Wonk alert: Whistleblower psychology

Msg in bottle

I’m a neuroscientist. I work at GlobalGiving. Neither makes me an expert in psychology, but this past week at work has given me a much clearer idea about the psychology of anonymous feedback – or whistleblowing.

Tori Hogan quoted me recently in social edge as saying, “most volunteers try to self-filter and only say good things publicly [about a project after they visit], but privately send in negative comments.” Tori then followed up by saying, “Well, it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a start!”

Days later, I found myself witnessing this once again. I was buried in comments from a dozen people, each of whom had personal knowledge about what one organization on GlobalGiving has been doing in Cambodia. Everyone was desperate to opine and to feel they were heard by donors, yet I was amazed that none of them were willing to go “on the record” – AKA attach their name to the claim.

Since my only interest was providing all sides with a forum for fair feedback, I found myself doing something that benefits everyone. After years of fighting between the current staff and a group of former volunteers at this organization, everyone finally had a chance to air-out all the complaints in one place, in a way that protects each person’s identity.

My insights:

  • Most people would rather do nothing than publicly stand behind their allegations (even when they have solid documentary proof!).
  • Useful filtering: When you spread the word through a social network that it is “go time” on submitting an endorsement or raising allegations about an organization (meaning there is a deadline for comments), the most confident people will speak up first. Those who have mixed feelings are the last to speak up.
  • Many of these commenters feared retribution. Are these fears founded? I myself can’t imagine what power each side has over the other. We’re talking about a small organization with no money or power, not the mob!

Maybe you can read through the debate and tell me:

The controversial project in question: http://www.globalgiving.com/projects/thecambodiaproject/

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