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celebrating 10 lessons learned over 10 years – committed to ‘WOW’

Posted by ntavangar on March 15th, 2012

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 guest-written by former and current staff members. Each will speak candidly about their experience at GlobalGiving and offer up something that they have learned. Mari wrote our inaugural blog post in February, and this month, former ‘GlobalGiver’ Eli Stefanski talks about her important learning while working at GlobalGiving…

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My key learning from working at GlobalGiving?

Call everyone back within 24 hours.

Maybe you were expecting something more exciting? Something about the democratization of philanthropy? Something about the birth and evolution of social capital markets? For sure, I learned a lot about those things. But, first, and most importantly, I learned to call everyone back within 24 hours. Which, of course, isn’t about a communications policy, it’s about empathy.

It was a Dennis lesson, a ‘Dennis thing.’ I learned fast to pay attention to it. It was not part of the culture I had been raised in. It was not the culture that Dennis and Mari had been raised in either. And, well, that is sort of the point.

Elizabeth "Eli" Stefanski, former Director of Operations at GlobalGiving

For a few short months, this is how it would work:

As GlobalGiving’s first Director of Operations (and first Chief Program Officer) I was busy: I was busy raising capital; I was busy developing the richest and most diverse portfolio of projects; and I was busy trying to figure out how to fund and vet 400+ projects without violating the Patriot Act (and therein getting Mari and I arrested). I was so busy, that I occasionally missed an email or phone call from the social entrepreneur that Dennis had met on a plane on the way home from somewhere – a social entrepreneur who had shared his passion and aspirations with Dennis, a social entrepreneur who Dennis promised I could help.

In reality, I didn’t really ‘miss’ the call. The truth is, I didn’t really know how to deal with that one lone social entrepreneur. If I had vetted him, I would have had to vet all of them. Systems needed to be built – systems that previously didn’t always accommodate the outlier. The lone entrepreneur didn’t ‘fit’ my model. And so, from time to time, I avoided the call.

I would pay the price for that, however. The entrepreneur would invariably send Dennis a “thanks, but I guess you can’t help me” email, Dennis would forward it to me and hold me accountable, and well, I would feel like a mountain of manure. Not only because I knew I was in the wrong, but also because GlobalGiving was better than that. We knew how hard it was to be a social entrepreneur. We knew how hard it was to build something new, something transformative that hadn’t been done before. We knew how hard it was to build believers, attract users, convince investors, and ignore the naysayers. And day after day, we got up and kept with it – because we knew in our heart of hearts that we were building something important.

So the lesson about calling everyone back within 24 hours wasn’t about anything other than empathy, and building an empathetic organization that puts the beneficiary at the center of the design process – building systems around their needs.

This is why we:

  • Built a feedback system that gave project leaders real time feedback about what was working and what was not.
  • Designed evaluation tools that, instead of requiring longitudinal studies, relied on storytelling – the tool our entrepreneurs have in spades.
  • Created open mechanisms allowing all social entrepreneurs to participate on our platform, because we knew first hand how inaccessible the modern funding streams were.
  • Bankrolled relief efforts after the 2005 tsunami in Thailand without requiring proposals, because we knew social entrepreneurs were responding with or without the funds (and this is why we’ve responded many times since).

…And we learned to return phone calls within 24 hours – even when we couldn’t directly help.

It’s a lesson that took me a short time to learn at GlobalGiving – but it is the lesson that makes GlobalGiving great, and it is probably the most important lesson that any individual or organization can learn in a lifetime.

-Eli Stefanski