Monday, April 12, 2010


“If the astrologists who centered around the Porta Roma had cried out to him as he passed that he still had before him a third of his years… and some of his finest sculpture, painting and architecture ... he would have laughed, tiredly. But they would have been right[1].”

Last Saturday I was honored by a Lifetime Achievement Award from my colleagues at Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN.) After hearing Jane Meseck, a friend and colleague from Microsoft, speak about some of the things I had done, I was humbled and speechless. I remember saying “wow” and “thank you” and paraphrasing Mark Twain that the rumors of my lifetime have been a bit premature.

Then I remembered a story about one of my heroes, Michelangelo Buonarroti. He lived almost 90 years and is arguably the greatest artist of the Renaissance. Irving Stone wrote a wonderful book about his life called "The Agony and the Ecstasy." In it he told the story of Michelangelo returning to Rome, where he would live the rest of his life, in 1534 at the age of 58. If someone had told him that he had a third of his life yet to live and some of his finest art yet to create, he would not have believed them. But it would have been true.

What this story says to me is that whether we have gray hair yet or not, there is always more to do, always more we can contribute, and we should never give up on our visions of how the world can be a better place. And that we can impact the lives of those who will come after us.

I said some other things that day and told the story of the truck. [2] But I don't remember much else.It reminded me that there is a story for each occasion, each crossroad. What will yours be?

[1] Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy, New York: Signet, 1961, p 667.

[2] These stories and others are posted in my book in progress, "Letters to a Young Manager".

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Social Media and Humanitarian Aid

I had a chance to dialog with Shawn Ahmed of “The Uncultured Project” about social media and Haiti for an upcoming panel discussion we are doing at this week’s NTEN conference. We used SKYPE IM—no big deal, except I was at 35,000 feet enjoying Delta’s GoGo WiFi service and Shawn was in Toronto. Here’s some of what we talked about:

Ed: Hi Shawn. How are you preparing for the panel discussion on Saturday?

Shawn: Basically, I've been reading/brushing up on the links you sent me in prep for the panel

Ed: Great!

Shawn: My gut feeling is that, the angle I could bring is that social media + disaster relief is less about the technology available and more about the willingness to use it and embrace it.

Ed: What do you mean?

Shawn: For example, things like Ushahidi make it very easy for aid agencies to uncover where the needs are of beneficiaries in a disaster.

Ed: I agree, assuming the cell networks are running.

Ed: I told a colleague at Ushahidi that they were a radical listening to beneficiaries; that's the headline.

Shawn: Perhaps because of decades of policy and politics, there still isn't a real-time social media data sharing BETWEEN orgs.

Ed: Give me an example.

Shawn: When I was tagging along with a UK charity during Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, they had the water purification equipment, but they didn’t have the jerry cans by which to give out the water.

Shawn: It's very conceivable that, had they publically shared this data, they could have found another org in the field that had a symmetrical problem: jerry cans but no clean water to give.

Ed: So one plus one makes a solution.

Ed: Talking about your field experiences will be important

Shawn: Yes. Similarly, when I was in the field, I was very open about the "lessons learned". For example, I was distributing blankets when our boat got stormed by locals because we didn’t have enough aid.

Shawn: I shared this data on my blog, but the charity I had gone with reprimanded me for this because they felt it made them look bad. Yet, thanks to sharing this data, there was at least one org that changed how it used boats in their initial visit into the field. Data sharing like this can improve efficiency and save lives

Ed: That’s one of the promises. But open sharing of data often brings the spot light to an organization’s business processes. If these are not button-down, then that’s a problem. I’m not surprised you got negative feedback. On the positive side, a market for information will allow the bright spots to shine.

Shawn: So org-to-org sharing in real-time is just as important as victim-to-org or beneficiary-to-org sharing

Ed: I agree; that’s one of the things we’re pursuing at NetHope.

Shawn: yeah, I see the org-to-org potential and power of NetHope.

Shawn: I fear most orgs may eventually embrace disaster victim-to-org social media, but not org-to-org sharing.

Shawn: Similarly, re: feedback loop, I believe there is a benefit beyond just for donors and those far away.

Ed: Such as…

Shawn: In Bangladesh, I noticed near *hostility* towards conventional media by the victims of Cyclone Sidr. Most were bemoaning that there were more cameras than aid.

Shawn: And this was compounded by the fact that many journalists were embedded with NGOs. So it wasn't uncommon to see an aid org driving an SUV - with no aid in it, just cameramen.

Ed: Ouch. If the people are not served, we are wasting our time.

Shawn: But about the feedback loop: my experience was VERY different during Cyclone Aila, where I was able to establish myself as a social media ambassador of sorts. So my camera was merely the eyes connecting them to a online community supporting, caring, and bringing aid through an NGO.

Shawn: This actually created a fondness and appreciation. In fact, a village elder approached me and my friend there with his profuse gratitude. The difference in Cyclone Sidr (being mistaken for media) and Cyclone Aila (being seen as an ambassador of sorts) was a difference of night and day.

Shawn: It meant a lot to the recipients as well --that they had a name that was being provided with their relief kits. So this just wasn't some org giving handouts...

Shawn: Granted, this doesn't replace the social-psychological needs of disaster relief victims. But, it creates a connection (when done well) that's perceived better than just hand outs (conventional disconnected aid) and lenses in the face (conventional media).

Ed: A key point: social media is personal!

Shawn: Yes!

Shawn: And most orgs don’t' get that. It's not another tool in the toolkit. It requires a rethinking and reframing that --sadly-- has not happened yet.

Ed: It's not digital radio

Shawn: Yes, exactly

Social media and humanitarian aid: we invite your participation in the conversation. Join us for our breakout session on Saturday at 3:30PM EST if you’d like to hear more. If you cannot attend, please post your questions and comments here.