Author Archive


We are listening: real-time feedback loops

Posted by Marc Maxson on September 16th, 2009

feedback loopIn the GlobalGiving office, people usually introduce me by saying “…and Marc does evaluations.” That’s not accurate. A truer story would be, “Marc facilitates feedback loops.” And over my first year here, we’ve been able to do more of that.

A feedback loop isn’t anything fancy. This is where someone tells you something, and you pass it on to the person who most needs to know, then you take what that second person says in response and feed it back to the first person. *I* don’t need to evaluate anything to ensure that people are hearing from each other. But these conversations are much more powerful than the most sophisticated super computer or all the analysis a team of experts can provide.

As a neuroscientist, I studied feedback loops in the brain, and feedback alone (copied 10 trillion times over) within a network is enough to provide humans with sentient intelligence.  Pubmed it if ye doubt the claim.

Today I am happy to announce that Mari Kuraishi, GlobalGiving’s president, is presenting a case study on the power of feedback, titled “Real-time technology aided feedback loops in international philanthropy” at the Skoll skollINTERNATIONAL SOCIAL INNOVATION RESEARCH CONFERENCE (ISIRC)

This case study follows one Kenyan organization that struggled to provide promised services to the atheletes’ satisfaction. How did we find out? First, I visited the organization and handed out bumper stickers that read, “What does your community need? Tell us:” We wanted the community to know that GlobalGiving is listening to them.

ideas sticker

I didn’t know at the time that a bumper sticker would start a chain reaction that would get people in the community involved with giving the organization greater direction. This dialogue between the organization and the people it aimed to serve took many turns and ultimately caused the founder to leave the city and a new organization under the leadership of the youth athletes themselves to emerge. After months of hard work, including 3 visitors who send in visitor postcards and 3 other people who were full time volunteers working with this organization, we can at least breathe a sigh of relief. Not because the problems are gone, but at least the youth have had their voices heard and are now trying to help themselves.

We don’t know if this new organization, the Manyatta Youth Resource Center will ultimately succeed, or whether the old organization, Sacrena, will re-emerge as a stronger organization, more responsive to the community. You can’t predict when or how social change will take place. All you can do is keep listening, and keep sending these messages back and fourth so that the people with the cash hear from the people in the grass of every grassroots project.

Speaking of which, the new Manyatta Youth Resource Center is temporarily being supported through one of our Global Open Challenge projects, the Amani Na Upendo Dev Youth Group, who I am afraid is currently unable to attract any donations online by itself. Such is the paradox of grassroots philanthropy. Many of the most responsive local village-based organizations lack the social connections and international exposure needed to raise money. We know about this problem, and struggle with it daily.

But if you read this case study and want to help – tell us. We’ll send your message back to them and start another feedback loop. Another way you can help is to give the Upendo group a donation.

I’ll summarize in another post the aspects of this paper that relate to how new technology makes it possible for the people to advise donors and implenters about progress with continuous feedback.

Note: You can read all visitor postcards on our site: but I think the full paper summarizes the series of events more concisely, also available from the youth-sport-in-kenya (DOC FILE LINK) page.

I love hearing about community supported organizations

Posted by Marc Maxson on September 11th, 2009

I think the best sign that a nonprofit organization is worth your time is hearing stories of what the people it has helped are willing to do to help it. Perla Ni’s organization, is doing this. Yale professor of political science and economics, Chris Blattman, today brought Meeting Point, an AIDS hospice run by his friend Ketty Opoka, to my attention:

From the Times‘ Freakonomics blog:

When floods struck Meeting Point’s headquarters in 2007 …[they had to]… move to higher ground or risk further flooding, Meeting Point secured a plot of land from the local Catholic Church.

Opoka asked her clients to help clear the land. So many volunteers showed up that Meeting Point’s staff had to implement a rotating shift schedule for the land clearing. The local hospital’s doctors told Opoka that while the land was being cleared, Meeting Point clients showed up early for their ARV [anti-retroviral drug treatment] regimes, toting hoes and shovels and begging doctors to wait on them first so they could head to Meeting Point for their shifts.

You’ll Chris Blattmanbe hard pressed to find a worthier cause,” – Chris Blattman added.

