Global aid workers need aid, too

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and people across the U.S. come together to help each other and work toward solving our common problems, we’d like to pose the question: what exactly is social good?

Coincidentally… Welcome to Ideal-to-Real Updates, a series where we check in with idealists taking action on their good ideas to see what they’ve been up to and what gems of wisdom they’ve been learning.

Last July, we wrote about Shannon Mouillesseaux, a New York state native with a passion for international development.

At that time, she shared with us her idea for a penpal and travel exchange project that would match at-risk students in the U.S. with kids in developing or war-affected countries.

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Shannon with a family in rural Oman.

We recently caught up with Shannon again to ask about the status of that project, and what else she’s been up to in the past year and a half. She wrote to us from her current post as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protection officer overseas, assisting refugees and helping advocate for those who are unlawfully detained.

Through the Idealist blog, I learned of a great project already underway, which has a strikingly similar objective and approach to what my project aspired to do. It’s called Project PeacePal. The executive director Sarah Wilkinson and I connected and have remained in touch to support one another. For one, I was able to refer another Idealist member who had connected with me, following the blog post, to PeacePal to assist Sarah with social media efforts.

Shannon would love to collaborate with PeacePal in the future, but she’s currently involved with all sorts of other projects: setting up iSurvived, an advocacy and support group for UNHCR staff who have survived trauma; creating a website to connect and support global aid workers around the world; and writing a children’s book series to encourage cultural and humanitarian awareness.

I am *always* working on what I call “my personal projects” on the side of my work. Most of them have a similar theme: to educate people about realities in the global South, advocate for aid workers, and help improve our development models and systems, which I think are largely outdated and in need of retooling.

I feel propelled to act on behalf of other humanitarian staff in order to better protect and support them. After all, how can we expect to be effective in our roles as development workers if we don’t first ensure that we are healthy and adequately supported? As the environments in which we work become decreasingly secure, our organizations need to take action to better prepare us, protect us, and support us. We each have a role in advocating for this, too.
Go Shannon! We’re rooting for you. Looking forward already to checking in next year.
If you’d like to help inspire young people around the world to become peace builders, connect with Project PeacePal. To learn about and support the international aid worker community, visit global aid worker.




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3 tips for making the most of failure

Christine Prefontaine is a jill of many trades: strategist, organizer, writer, and advisor (among others). Through her extensive work in international development, as an advocate for reforming current publishing methods, and as founder of the social engagement and innovation consultancy Facilitating Change, she has encountered failures on levels large and small, and learned from each one. Here are some of her insights and advice.

I see two trends right now, in international development in particular, but in other fields, too: We want more transparency and openness but at the same time we want more innovation. These two trends, with our current ways of thinking, can clash with each other. For example, what if money is spent on something new and it doesn’t work and now stakeholders can see that?

Similarly, you can’t say to your client, “Those five hours I billed you for? Well, I didn’t get your deliverable done, but I learned a lot.” So while we may need to fail to innovate, certain types of failure may never be accepted.


Take it from Christine (left): Don’t be too afraid of going off the rails.

Then there’s FailFaire. Seeing and presenting at FailFaire [in 2012] was huge for me, because it’s this open forum to at least start talking about failure. People from consulting firms, government, activists, developers—everybody was there to talk about it.

I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm and joy at an event; the collective sigh of relief of, “We can finally talk about this stuff.”

So it’s just thrilling to me that we have these FailFaires now. I think they’re a great step in familiarizing more people with the concept of failure as an experience and process that we can benefit from.


1. Set yourself up for mini-fails.

I look at innovation broadly: often it means using things we already have to solve problems, but utilizing them in a new way. And in order to do that, you have to experiment, and when you experiment, it’s a given that you’ll screw up a lot. So build failure into your system—that’s the whole fail fast/fail forward thing.

Prototype and iterate and test quickly, at the most granular level you can, so that your failures are kept on a low level. That’s where failure is really helpful and less scary. Little models can show you what the big result would be. Don’t go too far down one path without testing or you’ll waste tons of time.

