Going the extra mile help a soul in Nairobi

Today I received a compelling email from Nancy, who runs a program to help girls in Nairobi slums.

Life coices

I was thinking of telling you about an event we are hosting tomorrow – The Miss Mrembo Beauty Pageant / Football Tournament. This year we thought of taking it to another level with our Nitakomesha event. As my former Swahili student, you should translate this Marc.

(Nitakomesha means “to put an end to.”)


We are calling the whole community to put an end to defilement among adolescent girls.

We have invited 16 teams to participate in the procession which will mark the end of 16 days of activism against gender based violence. And as you know, December 10th is also world human rights day. 

Today we are giving out manila papers for participants to write their pledge in the fight against girls defilement. I am just about to write mine.

Parents too will be involved. We will stop at the local chief, who will address the participants. He will pledge on behalf of his office to also “komesha” (put an end) by ensuring defilers suspects are arrested.

The procession will end by both girls and boys playing football without a referee. We want them to learn how to work out differences with each other, and this approach leads to more discussion. VAP uses football to increase gender equality, social inclusion, build peace, and grow youth leaders. We can see the difference it makes.

Rape stories are still streaming in from our storytelling project. As an organization I feel we are obliged to do much more. We cannot read the stories again this year and afford to do less!

What Nancy doesn’t share often enough are the extreme measures she will go to in order to help people. She doesn’t seem to sleep. Recently, she sent us another 100 or so local stories (as images) to be transcribed into GlobalGiving’s storytelling collection. This collection has over 60,000 stories from 6 countries around the globe, and anyone can search for stories about anything at www.storylearning.org. Barbara our transcriber caught one alarming story and immediately forwarded it to Nancy:


URGENT: please call and intervene!

See the first link in Nancy’s latest batch, story number 46
Actively talking about committing suicide.  14 yo male
[storyteller’s phone number]
Less than an hour later, Nancy replied:
Wow I missed on this one. Oh my, I have tried the whole day calling the number and it is out of order. The boy comes from [neighborhood]. From the story form it seems this happened in [his town]. I assume the boy has some relatives in Majengo and when he visited them that is when the whole story took place.
This means a lot to me as an individual and as an organization. I want to talk to him. My basic counseling education may be handy. I shared the story to our staff and we felt helpless. We want to reach out to the boy but his number is out of order and the schools are closed.*:( sad
Barbara thank you for reading our stories and alerting us on this.
Thank you for trying so hard.
 It is our obligation to serve the community. Together, it is no longer a drop in the ocean.
Nancy I am impressed with the swiftness this was acted on.  From the suburbs of Salt Lake City, to our nation’s capitol, to Kenya, three people worked quickly to attempt to help a little boy who needed a hand.   Thank you both for your speed in action.  I’m proud to be called a colleague.  :0)

I will keep on trying to call the number in the hope I might find him. I could try tracing his exact location or his name by the assistance of the police and safaricom (our mobile phone company) but then I would have to disclose the reason for the trace. The explanation would lead to disclosing his HIV status (his reason for contemplating suicide) – which is unethical.
It is little stories like these of trying to help one person that keep me from leaving the nonprofit world. I’m sure there are other greener pastures where I could have a bigger influence, do more good, work more efficiently, or make more money, but I’ll never find people with bigger hearts and a tireless dedication to giving back.
These are my nominees for GlobalGiving “employee of the year.” They embody the credo on our wall:

Always on.

Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat.

Committed to WOW.

Never settle.

After introducing our story-centered learning concept to hundreds of others, Nancy’s organization is the only one that has kept doing it year after year. She could do less, but something pushes her to go the extra mile. And Barbara has transcribed thousands of stories in 2014 practically for free. She helps because these stories are peoples’ voices, and she wants to ensure that every voice is heard by people who can help. When dozens of other organizations found it tedious to convert a story on paper into a story in a database (where shared learning can occur), Barbara stepped in and made it happen.

Mrembo’s girls’ football club take gold at local tournament


GivingTuesday and the coalition to end ebola

Today I gave to support More Than Me in Liberia, who is part of the Coalition to End Ebola.


The Coalition to End Ebola by More Than Me

The Coalition to End Ebola is a group of government, community, and NGO partners working together in Liberia to end the Ebola epidemic and stop the spread of the virus. The objectives of the coalition are simple: to provide information to communities about Ebola and coach them on prevention, identify the sick, treat the ill, bury the dead, reintegrate survivors, and support the families of the affected.
Katie Meyler, MTM, with MSF workers
I was honored to be able to tell part of their story in my book, now available via Amazon:

Ebola is one of the greatest threats modern society has ever faced, but not for the reasons you might have heard. It compels good people to do great things and not-so-good people to do horrible things. This is the story about resilient communities, strained systems, lawless nations, and individual people becoming leaders.

I wrote this book because I was appalled by all the misinformation. As a scientist and a non-profit analyst I could share both perspectives. I wanted to infuse facts with as much first-hand perspective as I could, letting the people who are battling Ebola in West Africa tell their own story. My life’s work has been a search for ways to let citizens speak for themselves about what they want and who is or is not giving it to them. Now, more than ever, someone needed to project their voices out above the noise.

Nonprofits need to tell this kind of story more often. It makes abstract concepts digestible to people who don’t want to talk about development economics. They just want to know why things got so bad, and what solutions we can offer. The second half is all about positive deviance, behavior change, agile / lean thinking, systems, countering corruption, technology, and most of all- how empathy makes our work possible.

After you donate on #givingTuesday I hope you’ll grab this book and tell others about it!

Creating a book cover for kindle

I just published a 140 page ebook on Amazon called Ebola: Local voices, hard facts. Now there are a LOT of other books about ebola on Amazon. I needed a catchy cover to compete with all of these. As soon as you see what the competition looks like -book-coverwise- I think you’ll agree it shouldn’t be too hard to create one that stands out. After all, none of these other books seem to feature stories and interviews with the people directly affected by Ebola in West Africa.

