Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Youth as Innovators

I had the pleasure of working with Michael Joseph at the Global Youth Conference in Vienna. He is a member of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Youth Commission, from the Antigua and Barbuda RC. A number of points he made in his theme paper, "Youth as Innovators," caught my attention. We had a chance to sit down and talk about his paper at the conference.

He saw the problem of differentiating creativity and innovation. Innovation, he notes, has a very pragmatic side; it brings "ideas to life"; it moves them forward. Innovation gives ideas arms and legs. Conversely, "ideas without motion are nothing but fairy tales." That may be a bit strong, especially if creative thinking is a prerequisite to innovative action. But nevertheless action is needed to have impact. I'd like to think of creative thoughts as actions in waiting.

I found the Wikipedia entry on Innovation interesting. The authors write:

“Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different (Lat. innovare: "to change") rather than doing the same thing better.”

The "use of a... novel idea" is exactly what Michael was driving at.

I asked him what he felt was the most important idea in his paper. He said, "to try it". I love one of his closing remarks: "try a bad idea for the right reasons". It reminded me of the famous Thomas Edison quote on failure: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Michael liked that.

For some additional thoughts, see my "Six Views on Innovation"

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Innovation and the Global Youth Conference

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new." ~Albert Einstein

"Act as if it is impossible to fail" --Joy Jamal Eddine, Special Olympics

I am at the Red Cross and Red Crescent Global Youth Conference hosted by the Austrian Red Cross in Vienna this week. As in the Imagine Cup student competition where I volunteer each year, I am continually impressed with the energy and passion that students and graduates bring to world and local problems.

One of the sessions was about Youth as Innovators. Here are some thoughts I prepared for this session.

I would like to tell a story I told at a meeting with the Saudi Red Crescent earlier this year.

I recall a young student in a mixed age classroom. It was the time to make oral presentations. Everyone was nervous.

The teacher asked who wanted to go next. A small hand wheMn up in the back corner of the room. "I'll try" the young voice said. Some laughed as he shuffled to the front of the class. He was smaller than the rest and spoke with a very soft voice. The rest of the class had difficulty hearing him.

One of the older and taller students stood up, walked to the front of the class and standing by his side, (here is the technology part...) gave him an old fashioned megaphone so he could be heard by all.

It was a good presentation. When he finished everyone applauded and agreed he had some of the best ideas they had heard yet.

Now what did you hear about innovation in this story?

I hear three things. First the younger student had the courage to try it. He took the risk of failing and made it a success. For the past six years, I have been a judge for the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition. It's the largest software competition in the world for students from most countries. I see more innovation in one week than all year. Why is that? Imagine Cup students have...

1) No business experience
2) No marketing experience
3) No time
4) No money
5) No sense of limitation

and it's this last one that makes all the difference. These students just try it and refine it. Notice the order: Try it and refine it.

Second, what the taller student did was give voice to the whispering. When we stand up for those who are weaker in our organizations and communities, that's what we are doing. We are becoming Chief Amplifiers. And it is this role that is so important to leadership and innovation.

Third, The new ideas came from the back of the room. Often the ideas from the far corners of our organizations that have the possibility of becoming the really big ideas for the future. Innovation can come from where we least expect it. Be open to surprise.

Here are some discussion questions:

1. What if your organization were to give greater voice to the small ideas?
2. What are you doing to become a "Chief Amplifier"?
3. What can you do to discover the good ideas in the far reaches of your organization and harvest for the good of all?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Big Data, Small Data

"Big Data" has become the new darling of the IT world. Since May, 2011 Google references to it have jumped by a factor of five. "Data Mining" on the other hand has fallen by a factor of three since its peak in 2004.

The IT industry has a way of reinventing itself, and changing the language to suit. One could argue that these two topics are the same; the difference may be one of scale.

The challenge for non-profits with respect to modern views of data are on two ends of a long spectrum. On the one hand, is the opportunity to gain insights and take actions based on mining big data trends (
Flu Trends data comes to mind). On the other hand, is what I'd call the challenge of small data, namely the lack of good data (input and impact measures come to mind) and the relatively small, siloed data that is not being shared. 

There are two sets of motivation problems at each end of this spectrum. On the big data side is how to motivate non-profits to look at the possibilities in mining what are external data, and as Gisli Olafsson recognizes, is often at the wrong "zoom level" to be actionable. On the small data side, what is the incentive to share data and develop common standards? For corporations, it's the expectation of accessing larger consumer markets. I doubt altruism alone will drive NGOs to share. There has to be a hunger and scarcity on the one hand (what drove the NetHope members to collaborate) or a large economic benefit (also a NetHope driver, through its member deals and discounts). Otherwise, I don't see non-profits sharing data in a meaningful, aggregated way.

