Changing the world, 1% at a time

Last week I agreed to take part in a “global co-creation event” which would involve “running with the cheetahs” and meeting “fast moving changemakers”.  No, I had no idea what any of that meant either, but there were some enthusiastic Dutch people behind it, and it involved spending a day in the excellent Hub Islington so I thought I’d give it a go.

The gang behind the event run the 1% Club, which they define as:One Percent Club logo

The online platform that connects people who have smart ideas with people, money and knowledge around the world.

I was interested in the suggestion that people could lend their professional skills to projects in developing countries via a digital network, so was disappointed to find that there only ever seem to be 5 or so projects asking for that kind of support on the site. I’ve since realised that these are only the projects posted in English, with another 40 or so in Dutch, but even so the requests for funding seem to outnumber those asking for skills by a factor of 6 to 1.

The 1% Event, however, is all about taking this principle of donating skills and making a day of it.  They had identified 11 development projects from around the globe, and created 11 teams to tackle them.  Or at least, to spend a few hours trying to tackle them.  Four of the teams were in Amsterdam, with others in London, Nairobi, Cape Town, Kampala, Cairo, Buea and Ramallah.

I think the concept that underpins both the site and the event is an interesting one, and worth exploring,  but to my mind they fell down a bit on the execution.

The 8 locations were all connected via live streams and Skype, which was ambitious, and sometimes brilliant, but often unreliable.  There was also quite a bit of time spent on pre-amble, and even group singing (in Amsterdam… watched in bewilderment from London!), before things really got going and we were given our briefs.  This only left 3 or 4 hours for our small team to understand the project, do some research, discuss options with the project owner, refine, and prepare a short presentation.  I suspect some of the world’s problems may take more than 3 hours to solve… but perhaps it’s a start!

In spite of my cynicism, the serene Dr Fatumo who gave us our brief seemed genuinelySomali women pleased with what we came up with, and hopes to make real use of it. She works for a charity called Hirda working on a range of projects in Somalia and they were looking for ideas to help boost a campaign they’re running to combat FGM, which is rife in Somalia with 80-90% of girls being circumcised by the time they are 8 years old. (For the less squeamish amongst you, FGM stands for Female Genital Mutilation, which isn’t something I thought I’d be learning about on a sunny Friday in London, but I’m glad that I did!).

The aspect of our proposal that was most relevant to SmallSeeds was the suggestion that they use radio and the fixed and mobile internet to tell the stories central to the campaign.  Both a fictional story (perhaps creating a radio soap that follows the lives of a range of families, those that do and do not practice FGM) and the real and very powerful stories of the women who are willing to share their experiences.  The World Service recently ran an item on the use of soaps to deliver health messages, and Hirda have already found that the most success they’ve had is when girls share their stories – the web and mobile can help amplify those in a vast country with some of the highest mobile phone usage in Africa.

So in spite of the heat, the group singing, the flagging live streams, and the insanity of trying to understand a complex and sensitive issue in such a short space of time, I do feel it was a day very well spent.  I also think there are some interesting ideas worth pursuing around how people in an increasingly connected world could make quite a big difference by lending a small amount of their expertise.  I’m sure there are other organisations out there who are also exploring just that, so my plan is to find them and see how they stack up.

In the meantime, hats off to those crazy ambitious Dutch guys, and thanks to The Hub for their hospitality!

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We, the people

As I type, and one week in, the 42nd most popular petition on the government’s new epetitions site asks that our parliamentarians “Don’t listen to idiots signing e-petitions“. Joseph Blurton who posted it states:

We, the people, are idiots. Please, for pity’s sake, ignore us more often.

Currently 117 people agree with him.  I, for one, am not planning to join them, as I happen to think democracy is probably for the best (particularly given the violent alternatives playing out around the world at the moment). However, a scan of the 41 petitions currently more popular than Joseph’s doesn’t seem to be a particularly encouraging demonstration of e-democracy in action – or not yet anyway.

Regardless of the subject matter, it seems that we, the people, are not very organised. In the top 40 there are currently 5 separate petitions calling for a return of capital punishment, and 5 against it. There are 2 petitions calling for F1 to be free to view in the UK, and 2 asking for the legalisation of cannabis/recreational drugs. And there are many more on all of these subjects further down the list.

OK, so it’s only the first week, and the numbers are fairly small (10,621 against capital punishment, and 7,555 for… and only when you add them all up), but it’s a shame that none of the larger more organised campaign groups or charities seem to have taken advantage of the early publicity. Admittedly the Speaker only announced the launch of the site a week ago, but there’s been talk of it for a while, with government giving the project the go ahead back in December.  I would have thought a big campaign group or charity could have galvanised its supporters, particularly those they already engage with online, and made a bit of a splash in this first week.

