I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

05 April 2012 ~ 0 Comments

How to create large scale systematic change: The Jeff Skoll Group (from #SkollWF)

Walking through the Skoll World Forum last week was like watching the ingredients to make a cake get mixed in a bowl. Each had been hand picked and was being mixed together to make something no one part could create on its own. The man mixing the pot is Jeff Skoll, a founder at Ebay who has used his wealth to create The Jeff Skoll Group, his recipe book for social change.

Most social enterprise leaders are only able to directly control the limited actions within their one organization. For example, if they are managing a group selling eco-friendly products, the directors need to use their relationships to influence the system around them to align with their goals: sales channels, media aimed at shifting mindsets towards eco-awareness, financial institutions to provide growth capital, etc. Like a conglomerate company created to control a whole supply change, The Jeff Skoll Group has been designed to support the various inflection points in the eco-system of social change as they work “to live in a sustainable world of peace and prosperity.” This puts Jeff Skoll in a rather unique situation, able to influence a spectrum of social change organizations from a 30,000 foot view of a large portfolio.

Politics is the typical track for those who want to control a whole system of change, but I have a feeling government channels would have seemed too slow for Jeff. Like a benevolent dictator, he channeled his wealth into creating a finance group to fund his world-changing initiatives (Capricorn Investments), a media company to create conversations and salience about social issues (Participant Media), a company designed to turn those movies into social action (Take Part), a social entrepreneurship platform and support system to connect, recognize, and create social change makers (The Skoll Foundation), and a group dedicated to focusing on solutions for the biggest threats to our society (Skoll Global Threats Fund).

How does he manage this network of change? He leaves a lot of the vision and system building to the heads of each of his organizations who are successful and influential system-builders and they appear to each have been given an uncharacteristically high level of autonomy, thereby allowing them the freedom to create the impact they are looking to see. Note that I didn’t say the change Jeff is trying to see. The halls of the Skoll World Forum are flowing with the entrepreneurs he hired who had already proven a dedication and leadership in their field. By giving these thought-leaders autonomy to experiment with the paths to success and by connecting them through a network of co-creation, they are each able to take risks and take on long-term changes that other institutions would struggle to do on their own.

When Jeff Skoll started this work, the word “social entrepreneurship” was rarely used, but now his team is part of a dialogue, network, and group of role models for a movement. The mainstream has embraced his work with Participant Media having been nominated for 22 Oscars and winning 5 through funding films as diverse as Waiting for Superman, The Help, Inconvenient Truth, and Contagion. Participant Media and Take Part’s work has created the dialogues and debates which are needed to generate wider support in areas such as the environment, educational change, and global pandemics. And there are now 39 Skoll Scholars who have been supported by Jeff to get an MBA degree at Oxford and dozens of organizations that have benefited from the funding, recognition and support of the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship.

Billionaires – take note! This social change machine proves that eco-system building does not need to be left to those with political and corporate agendas. Like other philanthropists before him, Jeff has proven that our funding does not need to be limited to investing in a list of disparate organizations but can have far greater impact than the sum of its parts by creating a network, a movement, and a unified system of change focused on investing in people.

I’m grateful for Jeff Skoll’s vision and leadership and I hope many others follow suit by committing to high impact through investing in entrepreneurs and building networks of change. His system of change resonates with me: it’s about investing in people, not just through providing them with money, but with ideas, networks, skills, and inspiration to create the changes they want to see in the world. These lessons in leadership might be some of the most-important things I take away from my year at business school in Oxford.

05 April 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Other reading opportunities: Skoll World Forum & Focus on How

Last week I was part of a team of bloggers at the Skoll World Forum and, in addition to the opening plenary piece, I was able to document a few more sessions.

Empathy: On the last day of the forum, I attended a session on Empathy by Bill Drayton of Ashoka and Mary Gordon of Roots of Empathy. Check out the summary if you are interested!

Closing Plenary: I wrote a quick recap of the closing plenary along with a list of the summary points by Stephan Chambers.

You might also want to check out the discussion/debate on the Focus on How video/blog from a few weeks ago. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue of donors fueling the WHY’s of NGOs and if/how this could be altered to inspire higher impact investments in development work.

I’m in Colombia for the next few weeks visiting a talented friend, Maria Perez, who has done design work for PEPY for many years. I look forward reconnecting when I am back but for those in Cambodia, Happy Khmer New Year!

28 March 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Blogging from the Skoll World Forum

I am at the Skoll World Forum this week and each of us are assigned to blog certain sessions. I thought blogging would be easy, having already done quite a bit of it, but getting a post out within an hour of the sessions is hard (and for this first attempt, I failed!). Anyway, here is the first of three #SkollWF blogs – this one from the Opening Plenary!