For further thoughts about Big Data, see the Wikipedia entry on Big Data and the Gartner definition: "Big Data are high-volume, high-velocity, and/or high-variety information assets that require new forms of processing to enable enhanced decision making, insight discovery and process optimization." That's a mouthful definition.

On the small data side, look at the case of Blackbaud's donor data products and how they have motivated many NGOs to share their most private data: about donors and their giving transactions. Chuck Longfield, Blackbaud's Chief Scientist solved the problem of "what's in it for me" by creating a huge economic benefit to sharing data: learning how my fundraising prowess stacks up against an aggregate of my peers and what I can therefore do differently.

Whether big or small data, motivation to share and use is the key. I suspect the small data issues need to be solved for NGO's before we will see the benefits of big data extending to our sector.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Friday, October 12, 2012

Vision and Values

For my annual NetHope keynote address this week, my focus was on the vision and values of NetHope. My thesis for this brief talk was that the guideposts for the future of technology for our nonprofit members is our founding values. In the midst of massive change, we can point to some major themes, but we cannot know the future; we can however apply our values to guide our decisions as we go forward.

At our Summit in 2007, one of my colleagues and friends, Jean-Louis, showed the 2006 "Did You Know?" video. It was an amazing show of technology impact facts and figures created by a high school teacher and his students in Colorado. The conclusion was that "shift happens." I thought it would be interesting to watch the update six years later. Look for the factoids in this video that impact you the most.

The astounding thing about this video is that most of the information is about the current state of the world and how it's changing now. If we connect some of the dots, I see three themes: the explosion of data, explosion of connections and explosion of applications. Let's look at each (for a copy of the presentation slide deck, click here.)

For the explosion of information, the slide in the video that jumped out for me is that 40 exabytes of information are being created this year (that's 40,000,000,000,000,000,000 characters, about the same as the number of stars in the universe). And it's doubling every two years.

A recent Cisco paper forecast that the number of connected mobile devices will exceed the population of 7 billion this year and will reach 10 billion by 2016. Mary Meeker, a leading technology analyst at Morgan Stanley, forecast that the number of mobile internet users will exceed desktop internet users in the next year. Mobile connections are exploding.

If we look at the app's store growth, we see that iPhone/iPad apps are approaching a million in just four years. And most of these cost a dollar.

In 2010 the IFRC and Accenture completed a survey of 120 National Societies. We calculated an ICT index of 18 factors versus the Human Development Index (HDI). The result was a direct relationship that mirrored the digital divide between the north and west, and the south. While the good news is that digital divide programs such as the one at IFRC are bridging the divide, the strong countries are gaining ICT capacity strength faster than the weaker counties. How will they keep pace?

If all this doesn't scare you, check your pulse! The good news is that where there is great change, I believe there is great opportunity. The key question is how will we make sense of all this for our organizations and what decisions do we need to make?

For us as NetHope members, to face the explosion it is important to return to our basic values. Why? Strategies and tactics may change, but values endure. Our fundamental principles are the anchors in the storm and provide a framework for thinking about the future. Let's look at each of our six values and some potential insights.

1) We believe technology matters; it has impact on our missions and work as non-profit organizations. We continue to be the organization at the intersection of technology and non-profit work. We are the glue, the translators, the advocates and provocateurs. We interpret the ICT benefits for the sector.

2) We believe that benefitting all benefits one. This is fundamental to our collaboration; the whole is indeed greater than the sum of the parts. Our brand of partnering means shifting from a "do then share" to a "share than do" mentality. That means approaching needs and projects with the question of how we can do this together rather than solo. That may seem like an extra step, but we believe it reduces the massive reinventing of the wheel that goes on within our own far-flung organizations let alone among us.

A further thought: Large organizations, such as my own, need to take a leadership position in collaborating as part of our give-back; where we may have the resources to go it alone, we must begin with sharing and working together. Why? To lead is to serve, and only the humble learn.

3) We believe in learning through collaboration. This is a variation on the ready-fire-aim approach that Peters and Waters identified as a key theme of excellence 30 years ago. Henry Mintzberg noted that this is fine as long as you get to fire again in a fire-aim-fire-aim sequence. The point here is that we gain a huge opportunity by learning from each other's pilots, successes and failures in parallel instead of a longer sequential process.

