Often, the annual financial reports published by foundations and NGOs are the epitome of a coffee table book – tomes that have been beautifully designed, but that very few people actually read. Pretty soon, they are relegated to molder on the bookshelf instead of attracting masses of enthusiastic readers. Stiftung Mercator forwent printing a designed and illustrated annual report this year. Good reason for us to take a closer look at the development that annual financial reports are taking: away from print towards online publication.
People are quite right to expect foundations and NGOs to publish their figures each year and describe in a transparent manner the grants they have made. Depending on their legal form, this may even be a statutory obligation. But does this really have to take shape as printed volumes running to a hundred pages?
Transparent: yes. Fun to read: not so much.
In the meantime, it has become a matter of course for annual reports, activity reports, or management reports to be made available for downloading by the various NGOs and foundations. However, most printed publications are not enhanced beyond making a PDF document available.
How much more pleasant it is, then, to be able to leaf through the report published by the German section of Amnesty International online. Most organizations comply with the transparency requirement – but don’t make it all that easy for their users to find facts and figures, much less understand them.
Graphics and databases make numbers more accessible
Interactive informational graphics can be a good means of processing data. In its preface, the Mercator report – which is only available online – states that the foundation consciously decided on this “more direct and more climate-friendly” approach. The figures of the annual balance sheet were explained in an informational graphic. The German section of WWF likewise has decided on a user-friendly format. American foundations are taking this a step further – many of them haven’t been publishing printed annual financial reports for several years now. To cite but one example, the Hewlett Foundation has created an interactive grants tool presenting the support it has provided sorted by categories like regions and projects. In cooperation with the Foundation Center, sixteen US foundations are publishing the grants they have made in machine-readable and geo-targeted format, doing so on a quarterly basis (ablog article on this subject has been published by the lab).
An annual report could also look like this: the Hewlett Foundation’s grants tool
Multimedia storytelling instead of dense text
In the United States, multimedia storytelling increasingly is the format of choice. Instead of an annual report, the Gates Foundation addresses its target groups by a letter from Bill Gates each year. This is an interactive website that uses image galleries, youtube videos, graphics and social media instead of text-heavy PDFs, and that presents the stories behind the projects and their beneficiaries. A video message from the CEOs and founders to the general public is de rigueur these days.
Debate about advantages and disadvantages
In Germany, many not-for-profit organizations stay true to their printed reports. Understandably so. Even in the US, a lively debate continues about the advantages and disadvantages of annual reports. After all, the format allows organizations to tell the story of their work in a special way, to illustrate their success, and to thank their committees, project partners, and sponsors. But in times in which multimedia online communication and interactive social media are increasingly natural forms of communication for people, foundations and NGOs should consider whether it might not be a better idea to invest their resources and capacities to do precisely that: communicate, all year long, on their own websites, blogs, and other social media channels. That’s transparent, contemporary – and it also happens to improve their carbon footprint.
Karma instead of cash, virtual voluntary service, donations of time, micro-volunteering: the new forms of giving back to society using the internet go by many different names. And then there’s “mobile volunteering.” Check out some of the Apps currently available that allow users to make their contribution while on the go.
- The Extraordinaries (see image below) wins the prize for the nicest name, and the most downloads. Sponsored by major partners like the neighborhood initiative KaBOOM, the App is enjoying significant success and is used for photo-tagging or tweets, among other things.
- The Do Some Good App by RockCorps is the winner in the “coolness” category. As a micro-volunteering app, it promises its users that each instance in which they do some good pursue will take no longer than five minutes. Once the mobile volunteers have performed 60 actions (in other words, logged around 4 hours of their time), they will receive the same reward as the offline RockCorps volunteers do – free tickets to a cool concert.
- Global Giving Time has the most glamorous awards – online volunteers who are particularly committed receive a virtual decoration to attach to their internet profile. Great motivation! Also, registered users are regularly updated about the projects for which they have signed up. Thus far, the Sparked-based App seems to be running in a beta version.
This shows that there are a number of nice projects testing the mobile volunteering concept. So far, most new ideas have come from the United States, but in Germany as well, various organizations are working to combine people’s efforts at giving back with the internet – and betterplace.org is one of them! For further information (in German), please navigate to the betterplace.org site on how to donate time.