PS – I love Hans Rosling!

15 March 2012 ~ 15 Comments

Focus on HOW

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” says Simon Sinek in his very popular TEDx talk. And he’s right. People buy thy WHY. The thing is… this is a big problem in development work! People buy the WHY – which means they are fueling good intentions, not necessarily good impacts. Here are some thoughts about this that our team at PEPY  & PEPY Tours put together via video (thanks for the animations, Wei!):

Selling the WHY works for companies selling products or services, like in Simon’s example, Apple. If Apple sells their WHY – like “Being Different” – people can get on board with that. They buy into the WHY and then they buy the product. But if the WHAT fails (ie: if the product breaks, isn’t really all that “different” or just doesn’t fit the person’s need), then the person wont buy from that company again, and in today’s world, they’d use social media to let all of their friends know not to buy it either.

But if the WHAT fails in development work (ie: people really weren’t “saved” from XYZ disease, kids didn’t show up to the school, the well as broken, the micro-loans caused more debt than gains in wealth, etc), the donor who was so moved to fund the project because she believed in the WHY sometimes never finds out. And when the annual collection information touting the WHY of the organization ends up in her inbox again, she might send another check, again, and again, and again….

So we need to stop buying WHYs and start buying HOWs. And if donors start buying good HOWs, then NGOs will start selling their HOWs, and we can use our fundraising for more education, rather than emotions fueling good intentions.

Pass this on if too want to be part of a HOW and IMPACT focused movement.

Pssst – we have some beta info up on www.investingtimeinpeople.org – a loose collection of people (like you?!) who share similar ideas about development work. We are looking to apply for a grant that is coming up in a few months with regards to creating an ad campaign around the HOWs of high impact development work. Want to be involved? Drop a note!

09 March 2012 ~ 2 Comments

#KONY2012 – The good, the bad, and the media

My goodness… I have never gotten more emails, Facebook messages, and general questions about a social sector issue than this week with #KONY2012. “What do I think?”, you ask?

In case you have really not heard anything about this, which if you are reading this blog I find shocking, then just google #STOPKONY or #KONY2012, and you should be well on your way to learning more.

I think this campaign and subsequent backlash, is bringing a few important issues to light:

1) Most people do not really understand the system their money is going into when they donate.

Our friends asks us to give, and we do.
We hope it’s going to a good cause. (90% of us)
Only some gather ANY information at all before donating. (69%)
Few self describe as doing any “research” at all before donating. (33%)
And almost no one compares non-profits. (6%)
(Hope Consulting)

And it doesn’t even really matter if we do compare, as most of us don’t understand what questions are important to consider and how to evaluate “impact” on any given issue.

2) A lot of NGO money is wasted because few are asking good questions. And “program costs” does NOT mean what you think it means.

I sometimes want to create a TV ad campaign, like the “Rock the vote” ones, that says “I ASK QUESTIONS” reminding people to ask questions before they donate money. But then I realize, it might make matters worse, because we’re asking the WRONG ones.

People still focus on one question when it comes to donating: “How much of my money is going to the cause?” They problem is, many of us are making incorrect assumptions about the answers we get. I do commend Invisible Children for breaking their $9 million annual fundraising down further than most in their reaction post where they address the campaign’s negative feedback but even then, some might not understand that just looking at the Management & General spending numbers is not the whole story. Many think “programs” means programs in “a poor country” and don’t realize that programs can mean TV ads, and the salaries for the producers, and the office in the western city they work out of, and the annual holiday party etc…. which is usually all legally reported above board, it’s just that people don’t understand it and it is not in the interest of most organizations to try to explain it. To learn more, read about why looking at administration costs is meaningless via this example from Good Intents, or buy her paper on the subject of why non-profit overhead doesn’t mean what you think it means, which I might just do myself. Additionally, an organization that legitimately spent 0% on overhead but did not achieve their mission is not better than one that only spent 1% of their money on their programs, but did. Hence, we’re asking the wrong questions.

Here are two slideshares we made for Investing Time in People last year which get further into this:






3) Even the NGO directors themselves are often asking the wrong questions…. especially when they are far away from their “cause”.

Some of the backlash about the KONY2012 video’s facts being wrong or issues being poorly framed are not things I have any clarity on as I don’t know much about the  issue, but it does resonate with my belief that the further away you are from an issue, the less likely you are to get the facts, needs, strategy etc right…. distance makes the decisions grow wronger, perhaps? (Forgive my “heart grow fonder” joke attempt, it’s late here.) In our work in Cambodia, the office where I worked out of was in the major town, which was only 65km from our main working area, but even then, I made a lot of the wrong decisions because of that distance and even more because of cultural and language differences. Many mistakes though were easily righted once I spent time in the community we were working with and I listened more, but if I was far away, I would never have noticed. There are so many NGOs running out of major North American and European cities managing projects on the other side of the world, and this distance inevitably means there will be more misunderstandings, delays in making changes once ineffective policies are made, and incorrect assumptions than if those same people were located next to their “cause”. Even better would be if the people from the “cause” were managing the solutions themselves! Being on the board of PEPY now, I am again caught in this struggle knowing I’m probably giving wrong advice from a distance and if an organizations management is nearly ALL away from the cause, then that can be even more likely.

