New tech goodies for Connectors and Teams

Last night we rolled the site again, and now every Team page has two new links:

1. A link to all the organizations in that Team’s area that are listed on Idealist.

This is a handy way to see what resources are already available to you and your community and, in smaller places, you can also see who’s missing and invite them to join us on Idealist now. Like all searches on Idealist, you can narrow this by keyword and other fields.

2. A link to all the Connectors in your area

This will often overlap with the members of your Team, but on that page you will also see short summaries of people’s profiles, and you can search through all of them by keyword.

Where are they?

Both of these new links appear on the left side of the Team page AFTER at least one discussion has been started by someone on the Team. If you are alone in your Team, you can just post a “welcome” message to the next member, and these links will then appear on the left.

If you have trouble finding or using these new tools, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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Mmm, delicious community! New supper club models pair food with camaraderie

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

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Food is love.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Do you hunger for a deeper connection to new cultures when you travel?

Do you thirst for closer friendships with your neighbors?

Does the thought of eating home-cooked meals away from home make your mouth water?

If so, join the (supper) club!

We may not have full agreement on what to call this trend yet—I’ve come across “meal-sharing platform,” “collaborative gastronomy,” “community-based alternative dining,” and “the social food movement”—but a rose (or rosé) by any other name is still all about eating and drinking with strangers near and far to gain broader cultural understanding, make new friends, and, of course, savor delicious meals.

Here’s how some pioneers are doing it:

Meals with a side of cultural exchange

  • Cookening‘s motto is “Connecting people and cultures through food.” Sign up on their site to attend or host home-cooked meals and meet people from all over the world. Hosts post information about themselves and sample menus they might cook, then state their desired “contribution.” Guests peruse the host profiles (searchable by location, type of meal, languages spoken, maximum number of guests, and more) and send a booking request when they see something they like.

Home cooking

  • Adentro Dinner Club in Argentina is a bit different: a Buenos Aires couple opens their home to travelers every Wednesday night for a traditional asado (Argentine barbecue) for about US$60 per person.
  • An Italian counterpart, Home Food, began in 2004 in conjunction with The Association for the Guardianship and Exploitation of the Traditional Culinary-Gastronomic Heritage of Italy (talk about a mouthful). Guests join the association for €50 and can then sign up for various experiences (“Not only food,” explains the website, “but tradition, territory, love”).
  • And Brooklyn, New York’s “part-time restaurant” Neighbor uses the tagline “What we eat in our house” and serves on the last Saturday of every month. A four-course dinner with drinks is $85, and attendance is capped at eight people, first-RSVP, first-served.

Food party!

  • Still other variations on the theme include NYC’s The Ghetto Gourmet, which organized roughly 400 “underground dinner parties” from 2003 to 2008 and lives on today as “a portal into the world of underground restaurants, speakeasies, supperclubs and other community-based alternatives for dining and entertainment.” On the site, you can start or join a “foodie group,” plan your get-togethers, and post menus and photos from your meals.
  • Chaos Cooking organizes events across the U.S. and promotes ultimate collaboration, describing their model as: “Everyone brings the ingredients to make of dish of their choice. Everyone cooks together and then helps restore the space to its original condition.”
  • UK-based Find a Supper Club offers a hub where visitors can “discover where and when your local underground restaurant/pop up/supper club is!”, both in Europe and elsewhere.

Learn how to find great “closed-door restaurants” and get acquainted with new foods and people while traveling, or get inspired with tips to start your own right at home.

No matter how you slice it, supper clubs’ resurging popularity is testament to our deep desire for community, conversation, and sharing. And food. Definitely food.

Tell us how an alternative dining experience has been a positive influence on you or in your community.

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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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What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the first of a three part series in which I’ll share some lessons drawn from the world of software development that can be applied to the social good sector. Part one is about recognizing obstacles to action for what they are.

I work on the web development team here at Idealist. My business card has the title of “Scrum Master,” which sounds equal parts terrifying and mystifying (in reality, it’s neither). One of my primary responsibilities is to remove obstacles for our web developers.

Scrum” is one of several popular software development methodologies collectively known by the umbrella term “Agile.” Agile processes seek to address some of the issues inherent to highly complex projects such as software development, by providing a set of shared values, engineering principles, and communication methods.

As I’ve learned more about these methodologies, I’ve discovered there are many applications to the work that members of the Idealist community are engaged in every day. After all, what’s a more complex project than eradicating poverty, ending homelessness, or convincing world leaders to cooperate on climate change?

A technique for recognizing obstacles

Every morning, we have a 15-minute meeting called “the daily scrum” where each developer makes a commitment for the day, and talks about their obstacles.

One technique we use is making a list of certain words that we think might indicate a hidden obstacle, like “try,” “maybe,” and “hopefully.”

We write them on a whiteboard. Whenever a developer uses one of those words during the daily meeting, we call it out. For example, a developer might say, “Today I’ll try to finish the new blog feature…,” and the rest of the team will challenge him to explain why he’s only going to try.

This isn’t some Yoda-esque motivation strategy (“Do or do not. There is no try.”). Rather, it’s an attempt to understand what is causing the hesitation. Typically there’s an underlying obstacle, like the developer isn’t familiar with the relevant part of the code. Once that’s been articulated, we can work as a team to solve it—perhaps by having him pair up with another developer who’s more experienced with that part of the codebase.