4) We believe in building for the Field. This means two important things: cultivating a greater sense of humility in our headquarters, and expect to learn from the far reaches of your organization and those you serve. The greatest opportunity for us may be a flipping of the pyramid where we learn more about technology that works from beneficiaries and consumers than from the traditional IT department. This is part and parcel to the Discover and Harvest approach I've advocated elsewhere.

5) We have a bias for action. We have always been a group of doers, with an impatience for the results that we know technology can deliver. Jim Collins reminds us of a fundamental law from biology is that when times are uncertain, smart organizations "vary like mad". Varying means running more pilot programs to increase the chances of a winner that can be taken to scale (and we must scale-up to have impact.) I believe Michael Schrage made a compelling case for prototyping as core competency. I would add to that and say agility--the ability to change quickly--is as important in a rapidly changing world.

6) We believe in trust above all else". Trust takes time and is based on the experience of working together. We should be proud of the faith and integrity we have developed with each other. We can depend on each other to face and overcome any obstacle the future throws at us.

I closed by recounting the scene of the Battle of Zama in Gladiator. Russell Crowe admonishes his fellow fighters to remember their training. "Whatever comes out of these gates," he says, "we got a better chance of survival if we work together."[1] By circling the group behind their shields, the larger force of archers and charioteers is fended off in a surprising reversal of history; the Carthaginians defeat the Romans, and Crowe wins the favor of the Coliseum crowd. The point of the story is that by banding together a small group can overcome larger obstacles. That is the power of collaboration.

Here are some questions to ponder:

1) How are you amplifying the voice of technology from beneficiaries?
2) How are you increasing ICT agility to adjust faster, better, cheaper?
3) How do we enable the beneficiary portfolio of applications?

I've talked about our values and I've made some comments about the future. One of the questions I was asked was based on the Wayne Gretsky question about "where the puck is going to be." The short answer I gave is that the puck is on the citizen side of the court and the hockey stick is the mobile phone. I believe that, but I also believe Mark Twain when he said, "I've seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass". If we do things together we will succeed.

[1] For the video scene, see 6:07 - 7:11 in this trailer.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Collaborate or Perish

The following article was published in the Berlin Civil Society Center publication "Global Futures – How international civil society organisations can make a real difference," which was launched at the BCSC Global Perspectives meeting in October, 2012. It is published here for the NetHope Summit with BCSC permission.

Collaborate or Perish –
How working together with technology can change the non-profit sector

Edward G. Happ
Global CIO, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
In the next ten years, smart organisations will get amazing work done, with new ways of delivering services, working with leaner processes, and more efficient tools; they will be agile enough to turn on a dime – all in the face of a more difficult economic climate. This will happen not as a result of some new flash of technology, but by banding together and pooling resources and talent in strong cross-sector collaborations based on a foundation of trust. How is this possible?

On the bright side, communities of people want to work together, especially if it’s for a common cause – it’s built into our DNA. On the dark side, collaboration is an unnatural act; it requires us to trust people we know little about and have no control over, especially if we believe we can do things faster and better on our own. This is the paradox of collaboration: it is something we want to do, and act to avoid.

As a result, we have not done a good enough job of collaborating, especially in the use of technology. As it is increasingly used to run all the services in our organisations, technology may be the microcosm for an organisation’s operations and execution savvy. Yet we continue to pursue the corporation path of the past two decades, moving to larger and more complex systems to run our businesses. We do this despite the 5:1 per person investment in technology that our corporate colleagues continue to make. I know of no board or senior management team who would approve a doubling of the Information Technology (IT) budget, let alone a five-fold increase.

This should drive us to partner and share technology more, especially for functions that really do not differentiate us. But for a variety of reasons, we haven’t done this. The barriers to collaboration include ‘Not-Invented-Here’ (NIH), abundance, and proximity. More funding is not the answer; in fact a large budget may be an obstacle to innovation and partnering. The recent history in the US housing boom provides the case of the ‘starter castle’ mindset and the need to protect and heat what is too large. For some of our organisations the ‘lights-on’ infrastructure has become the tail that wags the dog.

The lack of services collaboration, including IT, in our organisations is a call-to-arms. If we connect the dots among the evidence, there is a looming train wreck on the horizon for IT and NGOs. Large NGOs are pursuing a corporate IT path that they cannot afford or sustain. And as change gets harder and more expensive, it will ossify these organisations and become the likely targets for cuts as a post-recession downturn takes hold.