No app is going to save the planet. But what apps can do is bundle information flows via text messages or Twitter, concentrating them into vital nodes of key information. Plus, they can be accessed from just about anywhere. Here’s a brief introduction to some of the apps that have yet to receive the attention they deserve in the Trendreport (the number of visitors reported by Google Analytics is a dismally low 12 to 40).
- Frontline SMS qualifies as something of a classic. This particular app software helps NGOs to remain in contact with the local population during natural disasters or conflict situations. While not the type of app you normally find in your app store, it can be accessed by anyone with a mobile phone. And the number of people with cell phones is growing, even in impoverished countries, as you can read here.
- InformaCam is an app designed to help document human-rights violations during episodes of violent conflict. The app allows amateur videos to be turned into documentary evidence by anonymizing the persons shown, by supplementing the footage with meta data, and by transmitting them to secure addresses in encrypted form. The human rights organization witness.org was involved in developing this app.
- iCow is my personal favorite and the winner of the “Apps4Africa” contest. Thanks to the voice-based application, even illiterate cattle herders in Kenya are able to monitor the health and nutrition of their cows – thereby giving farmers the means to better manage their cattle .
- TrashOut. Whoever wants to make a positive difference right here at home can download this app, which was co-developed by Greenpeace, and use it to help document illegal trash dumps. I plan to use it at the playground just around the corner!
Apps can be put to a wide variety of uses. Thus, they can transmit natural disaster alerts, share expert tips for small farmers, or even create high-tech documentary evidence. In fact, they can be applied to any number of small-scale but worthwhile endeavors, such as providing easier access to medical care in Africa or supplying virtual tools for urban greenification projects. We invite you to search our case databank using the search term “app”. The many additional, useful applications you will find there are sure to make this time well spent!
Last month I was invited to give a talk at a TEDx Salon about Mobilising Society, taking place at the Soho House, Berlin. The original idea of the talk - to develop a system in which companies and individuals can donate data similarly to the way they donate money and time nowadays, stems from a series of blogposts by Lucy Bernholz and studies by Robert Kirkpatrick from Global Pulse, about which I blogged last year.
For the next issue of the Swiss magazine GDI Impuls, Dennis and I have developed the idea of a data donation and a data commons further (the article will be out in March).
Great! The Vodafone Institute translated my blogpost about the Mobile for Good conference in London. You can read it here.
I’ve spent two months and some change with the betterplace lab. A lot has taken place in the time between I stepped off the plane at Tegel Airport and sitting here now in the south of France. Cases written, Trendreports packaged, contacts organized, office changed, and friends made. It’s time for me reflect the experience and say goodbye to Europe for the immediate future.
To boil all the time down into a blog post, I’m going to list the three positive experiences/things about working at betterplace, and three complaints/places for improvement.
- The People. Everyone I met that worked, or was involved with betterplace was so welcoming and engaging. They all had senses of humor too! This made coming to work positive and it never became a chore.
- The Mission. I contacted Joana because I betterplace.org and the betterplace lab were doing really important and helpful work in a world that sorely needs it. When I was in the office, I could feel that energy and I felt a certain significance in the tasks I did as part of my internship which furthered the goals of betterplace lab. This was a really satisfying feeling.
- The Freedom. Between Dennis and Jean working on their master theses, Rosa being in Rheinland Pfalz, and the many conferences and meetings that fill Joanas’s schedule, I was mostly left to my own devices. I got sense of empowerment from needing to sort out my own tasks and busy myself with very little direct supervision. I felt like I was really trusted.
Things to Improve
- Conversational German (this is more a personal one). While my German has become exponentially better during my time with the betterplace lab, I haven’t spoken German consistently for over 5 years, and the pace of conversation often vexed me. So when I would be trying to untangle the Gordian knot of German grammar in my head, the opportunity to speak would pass me by. The probability of being wrong checked my tongue as well. With more practice, I can hopefully join in more confidently, however I feel as though I missed some opportunities to add input during my internship.