First 40 book covers on Amazon when searching for “ebola” books

kindle-covers-1 kindle-covers-2 kindle-covers-5 kindle-covers-4 kindle-covers-3

The first result (top left) is the only one of this bunch that seems to be a non-fiction book I would read, with real research and an aversion to fear-based marketing. Half are fiction and the other half are end-of-the-world guides targetting the “prepper” community. The author of the top book, David Quammen, pulled a 120 page excerpt out of his much larger, older book on the emergence of new diseases, dressed it up, and republished it. It’s a clever trick – and clearly he’s selling a lot more copies this way.

In the same vein, I wanted my book to stand apart with a book cover that illustrates what it alone offers (among these ebooks) – people, voices, authentic perspectives, and an actual discourse on the disease with a non-apocalyptic tone.

My first iteration was inspired by an artist I found on eboladeeply.com while researching my book. I contacted the artist and incorporated one frame from her comic strip about ebola:


But it didn’t quite capture the feeling. The spacing was awkward. The title didn’t stand out. The cartoon made it feel, well, cartoonish. I loved this as art, but it wasn’t working on a cover. It didn’t send the message I wanted to send to my prospective reader. So I started over.

My next draft aimed to incorporate actual faces of the people in the book, or face like those described in the book:


One good thing about this is that the faces emphasize this is non-fiction, with real life sources. The light yellow/cream color burst really helped this look like a book with an image and words connected, and not some piece of junk (I tried white background before). I thought I’d nailed it and went to bed.

The next morning I still wasn’t satisfied. I looked at the revised book cover and it was too symmetrical. My wife thought the font wasn’t professional enough. And there is just too much border junk and unimportant words around the edges. I’m not well known as an author, so my name should be tiny. It was too busy. I started over a third time.

I read a blog on creating your ebook cover and this section gave me an AHA! moment:

Layout: Don’t Be Afraid of white space

On the design below, the right design is the final design design, but a designer worried about not using all the space might do something similar to the left or middle. I’ll let you make up you mind which has the most style and sets the best mood for a short story.

I spent hours on google image search looking for a picture that fit my title. Two images stood out as possibilities:


This is Pearlina (featured in the book) from Katie Meyler’s blog about MoreThanMe’s work in Libera at racingheartblog.tumblr.com.cover-maybe-13

And this one captures the reality – this is both a medical crisis and a family crisis.

I wanted something simpler, more personal. A single face:



I faded Pearlina’s face into a silhouette because I didn’t want her to be singled out as the poster child for ebola. She never got the disease, but was put in isolation. For the other image, I could never get it quite right. Looked like a photoshop job.

So I combined this with my previous iteration of faces, and I’m sticking with this for now. Combining pearlina with the vertical spread of photos sends a clear message that this is personal, authentic storytelling from the place where Ebola is actually affecting lives:

ebola-book-widgetIf you are trying to create your own book cover for Amazon kindle, I suggest these steps:

  1. Search Amazon for other books that will appear beside your own book. Study them. Be sure not to copy them, but think of what your book has that other books don’t. Emphasize that aspect in the cover and the summary. You only need to beat out the books that are similar to your book to get a sale.
  2. Keep your cover simple. Make a mock up in PAINT – a free built-in program on windows machines – and stare at your version. If you use cover art, use something that fits your title. You can use an image but it may work better modify the image to obscure and iconify it.
  3. Be sure you have permission or check that it is a public domain / creative commons image. I contacted the artist for my first cover about reprinting, and I contacted the blog owner who posted the images I used in the second draft. Google images are not always well sourced, but try your best. Some photo licenses allow you to reuse a photo if you drastically modify it to where it doesn’t look like the original.
  4. Don’t be afraid to start over. Move things around. Change colors, fonts, sizes. Try making your text very small except for one or two words you want to draw the reader to. In my case, the one word is obviously “ebola” in every draft.
  5. Use Pixlr.com if you don’t have a fancy graphics editor. It does the job. You can upload your images, turn them into layers (like photoshop) and apply filters to transform your images. These were all made on pixlr, after I found a good starting image online.
  6. Amazon has a free online book cover editor, but it is pretty limited and turns out covers that look like all the other ebook covers on amazon. I think it is better to make your own elsewhere just to stand out.
  7. Don’t center everything. Use the edge of the image to intrigue your viewer. Show half a face, or half a word.
  8. Make sure any face on your cover has strong direct eye contact. Research shows this makes a difference if you want to make an emotional connection.
  9. Another more complicated design I tried on a previous book used Pixlr to fade three images into one cover (like your typical suspense novel) — an old man, a child soldier, and fire in a village:


It’s not awarding winning work, but it does fit the genre better than anything I could create with Amazon’s cover making tool. I spent a while looking for the right old man face, and here I’d like to look further – even asking one old man I knew from Gambia to send me a photo to use. With the fading, you can obscure people until they are pretty much anonymous.

Last – give a new artist a chance. I worked with a teenager who wanted to try making covers for a while on this project. It took 6 weeks to write 140 pages, but she didn’t come through with a cover that would work. I wasn’t able to advise her on what to draw. Still, I’m hopeful I can use her art on my next book cover.




True narratives are rare in the nonprofit world

Lately everybody has been talking about speaking more through “story” and less through “reports.” Google search confirms this recent trend:


But before the bandwagon leaves, I think it is important to point out that for all this talk, stories and narratives are still quite rare. It makes me wonder what people are really saying in words, and whether we know how to tell stories like we think we do.


The evidence

This week I wrote an algorithm that scans huge amounts of text for actual narratives buried within – the story under the headlines. The rules about what defines a “narrative” from other writing aren’t super sophisticated. It needs to have a consistent story point of view, such as first-person-singular. It needs to be mostly letters and not symbols, and must be long enough. And it needs to contains at least some words that narratives often contain. Some mix of emotional words, time-space relationship chronology words, reflection words and so forth is enough to trigger a match for my algorithm.

By just imposing these basic restrictions (and allowing a little fuzziness in the ‘consistent point of view’ rule) to my test collections reveals that true narratives are very rare in the nonprofit world. Despite all this talk about ‘story’ being a great marketing tactic, 99 and a 1/2 percent of reports don’t pass the test. And when citizens get to talk about their needs in a story, over 99 percent focus on telling people what they need without showing others the why through stories.