2. Make it okay to talk about failing.

In my career, I’ve tried to surface the reality of how things actually get done; to work transparently. It allows for more efficiency and learning if everyone involved can understand the nitty-gritty of how things actually work.

We all understand how it could be seen as undesirable or unimportant to talk about messing up, but you have to. And it’s a time issue, too—time has to be made to talk about what didn’t work, as much as a safe space has to be made in which to do it. But if we could make more space and time for failure, fewer things would snowball downhill.

3. “You can’t talk about failure without talking about learning.”

There will always be people who say that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry, especially in international development. But you just can’t talk about failure without talking about learning, whereas if you talk only about success, the learning tends to get vapid.

Also, stories about failure are more likely to go viral, for this reason among others, like the fact that we all love good gossip.

Actually, FailFaire could be called LearningFaire, because that’s what it really is, but the name they chose signals their attempt to inject some humor into the subject, which I think is one great step toward greater acceptance.

Reach out to Christine with your thoughts and questions through one of her websites or in the comments below.

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6 strategies for nonprofits to face failure head on

We often talk about the value of failure but what does it mean to create an organizational culture that embraces it? Rachel Jansen, Writer, and Ashley Good, CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, a project of Engineers Without Borders Canada, talk about how to move past the fear of failing.

Most of us have thought of changes we’d like to see to make the world a better place. But the first hurdle many of us face is the fear of failure.The Goat is to be Halal - Field-level Lessons on Scaling Community Led Total Sanitation

We’d like to suggest that getting over that fear starts with accepting that, no matter how smart, well-intentioned, and hard working we are, failure is going to happen because almost everything we do has elements of both success and failure.

Our organizations tend to be set up in a manner that discourages open communication about tough issues; open admission of failure comes with risk and poses a threat to our self-esteem and worth in the eyes of others.

How can we change this? How do we accept failure and allow ourselves to step outside of the box and try new things?

Embrace and share your failures

Engineers Without Borders Canada has been publishing an annual Failure Report since 2008. From the very beginning, they’ve strived to encourage a culture of learning through open communication and transparency. Employees and volunteers are expected to share their failures all year round.

With such a viewpoint in mind, there are many ways to encourage communication about failures, support collaborative learning, and break down much of the fear associated with taking action. Here are a few:

  • Start with managers. Management should role model the behaviour of speaking openly about their failures. Top-level buy-in is essential as it develops trust, and communicates that we all fail.
  • Gain permission from those involved in a failure before implicating them with your story. This prevents hard feelings and encourages communication between all parties involved in a failure where the various perspectives can lead to deeper insights.
  • Face failures head on. Try not to euphemize or avoid the big issues by tackling less important ones.
  • Recognize and emphasize that just because a person failed does not mean they are a failure. It’s important to separate ego from activity if we are to feel safe sharing our stories.
  • Never blame. The failures that teach us the most tend to be the result of multiple factors and are rarely caused by a single person or error.
  • Build the conversations about failures and learning into formal structures such as team meetings or project reviews to make sure everyone is encouraged to share. The idea is to turn the idea of failure on its head by implicitly saying “If you do not have a failure to share, you’re either not being honest or you’re not being innovative.”

These initial steps are only the first building blocks in creating an environment where it is okay to discuss failures, and more importantly, to learn from and adapt to them.

What barriers do you, your team, or organization face when talking about failure?  Have you used any of the strategies above to overcome them?


Learn more about building resilience to failure at Fail Forward or by emailing



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Headlines: Greg Mortenson, storytelling, and Pakistan's schools


Here's hoping this firestorm ultimately helps to move responsible education efforts forward. (Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Greg Mortenson, founder of Central Asia Institute and author/subject of the books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, has been under an uncomfortable spotlight this week. Accusations that he and CAI aren’t what they seem have prompted big conversations about international development work, nonprofit governance, and more.

(In case you haven’t been following along, author Jon Krakauer recently released Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, in which he presents evidence that Mortenson fabricated portions of his bestselling books. CBS’ 60 Minutes featured a story called Questions Over Greg Mortenson’s Stories; Mortenson, who had declined an interview, issued a response earlier this week, as did the CAI board.)

