Posts by Mike Sayre

GiveDirectly: What happens when we just give money to the poor?

When you first hear from an organization that’s asking for money to fight poverty, how do you respond? If you’re like me, it’s usually with a healthy dose of skepticism: how would my money be used?

Would it go to financing the nonprofit’s advertising costs, or administrative costs, or maybe even… to financing staff birthday parties?

The fact that there’s been some buzz recently about GiveDirectly—an organization that distributes donors’ cash gifts directly to people in need—is evidence that these questions have indeed been on a lot of people’s minds.

GiveDirectly’s answer is unusual: just give the money to people in need, and trust them to do something worthwhile with it.


A Kenyan recipient of a GiveDirectly donation
(photo via

To be fair, the idea isn’t really new—governments and NGOs have been distributing money directly for years. What is new is that the development of phone-based banking has made it possible to send money from anywhere instantly and with fewer middlemen—a concept that could be attractive to donors who dislike the overhead of more traditional organizations.

GiveDirectly, founded in 2008 and recently featured on NPR, finds people living in extreme poverty in Kenya, and sends them the equivalent of up to 1,000 USD by phone. The recipients can spend the money however they like—no prescriptions, no strings attached.

How is this laissez-faire approach going over in the new era of accountability? First of all, it’s not quite as hands-off as it sounds. GiveDirectly has conducted follow-up interviews with some of its donation recipients to find out how they used the money.

Many said they used it for one-time items that would contribute to their future economic well-being, like money-saving home improvements or business startup costs. So there is some continuing relationship, and some results are being measured.

But effectiveness is as important to donors as accountability, if not more. GiveDirectly’s website cites nearly thirty academic studies on the effectiveness of direct giving which help to dash a common suspicion about the model: namely, that people will spend the cash on frivolous or even harmful things like alcohol or drugs.

These studies found no evidence of that.

Even so, not everyone is sold. Aside from potential misuse of the money, some fear that giving cash introduces a risk of dependency that doesn’t exist with other kinds of development assistance, like infrastructure improvements.

However, proponents of direct giving could argue in return that giving money is at least better than giving material goods, as the local economy is stimulated when people have more cash to spend (when goods are given, local merchants don’t stand to profit).

There’s another, less obvious benefit to going the direct-giving route: discovering how people choose to help themselves, given the resources, can provide great data to help NGOs better understand how to meet their community’s unique needs—instead of imposing what they or their or donors might think is needed—and to refocus their efforts in that direction.

For example, GiveDirectly’s data show that a vast majority of recipients spent the money they received on a new, durable metal roof to replace their old grass roof. They’ll save on maintenance costs for years, allowing them to put more money toward educating their families, starting or growing businesses, and general well-being.

Larger NGOs could now enter the picture to help many more people by replacing many more roofs. It’s possible to arrive at the same conclusion through surveys, analysis, or other means, but there’s an attractive elegance to inviting people to literally show potential supporters what kind of help they could really use.

What do you think of GiveDirectly’s approach? Do you believe the direct giving model could—or should—work on a larger scale? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Book review: How to Measure Anything

The web seems awash these days with talk of “Big Data” ushering in new ways to look at the world and make strategic decisions. But for now, most of us don’t have dedicated data scientists, or Hadoop Clusters, or the financial resources to pour into these systems.

So how can we help our organizations make better decisions and design better programs with the systems and resources we have?

I recently read a book called How to Measure Anything by Douglas W. Hubbard. It’s not a new book, but I heard it mentioned at a Meetup I recently attended, and it sounded intriguing. It’s written for people who want to use data in their decision-making processes, but who lack actual training in statistics or data science.

It’s changed the way I look at the strategic role of data. Here are two simple, yet powerful ideas I picked up:

1. If it matters, you can measure it somehow.
A central premise of the book is that anything that is important enough to be part of your strategy can and should be measured in some way. Since many of us work with mission-driven organizations—or would like to—this can be a bit hard to swallow at first. After all, how do you quantify the story of child who has learned to read, or put a value on a life-saving medical treatment?

But does collecting and sharing those stories bring in donations? Does it nab you more volunteers? How does it relate to your primary metrics – people served, dollars-toward-cause, petition signatures, etc?

Consciously or not, you’ve attached some concept of value to each of those things. The point is not to say that these less-tangible things only matter because they affect the bottom line or some other metric-du-jour.

Rather, it’s to create a point of reference so that discussions about the risks and rewards of different strategies can be compared in some objective way.