There are a number of cases to illustrate this. The donor management upgrade project at a leading NGO is a case in point: 50 per cent behind in time, with almost as much in cost overruns. What happens if this NGO is hit with a 30 per cent cost reduction in headquarters like one of its sister NGOs? The time and the cost of the change, plus the operating and maintenance costs are too high to begin with; now they become a prime target for cutting losses. It will take another three years to change to something smaller in scale and more sustainable or, worse, to restart and complete the project at a later date.

Collaboration is often driven by a scarcity of resources, a shared need, and the desire to band together as a social group. These were certainly factors that have pushed 35 of the largest international non-profit Chief Information Officers (CIOs) to join NetHope and work together on initiatives. We’ve built a model of trust and collaboration over the past decade. But we’ve only just begun.

What do we need to do to succeed? First and foremost, we need what I call ‘headquarters humility’, the openness to solutions coming from the far reaches of our organisation and others. The best answers may in fact come from the poorest countries, from people we least expect. We need to discover and harvest the best of what is happening in the field. Second, we need to shift from a ‘do then share’ to a ‘share then do’ mentality. We need to look first to how we can partner to meet a need, instead of developing me-too solutions and sharing the war stories later. Sharing stories may be essential to starting a collaboration, but there must be a shift to doing things together from the outset. Finally, the larger organisations among us, who have the resources to go it alone, need to take a leadership position on collaboration. This is part of our give-back to the non-profit community. Like a good manager who learns to accomplish goals through others, we need to get the business of non-profit services done through and with each other.

Abstract from the forthcoming book – Collaborate or Perish: How working together with technology can change the non-profit sector, © 2011, 2012 Edward G. Happ.  Advance copies of select chapters are available on Blogspot.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Today was departure day. All the students packing up, checking out, heading to the buses for the airport.

Many of the students included a "future" slide in their presentations. They spoke about their plans for their product, next steps for their business aspirations, and where they wanted to take their ideas. All were full of hope and optimism.

The question is how many teams will be around next year? We heard from a number of former contestants who had turned their project into a viable business over the past ten years. No doubt there are more. And many could benefit humanitarian work and help change the world. Yet it was clear that great ideas take incredible persistence to become great businesses.

We learned through Steve Jobs that insanely great products are all important. It was something our business schools overlooked. But the adage that great products without marketing and sales are great shelf-ware is also true, as is under-funding will kill the product. The smart teams had a marketing person on their team, and the best ones were high-energy sales people. And they had done their homework on the financials.

One of the signs about Imagine Cup posted in the conference center said "No DREAM too BIG".

One of the hallmarks of Microsoft is to think big. Passing this on to students is a natural. I heard a quip once that set "all things come to he who waits... as long as you work like hell in the meantime." As others have said, the competition is the beginning of a journey, not the end. I look forward to seeing what next year brings. See you in St. Petersburg!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Monday, July 9, 2012


Today we saw the final six teams compete for the software design awards at Imagine Cup. These were the best of the best, cool technology and well rehearsed presentations. Today, all of the demo's worked.

During one presentation, the speaker blanked on one of the slides. It was an awkward moment of silence. Then something special happened. One of his teammates asked him a leading question. The speaker replied and was back on track.

This was a simple and brilliant move. It's a variation on improv theatre, where one actor plays on another's line and extends it in a way that appears seamless.

It's also a great example of teamwork. No member of a team has a solo part. We are all completing each other's sentences.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Juggling the Demo

During a break between demos at Imagine Cup, I stepped outside for some fresh air. On the promenade, a crowd had gathered around a juggler. I stepped up to the circle and watched him toss an assortment of knives and one-liners. At one point he dropped a knife, and immediately shifted to some on-the-ground "juggling", which he did slowly, knives on the pavement, so we would not miss a turn. "I don't need your pity," he barked with a cheshire grin!

Of the nine teams I saw at the Imagine Cup, the demo's for more than half failed at some point. The angle of the Kinect box was off for one, a battery pack had drained for another, a laptop failed, an Internet connection was painfully slow, a slide did not build with its image, and so on.

There are a few lessons from our juggler that apply to the software demo. To start, practice, practice, practice. The juggler made sure we knew he had been at his craft for twenty years. He had obviously tossed these knives a few times before.