- The Freedom. Because everyone in the team was so busy, at times I would be scratching my head, wondering what to do. I usually found things to do within an hour. However, because of the lack of supervision or specific project/task to work on, I feel as though some of my time was wasted wondering what exactly I should be doing or scrounging around for things to do. I was warned that I needed to be a self-starter beforehand. It was still a bit difficult at times.
- Background Information. On the whole scope of what the lab does and how all the pieces of betterplace fall together, I was never fully briefed. I had my research beforehand, but I was kind of dropped into the middle of it when my internship started. This led me to mistranslate some things that I didn’t understand. Of course I learned as I went along, and I got a good feel of what was going on. That being said, I think I would have benefitted from some kind of organizational rundown on the front end.
So there are some of my thoughts on the betterplace lab and my experience in the Berlin office. I had an awesome time and I really appreciate getting the opportunity to work for betterplace during these last two months. Berlin is a wonderful city, and I took the opportunity to turn tourist on the weekends to get my fill of European culture. I made some great friends in the office and brushed up on my German (which I only hope to keep improving). Though I’m going back to Portland, OR to continue my undergraduate studies at Reed College, this isn’t the end of my partnership with betterplace lab. I’ll still be doing “freelance” research and translations for the lab and I’m excited for what lies in the future for the lab.
At the betterplace lab our mission is to research the contribution digitalization can bring to the improvement of social sector work and more broadly to the quality of life of people all around the world. This is a global task, and not surprisingly we see so many exciting ideas, approaches and experiments coming from all continents. Yet we have also identified the German-speaking world as our main audience.
Why? We have experienced that although many Germans speak good English, there is still a barrier to consume and digest English-speaking websites, presentation and workshops. And we believe it is far more effective to directly address one "market" only, especially if it is such a big and well-established one as the German-speaking aid sector.
At the same time, we believe our research to be quite unique and greatly appreciate a wider audience. Thus while the main bulk of our daily communication, especially on the German blog, is in German, we have explicitly decided to have a bi-lingual site.
So as an English-speaker, what can you get from the betterplace lab?
- All our projects are presented in English and many of the resources we have assembled on the project pages are in English. As one example, check out our Stakeholder Feedback project.
- Many of the German-language presentations consist of screenshots of websites, charts and short text only and are thus accessible even to a non-German audience. If you feel that we have exactly the kind of information you are looking for, drop us a line and we are happy to help you out. That's, for example, what a researcher from Blackbaud did: she was interested in our research about the German donation market and got in touch with Angela Ullrich, our expert on the subject.
- Occasionally we do also blog in English or translate those German posts, which we believe to be especially interesting for an English audience.
In the future, we would love to have a fully English version of our flagship product: the betterplace lab Trendreport. Thus - if you are interested in making the bulk of our research accessible to a much wider audience and have time, talent or funding, please get in touch.
Recently we got around to creating a contact list for all the cases we’ve published so that we could notify them of their content on betterplace. No small task considering there are now over 320 cases and counting.
But the task was long overdue, and given the replies, completely worth the effort. We’ve received so many nice email responses and valuable feedback on how organizations mentioned have evolved in the meantime (some cases were written over a year ago now!).
There were a few difficulties regarding understanding our German text for English speaking cases, however they resourcefully approximated our meaning through a combination of rusty German, friends and family with German language skills, and the always helpful Google Translate. It is really validating and heartwarming to hear some of the responses.
Escape the city’s Adele Barlow responded:
Hi - thanks so much for sending this to us! We just used Google Translate and read it out at the office. Loved it. Thanks again.
Frontline SMS said:
Hey, Thanks so much for letting us know, herzlichen Dank!
From the Walkabout Foundation we received:
Thank you so much for informing us. We are honored to be featured on your website. Thank you for writing about us! We really appreciate your support and do let us know if there is anything we can do for you.
With best regards,
Carolina and the Walkabout Foundation team
There were plenty of simple “thank yous” and a good amount of interest and appreciation for our own work here at betterplace lab as well.
