Innovative philanthropy and the quest for unrestricted funding

“In the real world, if you were to invest in a company you thought would make you a tidy profit, you wouldn’t tell the senior management they had to make a product of your choosing, restrict the number of vehicles they purchased, or expand operations into a new country. Why should we do any differently in the social sector? Why not simply invest – fund – on the basis of return in the form of impact? Isn’t that the point?”

Kevin Starr, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Just as Kevin Starr “stumbled into philanthropy”, I stumbled into running an organisation. I’ve been fortunate to meet Kevin on a number of occasions, and we have a fair bit in common. For a start, we ended up in places we weren’t expecting, and we’re both graduates of the School of Learning by Doing. Although this approach can be painful at times, you often find yourself stumbling across answers you wouldn’t have if you’d followed a more traditional, established route. There’s a danger if all you ever do is stay in your comfort zone.

(I remember talking to my mother back in November 2002 when I’d just been offered my first piece of mobile consultancy. I was supposed to build a conservation portal on Vodafone live! but had never done anything with mobile before (very few people had back then). I accepted the gig, although I had absolutely no idea if I’d be able to deliver. A simple fear of failure drove me on over the proceeding twelve months).

Kevin has largely figured it out for himself, too (in between extended bouts of surfing) and the end result – the work of the Mulago Foundation – is as inspiring as it is simple. If you’ve not seen his Pop!Tech talk from last year, do yourself a favour and check it out.

In short, the Mulago Foundation looks for “the best solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest countries”. These projects need to answer four quite simple questions:

  1. Is it needed?
  2. Does it work?
  3. Will it get to those who need it?
  4. Will they use it correctly when they get it?

None of this is rocket science, of course, but it’s what comes after a project answers with four “Yesses” that you might argue was most innovative. Mulago provide unrestricted funding, the holy grail of fundraising. Funding is provided based on a vision, and a path to scale, and it’s down to the organisation to decide how best to spend the funds to achieve that. The rationale is really quite simple. As Kevin puts it:

If you don’t think an organization is smart enough to use your money well, don’t give them any

We’ve been very fortunate to have received critical – essential – funding for FrontlineSMS over the past four years (for the first two it was largely self-funded). Grants from a number of donors have enabled us to continually develop and build on what we started in 2005. The end result? A piece of software in use today in over a hundred countries, driving a dizzying array of projects.

Of course, there’s little use in developing such a useful piece of software if the organisation behind it isn’t able to survive and thrive in tandem. And this is one of the biggest challenges facing many organisations in the non-profit world, not just those focusing on mobile. Rightly, in most instances, there’s a growing expectation that NGOs need to figure out how to live without donor money, but that’s easier said than done (something I’ve also written about before).

About half-a-dozen donors can rightly lay claim to being a key part of the FrontlineSMS story, but when it comes to our organisational development there’s – so far, at least – just the one.

In the past 18 months there have been massive changes in how we go about our business. With roots in camper vans and kitchen tables, today we have offices in London and Nairobi, with another opening soon in Washington DC. We’ve gone from one person to around ten – with a dedicated developer team based in the iHub in Nairobi – and a single US Foundation to a UK-based Community Interest Company and a sub-branch in Kenya. We’re well on the way to resolving complex governance issues, appointing a Board and developing a number of exciting non-donor income streams, not to mention new mobile-based social change tools. A majority of this work has been orchestrated by an excellent senior management team, with Laura Walker Hudson driving things from the UK and Sean McDonald doing the same for us in the US.

Project-based funding is still a critical part of our growth and development strategy, but all of this has happened thanks to the fantastic support of the Omidyar Network who, like Mulago, fully appreciate the value of also providing unrestricted funding to their grantees. The Omidyar Network’s investment criteria is based on five key areas. According to their website:

  • Alignment. We look for organizations aligned with our mission of creating opportunity for people to improve their lives. We seek for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations that use innovative, market-based approaches within our investment areas.
  • Impact. We identify organizations that intend to develop new markets or industries, influence policy or practices among existing institutions, alter public perception, or demonstrate the power of business to create social and financial returns. Ideal partners will inspire further entrepreneurial activity in their field.
  • Potential for scale. We look for organizations with significant growth potential, with the ability to scale operations and develop new markets. We ask for-profits to have the potential for a highly successful business model and nonprofits a path toward operational sustainability.
  • Leadership. We invest in management teams with a proven track record in their field of operation and an ability to articulate a clear vision and strategy, reinforced by a viable business plan. The organization must practice exemplary governance with operational efficiency and controls, transparent practices, and disciplined financial planning.
  • Innovation. We seek organizations that employ creative, entrepreneurial strategies to accomplish their goals. Investees may disrupt the status quo, establish a new business paradigm, or pioneer services for untapped markets.