We want to do our part, and there are ways Chris Blattman or anyone can help. He could have nominated this organization to join GlobalGiving at our open page, using the 3rd party nomination form. GlobalGiving will follow-up and hopefully get them into a new project challenge that will increase the chance someone reads about the organization and gives.

Tracking what matters in online fundraising

Posted by Marc Maxson on September 1st, 2009

John List at the University of Chicago studies fundraising strategies. In a recent article he said, “Especially in difficult times, it’s very important to learn what works and doesn’t work. I’m trying to change a sector that’s run on anecdotes into a sector that’s run based on scientific research.”

The down economy has resulted in some peculiar findings. List finds that phone marketing is more effective than direct mail, and door-to-door fundraisers get more people to open doors but with fewer donations:

 In one test, instead of knocking, they left fliers stating they’d be back during a specific time frame the next day. Before the economic meltdown, most people weren’t home or didn’t answer the door that second day. By early fall, however, people were more likely to answer the door, yet less likely to give. He concluded that most giving — more than 75% — is indeed driven by social pressure. It’s just that the economy provides a way out while still saving face. “Before the meltdown, if you answered the door, it was very difficult to say no,” Mr. List says. “But now people have a built-in excuse.” Source:

One way we’ve tried to get beyond anecdote-driven fundraising strategies is by systematically collecting information about what works in online nonprofit fundraising and sharing that with our organizations. Take a look at our Global Open challenge.  It takes a different approach to raise money from a lot of people – a social media based strategy – and we are eager to join the conversation about what works. One way is to periodically link to other places and people whom we think you ought to know about, if you are trying to pursue funding for your little earth changing idea in a crowd-sourced way.

The other is to ask you what you think. Please submit comments!

Put on a Happy Face

Posted by Marc Maxson on August 30th, 2009

Recently, Science Magazine (August 21, 2009) described the findings of a recent survey by Richard Wiseman, who who asks what is the most potent trigger for happiness? Science Mag writes:

“[Richard Wiseman] divided his 26,000 [online] respondents – mostly young adults – into five groups. One was a control group. During a 5-day exercise, each of the other groups engaged in one type of upbeat behavior: being kind to others, dwelling on a happy memory, feeling grateful, or smiling.”

And the results over 5 days?

  1. Control: Half got happier, half didn’t (just as you’d expect of a large random sample)
  2. Dwelling on a happy memory from yesterday (65% got happier)
  3. Feeling gratitude (58% got happier)
  4. Practicing smiling (58% got happier)
  5. Trying to perform an “act of kindness” (50% got happier, identical to the control group)

So how do these findings map to what we do at GlobalGiving? I assume people get happy when they give to something they care about, which is an “act of kindness.” But just how happy do people get?

My girlfriend pointed out that performing an “act of kindness” is much harder than the others, so maybe fewer people succeeded, and so fewer got happy.

What do you think?

How do you interpret this survey, as it relates to GlobalGiving? Post a comment. Thanks in advance!

Beyond Good Intentions: Getting more visitor postcards from the field

Posted by Marc Maxson on August 28th, 2009

Tori Hogan at the Social Edge blog “beyond good intentions” recently wrote about the problems with getting reliable feedback from projects in international development, and what GlobalGiving has been doing to improve feedback. Here is an excerpt:

“My old stats professor will probably kill me for this, but what ever happened to good old-fashioned gut instincts? Do you trust anecdotal reports by people who have visited field projects and come away with certain perceptions?

I started considering this concept recently when Marc Maxson at Global Giving introduced me to a new project they’re running that allows people who visit any of their countless field sites to submit ‘postcards from the field. These blog-like reports written by non-professionals (mostly by interns and student travelers) have an open-ended framework and are only guided by the question,'”what would you tell your friends about this project?’ According to Marc, ‘gut feelings about recommending a project are broad enough to predict deeper problems.'”

Tori dug through our more than 70 postcards from 2009 and found that this new Visitor Postcards program still needs more volunteers to scale up. I quote again from that post:

“However, as I scrolled through the “postcards” I had a really hard time finding any that were critical of the organizations they highlighted. Are visitors afraid to report on problems or are these organizations actually as perfect as they sound? Marc informed me that, ‘most volunteers try to self-filter and only say good things publicly, but privately send in negative comments.’ Well, it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a start!”