Results of the filter:

  • Only 13 of first 10,000 stories in the http://storylearning.org/search/ collection qualify as strict narratives (0.13%).
  • Only 3 of the 641 GlobalGiving project reports from 2014 that received donations qualify (0.46%).
  • Only 144 of all 29,908 project reports qualify (0.48%).

So it seems that this kind of narrative is not only rare, but also has not measurable effect on whether people donate money after reading it. The percent of reports that have a narrative within it are the same for both the group that raised money and the group that didn’t (0.46% vs 048%).

What I really want to use this for is to find case studies that exist on the web, pull them down, and build a new body of knowledge about what nonprofits have talked about over the years. The filter allows me to change this form an ‘opt-in’ process to an automatic one. In the future, if you wrote a report and published it anywhere, regardless of whether you promoted it, my computer will find it and add it to the collection.

Examples of what the filter found:

From a project report: (POV: third person singular)

“Due to her socio- economic Minaz had to quit studies but due to her interest in computer she joined the course her family was not happy with her decision, her father told her that doing a computer course wont give you a job then what is the use of learning it? But she was determined to learn the course. One day she went to a nearby balghar(preschool) where she met  women development coordinator Zaheeda Shaikh , she asked her about her education and family background. Looking at her enthusiasm and determination Zaheeda offered her a computer teacher’s post at her center.”

From storytelling collection: (POV: first person plural)

“In March last year a woman told us from Bomi county how she was forcibly initiated into FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and had come to us seeking redress in this case involving two women who got her forcibly initiated into. We (West Point Women for Health and Development Organization) embraced her and decided we will help her by taking up the case of this sister because this was first of a kind in Liberia where a woman was willing to speak out on FGM. The WPW took the woman to hospital along with her twins who are a boy and a girl, when the woman came to us along with her children we make sure they seek medical attention because at the time, we found them to be in a deplorable condition and needed immediate medical attention. We also make sure we got a medical document indicating that she indeed underwent the process of FGM.”

Project report with donations: (POV: first person plural)

“The meals at the soup kitchen are still being prepared by our kind and caring Mongolian lady cook and the meals that she serves makes that statement and in the voiced opinion of our beneficiaries as well. We have had five major medical outreach programs with a team of doctors and nurses seeing 35-40 patients from amongst our beneficiaries and doing very thorough detailed checkups for them. We have also gone through the heavy expense of digging up our pipes from the well to kitchen, as our water pipes froze during the winter months and we had carry our water from the well to the kitchen during the winter freeze.”

The soul of justice to a scientist versus a lawyer

your-vote-counts-buttonIn October, 2014 I spent a weekend in North Carolina helping with voter registration. I went down with a nonpartisan coalition of church groups. New laws restricted voting rights there for the working poor, students, and the elderly, erecting obstacles in their path. I’ve already explained the new face of Jim Crow elsewhere – how those in power are now using data and statistics to ease the onramp for some people while raising the drawbridge for others, so I won’t revisit that here. This is about how we fight injustice, how we choose the course of action, and what results we choose to measure. My experience this weekend sharpened for me the contrast between what a scientist sees and what a lawyer sees.

barber01The Reverend William Barber and his Moral Mondays movement inspired me to spend the weekend fighting voter discrimination. Reverend Barber is a passionate and impassioned pulpiteer with a sharp understanding of the battle between the few and the many, the strong and the week, of what makes evil Evil and good Good. Few alive today can fire up a congregation to go out and march for Justice like he can. In recent months over a thousand went to jail in protest against the new laws. In October the North Carolina state attorney general threw out the indictments as being unconstitutional.

Public Protests got people organized and moving, but internally we argued over what the next tactic should be for a broader, more geographically diverse coalition. As a scientist impassioned about civil rights and not about politics, I felt like an outsider. The lawyers and activists wanted to replace leaders through voting to achieve justice. Looking at things, I didn’t think we had the leverage to do that, and moreover, new leaders in a broken system would not ensure a plural democracy, no matter how good their intentions were.

In his sermon that weekend, Barber said he drew his inspiration from Father James Groppi – an Italian priest in 1960s Milwauki that organized African Americans to march every night for 200 nights for fair housing laws. And later, he led a thousand welfare mothers in a twelve-hour sit-in of the Wisconsin state house. Their arrests were later thrown out by a judge who said, “You can’t arrest people for sitting in their own house!” Protests led by those most affected forced those in power to change.

The Reverend Barber is the spiritual leader of the movement, but he doesn’t control the process. This coalition of church groups is dominated by shrewd political advisors who practice the party machine politics that propagate the part-time-representation problem that plagues American democracy more than any other in the rich world. Here more than in Australia, Japan, Germany, UK, or even India, elections are an exercise and subtraction, not addition:


The United States has the lowest election turnout rate of any modern democracy.

Only half the people vote in US midterm elections, so parties discount what the other half cares about and pander to the few. Politicians choose their constituents and run get-out-the-vote campaigns for their chosen people, rather than people choosing their politicians. This is what the “party machine” does, and it is antithetical to true democracy.

The people who DO vote have historically had more privilege and power than those who don’t, and this is still true today.
1788-to-2010-voting-rights-vs-turnout-ratesWhat you notice is that striking down the laws that bar people from voting does not actually increase the percent of the people who vote. Citizen engagement is stuck at 40-60 percent in America because, even with legal protection, the party machine shapes who is encouraged to vote. And at least in my lifetime, both political parties (and their machines) have pandered to a different quarter of the population and ignored the rest. A lawyer dreams of a country where laws are enforced to allow everyone an equal opportunity to vote. But to a scientist, no calculus of success can be defined by “access” alone. Everyone’s views must influence the country in an ‘opt-out’ system in order for 21st century democracy to work.

