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.

22 May 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Voluntourism piece on the Huffington Post

An article I had written – Voluntourism: What can go wrong when trying to do right – is now on the Huffington Post, in case you want to read it!

03 May 2012 ~ 4 Comments

So, you’re helping people with “no skills”…?!

Tonight was a reminder for me that our vocabulary reflects our biases. OK, so maybe I am too sensitive about development vocabulary (say “villagers” around me, and I turn green!), but saying you are helping people with “no skills” really irks me. Have you told these people that you are “helping” that you think they have “no skills”?

And, if I can picture these skill-less people you speak of as you stand there in your suit, I imagine they can grow food we only know how to pick off of a shelf, perhaps build their own home, and fix the limited electronic items they have – ones we would throw away because we wouldn’t even know where to start in opening them up!

It reminds me of the lady in Colombia last month who asked me where I was from. When I said “America”, she said “Me too!”, and I thought she was joking with me, as she was clearly from Colombia. It took me a while to realize my biased view of the world and correct myself. “I’m from the United States of America”, it turns out, as she was indeed from America too. My myopic world view biases exposed – touche.

The people who made the “no skills” comments at Oxford’s heated “Bottom of the Pyramid Debate” tonight equally had not intended to offend, and certainly were passionate about the work they were involved in, but it still struck me: if we see the people we are working with in this type of work as having “no skills” we’re clearly taking a myopic view of what skills are important to survive in this world.  Drop me in a developing country, in a community without electricity, with no job, and many kids to feed, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the skills to survive. I bet the “villagers” (yep, I feel sick!) in that community would indeed describe me as having “no skills” at all… and in their world, they’d be right.

And since these BoP initiatives ARE in “their world”, maybe it is our skill-less-ness that we need to be making more note of!

(Thanks for permitting me this rant. OK, I’ve dismounted from my higher-than-it-should-be horse. Off to bed!)


Addition (2 days later): Today I was reading “Next Generation Business Strategies For the Base of the Pyramid” by London & Hart and this paragraph struck me as more eloquently reflecting my thoughts from above:

Unfortunately, too many managers and development professionals fail to recognize and calibrate for their existing biases about the BoP [Base of the Pyramid]. One good test of this is to ask them to articulate the first references that come to mind when they think about the “BoP”. Some are surprisingly disrespectful of the members of the BoP community, saying something along the lines of “The poor are lazy, lack intelligence, or are helpless; if they were not, they would not be poor.” Other descriptions focus less on individual shortcomings and more on structural disadvantages. Here you might hear terms such as “uneducated”, “limited resources,” or “isolated from opportunities.” While more charitable, this latter view still fails to recognize the poor as having the capacity to productively participate in the venture-development process as thoughtful colleagues and resourceful experts. People who are characterized as uneducated, limited, or isolated are unlikely to be viewed as strong potential partners in a design process.

29 April 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Band-aid Solutions

This Aid Band-Aid was designed by Daniela Kon and her team at Deeda Productions for our beta website of “Investing Time in People“.  Check it out:

The website’s function right now is to just hold the space for lessons and stories from people who have experienced the impact of development work with a focus on human capacity building and “investing time in people” (as opposed to giving things away). All of us involved in this project feel that we have made mistakes in the way that we have given our time and money and, by sharing what we have learned, hope to influence positive changes in how others approach social sector work. We’re not sure if we’ll take this further, turn it into an ad campaign, or partner with other organizations, but for the time being, this site is holding the space for all of those possibilities. If you are interested in this work in any way, be in touch! In the meantime, feel free to pass on this band-aid image to anyone who you think might need to be reminded to think differently about aid!

24 April 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Meet PEPY Tours

The PEPY Tours team put together a short animated video about the history of PEPY Tours and the ways our work has changed over the years.  Check it out!


Video by the @PEPYTours team with illustrations by the fabulous Wei Peng!

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!