If you need living proof of what a strategy like this looks like, check out Omidyar‘s and Mulago‘s impressive grant portfolios. You can also follow Omidyar on Twitter.

There is much talk of innovation in the technology arena but less, it seems, on innovation in philanthropy. Thank goodness this is beginning to change. We are, after all, all in this together.

When in Rome. Or Africa.

Whenever I find myself in front of a group of students, or young people aspiring to work in development, I’m usually asked to share one piece of advice with them. I usually go with this: Get out there while you can and understand the context of the people you aspire to help. As you get older the reality is that it becomes harder to travel for extended periods, or to randomly go and live overseas.

In the early days of ICT4D and m4d – and development more broadly – it may have been seen as a luxury to understand the context of your target users (many solutions were seen as “universal”, after all). Today I’d say it’s become a necessity.

In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab.

There’s more to it, though, than just “getting out there”. What you learn, sense, pick up and appreciate about the place you’re in and the people you’re with largely depends on the kind of traveller you are. The truth of the matter is you’ll rarely get a real sense of a place staying for just a few days in the capital city behind the walls of a four or five star hotel. Quite often the more you get out of your comfort zone the more you learn.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to have lived and worked in many countries – mostly in Africa – since I set out to work in development almost twenty years ago. And during that time I’ve developed quite a few “travel habits” to help me get the most out of my time there.

Here’s my Top 15:

1. Stay in a locally-owned or run hotel (or even better, guest house).
2. Spend as much time as possible on foot. Draw a map.
3. Get out of the city.
4. Check out the best places to watch Premiership football.
5. Ignore health warnings (within reason) and eat in local cafes/markets.
6. Buy local papers, listen to local radio, watch local TV, visit local cinemas.
7. Use public transport. Avoid being ‘chauffeured’ around.
8. Take a camera. Take your time taking pictures.
9. Go for at least a month.
10. Visit villages on market days.
11. Spend time in local bookshops, libraries and antique/art shops.
12. Read up on the history and background of where you’re going. Buy a locally-written history and geography book.
13. Be sure to experience the city on foot, at night.
14. Wherever you are, get up for a sunrise stroll. It’s a different, fascinating (and cooler) time of day.
15. Don’t over-plan. Be open to unexpected opportunities.

Finally, if you’re looking for advice on what to take on a trip to Africa, good friend Erik Hersman (aka WhiteAfrican) has an excellent post here.

Additional suggestions

Rebecca Harrison (@rhrsn on Twitter):
16. Seize any opportunity to visit homes, especially at meal times.

Anthropologists in a Global Village

Social anthropology was a discipline I was fortunate to stumble into when I headed to university way back in 1996. My main motive for going was to read Development Studies, but at Sussex you couldn’t study it as a single subject. Choices for a second ranged from English Literature to Spanish to Geography. I rather casually picked anthropology.

If I were to be honest, for much of the first year I struggled. I never could get my head around the intricacies of “Kinship, Gender and Social Reproduction”. It wasn’t until we shifted focus in the second year towards applied anthropology that it all began to fall into place. Grounding the discipline in the problems and challenges of ‘modern’ life helped frame how useful, relevant and outright interesting it could be. By the time I graduated my main two pieces of work had focused on the role of anthropologists in the creation of conservation areas and national parks, and language death (including attempts to “revive” threatened languages such as Manx and Jerriais).

When people first come across our work they usually hone straight in on the “anthropology” in the strapline. Many people seem genuinely fascinated by what anthropologists could ever be doing working in mobiles-for-development, or ICT4D more broadly. It’s a good question. This is how I answered in a recent interview with National Geographic (this is one of a number of possible answers):

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

Back in the summer of 2008 I was approached by researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. They were working on a book chapter which looked at how anthropologists were contributing to the development of technologies that addressed the challenges of globalisation. Their focus was principally on consumer uses of technology, not organisational, and how anthropologists were melding theory and practice in the technology space, or “Global Village”.

After much work, that book – “Applying Anthropology in the Global Village” – is about to hit the shelves. For anyone interested in how anthropology can be usefully applied in the modern world, this is a must-read. kiwanja’s early work which lead to the development of FrontlineSMS is featured in the chapter on “Localising the Global in Technology Design”.

