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."