Do you really need this much precision? Image by Flickr user stevegroom

Do you really need this much precision? Photo credit: Flickr user stevegroom

2. Be OK with ‘just enough’ data.
It’s easy to tie ourselves in knots on a quest for precision and completeness. We want to know exactly what the response rate will be on a new email campaign we’re testing, or exactly how many new volunteers signed up after a recruitment event. It’s tempting to scale up measurement and prediction efforts to try to reduce error.

More data means better decisions, right?

But improved accuracy has a cost. The first few measurements or estimates you make are easy to get and tell you a lot, while each additional bit of precision tells you less and costs more to acquire—more time, money, and attention.

For some critical decisions, you may actually need to be 95% certain that you’re right. Most of time, the cost of being wrong is not that high, and a lot less precision will do just fine.

The goal of measurement is not to eliminate uncertainty (which is impossible), but to reduce uncertainty to an acceptable level so a decision can be confidently made.

See if you can find a way to collect just a bit of data without investing much effort, and then ask yourself: “Is this enough information to make a decision?” The book dives into the math required for this kind of analysis, and breaks it down in a way that’s pretty friendly to statistics neophytes like me.

I’d recommend How to Measure Anything for anyone who’s interested in making better decisions based on data. Do you have a resource you’d recommend? Share it in the comments below.

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How one Idealist is bringing affordable e-learning to Malawi

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching'oma school

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching’oma school

When Gail Swithenbank made a trip to Malawi this January, e-learning wasn’t on her mind. She was visiting the Ching’oma school to check in on a scholarship program she’d helped create for children to attend secondary school and study permaculture—low-tech, sustainable agriculture methods.

But when she visited one of the high schools the scholarship recipients would attend, she saw that they needed more support than just tuition.

“It was two rooms, no windows or doors, few desks. No books or paper. Just two blackboards. The teacher had one book that they all copied from. Kids are walking seven kilometers each way to get there,” she says.

Gail realized that for the scholarship to make much of a difference, the students would need textbooks and materials. A library full of books could really help, but it would be better if they could ‘leapfrog’ directly to e-learning using low-cost laptops.

Bridging the digital divide

But an e-learning program would be challenging to implement; only about 5% of Malawians have internet access, according the World Fact Book. Even if provided with low-cost computers, the students wouldn’t be able to reliably access the trove of knowledge and learning platforms online.

Some new technology offers a way around this problem. Developer Jamie Alexandre and a team of volunteers recently released a free, portable version of the content and software produced by Khan Academy, a free online educational platform. This new version, called KA-Lite, is designed to work offline. In addition to video lessons and interactive exercises, it allows teachers to track the progress of each student while they learn at their own pace.

When Gail heard about this, she saw the potential. She found more educational content provided by the RACHEL Initiative—free courseware, libraries, and an offline version of Wikipedia. By putting all of this on a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer the size of a Smartphone that plugs into a T.V., she could provide a complete platform that’s nearly free and requires very little infrastructure. She’s spent the last few months learning about the technology and reaching out to her contacts in Malawi, who are excited about the idea.

The tools are new. The lessons are timeless.

As amazing as these new tools are, some of the most important takeaways from Gail’s story have very little to do with technology, and could apply to almost any project. Here are a few:

1. Expertise not required.
Gail admits she didn’t know much about e-learning or computer science before she started working on this project. So she reached out to people with related experience, like Janice Lathen of Powering Potential, who has been setting up computer labs in Tanzania since 2007. Gail has also spent hours on Skype with a nephew who studied computer science to get help with the technology. Sometimes, tenacity trumps knowledge.

2. Build on existing relationships and create new ones.
Great ideas can sometimes die on the vine without the right support. After working with school headmaster Gilbert Kaunda on the permaculture scholarship, Gail now has a local partner. He’s in a good position to make changes at the school and work with the local government.

She’s likewise reached out to potential partners, like Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches science and sustainability at Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York, about a possible collaboration between the two schools. Ultimately, Gail hopes to work with them and others to build a new e-learning facility.

3. Use what’s already out there.
Gail could have started a new nonprofit to support this project, done lots of fundraising, hired a staff to curate the e-learning materials and build the building. Instead, she’s leveraging existing institutions and tools: the school in Malawi, content from Khan Academy, and the community that’s sprouting up around Raspberry Pi.

By focusing first on the problem in front of her and connecting the dots, she avoided getting bogged down in details and spending extra cash. Sometimes being innovative just means assembling the pieces in front of you.

Gail’s story is just one example of people using new tech to solve stubborn problems. Do you know of another? Share it in the comments below.