Democracy should be an ‘opt-out’ system, like in Australia and 10 other countries. Australia fines citizens up to $170 for NOT voting and has a 92% participation rate. US democracy has always been a ‘opt-in’ system, giving rights to those with the most power – originally land-owning Christian men over age 18, and no one else. If voting was created today, it would be based on all the preferences you express daily while using the internet and your ballot would be cast automatically unless you intervened to change it. Cameras and computers track every aspect of our lives already. They know what we do and will soon infer how we feel and what we believe. Better to have a government that represents the plurality of life’s emotions than the paucity of one single page of paper every two years. Last week when I voted I found that most people on the ballot had no website and left little trace of their views on the Internet – so I was voting blind for some of them. Facebook and LinkedIn’s algorithms would have better match me with candidates that reflect my values. But for the immediate future, we have to fight to fix the system we’re stuck with, and that fight requires an honest appraisal of whether our efforts were successful.

The coalition was tasked with finding work for the hundreds of volunteers that Reverend Barber and our local Minister Rob Hardies inspired. In February our church sent three bus loads of people (over 200 in all) to attend a weekend of protest, spiritual gatherings, and strategy discussion in NC. I believed we needed to be send people door to door in poor areas and talk directly with those most affected by the new laws. First we gather stories, then we use their accounts to design approaches for getting them valid IDs.

I know that getting a photo ID is not easy when you have only 10 vacation days a year, live paycheck to paycheck, and have an employer that would fire you for missing a day. The process took three visits for me and seven visits for my wife, and we already had a valid birth certificate and social security card. All told we wasted parts of 12 working days over six months to complete a name change and get new drivers licenses. Spending those 12 working days in government offices is a luxury poor people cannot afford. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to spend your precious few days off taking care of sick children or elderly parents or fighting for food stamps and healthcare, not a voter card. If, on the other hand, we ran an opt-out voting system like we run the census, the government would issue you a new, valid photo ID and verify you received it – free of charge – before imposing any new restrictions on voting.

Instead, the church groups opted for phone banking and a modest amount of door-to-door engagement. Houses and phone numbers were a ‘convenience sample’ pulled from inconsistent voters in Charlotte, NC. No one who was actually excluded from the system was part of the effort or on the list.

During a summer church meeting about the campaign many of the volunteers wanted to talk about their feeling that phone banking wasn’t reaching the right people. “I think I might have made 50 calls and only talked to 3 people,” one said. He wasn’t exaggerating. A recent PEW survey found that the number of people who respond to phone calls has been steadily dropping. It was around 36% in the mid 1990s, 18% in the 2000s, and is around 6% today. The trend is a straight line down based on PEW sampling every three years. So whereas cold calling lists of people to get out the vote worked 15 years ago, it has no leverage in 2014. 19 out of every 20 people will hang up on you or not answer, and those that do hear your voice are probably not going to listen.


Face to face meetings were also ineffective. Last month I knocked on 133 houses over 8 hours in one Charlotte neighborhood. I talked with dozens of people and got about 30 of them to fill out a pledge card to vote. We only signed 5 people up to vote, and 3 of these were people already signed up to vote but weren’t sure if their address was correct. Voters with a mismatch between their voter information and their photo ID will not be allowed to vote in 2016. Therefore we only definitively facilitated two people voting in the 2014 election. And even worse, I don’t believe we encountered a single person who would have been denied a vote for the reasons the Reverend Barber was preaching about. Nevertheless, the church leadership put on a good face and touted its success using vanity metrics, holding up a stack of 150 voter cards as success. This is faux success if none of those cards came from the people we aimed to serve.

To counter voter suppression, we need to find the oppressed and really listen to their stories. Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi both understood that social change begins with good documentation. Take this example:

In 1916 synthetic indigo made local indigo farms unprofitable, so the European planters extracted money from the Indian peasants. The English landlords,who had permanent leases on the land, offered the Indian peasants an out from the tinkathia system, but only if they paid higher rent. When they refused, the planters beat the peasants, placed them in prisons, stole cattle, looted houses, and prevented the peasants from entering and leaving their homes. The planters also imposed numerous illegal taxes on marriage, homes, oil-mills, or even collecting special taxes when the planter wanted extra money for personal uses.

In December 1916, Rajkumar Shukla, a Champaran farmer no longer able to stand the oppression, went to see Mahatma Gandhi at an Indian National Congress meeting. Shukla insisted that Gandhi move a resolution condemning the situation and treatment of Champaran tenant farmers. Gandhi declined by saying he could not give any opinion without having seen the condition with his own eyes. Instead, Gandhi promised to spend a day or two in Champaran during his tour of India.

After seeing the conditions himself, Gandhi concluded that courts would be slow and impractical. He led a very detailed study of the 2,841 villages in Champaran, an investigation of the conditions of the peasants. The European Commissioner advised Gandhi to leave the district, because governmental inquiries were being made already. Five days later, they arrested him, but the surveying went on. As members of his team were arrested, other outsiders took their place, continuing to interview peasants and document their grievances against the landlords.

Aggravated by Gandhi’s popularity and the way he stirred up the peasants, the European planters began a “poisonous agitation” against Gandhi, where they spread false reports and rumors about Gandhi and his co-workers. Gandhi sent information to the newspapers, but they were never published.

By June Gandhi’s team had recorded over 8,000 statements. They filed a petition, held meetings with between 10,000 and 30,000 people attending, and by October, the Government accepted their recommendations. By March 1918 the government enacted new Laws against the corrupt landowners.


They were accused of being outside agitators because their volunteers went where they were not wanted, took testimony, and broadcast to a global audience. The people whose rights were denied, whether in India or the Deep South, were not welcoming at first – nobody likes going into a fight – but joined and later led the movement by gathering stories from the affected. Storytelling – inclusive data gathering – launches a successful campaign.

When I tried to make my case about this to the leadership, I was cautioned that as an outsider I could only follow what the local leaders wanted. They would be in charge of the tactics, and they had told our church that they wanted people to make phone calls and go door to door. Here I disagree. As insiders or as outsiders, those of us lucky enough not to worry about securing our own voting rights have the power to listen and tell the stories of others, giving their words an audience. Instead, the 2014 election came and the people who will be sent away from the polls in 2016 remain faceless, voiceless.