This remains true. The vast majority of comments on projects are positive, although I can think of two organizations who hosted visitors this year that posted negative comments and triggered larger dialogues. But anyone doing a spot check on our postcards is bound to miss them because they are not a significant fraction. :)

Bloggers and the public are our advisors. I personally thank Tori and look forward to doing what I can to get more honest feedback from visitors onto the site. Visitor postcards have played a major role in the outcome of one organization, and we will be presenting a case study on this at the upcoming Skoll “International Social Innovation Research Conference.”

I replied to Tori’s post:

We think visitor postcards have been a major success because more people are getting a first-hand account of what projects look like. And (as our case study will show) it also works to reform a problem project. The power of real-time feedback loops was enough to cause the organization visited to dissolve and reform under new leadership of a group of underserved beneficiaries. This happened in spite of the “self-filtering” problem we discussed.

Visitors often don’t realize that they omit inconsistent (negative) details when they have good rapport with the people the meet. This is human nature, and affects tourists and evaluators alike. I urge you to read “The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice” from Science Magazine (March 2009), which shows that (a) strangers’ gut feelings are more reliable trust indicators than a set of facts and (b) most people DO NOT BELIEVE THIS even though they act on it.

I cannot underscore strongly enough that getting more people to walk through more  village-level development projects would transform the way that money is spent, for a variety of reasons.

I hope you’ll attend our talk at ISIRC in September, 2009 – Oxford!

Simple gives in a down economy

Posted by Marc Maxson on February 5th, 2009

GlobalGiving is at its best when ordinary people find innovative ways to stretch their assets and spread the wealth.Dread party I want to give a shout-out to Appalachian State University student Maggie Osborn for hosting a “dread party” last week. By selling the opportunity to friends to put her hair in dreadlocks, Maggie raised $50 for GlobalGiving. These funds went directly to childhood malaria prevention deaths by providing insecticide treated bednets, malaria education, or treatment.

As a alumnus of AppState, I’m proud to see word about GlobalGiving getting out to the backcWatauga countyountry of Western North Carolina. Appalachian State is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains and isolated hamlets. When I lived there, the “Democratic Party Headquarters” for Watauga county used to occupy a stray rail car on the side of a twisty mountain road between Boone and Blowing Rock, NC. That’s Appalachia for you. And yet one person can send money to buy dozens of bednets ten thousand miles away. Even better, that person can see the impact this donation makes in one village through GlobalGiving’s regular project updates.bed nets line

In the “new economy” (a euphemism about as pleasant as “downsizing”), there are thrifty tricks to amplify your impact. Tell you friends. Even better, give your friends small gift cards to prime their giving impulses. Maggie probably learned about us because a friend or parent gave her a GlobalGiving gift card. That gift card combined with an idea she had sitting in a coffee shop and resulted in a new hair style and more bednets. Look at what one small invitation can do to get more money to people that need it most.

What if Lao Tse was a blogger?

Posted by Marc Maxson on December 8th, 2008

TaoThe blogosphere is sometimes a clogosphere of people trying sound smart, witty, or cutting-edge. But if you get a chance, I recommend you check out this really clever guy named Lao Tse. He never blogged, but he was great at cutting to the chase. Here are his tips on good governance, which seem appropriate for these days of “global economic meltdown.”

Lao Tse wrote:



“When a country obtains great power, it becomes like the sea. All streams run downward into it. The more powerful it grows, the greater the need for humility. Humility means trusting in the Tao, and thus never needing to be defensive.[61]

Shadow illusion

A great nation should be like great man. When he makes a mistake, he should realize it. Having realized it, he should admit it. Having admitted it, he should correct it. He should consider those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He should think of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.[61]



The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.[57]

When man interferes with God, the sky becomes filthy. The Earth becomes depleted. The equilibrium crumbles. Creatures become extinct.[39]



For governing a country well, there is nothing better than moderation. The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas.[59] When the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results. [58]



[Instead,] center your country on the way, and evil will have no power. Not that it isn’t here, but you’ll be able to step out of its way. Give evil nothing to oppose, and it will disappear by itself.[60]



If a nation is centered in this way, if it nourishes its own people and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others, it will be a light to all nations of the world.[61]”

This treatise, excerpted from the Tao Te Ching, was written 2500 years ago. Words in italics are various translations for “the Tao.” In the illustration above, squares labeled A and B are actually the same shade of gray. The shadow causes your eyes to deceive you. This illusion wasn’t well known in Lao Tse’s day, but it seems to have a certain Zen to it.