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Where can you find Idealists? A look at our worldwide traffic

Ever wonder who else is using Idealist?

We do, so our developers put together a real-time visualization of our traffic around the world.


Our traffic from 2 p.m. today.

The height of each bar represents the number of visitors we have at any one time. This image is from 2 p.m. NYC time.

You can see that most of our visitors are coming from the East Coast of the U.S., while the West Coast is just starting the day.

We’re also getting quite a bit of traffic from Colombia, Peru, and Argentina to our Spanish-language site, It’s early evening in much of Europe and Africa, so we still have some visitors from France, Germany, Ghana, and Cameroon.

To see what our traffic looks like right now, take a look at the visualization.

I think it’s really inspiring to see so many people from around the world who are looking for opportunities to make a difference.

Where are you from? Say hello in the comments.

Special thanks to Gregory Haynes for making this visualization.

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Discover hidden common interests with this new app

As part of the programs team at Idealist, I’m interested in obstacles to action—things that stand in our way when we want to do something to make the world a better place.

One obstacle that we all face is that we have an incomplete picture of what the people around us can help us with. The past experiences of the people around us can be a tremendous asset when we’re looking to do good. They might be able to to recommend a volunteer opportunity, or may have worked on projects similar to our own in the past.

But we don’t know they can help us, and they don’t know what we want, so we can’t take advantage of their knowledge.

PeopleHunt MapAt the Feast conference in October, I bumped into Adrian Avendano, who co-created an app that tackles this problem head-on. PeopleHunt helps you meet up with people who have the knowledge you’re looking for or would like to learn something from you.

Here’s how it works: You can use the app to import any of your existing Facebook groups, or join one of the open groups that are available—for instance, the “New York Tech Meetup” group. You’ll see a list of all the things people from your groups would be interested in talking about, and can add your own. Choose any topic that you’re interested in, and the app will alert you when that person is nearby, so you can meet.

If the idea of putting yourself out there for anyone to find makes you nervous, you can limit your sharing to a private Facebook group so you control who you meet up with.

This is still a young app, and right now it’s only available for iPhone, but it could turn into a great tool for exploring your network and expanding your knowledge.

Do you have a favorite app for making connections? Share it in the comments.

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Marketing a cause? You might want to read Brains on Fire.

How do we build our list of email subscribers? How do we get Facebook users to ‘like’ our page?

Brains on Fire: Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements asks you to stop tweeting at people for a moment, stop obsessing about the numbers, and pose a completely different question: What do our biggest fans care about most, and how do we give them more of it?

Though this is clearly a book by and for marketers, there’s a lot of good stuff in here for almost anyone who wants to get people excited and build long-lasting change.

The book makes its point through a number of case studies from both the nonprofit and corporate worlds. The authors, who run a marketing firm of the same name, learned quite a bit about movement-building from working with Rage Against the Haze, a youth-led anti-smoking movement in South Carolina.



They had been handed a tough job:

  • combat one of the highest rates of teen tobacco use in the country
  • …without publicly demonizing an industry that is a major contributor to the state’s economy
  • …and do it with a very small budget.

So what did they do? More important is what they didn’t do: they didn’t start brainstorming hip commercials or slogans. They didn’t bombard teens with lots of scary statistics about the dangers of smoking – statistics that had fallen on deaf ears for years. They started by meeting teens face-to-face and asking them for ideas.

What really matters to teens? Autonomy. Owning your self. The ‘grown-ups’ just needed to get out of the way. So the firm had the teens choose the title of their own movement. They designed their own swag: numbered dog tags they could wear and t-shirts that put an ironic spin on the state motto, “While I breathe, I hope.” They went to high school football games and talked to other kids where they already were. They changed the conversation from one about mortality to one about empowerment – choosing not to be controlled by big tobacco. And it worked so well that, even when the money ran out, the movement kept right on going. In just four years, with no major media campaign or new taxes on cigarettes, they decreased teen smoking rates by 16.9% – one of the biggest decreases in the nation.

The authors offer other cases, too, from a customer-led community at Fiskars to Love146, a movement to end child sex trafficking.

The bottom line? Find the people who care the most and give them more power. You can make them feel special just by giving them a little face time, a little inside knowledge, and the authority to make some real decisions. Scary? Yes. But a risk worth taking? Absolutely.

Want to read Brains on Fire? If you purchase the book through this Amazon link, a percentage of the proceeds will help power our work.

More book reviews: The Networked Nonprofit; Jobs That Matter; Brandraising

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