After the election the leaders sent out an epilogue email to the group, excerpted here:

I want to thank you for your astonishing commitment… over 8000 calls… registered 186 new voters… But I know it is hard to feel good about that when the news stories suggest our work was in vain. Turnout sunk to dismal levels, particularly among the groups we reached out to who are most affected by voter suppression…

I can offer a few glimmers of hope…. In Mecklenburg County, more people voted in 2014 than in 2010. Another bright spot is the astonishing levels of participation in the Reeb Project…

That last part concerns me the most. When over 200 volunteers pool their resources to do thousands of hours of work and yield less than 200 new voters (60% of whom are not “new” in my case), we aren’t on a trajectory to change a system. And change will elude us until the people being suppressed have names and faces. We need to return to the drawing board and focus on storytelling, if we want to sustain this effort.

A scientist looks at data and measures against the end goal. A scientist wants more data, embracing storytelling as a means. A lawyer, on the other hand, wants to see large numbers of people involved in the fight, because numbers give them the greatest bargaining power in back room legislation. Our democracy has been dominated by this kind of lawmaking for too long, and it is time for scientists to step up and teach activists about data. Getting thousands of people to show up to a protest or make phone calls or knock on doors is not success. Getting people to vote who would have otherwise been denied is success. Converting our opt-in democracy to an opt-out democracy would be even greater success.

Along the way I realized I am passionate about protecting others’ right to vote, but am turned off by politics. Putting the “right” people in power will not fix things – not without a tested means of ensuring everyone’s opinion shapes future law whether they actively participate or not. Abroad I work on these systems to fix international aid by letting those affected give feedback. We need the same thing at home. I’ve lost faith in a pure political strategy because it still keeps the lawmaking behind closed doors, under control of yet more lawyers. The only solution is flipping the system to be ‘opt-out’ for all voters, so that the political process is about changing voters feelings and values, rather than convincing them to (not) show up to the pools.

If we don’t change, we’ll be no different from the demographic politics of Kenya. In 2010 I heard Kikuyu leaders telling their tribal supporters to have more children so “we can be more people and win elections.” If the only way you can grow is to grow more people like yourself, your ideas have no merit, and you deserve to lose elections. It is an observed fact that opt-in elections put more extremists in power, and it gives all leaders the power to do whatever they please without any real threat of being thrown out. An opt-out voting system driven by algorithms that mine what people really think and feel every day would sooner elect a good third party candidate than give your vote to whomever has the most money. At least that’s how this scientist sees it.

Designs on Systematic Listening

In my last blog post I introduced five testable hypotheses that apply to many designs for helping people. Some examples of those were:

  • cash-48Cash control group: Instead of the program, give them the equivalent cash it would cost.


  • decision-making-behaviorDecision control group: Let the people decide what intervention they want to join, and compare to the choices experts make for another group of people. For example, do food stamps recipients make smarter decisions and get better value with cash than with vouchers that are limited to only what the experts think they should buy?
  • effort-matchEffort matched control group: Split the recipients into smaller groups (like micro-lending does) and require each group of say, a dozen people, to match the aid money with some effort of their own. For example, in exchange for getting a bio-waste energy tank, a group could be required to clean trash in the neighborhood regularly – to be verified by satellite imaging. This commitment and verification would prioritize allocations to groups that are most committed to “working” for them. And it lets them “earn” aid instead of simply passively receiving aid.

whole bull planning process

Story-centered Learning Designs

Here I introduce different ways to design a storytelling project with one goal in mind: Systematically listening to people and benchmarking narrative patterns against some control group. It dovetails with the previous post because program design dictates which listening design will work best.

If the goal is a needs assessment, do community mapping

Focus on the location and the people that live there. Ask an open-ended question like,

“Talk about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone or change something in your community. What happened?”

From 2010-2012 we collected nearly 60,000 responses to this question, searchable online.

All stories in a collection will be connected by their proximity in space and time, and often this alone is able to reveal patterns that should inform project design. For example, the Kenyan NGO VAP interviewed girls in their program and learned that rape was a major life issue. Too many girls were bringing it up in generic “community mapping” stories – more than a third – to ignore. So they changed the program to address this immediate need. The following year they used this process to hone in on aspects of youth crime that were amenable to after-school lessons.

Blogs on VAP forming a “case study”:

Mrembo Program

Comparing two rape-prevention programs – this one illustrates how a nearby outside organization can be a good benchmark for your program.

In 2012 our GlobalGiving storytelling project was based in many parts of East Africa. We collected and published community maps for each community:

Kibera meeting and Kibera follow-up. Map Kibera project

Kakamega and Western Kenya



In the past creating these maps was a manual process, but soon they will be automatically visualized from the stories and their meta data. “Meta data” are the little bits of related data around stories, such as who scribed them and where the story took place. It is safe to assume that stories with overlapping people and places and dates are important signals for program managers, and that visualizing it can help them make smarter decisions (or even make them smarter decision-makers).

If goal is measuring a program’s impact, these designs will help…

Impact is a messy, vague, ambiguous loaded word. It gets tossed around casually by board members and funders and served on a silver platter to rich people who want to try their hand at being a development agency. This is my attempt to disambiguate Impact into different approaches to measuring them, and tying these back to the best way to gather signals from people.

Customize the story prompting question to map the root causes of a problem

Some past storytelling questions give you a sense for how to map the problem, or issue, that comes to mind in association with a topic:

Please tell a story about a time when you had to choose between protecting the environment and maintaining a livelihood. Include if/how individuals or organizations were involved in the conflict.

אנא ספר סיפור על זמן שבו אדם או ארגון ניסה לעזור למישהו או לשנות משהו בקהילה שלך.

Please tell a story about a time when you tried to get a job. What helped you get a job?

Please tell a story on a most significant change that you have observed based on your experience as a participant in our program(s).

Please talk about a specific time that you felt more visible in your community. What happened and how did it expose some hidden need or issue? What would you like to do to help address it?

In the space provided, please tell us about a childhood experience when you did something you believed you never could have done.

And these illustrate how GlobalGiving used it in our own network:

Talk about your experience approaching a grantmaking or funding organization that either did or did not grant you funding. What was your relationship like? Did you receive support from them?

Please tell a story about a time when when a nonprofit listened, acted, and learned to become more effective at fundraising on GlobalGiving. Did they became more effective in real life?

