Thursday, September 23, 2010

Will It Blend?

I'm not a big fan of YouTube videos. Normally I can't be bothered by the most-recent two-minute fad and I prefer to consume music through the vinyl medium, which leaves me little use for it. But there is one* series I couldn't stop watching once it went viral on my college campus a few years ago.

"Will It Blend?" is the brilliant marketing campaign by Blendtec that puts its blenders up against anything viewers would like: marbles, change, golf balls, cellphones, and, in an attempt to either completely reject or completely embrace consumer culture, a brand-new iPad.

These videos and their catchphrase, Will It Blend?, have resurfaced in my subconscious recently. I find myself asking that question internally whenever something new is put out into the ether to be critiqued and cut apart by the masses. I imagine the new development--be it an idea to donate shirts abroad, directing growth capital to small nonprofits or some sort of Rally to Restore Sanity--being thrown into one of Blendtec's blenders to see if it makes it through the blades, or if it ends up being no different than your everyday hockey pucks. (That one is pretty cool.) In my mind, those that make it through the blades mean something and go on to create real change, and those that don't end up being white noise that blends back into the normal fabric of society. 

I think, especially in the blogosphere, we can sometimes focus too much critique on the things that surround an idea (or an organization or an initiative), but not on the effectiveness of the idea itself. We can get caught up in a narrative rather than the substance of a movement (Tea Party, Liberals) or focus in on representatives of two camps sparring off (Jeff Sachs vs. William Easterly or, if you want something a little more humorous, Jon Stewart vs. Bill O'Reilly). Instead, we should be asking ourselves this question: Will it blend? Or will it work?

The most obvious example of effectiveness being lost through debate is the health care reform bill, which has many proposed changes going into effect today. Democrats defend it as sweeping social legislation and Republicans condemn it as ignoring middle class needs. Both of these stances reinforce political narratives and further political causes, but don't look at the efficacy of the proposed solutions behind the debate.

Developments within the nonprofit sector can be given many different labels--new, innovative, entrepreneurial. While those labels hold value, they do not answer that ultimate question. To determine if something works, we need testing, evaluation, planning and, above everything else, failure. Only through vigorous self-awareness and time can it be determined if something has made it out of the blender.

Of course, those parts of the debate that surround the issue of effectiveness still inform overall results. If a new program isn't actually new, but an old idea that didn't work the first time, it probably won't work this time. Trying to stop someone from going ahead with an objective bad idea is a good thing, like what happened in the 1 Million Shirts debacle. Someone wanted to give away t-shirts to poor countries, and aid workers who had seen this kind of program fail before put a stop to it. The debate became petty and personal, but ultimately the campaign was halted. There are limited resources in this world, so we cannot afford to have every idea or program tried and tested.

If you are thinking about doing something, whatever it is, the bottom line must always be: Will it work? Will it create meaningful, sustained change? Not: Is it new? Has it been done before? Will people like me if I do this? Those questions can inform the answer to the blender question, but they aren't the ultimate answer that can guide you.

So, if you are trying something new, always remember the sound of that blender. I hope you remain intact once it's been shut off.

*Well, actually, there's another YouTube video that I couldn't stop watching, but that's mostly due to my afore-mentioned vinyl interest.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Listen to Your Neighbors

During my recent job search, I had to make the hard (but privileged) decision on where to focus my scope of work: domestically or internationally. Two years ago, this wouldn't have been hard. I grew up fascinated and horrified by the stories of need abroad and always felt drawn to help those living on less than a dollar a day. In college, I studied global development and was introduced to Muhammad Yunus and his concept of microfinance as poverty alleviation. Setting out into the "real world," my goal was to do my part to end global poverty.

Instead, for a variety of reasons, my first job out of school was at a community health center with a hyper-local focus. I also ended up living only two blocks from where I worked. For the first time in my life, I was living and working within a community. When it was time for me to move on from the community health center, I again started to look into global development work, but kept in mind what I could do on a local level. I saw myself going down two paths, not knowing which one was right for me.

My reasoning for focusing on global poverty has always been that internationally, there is more absolute need than on any domestic cause. Income levels and standards of living are so low that, fiscally, it does not make sense to use resources for social good elsewhere. Lives can literally be saved for a few hundred dollars (as many international charities remind you in their advertisements.)

However, as I looked into the international development field, I learned that many problems arise when foreigners attempt to help the less fortunate abroad. Little to no awareness of local cultures, lack of understanding of local needs, hidden domestic interests and slow responsiveness to unsuccessful projects can cause more harm than good at worst and perpetuate the status quo at best. These problems have become (or always have been) so rampant that some have dedicated their careers to fixing the international aid system.

As you can see from my bio, I ended up choosing to continue to work on the local level, but it was not because of these intellectual and academic arguments. I'll deal with accountability issues with any sort of philanthropic work, regardless of location. What instead pushed me to consider focusing my time back home (besides my aversion to frequent trips abroad--I don't do airports well), was the feeling of connection I get from knowing that the time I spend at work effects the people I live near and the places I go to when I'm not in the office.

On my last day at the community health center, which served Latino immigrants, I was given a beautiful poster that read: "Ser revolucionario: Hablar con sus vecinos," which translates to "Be revolutionary: Talk with your neighbors." It is a quote from the 1968 Paris uprising. I've always associated the summer of '68 with an international push for peace/love/harmony and that quote--imploring the young, radical minds to learn what's going on right next to them--seemed out of place. But now, through my community work, I realize that any local initiative can be radical. A global push to eliminate poverty is revolutionary, but so is listening to your neighbors to see what they need. In either case, you are doing something, you are trying to change something for the better.

Ultimately, my decision wasn't based on where I was needed, but where I belong and what I understand. If you need someone to listen to you, you want to talk to your neighbors, not a foreigner. I feel that I am better equipped to listen to the people around me than someone in Botswana, as I am sure a woman in Botswana is better equipped to listen to the people around her than I am.

So, for now, while I live in DC, I will learn and do what I can to make it a better place. If I can one day get over my repulsion to airline food and jetlag, maybe I'll end up as a foreigner living in a foreign land, listening over there.

Thanks to Saundra at Good Intentions Are Not Enough for talking through this with me. (And apologies to all my global development professors in school.)

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Election Day!

If you live in the District, get out and vote today! It's an important primary for many different races, not just the hotly-contested mayor's race. There's same day registration if you are new to the area, you just need proof of residency. You can find your polling place here and the polls are open from 7 am to 8 pm.

I know the last few posts have been meager content; there will be more soon, I promise.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shameless Self Promotion: September Edition

One of my primary responsibilities at Venture Philanthropy Partners is to produce and edit VPPNews, its monthly newsletter. The September edition came out today and you should check it out to see what I've been doing for the past month. I'd love to hear any thoughts on it.

VPPNews is generally made up of a feature story, updates from the nonprofits we invest in and an in-depth column from either VPP's President, Carol Thompson Cole, or its Chairman, Mario Morino. This month, Carol's column discusses the Social Innovation Fund and the need for a collaborative approach for social change.

I'll be posting these on here as a part of my monthly "Shameless Self Promotion" series. I hope you enjoy. Again, let me know your thoughts.