celebrating 10 lessons learned over 10 years – do what makes sense

Ten years ago, Co-Founders Mari Kuraishi and Dennis Whittle launched GlobalGiving. In honor of these past ten years and in the spirit of one of our guiding core values, ‘Listen. Act. Learn. Repeat,’ we have launched a monthly blog series asking current and former staff to speak candidly about what they have learned at GlobalGiving. Mari wrote our inaugural blog post in February, and this month Innovation Consultant Marc Maxson shares his one life-long lesson…


I’ve been part of GlobalGiving for nearly 4 years. Last month I kept asking myself, “what is the one thing that GlobalGiving taught me that I will keep doing forever?”

Lesson: Do what makes sense.

This is easier said than done. Too often, doing “what makes sense” is not feasible for larger companies, organizations, and research labs because they are bound by a preexisting set of rules. But everything we’ve done has had a different flavor than everybody else because it has evolved out of what has made the most sense to us, rather than copying whatever others were doing.

When Dennis and Mari started GlobalGiving, they didn’t build it upon an established paradigm. They didn’t require that it function according to some preconceived worldview. They didn’t even require that it remain a fixed version of their own original vision – but rather it was free to evolve into what our clients needed most. They hired enthusiastic, thoughtful, curious people and told them to “do what makes sense.”

Being the only scientist they’ve ever hired, I think they took a risk on me. They gave me the freedom to do things in new ways because they made more sense than the old ways, so long as we had a clear reason for everything we did. (You’ll never find someone saying “…because that’s the way we’ve always done it…” at GlobalGiving)

Innovation = Listening

Marc Maxson, GlobalGiving Innovation Consultant (Nairobi, Kenya)

‘Fostering innovation’ is always talked about as if it is some kind of widget that falls off a well-oiled assembly line; but inside GlobalGiving, I see it as the product of long conversations and lots of listening to each other. Anyone, even the newest intern, can contribute an idea and be heard. If GlobalGiving was supposed to be a platform to let the world’s local community leaders pitch  their own ideas and get an audience with billions of potential donors, we had to start by listening to each other, right?

Well, here are some innovation milestones I’m proud to have been part of in the last three years:

  • Real capacity building : since 2008, we’ve held over 100 workshops in 20 of the poorest countries to prepare community organizations for social media fundraising. Thousands of people attended (because we teach stuff that “makes sense” for them to learn, of course).
  • Our open challenges work: Both as a means of testing what organizations have learned, and as a test of whether an organization truly means a lot to at least 50 people (“social vetting”).
  • Learning how to do community feedback on a massive scale: 36,000 stories collected in 2011 across Kenya and Uganda. Best of all, thousands of young people in these countries were directly involved in listening to each other and collecting these stories.
  • Organization background checks (due diligence): GlobalGiving is synonymous with the highest standard in fraud protection. Last month, we screened over 400 new organizations, entirely without printing a piece of paper.
  • Quick, error-free disbursements: We get all donations out the door, to more places, faster than any aid organization. And our partners can now see what’s coming in real-time.
  • Delivering excellence while reaching sustainability: Most of the public good done by the world’s nonprofits rely on subsidies from government and even larger funding agencies. GlobalGiving aspires to do it all sustainably, so that a lean funding year doesn’t wipe us out of existence.

Suffice it to say, I have the coolest job. They let me live in Nairobi, where I run a storytelling project that – when fully conceived – could transform the way that organizations listen and learn from what’s happening around them. Imagine if every day, instead of checking Facebook for the latest fad, every community leader could log into a site that gave them a report on yesterday’s community concerns. They could receive continuous evaluations about the root causes of complex social problems. They could tab over and read stories that relate to their projects. They could send a text message back to these storytellers to ask a follow-up question, or ping everyone in the village with an announcement about next week’s HIV clinic. By lunch, they could be planning next month’s community “baraza” (fundraiser) that would collect money directly by phone and show the total amount raised on their project page (as a form of community endorsement). And over time, what got done would align with what the community needed.

Together these four things: direct feedback (from communities to NGOs), instant SMS replies (from NGOs to the community), mobile money as a fundraising tool, and a global reputation system for NGOs – would transform the way that aid flows. I’m excited to get the ball rolling but we all need to chip in, because the “standard ways” of doing things aren’t good enough. They no longer make sense. We must take risks in pursuit of better, cheaper, and more democratic ways to serve the world’s people.

So what proof does a scientist like myself need to believe that we are making progress? When people are telling stories about it on a massive scale, without us even asking them about it.

-Marc Maxson

Below: Dennis Whittle at TEDxYSE explaining: “Do what makes sense.”

Marc Maxmeister

Marc Maxmeister is a PhD neuroscientist who helps coordinate the GlobalGiving Storytelling project, an experiment to provide all organizations with a richer, more complex view of the communities they serve. His title reflects our focus on learning from experiments. He was formerly a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia (1999-2001) and did a Fulbright research project around the impact of computers and the Internet on rural education in West Africa. He loves to teach, and has taught graduate-level Neuroscience at Kenyatta University in Kenya and Python to middle school students in London, UK. He blogs at chewychunks.wordpress.com and is the author of several books, including Ebola: Local voices, hard facts (2014).

1 Comment

Karin Duranti

about 3 years ago

I found this video clip and the narrative absolutely inspiring and am so glad you've made this public. I can't wait to find out more about your organization. So well put across! Well done - please keep this going - it's very informative and really important for us to know what your organization does.

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