Considering the amount of time that’s passed since older cases were published, we’ve updated cases as feedback has come in and hope to provide our readers with the most accurate and up to date information available about the organizations that operate at the interstices of social causes and digital media. From now on we hope to send out notifications at more or less the same time we publish a case. We’d like to thank everyone for all the responses received so far and we look forward to those still to come!
by Raji Jayaraman, ESMT Berlin
You probably take it for granted that people are nice to each other. People house and feed their kids, call to check up on their parents, smile as they pass you on the street, drop coins in buskers' hats,… and many give to charity. Kind and seemingly unselfish acts of this sort strike most people as being perfectly natural, but much of economics is based on the precept that people act selfishly. For many markets with lots people or firms offering and demanding the good in question, this simple or even simplistic view of human behavior does surprisingly well in predicting market outcomes. But in other situations it, perhaps obviously, seems inadequate.
So how do economists explain behavior like charitable giving, which seems like a patently unselfish act? The first possibility – and here the dismal science does its moniker proud – is that people are not unselfish after all. Why should I donate towards a cancer foundation? Because I'm a middle-aged woman who has a 40 percent chance of getting breast cancer, so the odds are that I will benefit from breast cancer research. Why should I give to the arts? Because I'm fond of music and I know that without my donation, my local opera house risks bankruptcy. A second explanation is what economists call "enlightened self-interest". This is the idea that I although I am gainfully employed and comfortably housed, I may still give to my local homeless shelter to ensure that I'll have a place to stay in the unlikely event that I lose my job and my home.
Why do I adopt snow leopards?
Of course, these two explanations go only so far. I don't envisage moving to Haiti anytime soon, and neither do think it likely that German immigration authorities will sanction a huge influx of Haitian refugees, so why do I donate to Haitian earthquake relief? I hate the cold, so I'm unlikely to go hiking in the Himalayas or sailing in the Antarctic, so why do I "adopt" snow leopards and emperor penguins? This raises a third possibility, namely, that charitable donations are driven by altruism towards others or towards future generations.
These three explanations have one thing in common: I care about the supply of the charitable good or service in question, and my charitable donation raises their supply. In this sense spending money on a donation is like spending money on any other kind of private good: I can buy a sweater for a homeless person or buy a sweater for myself. They have different qualities, and may affect me differently, but both acts supply a sweater, which presumably gives me utility (otherwise I wouldn't have bought the sweater in the first place).
The warm-glow explanation
There are, however, situations in which my charitable contribution doesn't make much of a dent in supply. Do I really believe that my 20 Euros is going to curb global warming? How much of my 50 Euros is really going to reach tsunami victims, once it's made its rounds through the UN bureaucracy? 10 Euros, maybe? What's that going to buy a family of 5 in Sri Lanka? A school uniform for one kid? In such instances, there is a fourth explanation for charitable giving – that people give because the very act of giving makes them feel good. This is the "warm-glow" explanation for charitable contributions.
Let's recap our motivations for charitable giving: we have selfishness as traditionally understood, altruism, a combination of the two, and warm glow. Now, you're probably asking yourself, "Why do I care why people give? Isn't it whether or not they give what matters?" The reason to ask the "why" question is that it has important ramifications for how one can go about raising charitable donations. Suppose people give for "warm-glow" reasons. Then, eliciting a warm glow, say by expressing gratitude for donations or sending certificates of appreciation, will presumably encourage people to give. Alternatively, if people are acting out of pure self-interest, then charities would do well to request donations from individuals who share their agenda: ask 20-somethings to support internet freedom, women in my demographic to support breast cancer research, and beach cottage owners to fight global warming.
Economists have done a lot of experimental work to figure what does and does not elicit charitable giving (more on this another time), but there's a lot of work to be done regarding individuals' underlying motivations for giving to charity… Unless, of course, economists have it all wrong and people just give because they feel that it is a moral prerogative. In which case, we're back to the drawing board.
- James Andreoni (2006): "Philanthropy", in Serge-Christophe Klom and Jean Mercier Ythier (eds.), Chapter 18, Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity, Elsevier: Oxford, p. 1201-1269.
- James Andreoni (2001): "The Economics of Philanthropy.'' in N. Smeltser, P. Baltes, eds., International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier: Oxford, 2001, 11369-11376.
