chance to win $25,000 while Virgin America is also gifting $25,000 to Virgin Unite to support the participating organizations. The organizations are focused on youth education and the environment and the winner will be recognized at Virgin America's launch party in Boston on February 11, 2009.

Some of the nonprofits included are Jumpstart, Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and Cultural Survival. For a full listing click here. Voting ended on February 6, so I'm a little late (sorry!) but I figured it was still worth noting.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Picking Up Where I Left Off: SocialVibe Uses Google Earth

Shortly after my previous post about how online mapping can be a resourceful metric tool for nonprofits, I ran across this blog post from SocialVibe.

You might remember (I'm assuming for my own entertainment that I have an audience out there, however small that may be) I blogged about SocialVibe and its innovative approach to fundraising which links social networking, consumer brands and nonprofits together, waaay back in August.

charity: water, one of the nonprofits featured on the site was able to raise enough money through the thousands of SocialVibe members to build a well in Africa. The news isn't being shared just through the site's blog, but also through Google Earth.

The people over at SocialVibe have the right attitude as they note:
We're thrilled that we can not only make such a big difference in the lives of people half a world away, but that we can share it with you as well. Without you, this absolutely would not have been possible. THANK YOU for your support!
So, I just thought this was a relevant piece of news to pass along.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Potential for Online Mapping to Measure Nonprofit Success

I've often discussed online mapping in respect to human rights and how such technologies can lead to exposing crimes against humanity. Recently, I stumbled upon another use for online mapping which shifts the discussion to how nonprofits can utilize this form of social media as a form of metrics.

The Partnership for Medical Quality Donations (PQMD) launched a new online mapping tool in December which visualizes the medical product donations being made by humanitarian organizations, pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers around the world. The press release (found here) notes that this new map provides unprecedented access to information about these donations and is meant to provide a better understanding for both global health professionals and the general public about how these donations are being used.

Considering nonprofits are often faced with answering to board members, stakeholders, investors and donors about the progress of their organization, perhaps this technology could develop into a useful tool. While numbers are always a way to measure success, it isn't always the most reliable method. The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) was onto this way before I was and wrote about it in this post from September 2007.

Numbers can be helpful but they are dry. They don't demonstrate in detail how the mission of an organization is being reached. NTEN explains this well:

Do all these numbers really tell us if we are meeting our missions? Take this number. Tell me what you think this number says about NTEN:
  • 7158: September site visits to date at

It does say a number of things. It says that we are less popular than and Facebook. It also says that we are not even beginning to scratch the surface of the number of nonprofits that could know about us.

But here's what it does not say:

  1. How engaged those 7158 people are with the NTEN site, or the organization;
  2. If those 7158 people think NTEN is worthwhile; and most importantly:
  3. Whether or not we are achieving our mission

So with numbers, one can get a general picture of the organization. But what people, especially donors, want to hear is how their contributions are being used, which ultimately means their interested in stories about the people or causes the organization is aiming to help.

Maybe this is just the journalist in me, but I believe that everyone enjoys a good story. Especially if you make someone feel that they are part of the story. If I know my donation to a charity focusing on saving lives in Darfur helped buy medicine for a sick child in a refugee camp, then I'm going to feel like my donation was worthwhile. If I'm happy with how the organization is allocating its resources, I'm likely to keep donating.

Online mapping has the ability to do make people feel part of the story. Maps such as Google Earth's Crisis in Darfur map and Ushahidi, help visualize human rights violations but they also help to give a more in-depth story about what is happening. If this could be applied to nonprofits and how they're operating, it would give everyone involved from board members to donors a more interactive and detailed look at what is being accomplished.

Now, I'm not completely naive. I understand that this takes money and the know-how from people who are well-versed in this technology and the problem is, most nonprofits don't have the resources to do this.

The PQMD mapping tool was funded by a grant from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and developed in partnership with Loma Linda University Health Geoinformatics Program and International Aid, Inc.

But perhaps I'm an idealist and hope that as this technology advances and becomes more popular, nonprofits can get in on the fun too. It really is all about the story (again, the journalist in me) and there are so many good ones out there to tell. NTEN agrees with me:
At the end of the day, nonprofits are not about the number of widgets we move off the shelves. We are more than metrics. We are stories. We are the tales of the lives we touch and the communities we shape. And though metrics are a necessary and good part of our work, they are not the story.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Returning From Exile

Lately, I've been watching a lot of television.

Having lost my job, I've spent numerous hours trying to find a new one with various reruns of sitcoms providing background noise. (This partly explains my prolonged absence from writing but now I'm trying to get back into the swing of things.)

Syndicated sitcoms aside, there's one show that I've caught that I can't quite make my mind up about: MTV's Exiled, which premiered this past August. The premise is taking the spoiled, narcissistic teenagers from My Super Sweet Sixteen and placing them in remote places in third world countries in order to teach them a lesson or two about earning a dollar. Each former Sweet Sixteener stays with a host family for one week where they are guided by someone their age.

For the most part, I must admit that I'm a fan of reality television shows (although not all of them) and to some extent I enjoy the senseless drama as a form of entertainment. Which is why I laughed a little to myself about the thought of these young money monsters heading to places such as Kenya, Morocco and Thailand to finally see that life isn't all Gucci bags and trust funds.

But the one thing I keep in mind is that this is still reality television and one week in exile won't teach these teens much more than life sucks for everyone else but them as they return home to the cushy wallets of mommy and daddy.

I'm not trying to be overly cynical because I actually do find a few positive notes about this show. If anything, it gives viewers the chance to see how hard people in other cultures truly work for the simplest of things such as water, never mind just earning money. In the first episode, Amanda travels to Kenya where she stays with Josephine from the Musai tribe and must travel four hours to get to the drinking well. Quite the time-difference from just turning a faucet.

It opens viewers' eyes to different cultures and different traditions. Of course, in a limited scope, as a half-hour television series can only do so much, but perhaps every bit does count, especially since the show reaches such a young demographic.

While the subjects of each episode are the people we all love to hate, the show is still humbling for those of us who haven't grown up with a silver-spoon in our mouth. The majority of us are not living in mansions with butlers and maids and a never-ending amount of money to spend but we live quite comfortable lifestyles. So, while we may feel inclined to laugh as Amanda shrieks over the bugs flying around her or at her complete disgust at building a hut with cow dung, we may come to realize that we might not handle these situations with any more grace than she did. (Given my irrational fear of bugs, something tells me I would've been less than graceful when dealing with the insect population in Kenya!)

Watching these host families take these Americans in with open arms, there is almost a sense of exploitation as they are used as teaching tools for the privileged. With only one week spent with the host family, each teen is whisked back to life in the States while the respectful and humble host family carries on with life as usual. It begs the question of whether there should be any type of compensation for the role these families have.

Shortly after the show's debut, Newsweek examined the response the show has received noting viewers' concerns over stereotyping and exploitation.

Whether or not these experiences really have changed the perspectives of each teen that particpated on the show is debateable but in the end, it is just reality television. Unfortunately we're just careless about who we drag into our craze for "reality."