Here are some follow-up headlines we’ve spotted this week.

Pakistan Does Have an Education Crisis Despite Questions About Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea – Rebecca Winthrop, Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution:

Good intentions do not necessarily translate into effective international development practices and NGO management. In the ongoing search for successful aid models, it is important to highlight that there are many professional non-profit organizations that do excellent education work in Pakistan. Many of them are Pakistani organizations, such as the Citizens Foundation and the Children’s Global Network. Community involvement and leadership are central to many of the work of these organizations, which is further supported by the education expertise of local staff and implementation of basic organizational management principles to track funds and monitor activities.

Eureka and Other Myths: A Reflection on Three Cups of Tea – Katherine Lucey for PeaceXPeace:

There is such a palpable desire for an origination story, an epic tale of good versus evil, a lost soul finding redemption or a single moment of inspiration…Real solutions don’t happen that way.

Three Cups of Tea and the Stories We Tell – Macy Halford, The New Yorker:

There’s a tacit understanding between the author of a book that draws attention to a social injustice while proffering a solution and the buyer of that book: the understanding is that the purchase is akin to a donation…Savvy authors of these types of books (like Rebecca Skloot), will tell the press exactly what they’re doing with it. Mortenson, if he is innocent, is going to have to do better than impassioned denials.

For many, many more responses, see the roundups at Good Intentions are Not Enough and zunguzungu.

What’s your take on all of this?

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Cash prizes for your artwork, ideas, or international work

Want to do some good in the world but could use a little help? Check out these contest folk and grantmakers who want nothing more than to give you their money:


Total amount of cash up for grabs in this post: $157,000. What are you waiting for? Photo by Yomanimus (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Rice Award
Are you a professional between the age of 18-30 who is making some serious headway in the field of global development? Apply to receive a $1,000 grant, an inscribed plaque you can bring home to mom, and an honorary year-long membership to the Society for International Development (SID). Caveat: applicants must have an affiliation with SID. Deadline is April 29.

BE BIG in Your Community Contest
For over 50 years, Clifford the Big Red Dog has been making children laugh with his larger-than-life antics and saving them from the doghouse by imparting kind lessons. Everyone big and small is invited to submit their ideas on how to use Clifford’s positive traits to better their neighborhoods. Grand prize is $25,000 with smaller amounts given to second and third place. Added bonus: Scholastic, HandsOn Network and American Family Insurance will work with the winner to ensure their idea comes to life. Deadline is June 17.

Back to School 2011 Contest
Tired of teen pop stars like Justin Bieber overtaking folders, notebooks, pencil pouches and more? Instead of doodling in class, use your creativity to design artwork that inspires action in your community related to education, environment, peace and volunteerism and a healthy lifestyle. Do Something and Staples will give the winner the opportunity to see their designs in Staples stores nationwide and a $1,000 scholarship toward school. Applicants must be between the ages of 13-25. Deadline is July 22.

The folks behind this new NYC-based nonprofit believe solutions start with you. Anyone over the age of 18 can submit their ideas on any issue in the five boroughs – although the target demographic are tech-savvy Gen Y do-gooders. The selected handful of emerging leaders will each receive $5,000 plus tools, guidance and promotion to help execute their project within six months. The first wave of awesomeness is currently underway, but look out for the second one starting in July.

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Gooooooooals in International Development

Can football (soccer) help build a better world? Those working in the field of Development through Football would certainly say yes.

We learned about Development through Football through an organization called streetfootballworld, which “interconnects and strengthens long-term social development initiatives that use the unique potential of football to transform the lives of disadvantaged individuals from around the world.” The unique potential of football lies in its sheer popularity through the world, simple rules, minimal equipment costs, team values, and health benefits. The sport can be incorporated into efforts of education reform, intercultural exchange, youth development, and more.

If you’ve never heard of Development through Football, you may be surprised to know how active the field is. Streetfootballworld’s network includes about 70 organizations in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe that are currently using the model. Click here to search for one in your area.

Also try a general search on Idealist for soccer, basketball, tennis, or your favorite sport. You might find some fun volunteer opportunities or other ways to combine sports with your social activism.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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