4) Social media is changing the power dynamics of the world.

If Invisible Children wanted people to know about Kony, well then the negative backlash has only aided their cause. As the BBC points out, social media now quickly gives us two sides to a story and “people are becoming more critical about what they read online, especially when it comes to charitable causes.” But the problem is, now that we have more and more information being thrown at us, we can get a lot of 140 character news feeds, but not a lot of depth, unless we seek it out. Even journalists rarely have, or take, the time to dig deeper into these issues, as was clear with the Greg Mortenson scandal.

That said, more than 50 million people have viewed this video. As Robert Wright pointed out in The Atlantic, “Invisible Children has accomplished what may be the most potent demonstration to date of the ability of new technologies to stir citizen activism. If it has done so irresponsibly, and/or in an ultimately ineffectual way, it still will have been part of a dialectic that yields something worthwhile, and maybe very worthwhile, down the road.”

This debate brings up other issues, Whites in Shining Armour ones, the need for media to display the realities of development, and much more… but for me, I’ve had enough #KONY2012 to keep my brain busy for one night!

(Pssst! Share your thoughts below or good links you think we all should read on the issues this debate brings to light which are important to YOU, please :-) )

01 March 2012 ~ 0 Comments

(Pari Project Guest Post) From grassroots NGO to lawmaker

This is a guest post by Allie Hoffman of The Pari Project about the impact one NGO has had, and lessons that can be drawn .

In 2008, acid attacks in Cambodia arrived at a tipping point, with daily news coverage, new cases, and gory photos dominating the public discourse. What caused the increase? Beginning in May 2008, one high profile case dominated the national news and captivated the country. Chea Ratha, a Military Police Brigadier General, allegedly paid 5 of her bodyguards a ‘bonus’ to throw acid on the auntie of her lesbian lover, radio personality Sok Lyda. Many believe that Ratha ordered the attack after Lyda called off their sexual relationship.

Ya Soknim was left with severe scaring on her face and torso, and ultimately passed away last year.

The coverage started a cascade of similar attacks and by the end of 2009, there were approximately 40 new cases reported. An NGO Pari now works with was created to support the victims of these attacks: Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity (CASC).

Founded in 2006 by the team from Children’s Surgical Center, CASC was intended to provide rehabilitative and social support to the small number of acid burn patients the hospital treated in its burn unit.

Research compiled by LICADHO in 2003 reported 44 acid attacks in a 3-year period, beginning in 2000. By 2010, CASC was recording 40 new cases per year, with approximately 20 attacks. In some instances, children were not only innocent bystanders, but collateral.

From the start, CASC was in a unique position to respond to these cases. After being treated at a Burn Unit at CSC, victims were taken to recover at CASC. There, they had access to physiotherapy plus therapeutic support.

By late 2009, a movement had begun to stop the impunity of high-ranking perpetrators. Never serving time and currently wanted by Interpol, Ratha’s victims are left to appeal for refugee status, afraid for their safety at the hands of her bodyguards. CASC, via its Program Manager Ziad Samman, was soon called upon to create systemic change.

CASC teamed up with LICADHO and CCHR, and began to gently lobby the appropriate government representatives. They started with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs believing that if they weren’t going to care, then who would? Leveraging existing contacts to get key meetings, the management team soon had the ears of many government officials’ wives.

Today the law is nearly ratified, having been approved by the King. CASC continues to provide ongoing support to relevant government officials, at times providing advice and counsel to ministers’ dealing with the rubber industry lobby, or the acid wholesalers and distributors.

On its own, the story of a small grassroots NGO advocating for an issue would not be remarkable. Yet CASC is a tremendous case study: without any budget for lobbying, advocacy, awareness, marketing or development, CASC is working to dramatically change national policy, has helped create a function within the legal system to prosecute perpetrators, and thus provided the deterrent we all hope is needed to prevent a continued increase of these attacks in Cambodia.

Up next? Ziad says public perception needs to shift away from the victims, and the inherent presumption it was their fault. He wants Cambodians to understand 48% of all victims are actually male, and not everyone is burned because they were on the wrong side of a love triangle.