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

Applications for world-changing work

Identifying your own obstacles, or your organization’s, is a key step in any plan to change the world. Here are some strategies:

1. Make it a regular practice.
In Scrum, we ask ourselves every day what our obstacles are, and what’s getting in the way. In your context, this may be a weekly ritual, or something that you do at a twice-annual staff retreat.

2. Learn to recognize symptoms of hidden obstacles.
In the world of web development, there are a few common signs of unspoken obstacles: a general lack of progress, having more work “in progress” than there are developers on the team, or releasing buggy code. In the world of social good, the signs might include: not hitting your fundraising targets regularly, skipping writing your annual report to stakeholders, or getting unsatisfactory feedback from clients. Recognize these symptoms for what they are: evidence of some underlying obstacles.

3. Make obstacles visible.
Some Scrum teams have an “Impediments board” where they list their obstacles to action on index cards. Cards get removed when the impediment is removed. By making the obstacles visible, everyone sees them and they tend to get resolved faster.

4. Prioritize obstacles.
Not all obstacles are created equal. For example, an obstacle that is preventing your organization from receiving donations might be more important than something that prevents your organization from getting a new logo in time for your summer campaign. Some Scrum teams limit the number of obstacles “in play” at any one time. This forces you to prioritize, and choose the most significant obstacles to focus on.

5. Share responsibility.
A good Scrum Master will facilitate the removal of obstacles by creating a culture of shared team responsibility. Similarly, an executive director or project manager might be ultimately responsible for removing obstacles within an organization, but by empowering the team, they will be resolved more quickly.

We’ve found paying special attention to identifying and removing obstacles has greatly improved our development work at Idealist. What do you think? Do you have any tips or tricks for finding and resolving obstacles in your organization or projects?

p.s. Stay tuned for the next part of the series, where I’ll share some ideas for how to “inspect and adapt” on your internal processes.

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Ask Ero: Answers for baffled and confused Idealists

In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions about anything and everything regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them. Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers or a work-safe Dan Savage.

Ero is Thoughtful Adjusted Cropped3Hi, I’m Ero. I’m Idealist.org’s tech support guy. I love answering questions from people who use our website. And I’m here to help you when you’re helpless and confused.

There’s a pretty good chance you’re feeling helpless and confused right now. I know, because I get phone calls on a regular basis from people who want me to rescue a lost cat.  Or who’d like to send me a large pile of used medical equipment. Or who think I’ve just personally rejected their resume for a teaching job in Canada.

As a garden-variety computer nerd who happens to love nonprofits and the people who work for them, I’m incredibly ill-equipped to answer any questions other than “How do I use the Idealist website?” I’m actually pretty good at answering that question, which is why I have a job answering questions about the Idealist website.

I can tell you, for instance, how to sign up, reset your password, add or remove your organization, pay an invoice, and much more.

But you call and ask me how to help the sea turtles, or what the tax rate is in New Jersey. Normally I’ll answer back that I’m not really qualified, and try to point you in the right direction if I can. But in these blog posts, I’ll answer any question you ask.

Until I get your first questions, I’ll try to shed light on how the website works. I’ll start by explaining two things that people don’t always know about Idealist:

1. Everything on our website comes from you.

We maintain a great website full of useful tools, but aside from our blogs, every single bit of content in it is made by our user community, the amazing Idealists around the world. Yes, I’m talking about you.

If your nonprofit has an account on our site, it’s because someone at your organization made one. If you’re getting email alerts, it’s not because we stole your identity; you signed up for an account with us.

We do our best to keep the website up-to-date, but we only built the playground, we’re not the parents.

2. We’re here to bring people together.

We’re not a corporation trying to sell your personal data, and we’re not really interested in ripping you off. We’re a nonprofit, too, and our mission is to make the world better by helping people be effective at doing good.

We want the website to work as well as it can, so that you can connect with others, copy good ideas, take advantage of our resources, and find organizations who you know would love to have you as an employee or volunteer. We couldn’t do it without you.

Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I really do mean anything)? Ask me.

Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at ero@idealist.org. 

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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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Hey "accidental techies," Idealware has free trainings for you.

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The friendly team at Idealware.

Idealware‘s tagline is “helping nonprofits make smart software decisions.” They make good on that promise through books, webinars, and other resources. And starting next week, they’ll offer a free monthly training, too!

The first webinar in their monthly series will cover Optimizing Your Website for Search Engines. When people search sites like Google with keywords that relate to your work, does your organization’s name come up on the first page of results?

There are lots of techniques you can use to make this happen, and Idealware’s Executive Director, Laura Quinn, will break them down in this free training. Learn more and sign up here.

Other free eLearning courses include The Technology Pyramid (“Does your organization have its technology priorities in the right order?”) and Facebook vs. Twitter (see also: The Nonprofit Social Media Decision Guide).

And you may remember that last year we reviewed Idealware’s Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits. Now they’ve released a 2011 edition, packed with new insight about topics from productivity and collaboration to constituent management, fundraising, and outreach.

Go forth and make informed software decisions, nonprofit techies!

Note: despite the similarity in our names, Idealware and Idealist are two separate entities. We like Idealware, and we like to promote free and cheap resources that can help you do your work better! Let us know if there are other organizations or resources we might want to share here.

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