Storytelling our way towards a global community

Posted by Marc Maxson on October 26th, 2008

Don't you want to lose sleep writing your own novel in November?November is my favorite month because it is National Novel Writing Month and I love to write. If you are unfamiliar, NanoWriMo challenges regular people to put 1000 words a day on paper towards completing a personal novella of 30,000 words in 30 days. It’s not about quality; it’s about discipline. If you can drop two television shows from your daily routine and write, you can do it. Everyone is carrying an untold story, and most of us don’t even know we have it.

As much as I love to write, sitting down and doing it every day is a chore. Like swimming laps, the hardest part is jumping in. Most good writing sneaks in after a lot of garbage. And I am soooo happy to have an online community of other NaNos that encourage each other to keep writing. It is also a lot of fun to compare day-to-day word-counts and share our personal writing struggles. If you think you’d be into NaNoWriMo, add me as your writing buddy through my current novel page.

Social NetworksThis got me thinking about another great community. GlobalGiving acts like a sort of NaNoWriMo for development projects. You might think of us as a marketplace for giving, but we are also a set of tools for building a giving community, both on your street and around the world. Each project is the beginning of a story – an opening line of some great unwritten tale. We have our heroes (social entrepreneurs), our villians (disease, unjustice, poverty, you-name-it), and every reader is also a novelist. We buy the next volume each time we donate, but we also write the next chapter when we comment on projects, updates from the field, and tell others about a project by email, on Facebook, CouchSurfing, LinkedIn, or whatever your flavor of friend-manager happens to be.

Projects, like the developing novel, are not static items. Having written three novels myself (but published zero, sadly), I know that good drama leaps off the page when you allow yourself to run free with the setting, characters, and any other elements that might not seem “important” from the get-go. Last year my “throw-away” NaNoWriMo turned into something I really want to develop. I will be finishing my “teen angst” novel-turned-metaphysical manifesto on the nature of good and evil in November.

Writer's block never so bad when you're telling a meaningful storyA project begins with a description on the site, but it is what GlobalGivers do with this information that determines whether we write epics or footnotes in history. If we want epic results, we need improvisers and collaboration to help each project develop. There comes a point in every fledgling novel when an author’s plans slam head-first into the brick walls that confine one’s imagination. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the novel was a group project?

In philanthropy we can all become Hemingways by adding our stories to life’s narrative. And in the future, I hope more of our donors and beneficiaries will share talents, wisdom, and daily experiences around subjects that matter to the largest number of the world’s people. We might not write the great American novel today, but given the right setting, characters, and devices to overcome the villains, this community could write the first global novel tomorrow.

People need to arrive hungry

Posted by Marc Maxson on October 21st, 2008

What we do here at GlobalGiving is a mix between the complex and utterly simple. Systematically finding and vetting the best projects and plugging them into a global development ideas marketplace is rather complicated. However, the mechanisms at work that encourage more of the people to donate their money to better than average projects are simple.

groceriesTry this: Fast all morning and then walk through the aisles of your local supermarket at lunchtime. Everything looks tasty, right?

Just like feasting one’s eyes on tasty treats in a supermarket is to the ravished, a tromp through GlobalGiving’s market should evoke similar excitement – towards giving. Most of the people who find our site are already looking for a way to reach others and build relationships, but the simplest part of the system is also the most difficult: People need to arrive hungry, and the only way we build an appetite for helping others is by building relationships between strangers across the globe. Few Americans travel outside North America, and most that do go to Europe. That leaves few Americans with a realistic picture of the total human condition. That 5 out of 6 humans on Earth live nothing like Americans and Europeans should concern us. Do we understand? Or are we just sitting in the back of the class, nodding our head?

PuzzleRecently, the Poverty Action Lab proposed a series of tests to see what encourages poor people to save money. In one test they asked the person to think of a savings goal (buying a goat?) and then gave a piece of a puzzle with an image of that savings goal in exchange for each deposit. This way, the person would feel like she was not giving money away, but rather trading money with the banker for a piece of what she wants.