A comment from one of the reviewers sums up the book’s contribution well:

Once in a generation comes a shift in the practice of anthropology, or perhaps a shift in our perspective on the place of practice in the discipline and in the world.  Here is a harbinger of such change – the book we have all been waiting for – taking us to the cutting-edge of an anthropological practice that is ‘globalised’, hybridised with other disciplines, technology-infused, and on the go 24/7. A remarkable collection, this volume provides prospective and retrospective views of the agglomerative power of anthropology in the halls of global practice – influencing policy on global climate change, gendering our knowledge of mobility around the world, explaining the reason for technology ‘grey markets’ in developing nations, revealing the concept of ‘plastic time’ and so much more. It will challenge what you thought you knew about ‘applied anthropology’

Although nothing as grand as a book, there are a few posts here covering anthropology and it’s increasing relevance in the ICT4D/m4d sector. There’s a general introduction here, a few additional resources here and an anthropology ‘category’ here.

If you’re interested in working in ICT4D and would rather focus on the “D”, you could do a lot worse than study anthropology. This book could well be the perfect place to start.

Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature

“Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life”

Nam June Paik, Artist (1932 – 2006)

There’s a saying in the technology world which asks “What would Google do?”. When I’m confronted with a problem, I’d rather ask “What would nature do?”. Why? Well, if you believe Google have the answer then you’re immediately assuming that modern technology – in some shape or form – is the solution. More often than not that’s the wrong place to start.

I recently sat on a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum which focused on the use of social media in the environmental movement. (You can watch the video here, or read my summary of whole the event here). Many people had already made their minds up that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on were ‘the’ answer, before really thinking through what they were really trying to do, what their message was, or who the different audiences would be. That’s also the wrong place to start.

Asking what nature might do immediately pulls us away from looking for a modern, high-tech solution and more towards a simpler, low-tech (and potentially more appropriate and sustainable) one. It also encourages us to think entirely out-of-the-box.

So, if you were to ask “What might nature do?”, what kind of solutions might you come up with which you otherwise might not have?

1. Elephants

Some of my earliest mobile work back in 2003 was in Southern Africa where I was asked to help understand and apply modern communications technology to local conservation efforts. One of the bigger problems people were trying to tackle back then was human-elephant conflict – elephants ‘encroaching’ on farmland and destroying livelihoods literally overnight. In response, some farmers resorted to poisoning or shooting elephants. Not a good conservation outcome.

All kinds of modern technology solutions were proposed, and many trialled, to try and solve the problem. Electric fences, RFID tagging, sensors and live-GSM-tracking among them. Few proved as successful as hoped, or particularly replicable or affordable.

So, what might nature do?

It turns out that elephants run a mile when they encounter bees. According to this BBC article, early research in Kenya indicates hives can be a very effective barrier, so much so that 97% of attempted elephant raids were aborted. Where satellites, RFID tags and mobile phones failed, humble honey bees might just be the answer.

2. Pigeons

Each summer, as tennis players battle it out on the lawn courts at Wimbledon, the authorities do battle trying to stop pigeons interfering with play. All manner of modern technology is available to deter birds – lasers and radio controlled aircraft to gas guns and ultrasound emitters. Again, each have varying degrees of success and many can be expensive.

What would nature do?

Wimbledon’s answer doesn’t involve anything more high-tech than a bird of prey. A few laps by Rufus around the tennis courts are enough to scare the hardiest of pigeons away. No batteries – or lasers, or sound emitters – required. Simple, sustainable and replicable.

3. Wasps

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the grandly-named “Waspinator” was a little black box with wires, buttons and flashing lights. No doubt there have been attempts to develop high-tech wasp deterrents in the past, but the Waspinator isn’t one of them. In fact, if you saw one you’d likely be a little disappointed. This particular solution looks like nothing more than a brown paper bag. But don’t be fooled – nature has very much influenced its development.

According to the website:

The Waspinator is a fake wasps nest. Wasps are very territorial and will aggressively defend their nest against wasps from another colony. When a foraging wasp sees another wasps nest it will rapidly leave the area for fear of being attacked by the nest’s defenders.

Wasps have a very long range of vision and when they see a Waspinator they think it’s an enemy wasps nest and quickly leave the area for somewhere safer, leaving the area around the Waspinator completely free of wasps

It couldn’t be simpler. And no moving parts (if you exclude the wasps).

So, drawing on these examples, what five lessons does nature teach us?

1. Understand the context of your target audience/user.
2. Use locally available materials wherever possible.
3. Low-tech is not poor-tech.
4. Keep it simple.
5. The answer is likely already out there.

Next time we look to develop a technology solution to a problem, we might be best asking what nature might do before turning to the likes of Google, or any high-tech solution provider for that matter. Mother Nature usually knows best.