Plan on something failing. As Murphy's Law states "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." A knife will fall. How will you handle that? (Pun intended :-)

Have a "b-plan". When your first plan fails, what will you do instead? Do you have an on-the-ground demo you can substitute?

Last but not least, use some humor! Nothing cuts the stress of the moment like some levity.

I received an update flag on my iPad today for the Yelp app I have installed. The explanation was priceless: "Fixed a bug causing the iPad app to crash for Italian users. No bosons were harmed during this collision." No less a software design judge, instead of being annoyed, I was entertained.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Anticipation, [an-tis-uh-pey-sh uh n], noun
2. realisation in advance; foretaste.
3. expectation or hope.

Sitting in Starbucks sipping a reminder from the US, I watch the contestants walking by on the harbour promenade. They are on their way from the hotel to the convention center. The first round of the Imagine Cup competition begins soon and will run into the evening.  There is an urgency in their stride.

I see the Italian team in the coffee shop and say hello. They are nervous, and eye my badge. I ask about their universities.  They are from three cities, scattered across Italy.  I won't be seeing them today.  They are relieved.

We were told yesterday that the teams have been preparing for weeks, getting their presentations down to a rhythm, anticipating the questions we will ask.  Anticipating has a double edge.  As Pasteur reminded us, "chance favours the prepared mind".  Like the athletes in the summer games soon to start in London, there are months of conditioning and rehearsal.  A colleague challenges leaders to imagine the end of the movie, how this will play out.   Anticipating the ending, is rattled by the anticipation in the stomach for it to begin. Many of the teams take a deep breath then start.

The imagination that began the idea that got them here, is also needed for imagining what the audience will hear.  That is beyond the judges to the customers and users of their solutions and products.   Can they imagine the satisfaction, the "ah hah" of their audience.  

This is often an unnatural act for technology wizards, for whom the solution is "obvious". They know the end of the story.  But it is those who can tell the story in the words of their listeners, who will bring their audience along.  They will win the day.   

Tonight we selected 20 students from 72 amazing entries for software design, that in turn beat out almost 400,000 ideas from an equal number of applicants who registered on the site a year ago. The teams in the Sydney auditorium were aching with anticipation. Those that told the good stories of why, how and for how much, anticiapated what their audience needed to hear. Their solutions were, by and large, the best.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Ultimate Mash-up

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the tenth annual Microsoft Imagine Cup, the world's largest student competition for software. Here is an article I sent to Microsoft Europe.

The Ultimate Mash-up

The prospects for Europe's youth were never bleaker; the prospects were never brighter. You cannot pick up a local paper or magazine without reading about the staggering unemployment and growing frustration among youth in European countries.  Even the best educated have had to ratchet down their expectations to find work, and even then there a few guarantees.  We could stop the story here and allow pessimism to win the day.

But the lessons of the Imagine Cup tell another story.  Team after team with project after project defy the odds with innovation.  I have often counted off the "no's" of Imagine Cup students:

1) No business experience
2) No marketing experience
3) No money
4) No time
5) No sense of limitation

It is that last one that makes all the difference. The contestants I have listened to over the past five years as a software design  judge are not limited by statements like "that will never work here".  They just "do" with whatever means they have within their reach, and then some. And their enthusiasm for their solutions is contagious.

This results in some interesting discoveries that are what I call the "three mash-ups". The first is mashing-up common components in new ways. For example, the team from Jordan, a winner in 2011, duct-taped a WII box to a monitor, pulled the diode from a TV remote and mounted it on a baseball cap, and wrote software so that a young paraplegic woman could simulate a mouse and operate a cursor on a PC by tilting her head and pausing to click.   Watching the team's video is a moving experience (See  In her words, the OaSys System gave her back her life. Notice the technology pieces that were used; nothing new or extraordinary; but the connection of the parts is brilliant.  The innovation is in the mash-up of the everyday tech.

The second mash-up is in the opportunity for one team to join up with another at the Imagine Cup finals and talk about combining their projects.  At the 2009 competition, I saw an amazing application from the team from Poland that translated music to braille and back again.  The software and use of a Windows phone was extraordinary.  But the braille reader component they used was expensive. The team from China, on the other hand, had invented a braille reader from off-the-shelf components for a tenth of the cost.  At the showcase, I introduced the China team to the Poland team and asked them to do a demo for each other.  The conversation began for how they may combine efforts, mashing up their solutions, if you will, for something that could reach more people.  The key is to find each other and work together.