Daily Mail front page 4th August 2011
Daily Mail front page 4th August 2011

Instead we’ve had a rather hysterical press reaction to the capital punishment petitions – in spite of the fact that the numbers are relatively small, there are repetitions and inconsistencies, and there are actually more people (currently) in favour of maintaining the status quo rather than reintroducing the death penalty.  It’s been given a fair bit of coverage on the BBC over the last couple of days, including on Newsnight (42.30 in), and several papers gave it a lot of prominence (including the Daily Mail yesterday which lead with the front page headline “MPs to vote on death penalty”.)

Regardless of whether you think epetitions, and the UK government’s latest initiative, are a bit of a gimmick, or a genuine evolution of democracy in the digital age, this week has shown that it’s possible to use these tools to grab the headlines and push the debate off the web and onto the front page.  We don’t yet know whether petitions from this site will influence government policy, or change laws, but we have seen that they can raise awareness and spark a debate.

I’m sure there will be more organised and larger scale use of the epetitions site over time, just as there have been on Avaaz. It’s just a shame that none of them were on hand to take advantage of the press hype around the launch.

On your marks…

If I’m ever in need of inspiration when doing lengths at my local pool (and believe me, I am!) then I can take heart from the fact that it’s run by an award winning Social Enterprise.

Greenwich Leisure Ltd (or GLL for short) has actually being going since 1993, and runs 90 leisure centres in London in partnership with local authorities.  And what makes them a “social enterprise”? Well, in their words:

We are a values-based organisation and we recognise our responsibility towards our customers, employees and the environment, within the communities we serve. Any financial surpluses we generate are reinvested to provide long-term benefits for our customers, employees and the communities where we operate.

And also

We aim to encourage community involvement and to promote healthy living. We work to increase levels of physical activity by delivering sport and health programmes that reach all sectors of the community.

For me there’s a double dose of good here, as they are ploughing all profits back into improving their services (including investing in their staff) and they’re also providing affordable and accessible fitness facilities for the community. (I go there largely because you can pay-as-you-go and aren’t hit with the large monthly fees of most other London gyms.)

However, another reason for sharing my (sporadic) fitness regime with you is becauseSocial Enterprise Mark logo GLL have also been awarded a Social Enterprise Mark, which has led me to find out more about the scheme.  My take on this is that it’s aiming to do something along similar lines to the now instantly recognisable Fair Trade Mark. Their hope is that people will start to look for the mark when choosing and using products and services, and they already have a growing list of enterprises who have qualified.  And who does qualify? These are their criteria:

  • Does it have social and/or environmental aims?
  • Does it have its own constitution and governing body?
  • Are at least 50% of company profits spent on socially beneficial purposes?
  • Does it earn at least 50% of its income from trading?
  • Can it demonstrate that social/environmental aims are being achieved?
  • If the company ceased trading would remaining assets be distributed for social/environmental purposes?

I would be surprised if there are many punters out there who would recognise the mark yet, or (to be honest) be particularly motivated by the values it represents (particularly when laid out in these rather dry terms), but that was also true in the early days of Fair Trade, and we now see Fair Trade products on the shelves of every major supermarket.   If consumers have been motivated to buy Fair Trade (for the benefit of producers in the developing world) and organic (for the benefit of the environment and their own health) might they now be motivated to choose providers who are investing something back into the community closer to home?

Only time will tell, but it does feel as if this may be the moment, and this met (yet) be the Mark.

A is for… Accountability

Every Christmas I like to give each member of my family a Good Gift. One of the things which appeals is that I know my money is being used for something very specific. I may not know the name of the villager or village that receives the goat, the beehive or the books, but I am confident that somewhere one of those items has been paid for by me.  I know where my money is going, and I know that the additional handling fee charged by the charity pays for their overheads.

I can’t say the same for the monthly contribution I’ve been making to UNICEF via Payroll Giving. The money has been whisked off into the ether once a month and although they do send a quarterly magazine I’ve no idea which of their many projects I may have supported. I hope it wasn’t all headed notepaper and executive flights.

My point here is not to parade my charitable works, but to pick up on the theme of accountability. It’s something that matters to me when I choose how to give, and to which causes, but it strikes me that there’s less of it about than there could be. It’s also an area where digital technology should be able to have some impact.

My very early thinking on this is that there are probably two main areas where charities and NGOs could (should?) be harnessing the power of the web to achieve and demonstrate greater accountability.

The first is around connecting donors to the causes they are supporting in a much more direct way. Even in fields where contributions can’t be neatly attributed to a goat or a beehive, shouldn’t donors at least know which campaign or project their money is going towards? In addition, wouldn’t it be great to be able to follow the progress of your chosen cause in real time, or receive updates? This is already something that the team at See The Difference are exploring – charities post initial videos explaining the specific project and targets they are raising for, and then post a Job Done video showing the impact of the donations made.  I’m sure there are also individual charities who are doing something similar via their own sites, newsletters or social media updates, but it would be great to see more of it.