As a past global giver, why did you give to GlobalGiving or to this project in particular?

Good story prompting questions undergo design evolution based on early testing:

Version 1: Please tell a story about a time when you had to work with someone different from yourself.

Version 2: Please tell a story about a time when a conflict arose because you had to work with someone from a different background (religious, cultural, ethnic etc.) to yourself.

Version 3: Please tell a story about a time when a person changed someone else’s perception of them or challenged a prejudice or misunderstanding.

Some prompts are too specific to be comparable to any other stories:

Please tell a story about a time when YaLa Africa tried to help and empower you or your community through micro-gardening and nutrition training.

You’ll notice that these questions are still much more open-ended than program evaluations use. We don’t ask them to describe the impact directly – we ask them to describe specific events and categorize experiences, so that impact can emerge from the collect as a whole in an organic (less biased) way.

Add survey questions

Certain follow-up questions will extend these narratives in ways that allow for specific quantitative comparisons:

Hierarchy of needs

Which of these relate to your story?
Choose three.

Freedom |  Fun

Knowledge | Respect |  Creativity | Self-esteem |

Food and shelter|  Security|  Family and friends|  Physical needs

Root causes

What is needed to address the problems in your story?
Choose all that apply.

Money | Change to government and institutions | Individual behavior change | Change to society’s attitudes

Give two words to define this problem 
The events in this story…
Choose a point on the line.
Happen often exactly as I told it
Has a different ending from what usually happens

What else would have made a difference in your story?

Power relationships and social hierarchy

Who would you go to if you wanted to solve the problem in this story?
Choose only one.

Chief or local authority | Family member | Religious leader | Vendor or business leader| Friend, neighbor, or community member | Teacher, health, or government worker | Somebody else (none of these)

The events in your story happened mainly because of…
Choose all that apply.

The circumstances people found themselves in | The resources people had available to them  |

The actions people took | The way people felt

Ask beneficiaries two stories

Sometimes it makes no sense to interview neighbors of the people you serve. In that case, each program participant can serve as his or her own control if you invite them to share two stories. The first story can be “How does organization X help you?” and the second one, “how has some other organization helped you?” With variations on this within-subjects control design you can make many comparisons.

What else do the people you serve care about or need?

What other organizations are having an impact on the lives of the people you serve?

How do people feel about various life issues that intersect with the problems your program claims to address?

Is there one demographic group that you are reaching more (or failing to reach)?

Trigger conflict narratives

Good writers know that narratives require conflict to be interesting. There are as many different kinds of conflicts in fiction as there are in program design. Conflicts can be internal and external. They involve human against nature or against each other. Family conflicts differ from community ones. And all of this needs to fit inside 150 words for good storytelling. Frequently, our stories are boring. The authors are reluctant to describe the conflict because it is not their own self-interest, or because their culture forbids it (Lookin at you Japan!):


As a result, evaluations are often conflict-free, or at least the conflicts are severely dampened and couched in euphemisms. We’re trying to change that. We’ve giving organizations to probe for conflict, and training scribes to give citizens permission to give feedback in a safe space.

In the example where the person was asked to tell a story about having to choose between protecting the environment and securing a livelihood, we are mapping out an internal values conflict. Other conflict stories can be about working with “other” (see above) or understanding corruption. Impact is not the absence of conflict or measured by how many people make the “right” choice (e.g. choosing the environment over one’s livelihood is not success), but rather comes from understanding the issue on a deeper level and building bridges or designing projects that allow people to have more prosperity and face fewer tough trade-off decisions.

Measure change with a before, during, after program listening design

Impact is positive change over time. The number one reason Impact is hard to measure is that the people with the money and the power don’t want to wait for time to pass – they want to know immediately. But if you don’t ask people to describe life before an intervention, you will find it hard to measure change. Mathematically, it is impossible, though people often use weak data from elsewhere as a proxy for the baseline.

To be able to look at how a collection of narratives is changing over time, you need (at a minimum) to ask people before and after the program. If programs are ongoing, then you can ask periodically. Very strict researchers would ask the same people at regular intervals, but in the real world getting an organization to just ask two times (before and after) would be a huge improvement over what they have done in the past.

Journaling – if you have volunteers working for weeks or months, have them keep a journal. After, scan and datify the content as stories. So instead of two stories (pre and post), you would have a dozen or more stories from the same person about an issue. Growth is easy to see with journaling.

Focus groups – Informal discussions can be augmented by during a transcript of stories shared into data. Leave a tape recorder running, or use an app like dictadroid to convert it to MP3 and email for transcription immediately after.

Use our 60,000 story repository to build a reference collection for comparison

The best data is the kind that already exists. All you need to do is add your unique part and use our comparison tools to look at how peoples’ experiences differ. This isn’t as powerful as some of the other techniques, but it can be done for free, and sometimes done even when the project is being designed, before there are any “beneficiaries” yet.

Example: Two rape prevention programs or Planning to fight stigma after the ebola epidemic


These tools live on storylearning.org.

What next?

This is Part II of a blog series on story-centered learning and hypothesis-based international development. Read more!

Part I: Null hypotheses in international development

Virtual APB finds the criminal and reveals the power of offline social networks


Ten years ago Eli and I were housemates. I moved away from State College, PA but she knew I still knew people there. That is this week why she tagged me and 100 of her closest Facebook friends with this message:

State College/Centre County friends, past and present- I seriously need your help! Today, I was the victim of a hit and run accident. I was outside of my vehicle, and the woman came within a foot of hitting me. She hit the car door that I was right inside of as I was buckling my toddler into her carseat. She did not apologize or ask if I was OK. She asked if I wanted to exchange insurance info, and I told her that I was going to call the police so they could take a report. I reached into my vehicle to get my phone, and when I next looked up she was gone. The police called an ambulance to check my vitals because I am due in less than two weeks and I was shaking and my heart was racing from the shock of the incident. Thankfully I am OK, but this woman came within inches of killing me and/or my unborn child.

Unfortunately, the police say that it is unlikely that they will find this woman because I was unable to give them much information. It all happened within a few minutes. I never imagined that she would take off. If I had, I would have taken a picture of her plate and vehicle.