The third mash-up is combining the inventor-entrepreneur with humanitarian work. The Imagine Cup has encouraged students to write solutions that address the UN Millennium Development Goals.  Each team must demonstrate how their application addresses one of the MDGs.  Most teams focus on improving health or the environment. And the solutions are creative indeed, as shown by the examples above.  Going forward, there is an opportunity for Imagine Cup finalists to take their ideas to scale at humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.  Perhaps as volunteers, or interns or employees of the future.  That is my wish, and something for which I continue to advocate.  I believe this will be the ultimate mash-up of talent and need for the greater good in the world.

What are the three most important words in this article? Find, mash-up, and together.  I can think of nothing more optimistic in my conversations with students at the Imagine cup finals in Sydney this week.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Monday, March 5, 2012

IT Annual Reports

The following Blog post was originally published on the site.

March 5, 2012

One of our senior managers asked me soon after I started at IFRC, “Why is ISD the largest department with the largest budget in our division; what are you doing?”  This is not an unusual question; however, it was wake-up call that the value that IT was adding (and could be adding) to the organization was invisible.

I was first introduced to IT Annual Reports by the CIO Executive Council, where a number of members posted their reports as examples.  None of them grabbed me.  They were too technical, too tactical or too focused on internal customers.  Last year I discovered the annual Intel IT Performance Report.  It was clear, easy to read and answered the fundamental questions of what value are we adding, what are the issues we see for the organization, and where are we going? We set out with this as a model.

As we were setting strategic goals and objectives, we also asked ourselves: how do we know if the Information Services Department (ISD) team has moved the needle at the end of the year? What does success look like and who cares?  This is not a frivolous question.

Since the ISD team is about serving our customers (I take issue with those who say we don't[1]), we need to be clear about the audiences we serve.  We see five:
  1. Beneficiaries (everything we do must be measured ultimately by its impact in improving the lives of the most vulnerable).
  2. Field-workers in our National Societies who work directly with beneficiaries, delivering our programs
  3. Regional offices who work directly with local National Societies
  4. Headquarters staff who provide support for all of the above
  5. Our senior management team and governing boards who oversee our work
Your audiences may differ, but be clear about who benefits from your programs and who works closest with them.

When Tom Murphy, former Chairman and CEO of Capital Cities / ABC, Inc., was Chairman of Save the Children's Board, I asked him what was most important to him in taking the pulse of how an international child-focused organisation was doing.  He noted four questions, which became our (more positive) Murphy's Laws:
  1. Are we reaching more children?
  2. Are donations growing?
  3. Is the press good?
  4. Are employees happy?
These became the core questions that we reinterpreted for an IT organisation.  For our year-end scorecard, we posed ten questions from the standpoints of our audiences and our strategy as leading indicators of how we are doing. Here are the ten, with some sample things we measure for each:

1.  Are more beneficiaries being reached?
We track technology used by beneficiaries (the top of the pyramid[2]), our beneficiary budget spending versus lights-on spending, and number of National Societies completing our Digital Divide capacity building program.

2.  Is our technology investment growing?
We benchmark IT spending against revenue and operating expense.[3]

3.  Are the customers happy?
We survey users annually on all aspects of our IT services and publish our customer satisfaction index for headquarters and the Field.[4]  We also track the number of thank-you notes we receive each month from our employees.

4.  Are my problems getting solved?
We look at the percent of service calls solved on the first call and related data from our satisfaction survey.

5.  Are my projects getting done?
We track timeliness and cost of our larger "flagship" projects against original forecast.  We also track the project team's "confidence" index for completing projects on target.[5]

6.  Are new technologies being delivered?
We monitor adoption rates of new products like mobile phones, and those selected by users. We also report out on new capabilities we deliver like HD video conferencing, on-line meetings, larger email-boxes and other “goodies”.
We also survey users on use of emerging tech tools or applications.

7.  Are National Societies getting stronger? (Is the Field getting stronger?)
Our Digital Divide program and number of countries assisted is our key metric. We track MOU΄s signed, projects completed, and the ratio of budget spending for beneficiaries to IT costs.

8.  IS IT getting greener?
We count servers retired and on-line meetings held instead of travel for in-person meetings.  We also calculate savings in our carbon footprint.[6]

9.  Is IT using financial resources efficiently?
We report budget versus actual and a handful of ratios that we benchmark against other international organisations annually.