Raji Jayaraman is a professor at the ESMT Berlin. She is a development economist whose research examines how people respond to incentives.
One in eight people lack access to safe water sources worldwide. In some areas of the world, water points are broken or non-existent and locals have to travel long distances to fetch water – a heavy burden on human development. Sometimes such ineffective provision is due to a lack of money, sometimes a lack of information, but in some cases it simply comes down to a question of political will. But voting differently is not always a viable option for those citizens involved. Besides, if you are thirsty, you cannot wait for the next election to (maybe) bring change. Daraja experiments with a more immediate means of accountability by harnessing citizen agency and using mobile technology. What can we learn from Daraja?
Within the framework of our Stakeholder Feedback project, we try to keep track of and inform you about interesting initiatives that aim to connect the unconnected dots on the “feedback loop” in development. Amongst others, we are interested in the influence that the set-up and design of feedback pilots have on the willingness of stakeholders to participate.
Daraja – Maji Matone. “Raising the water pressure”
A few weeks ago, we spoke with Ben Taylor, Executive Director of Daraja, and asked him about Daraja’s project in Tanzania, Maji Matone. Daraja’s mission is to improve access to clean and safe water in rural Tanzania by empowering citizens to become change agents themselves. It encourages citizens to report on water supply outages via simple text messages sent to a short number. After receiving the messages, Daraja forwards them to the responsible provision unit, the local water engineers. If the authorities fail to act on this information, partnerships with the local media can be used to publish the story and put pressure on the local government. ‘If a radio team is there to follow up whether the water point is indeed being repaired, it will probably make public officials pull their socks up’, Taylor says.
The role of technology in Daraja’s approach
In this sense, the pilot builds on technologies that are available and familiar to the local communities. Radio, for example, constitutes a central part of the project’s technological arsenal due to its importance in many countries, including Tanzania. So does mobile technology, whose adoption rate in developing countries exceeds that of any other technology in history. (Today more than 72% of all subscribers are situated in developing countries.) Similarly to our SMS feedback project, mobile phones are used in the project in order to gather relevant feedback from beneficiaries. An SMS gateway then transmits the messages to a central web-based platform. But technology was also used in the preparation phase for outreach purposes: a combination of radio broadcasts and printed materials was used to explain the purpose, importance of the pilot as well as technical aspects involved with the feedback mechanism (for example which number to text to and which format to supply the information in). Essential though the use of technology is for the project, gathering data from locals is not an end in itself for Daraja. The emphasis is on acting on this data to promote change.
Status quo and outlook
Maji Matone is in the piloting phase until the end of the year, and is running in three pilot districts. After this, the plan is to scale it up to nationwide level. The project has already gathered 800 messages from citizens. 200 of these were passed on to the local government so that repair of broken water points could begin. So far repair works have been undertaken on water points in 12 communities, which benefits a calculated 3000 people in rural Tanzania.
Daraja is constantly monitoring the progress of Maji Matone and tries to discover what could be done better. One of the challenges, Taylor explains, is to improve the quality of citizen reports in terms of content. Sometimes, citizens forgot to include in the text information about where the water point is located, making it difficult to establish the whereabouts of the non-functional water point. The organization reacted flexibly to this issue and called or texted back to the given numbers. However, they were normally unable to reach the target person because, as it turned out, in many of the cases the sender was not the owner of the mobile device, or the numbers were unreachable. Taylor told us that Daraja is now working to resolve this challenge with the use of more outreach activities among the target district.
Daraja is also experimenting with changes to various aspects of the project. Based on a field research, they found that the main obstacle to participation for citizens was the use of a short number, while having to pay the fee of a standard rate SMS was not a problem for them at all. These results were quite surprising to us: firstly, we believed that making dialing a number more “simple” via a short code would be beneficial. In fact, in Daraja’s case, the people were not familiar with short numbers and they might have associated them with higher fees. Daraja is now considering switching to standard numbers or even abolishing the SMS system and replacing it with a voice and call-center based system. Second, we thought that providing some financial incentives to beneficiaries (and at least compensating them for the text messages) might be beneficial and give a kick-start. As Taylor explains, this seemed to not be a central concern for citizens in Tanzania.