Please help me find this cold hearted woman by looking out for her as you drive around! Or if you no longer live in the area, please tag anyone you know who still does. She needs to be caught. She was a white woman in her 70s or early 80s. She had white hair and wire rimmed glasses. She was driving a sporty compact vehicle that was FIRE ENGINE RED. Her passenger side view mirror was knocked off during the accident. The accident occurred near the corner of Burrowes and Fairmont Ave in State College.

If you see a vehicle fitting this description, please take the license plate information and message me immediately. Also please share this status with anyone you know who lives in this area. I have made it visible to all.

Like — with 46 others.


4 people like this. 235 shares

Later that day she posted another Facebook update.

So today was a crazy day. I ended up visiting the ER because I had so much adrenaline pumping through my system that my heart was racing, I was shaking violently, and I felt ice cold. After 3 hours, an IV, bloodwork, an EKG, and an ultrasound, I was sent home as OK.

Then I came home to a message that a local insurance agent (who had seen my post because a friend had shared it) might know who hit my car. An 83-year-old woman called the agency stating that she needed to get her side view mirror reattached to her car, which was red. She wouldn’t give details of the accident but said that it had involved a pregnant lady! The agency called the police but had to leave a message because the detective was out.

Isn’t Facebook amazing?

And within twelve hours from the hit-and-run accident, someone with the power to bring justice had been alerted and had taken action.

Elizabeth Anne Bragg 21 hours ago – In case you missed it:

Hit and run case tentatively solved thanks to Facebook! Almost 300 people shared my story, and one of those people just happened to be Facebook friends with an Allstate agent. Shortly after reading my story, the agent overheard that an elderly woman had called in to ask about having her side view mirror reattached after an accident involving a pregnant woman. She was vague at first, but Allstate did some investigative work and determined that it was the same woman that hit me. They immediately called the police and sent me a message via Facebook inviting me to call the agent at home until 1:00 a.m! I have been blown away by their care and concern, and I’m seriously considering transferring my coverage to them. Go Allstate!

This wouldn’t have been possible if so many people hadn’t reached out to help me. I had two news agencies offer to cover my story, body shops messaging me for further information, a resident of the neighborhood where the accident occurred offering to review surveillance footage on their home security system, and countless strangers offering sympathy, support, tips, and assistance.

This truly is a wonderful community where people reach out to help those in need. If you shared my story with others, please share this happy update on your page. We no longer need to look for the driver. It’s time to share the good news of the power of small acts of kindness.

This story is less about Facebook and mostly about human kindness and concern. It was Allstate agent who was a friend of a friend of a friend of Eli’s that saw the story and overheard an offline conversation and connected the dots. The woman called his office (and given the insurance market, there were really only about six offices she could have called) and he realized who she must have been.

The six-o-clock news version left out all the emotions that her 100 friends had that caused us to take action, and focused only on the victim’s pain:

If you want to see me awkwardly retelling my story, watch the 5:30 WJAC-TV news. The live broadcast can also be viewed on wjactv.com. I was very nervous, but I am certain that they will make me sound eloquent and confident. :)

And later…

Ha ha! According to WTAJ my name is actually Emma Braggs which is hilarious since Emma was my dog’s name and the footage that they showed of my Facebook page showed my name as ELIZABETH BRAGG.

It was very short. Let’s hope that the story that will run on Statecollege.com is more accurate and thorough!

Elli’s Facebook updates were the best and most accurate retelling of the story, because everybody who was involved was on that page. The kind of swift justice she got is the sort of thing – based on feedback loops and engaging people with the agency to change things that I work on at Feedback Labs:

feedback loop members

The null hypothesis for international development

As a nonprofit organization, the question we should ask ourselves is “how do I know if some new approach is better than what I’m already  doing” for this community?

Many programs don’t improve lives that much on the whole. But there are several simple ways to quantify exactly how much benefit they have, compared to something else. The “something else” can be quite simple, as you will see.

cash or goat

1 – For every intervention, the control group gets cash instead.

GiveDirectly takes money and gives unconditional $1000 cash to poor people, then tracks what they do with it and how well they live afterward. Chris Blattman believes this should be the null hypothesis for all foundations: What do people do with money themselves, given unconditional cash?


#2 – Citizens allocate the dough. Compare with foundation experts.

Another example is what I call “Pay it Backwards” where we take the thousands of do-gooder citizens that people have already written a story about in our storytelling project and give them $100 to do something good for someone else with. Afterwards, we ask the do-gooder, the inidivual donor (who put up $100), and the beneficiary what happened and were they happy with it? Here it is not GiveDirectly choosing the people, but rather, good citizens whom we empower to act and little micro charities. And the question is, “are people happier when individual helps than when foundations help them? What do they do well? And what do they do poorly (compared to charities)?


#3 – Pay the actors cash not to do something you think is important.

A third model of rethinking the null hypothesis is to split the pool of qualified organizations (that you would normally give a grant to) into two groups. To one group you deny them the grant for a year in exchange for a little cash now and their commitment to give you data about what they are doing. Then you can compare the data with data you collect on your grantees. You should expect that your grantees are doing better work, if you data system is worth anything. Otherwise none of your data is reliable and it’s possible that your grantees would be better off being given nothing but grants. We at globalgiving have considered this. It shows what drastic extremes we in the nonprofit world must go to. For in order to “prove” that our products have value, we have to take some of our customers and pay them not to buy our products, so we can show the product works.


#4 – How much much you pay someone not to doing something?

A variation on idea #3 is to find out how much a person needs to be bribed to try something new. If a foundation isn’t collecting feedback from the people they serve, how much could you pay them to do it? And if they are already listening to a community (because experts at foundations encouraged them to do it), how much would you need to pay them to leave it out of a proposal? If they truly believe that the information is valuable, you would need to pay them to omit it, and how much you need to pay is a measure of what perceived value it has.

The same applies to microloans. If training with a loan is really valuable, could you ask people to give back 10% of their loan to pay for the training? That would be a strong bit of evidence that the training has value.