10.  Are our systems reliable?
We track "good days" and "bad days" and chart these monthly[7]

Answering these ten questions tells our audience how we are performing for them. If I had to pick two, growing our reach to those in need, and happy internal customers would be at the top of my list.   What value do we add to the organization?  As the title of our inaugural Annual IT Report states, we deliver mission relevant IT.  Ask our customers in the Field and HQ if we deliver on this promise.  We did.

[1] See Wikipedia the discussion and references on internal customers, here: ; for an interesting comparison, see
[2] For a discussion of the IT Pyramid, see my Blog entry on “Six Views on Innovation”, section 4.
[3] We benchmark against the Gartner and the CIO4Good NGO surveys.
[4] A US colleague tracks one metric: "How likely is it that you would recommend our company to a friend or colleague?"  See the Net Promoter article in Wikipedia, here:
[5] The Project Confidence Index is a periodic average of the front-line project team’s individual and subjective assessment on a 1-10 scale how likely the project will deliver on its objectives (on time, on budget, and within scope.)
[6] We use the carbon footprint calculator from Terrapass ( See their paper on Carbon Offsetting & Air Travel for a good review of the carbon savings data.   The Nature Conservancy also has a calculator worth comparing. 
[7] See Hallmark case: James R. Johnson, “Magnifying the Problem “, CIO, November 15, 1992, pp. 34-38.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ten Ways Small NGOs Can Collaborate