To achieve this goal, he’s still focused on advocacy at the grassroots level: CASC victims going into district health centers and meeting with village leaders to tell their stories. He’s also aiming to train the next generation of Cambodian journalists to report the issue from a different lens in hopes of reshaping attitudes.

I think more is needed. I think Cambodia is ready for a visually confronting mass media campaign that presents the reality of acid burns, and makes the consequences known. I think Cambodian society is ready for a campaign that challenges victim culpability, and explores deeper issues related to education and empathy.

What is the lesson that Ziad taught me? That the people I met are not victims, they are survivors. Today they stand as evidence of the changes Cambodian society must undergo – the value it must start to place on all its citizens – before it can advance in its freedoms. At the same time, the adoption of the acid law is evidence of the progress it is already making, and its good intentions. For the future of this issue, only time will tell. In the meantime, Cambodia is lucky to have Ziad and CASC on its side.


This is a guest post by Allie Hoffman of The Parivartan Project. Pari is a social enterprise that provides marketing and organizational development services to grassroots development organizations that ‘believe in better’. To learn more: www.thepariproject.com



17 February 2012 ~ 2 Comments

The future of travel & life services: Off-Grid Zones

You probably didn’t have access to the internet as a small child. You can remember a world before “social media”. But your kids had Facebook profiles from the womb and, before they could speak, they could maneuver your mini-computer (which you call an iPhone, just to make you feel connected to a past when people owned something called a “phone” which only did voice transmission). Their world has always been online: their birth weight was bet upon by your friends on some baby betting platform, they got a cell phone when they were in elementary school to keep them “safe”, and their grandparents talk to them through the computer on video and then later show up at the door (yet eventually they realize that Mickey Mouse wont do the same). They don’t know what the world was like when your “pen pal” was someone from whom you anxiously awaited handwritten letters.

But YOU do. And when they start getting addicted to the inter-web, when Angry Birds is more important than setting the table, when they get made fun of online by a “friend” or get broken up with via text, when they throw a tantrum because their cell service is slow during your family vacation in the South of France or can’t stop checking Facebook to see how much fun their friends are having “there” while apparently loosing the ability to have fun “here”, you’ll wish they could. And so will millions of parents around the world.

I have often reflected that in the future I imagine paying for adventure travel which is truely disconnected – like rafting trips through the Grand Canyon where the operators ban cell phone usage. There is a HUGE untapped market that is about to open: Off-Grid Adventures. The concept is so palpable that I just Go-Daddy’ed the name and it was available and then 5 minutes later when I changed my mind and decided to buy it, GoDaddy had bought it already, obviously agreeing with me about the potential of this market. This market will be huge and the need for it is fast approaching.

Actually, it’s already here it seems. In Korea, there is now a bootcamp for kids who are “web obsessed”. The internet: our latest drug addiction.

I imagine a whole range of new products which could service this market:

- material you can put in your walls which makes cell phones and internet not work thereby creating “internet-free” zones

- internet-free cafes, spas, tourism destinations and maybe even whole “Off-grid towns” where people can get away from the over-communication which dominates the rest of their lives

- Cell phones and computers with settings which automatically turn off during certain hours of the day to force children to have internet-free time (or for adults to force themselves to take a digital diet)

- Coaching and training classes on “How to disconnect in order to reconnect” for corporates, for youth, for retirees, etc

- And surely, Off-Grid-Adventures (which I was able to get from Go Daddy, with dashes, for any of my friends who really does want to take on this space!) There will be space for many companies in this market and I can see a lot of current adventure providers re-branding themselves and rewording their sites to highlight their off-grid potential

I have watched as adventure travel experiences have changed people’s lives and, although our official aims at PEPY Tours are to inspire people to improve the way they give, travel, and live, “life transformations” are often what people take away from their trips. We are all so wrapped up in a race to the bottom of our email pile and are in constant fire-fighting mode managing our multiple communications channels that it is only once we step away from them that we realize we want to change our lives: enjoy the work we do, get out of a bad relationship, or commit to a good one. (At one point when we were trying to track the long-term impacts of our trips through a survey we realized we could more easily track the number of breakups or marriages that had results from our trips than anything on our official goals list!)

As we all explore the “urgency of slowing down” and getting off the grid, I imagine we’ll find times in our lives when we want to show the next generation what life was like before on-line communication made all of the knowledge of the world available at your fingertips. Before we felt a constant sense of being behind on all of the information being pushed our way. And when we took more time to think and then freely decide what to learn about before slowly walking to the shelf of encyclopedias and seeing what Mr. Britannica had to teach us. As this NY Times article says, “the children of tomorrow…will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines…that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.”

How do you see the need for digital dieting effecting our futures? And, who is interested in creating opportunities in the space that is opening up “off-grid”?