#5 – All projects must have at least a 25% local matching effort to proceed.

I am a huge fan of the Peace Corps Small Project Assistance (SPA) program. When I was a PCV in Gambia 99-01, I never used SPA myself, but many other PCVs did so successfully. The design of a small budget with minimum 25% community effort match should be the design that all other projects are benchmarked against. If a community is unable or unwilling to quarter-match a project, then the budget is too large or the money going to the wrong thing.

Conclusion: There’s too much talk about impact from people who aren’t able to measure it.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t need to know whether we are better than something else” because your grant funding is restricted to exactly the one thing, you should give up talking about impact. You cannot prove you had a big impact on anyone if you are unable to offer more than one kind of aid to a person. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

If your next grant proposal is all about implementing one idea without comparing it to anything else, then don’t try to claim you’ll know what its impact will be. Instead, rewrite your grant so that you can at least say that it was better/worse than cash, or use one of these other approaches to demonstrate there is demand for it.

The ‘null hypothesis’ in any experiment doesn’t need to ask, “is this new thing is better than some old thing?” Instead, show that the intervention is more effective than cash. Cash is the equivalent of placebo for international development.

If you want to say something like “X foundation is 25% more effective than the rest,” you’ll need a better baseline to compare against. That means you need benchmark data and a null hypothesis to test against.

Listen, act, and demonstrated learning for organizations

In 2014 GlobalGiving made significant upgrades to their tools and training. Most of these improvements came directly out of the feedback organizations gave in their annual survey. They added web analytics:
They measured every organization’s behavior and put it on a dashboard to give personalized feedback on their performance:
 effectiveness-dashboard-head effectiveness-dashboard
And for the first time, organizations that strive to be better get credit and recognition for learning:
GlobalGiving now awards points for using any external tools we know about that can help organizations grow:
external learning tools
The process involves three steps – Listen, Act, Learn – and demonstrating that this has happened with a little feedback form:
LALR storytelling form

Formula: Demonstrated effectiveness => Visibility => Funds raised

Later this year, everything that organizations do to listen, act, and learn will increase their visibility on GlobalGiving, as it will soon factor into the partner rewards criteria:

These are the existing criteria, which omit points for good behaviors such as attending webinars, using SWOT analysis, community listening, and sharing knowledge with others.

But before we make drastic changes, we’d like to hear from everyone. If you work for an organization, please take our ‘learning how you learn‘ survey:
Help us learn how you work.

Learning Organizations

 A learning organization is one that transforms continuously based on evidence and helps its staff grow. We believe that learning organizations are going to drive change in the world in the future. But no two learning organizations look the same, or need the same things. This is your chance to help us learn what you need, so we can provide it. And if you are already doing something that makes you effective, we want to hear about it so that we can award more credit for doing what matters.

Changing the world

Dennis and Mari started GlobalGiving in 2002 because they believed most of the money was not making it to organizations that were doing great work. And in the decade ever since, we’ve moved over 100 million dollars to thousands of these great organizations. But that is not enough. We also need to demonstrate how and why these “other” organizations are a better investment, so that bigger deeper pockets will open and join us. That begins by tracking behavior and using market mechanisms to get more organizations doing more of what matters. We’ve explained our world view in this infographic:

Storytelling to change the ending of the ebola story

Following the present course, prospects for containing ebola are dim. Yesterday CDC predicted over 1.4 million ebola cases by the end of January 2015 unless something changes. The lag adjusted estimates of ebola’s fatality rate show that over 80% of people die, and this epidemic continues to grow exponentially.

This epidemic is growing because the standard approach – quarantining the area – doesn’t work where corruption is high (powerful people don’t obey the quarantine if they believe they can get better treatment by fleeing) and the ability to isolated infected people is low.

More importantly – if the public sees that 90% of the people who go into a hospital come out in a body bag they are not going to visit hospitals anymore.

Under these circumstances, some other approach may work where quarantines and hospital triage cannot. Last week Sierra Leone tried a three-day lockdown. This may be a test-run at a permanent curfew to prevent people touching each other.

But whatever the solution may be, I know it won’t be apparent without some people listening to citizens, gathering feedback and opinions, and aggregating it into data mining tools – exactly what we at GlobalGiving have done elsewhere.


I wrote to some friends who know people in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I have a dozen prospective volunteers to start a “Ebola Listening Brigade.” This is a Public Facebook Group For people in Liberia who are willing to interview a citizen for a “day in my life” story during the ebola epidemic. Life is changing rapidly there. These stories will help others understand the need and nature of the crisis beyond the narrow lense of the media.


Ebola Listening Brigade

Five minutes of listening a day

The goal is to keep the commitment low – 5 minutes a day – and simple, using technology. Here’s how stories will get aggregated and disseminated as they come in:

Step 1 – a listener approaches some person they know in Liberia and asks a question like, “What was your yesterday like? how did the ebola outbreak affect you?”

That person talks for at most 3 minutes. Their response is saved in a simple android app. Dictadroid seems to be simple and free. iTalk recorder for iPhone seems to work too.


Using a smart phone with the dictadroid app and internet access, they email it to me.

Step 2 – I take the WAV file they emailed and get it transcribed. Then the text appears at ebolastories.wordpress.com and becomes part of the storylearning.org story archive.

Step 3 – We keep collecting and sharing this so that others can use it as they think about the next approach to containment. If we can predict that what works for hundreds of patients doesn’t scale to a million, now is the time to explore plan B.

I’m happy to say that we already have a few people interested in contributing. The technology isn’t the barrier – it’s finding the time and keeping the process simple, while at the same time unleashing the power of narratives to reveal something deeper.

Narratives may seem unstructured, but they are quite structured. They are time-bound bits of information, pre-organized into a series chronological events. They include emotional perceptions and point of view markers in the pattern of pronouns. And they encode first-hand accounts with more that can reveal than a summary. So that’s why I’m trying to get more of them.

Nightly I scanned every wordpress blog on the net tagged #ebola and found that less than one in ten had even so much as a quote from a person in the affected area. The other 91% was just opining by outsiders. These opinions cannot reveal a solution, only first-hand accounts can.


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