I suppose a downside to this model (moving more towards sponsorship than general giving) is that the less fashionable or appealing causes might get left behind.  In a recent Dispatches the WWF came under criticism for only offering “popular” large mammals for adoption – where were the endangered fish and amphibians, many of which are in a worse state than elephants or even the famous panda? Perhaps it’s not as easy to get excited about a cuddly-toy version of a swamp dwelling toad…

And then there’s the issue of all of that headed notepaper, and how that gets paid for, which brings me on to my second point – using the web to publish data about how money is spent. I know charities need to be able to pay their overheads, but personally I’d rather they were more transparent about it. I’d like to know up front “x pence in every pound is spent on running costs” and I’d like to see that number going down over time, or be able to compare between charities.  The Charity Commission does require registered charities to send them annual reports, but doesn’t seem to publish them.  Charities do tend to publish these themselves online, but often as impenetrable PDFs, buried deep in their sites. (In the case of the NSPCC I had to hunt very hard, and found that it’s kept in a separate site altogether!). It strikes me that this is powerful, publicly available, data and more could be done with it.

I think donors in the digital age should hold charities more to account, and that the web could be a powerful tool to enable that.  But there is carrot here as well as stick… being more accountable or transparent could also encourage further giving, along the lines of See The Difference or the mighty Kiva, and should make the whole process more engaging.  And if all of that adds up to more goats and less notepaper, then I for one will be a happy giver.

Picture of a goat

So, what am I actually up to?

June has now arrived, and I’m out of the BBC and into the wild!

This month is really all about reading, thinking, and talking to people who are doing interesting things with digital technology and social enterprise. My aim is to understand more about what’s going on, and where there might be needs or gaps that I could meet or fill. It could be that I end up going for a specific role, or consulting across a range of projects. We’ll see!

And what exactly do I mean by “social enterprise”?!  Well, there are a lot of people way more knowledgeable than me who have come up with various (and not always consistent) definitions, but for what it’s worth, here’s mine:

I think a social enterprise is a viable business whose primary motivation is to meet a social need.  By “viable business” I mean that they are turning a profit, or at least breaking even, or have the potential to do so in the future.

I’m keeping a directory of the sites and services that catch my eye via delicious, and there’s a whole fabulous Guardian site dedicated to the subject if you’re keen to read more.

At the moment I’m interested both in individual enterprises, and also in the organisations that are supporting or enabling them.  There are also some great digital agencies who are focusing on working with social enterprises and charities.

There is a lot going on out there, and for now I’m just diving in and reading and exploring. If you have any thoughts or suggestions then do let me know!

Beginnings

So, this is the story of how I left the BBC, rejected Tesco, and got more involved with society. Or at least, it’s the start of that story.

I’ve spent much of the last 12 years growing things – digitally. First there was eBay, a small handful of people in a room above a furniture shop trying to launch the UK site on a shoestring and wondering if it would ever catch on… It did, and I spent 5 busy years helping it grow.

Then, when it was clear that eBay was here to stay, I thought I’d get involved with developing radio for the digital age and joined the amazing team at BBC Radio & Music Interactive. Seeds I helped to plant and nurture there included blogs for radio, the podcast service, radio in the iPlayer, programme segmentation, and in the last few months the start of a new Radio & Music product.  But there are a lot of keen digital gardeners at the BBC, and the products they’re developing are pretty huge, so after 7 years I felt it might be time to find something smaller.

I thought about “The Big Society”… I started reading about “social enterprise” and “social entrepreneurship”… I started following the work of The Young Foundation… and I wondered about what happens when the power of the web is harnessed to meet social needs, particularly as the state retreats. But then I got distracted…

I was approached by the enthusiastic people at BlinkBox, who needed a Product Manager ASAP, and were certainly set to grow. I thought it would be a good transition – out of the Beeb and into something smaller. I thought I might learn something useful about running a small business.  So I handed in my notice and was all set to start.

Then came the news that BlinkBox was being bought by Tesco and that changed things.

My first (and enduring) thought was that I couldn’t and won’t work for Tesco. In fact, I don’t even use their shops if I can help it, and they stand for a lot of things that make me uncomfortable.  Also, even if it hadn’t been Tesco, the acquisition is bound to mean big changes at BlinkBox – great news for them (and I wish them well!) but less good news for me in my quest for something small and useful to grow.

And so I made a decision – don’t start at BlinkBox, don’t stay at the BBC – use this as an opportunity to really find out how technology might change society for the better. Find those people who are already doing small, interesting, important things with the web; find out how they are getting on, and whether I might get involved.

So that’s where I am, at the end of April 2011. I leave the BBC at the end of May, and the project starts in earnest on 6th June. If you’re interested in finding out how I get on then follow this blog and I’ll keep you posted!