If you don’t read and write, and all you own is what you can see and count, banking can be uncomfortable. That’s why 95% of rural Gambians (where I used to live) prefer matresses to accounts. But before you lament the plight of the illiterate non-banking farmer, keep in mind that we in America and Europe are often no better when it comes to understanding the human condition – meaning, specifically the condition what it means to live as a person for 5 out of every 6 people on Earth.

This brings me back to the simplest and most difficult piece of the GlobalGiving marketplace puzzle – how to tell the stories of these other 5 in a way that builds an appetite for a relationship. For all our Western education, our understanding of the world is the poorest of all. In many respects, we need to begin with something simple like a puzzle – a gimmick that puts an image of the more abstract goal in the front of our eyes every day.

Trust is key to a Safer, More Compassionate World

Posted by Marc Maxson on October 1st, 2008

Women of the Safe More Compassionate World - Afghanistan

The turmoil this week on Wall Street is a stark reminder that trust is the glue that holds together our society. Credit markets didn’t just dry up by themselves – banks first had to stop trusting each other. And they did so for good reason – banks were trying to hide their losses from bad loans. And millions of bad loans didn’t just fall out of the sky – consumers who trusted banks to offer them a loan they could afford were misled. Now there isn’t even enough trust in the system for people to trust politicians to fix the mess.

For me, this trust issue extends to America’s role in the world. How much do we trust our government to transform situations that breed terrorism? Though I respect the efforts of soldiers who try their best to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have never trusted men with guns to transform a society. The world looks very different when you’re holding the gun. Many solutions of the sort needed to battle the poverty and injustice that erupts into strife around the globe require an insider’s perspective. Luckily, GlobalGiving has found some of those insiders and helped them reach out directly to individuals, like you.

Sakena YacoobiRecently, I had the rare privilege of meeting Sakena Yacoobi. She is an Afghan doctor who founded half-a-dozen programs to empower the poor, especially women, in Afghanistan. Since 2002, she’s raised $125,000 through mom&pop philanthrophists and has put 350,000 girls into schools with that money, among other things.

In our meeting, Sakena spoke about the Taliban.

“The Taliban are not Muslims. There is nothing in the Koran to justify their rules,” she said. As a devout Muslim (fasting for Ramadan this month), Sakena was the first I’d heard say this but I suspect many other Muslims share her opinion. She didn’t hold her tongue about America either. “If you want democracy for us,” she said, “then you should want education. But you don’t want to spend money for it.”

She’s right. She is keeping an Afghan girl in school for few dollars a month, while our government can barely maintain order in Afghanistan spending $2.3 billion a month. (that is $2,300,000,000 a month!)

Starting in October of 2008, Yacoobi is getting some help. Several families of 9-11 victims have banded together and started a fund, the “Safer, More Compassionate World Fund.” This fund matches donations to many of the projects that work in terrorism hot spots to transform the conditions that are enabling extremists like Al Qaeda to attract new recruits.

Terrorists are not irrational homicidal maniacs. They are real people who find themselves in the worst places on earth, choosing between several bad options. Sakena herself said, “I see the people in the villages. To buy one bag of flour now costs them more than a month’s salary, and that only lasts two-weeks for a family of five. Then the Taliban comes in one day and flashes $100 or $200 dollars in front of them. You see what happens.”

Afghanis struggling to afford wheat

According to Yacoobi, only two of every one-hundred Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are Afghanis. The other 98 are from Sudan, Chechnya, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere – hired hands from desperate lands. Many now are former “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” meaning that our “surge” didn’t end a war, it simply moved the battlefield.

The 9-11 families that started this Safer, More Compassionate World Fund offer a brighter vision: Our pennies pool into opportunities, which create alternatives, which mean fewer people working for Al Qaeda to support their families. Feeding opportunity to the poor is one more way to starve the well-funded extremists of support. And it will work regardless of whether the next battlefield lies in Iraq, Afghanistan, or beyond.

However, like a credit market, the Fund is placing a lot of trust on individuals to meet them half way and donate to these projects. Sharing prosperity is the means to a Safer World – and we all have to give much, more more now than we have in the past if that trust is going to eventually lead to greater peace.