I made a presentation last week on NetHope and Collaboration to one of the 2012 MBA classes at Tuck/Dartmouth (For a copy of the slide deck, see the Presentation and Articles link on my web site at During the Q&A, someone asked "what can a small nonprofit do to benefit from collaboration?"  It's a a question I often get asked.  Here's an excerpt from my current book project, with the working title "Collaborate or Perish."  I welcome your comments.
* * * * *
I often get the comment during a leadership seminar I teach that goes something like, "Well this is all well and good for large organizations, but what about my twelve-person NGO?" What can small nonprofits do to benefit from collaboration?  Here are ten practical things you can do, starting tomorrow:
1)      Join a list-serve or social media group.  Pick one that fits your size and mission, and addresses technology.  NTEN and TechSoup list a few[1].  The MobileActive listserv is a good one for phone-based app’s.[2]  You can also join Interaction or the CIO4Good forums[3]. Search LinkedIn and Google groups[4]. Social Butterfly has an interesting list of helpful list-servs.  Try one.
Now here's the rub: for this to work for you and the community, plan to answer twice as many questions as you ask. The benefit?  First, the help you receive is proportional to what you give.  Second, it helps build a community of trust and collaboration: the "I know I will get three or more good ideas" as well as, "I had that experience!"  Can't answer what you don't know?  Share your technology experiences and frustrations. These will resonate with the audience.
2)      Partner in Learning. Training on a hoard of ICT topics is available on-line and in the classroom.  Some are free.  For example, LINGOs has a free nonprofit learning catalog.  And the IFRC, my prior organization, has a Learning Network with many free courses for volunteers.
However, many of the in-depth classes cost a bundle and take a week or more of your time.  Even the one-day seminars can be pricey.  What to do? Larger corporations have training departments and a multi-prong syllabus.  The GE Crotonville Center is the legendary example[5]. There are even corporate universities.[6] An easy “ask” for your local corporations is: can I get a donated seat in your classroom?  And while you’re at it, invite the seminar graduates to help implement what you learned.
3)      Partner with colleges and universities.  Students are among the most technology savvy people I know. I volunteer as an Imagine Cup judge each year, and I can tell you first hand that their caliber of technology resourcefulness is extraordinary[7].  These are among the most mission-driven, idealistic people on the planet. And increasingly this includes High School students down the street.  Call your local school and sign 'em up! 
4)      Share an application with an organization in your sector.  Has one of your volunteers, interns or tech-oriented employee developed a cool app?  Donate it! At NetHope we have a project underway to create a technology catalogue of useful apps.  Like old book exchange, give one, take one.  TechSoup has a variation on this called App It Up.  The idea is, the more we share applications, the more likely we will find really useful ones for our specific work.[8]
5)      Share some services with an organization in your sector and split the costs; start by sharing a person.[9] While I was on sabbatical at Tuck/Dartmouth, one of the things I heard from small NGOs in the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire, is that they couldn't afford a staff position to manage their donor data and systems.    But they were open to sharing a person. We recommended creating a support consortium. Sometimes this can be informally done, especially with volunteers, but you'll likely need an MOU that covers what each participant commits to and someone to coordinate it.
The After-hours Help consortium is a case in point.  It began with five NGOs in the UK, including four NetHope members, who shared a need to provide service coverage for employees working after hours at home or travelling.  They decided to share a remote help desk service for hours outside UK business hours. The group has an informal oversight Board run by one of the member CIOs.  They contracted with Microland in Bangalore.  IFRC joined in early 2011. For us the value proposition was clear: increase our service desk to 24x7 for less than $2 per hour.  That’s affordable for even the smallest nonprofits.
6)      Sign-up for donated software from TechSoup and Idealware.[10]  TechSoup began by offering sales demo copies of WordPerfect to non-profits. They now offer hundreds of titles from nearly 50 technology-related companies in more 35 countries, primarily serving smaller NGOs.  They also support a community of practice, noted above.  The members support each other with advice and experience. No nonprofit should be going it alone and buying software and hardware retail.
7)      Partner with a corporation to get their laptops and other equipment coming off lease. Many corporations lease their PCs and laptops, often over two years with a $1 buy-out.  These are perfectly good machines for most NGOs and should last another three years. And the donating company may also be eligible for a tax write-off at fair market value.  That's a win-win. Ask for them.
8)      Rent your software on-line.  Non-profits need to get out of the business of managing infrastructure. Technology companies are much better at this, and the incremental costs for NGOs to do this themselves becomes less attractive as the use of technology grows. And it will!  The cost of renting applications is falling and many technology companies will provide these at cost for non-profits.
9)      Develop a partnered IT strategy.  Plan with other local NGOs and create an informal board of IT advisors.  Every NGO needs an IT plan, as much to avoid costs as to invest in the gains technology makes possible. This presupposes a strategic direction for where you want to go.  As the Cheshire Cat remarked, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”[11]
Going in any direction with technology may result in a downstream cost. This may especially be true for donated hardware, software, and even consulting services.  What is free today may be a cost you can't afford tomorrow.  If you think through a plan and to total cost of ownership (TCO) you can avoid this common mistake.[12]
Take the opportunity to plan together.  This may be counter intuitive for any organization.  Why would nonprofit want to collaborate on IT Strategy?  Because many of the services IT provides are commodity functions that offer no competitive advantage for doing it on your own.  See the shared after-hours help desk, above, as a case in point.  Shared donor management databases may not make sense, but sharing other applications and tech services may be a way to afford the technologies that one small organization cannot. 
10)  Form a cooperative for experiments like I4D.  Most NGOs cannot afford to experiment. Donors want us to implement the "tried and true." This can be the kiss of death for innovation.  Joining a group is one way to mitigate the risk, much as buying shares in a mutual fund reduces the risks of betting on individual stocks.  NetHope has run Information Technology for Development (I4D) pilot programs in half a dozen areas, including mHealth, mEducation and Microfinance.[13]  Once the proof of concept is established, members can adapt the application to their organization and take the successes to scale.  The cost of failed experiments is a sunk cost in the membership fee.  That’s a lower risk way of experimenting your way toward innovation.  Can’t find an organization like this that you can afford to join?  Band together with some other nonprofits and create one.  That’s what we did at NetHope.
That’s my list of ten practical things you can get started on tomorrow, … if you are willing to collaborate and share.  The question I’ll leave you with is why not do this; what’s standing in your way?

[1] See NTEN’s networking opportunities and Techsoup’s community forums.
[2] See and join their mailing list.  With nearly 6 billion cell phones sold to-date, it is the technology of choice to connect not only with your donors, but more importantly to your beneficiaries.
[3] See Interaction’s Working Groups.  For the CIO4Good listserv, send a note to Dave Simon at Sierra Club (dave.simon AT sierraclub DOT org and convert the caps).
[4] A Google search for “nonprofit listservs” has over 830,000 results as of February 2012. 
[5] See the GE Leadership Programs for example
[6] See Mahboob Mahmood and Gurpreet Minhas, “Corporate Universities and Learning Centers: A Primer,” April, 2011 
[7] I’ve written at length about my Imagine Cup experiences in my Blog.  For example, see:
[8] This is the iPhones or Android App’s store model applied to NGO applications.  See  
[9] This is exactly what two US-based NGOs did to afford an IT Leader; they split his costs and share his time.
[10] See the Stock arm of Techsoup at and the software advisory services of Idealware at
[11] As the Cheshire Cat said in Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865.
[12] For a good review of TCO, see the Wikipedia entry here:

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."