Imagine a Better World: An Interview with Ami Dar of Idealist

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If you are reading this blog, there is a good chance that you are an idealist, and perhaps you would like to meet other idealists to work together to make the world a better place. I talked with Ami Dar, the Founder and Executive Director of Action Without Borders, the organization that maintains Idealist.org, about their Imagine a Better World campaign that is working to connect idealists all over the world. Ami shares his reflections a week or so after the first Imagine a Better meetings that happened all over the world February 5-11, 2007.

You can listen to the interview on the NetSquared Podcast or read the transcript below.

Ami Dar: My name is Ami. I'm the Executive Director of Action Without Borders, which is the 501c3 nonprofit that runs Idealist.org. Idealist has been around since 1995. It's a portal. It's a big nonprofit portal or resource site that connects nonprofits all over the world with people who want to work with them, or volunteer with them, or intern with them.

It allows basically any nonprofit anywhere to promote its mission, its events, its resources, etc. It's used by about 60,000 nonprofits around the world and about 50,000 people a day come to the site to find, search, and browse, and also they can subscribe. They can create a profile and they can get daily email alerts with any new opportunity that any nonprofit posts that interests them.

So that's what Idealist has been for the last ten years.

Britt Bravo: Can you tell us a little bit about the Imagine Another World campaign, where the idea came from and where it's going?

AD: Where it's going, we'll see, but where it came from, basically it's essentially the same idea that really led to Idealist, 10-12 years ago. It's the idea that originally obsessed me. And I say obsession because that's exactly what it has been for almost 20 years now.

When I was young, or younger, and trying to decide what to do with my life, I got really into this idea of how can we do more with all the resources that we have in the world. I was 24. I didn't really know anything. I didn't know better. And I thought we, all of us, all six billion of us, have time, ideas, resources, and surely we could be doing more with all this about all the problems that we have. So the question was, how?

And so for many years I'd try to write about this, think about this. There was no Web. This was '85, '86, '88. And then in the early 90's I saw the Web for the first time. A friend came home and showed me the Web and that led to Idealist being created, as a way of beginning to do this, as a way of beginning to find a place where resources and ideas and people could meet and do more.

But the original idea was always more than that. It included the idea of people working face-to-face, people working online. One way of sort of summarizing this, is the thing that I think has been there from the beginning is: Is there any way in which all of the idealists in the world could be working together? I mean very specifically, because idealist can mean different things, people who want a better community, a better world, defined I think in a way that is familiar to most of us, a better positive world. And how can we all work together better?

It took us a while to get to the point where we are now, where we felt that the Web had gotten to the place, and where we, as an organization, had gotten to the place, where we could come out and really invite people all over the world to imagine a world in which every possible connection between any two people, or any two organizations that want to work on something together, is possible. Where any two people who live on the same street or live in the same city, or live in a different city, and who have a similar idea, should be able to connect today and make that happen. Any two organizations, any person in an organization, should be able to connect. If eBay has done it for products, we should be able to do it for good things. And to also stress that it's not just online, but offline as well. That we could all be working together better than now.

So what we're doing now is we're online. We put up this proposal, this idea for people to come together and make this happen wherever they are. We did this about five weeks ago, and we invited people to essentially come online, read essentially a proposal, a document where, yes, like you said, we asked them to imagine a different world, a different community.

And then we proposed that if they want to make this happen, we start by having local, face-to-face meetings all over the world. We started on the week of February 5th to 11th. We gave people three weeks and we honestly didn't know what was going to happen. It was a very strange request to make. You send an email to people that you don't know, all over the world, and you say, "Hey, would you like to meet people that you don't know, where you are, and help launch this big, global network of idealists?"

We were pretty amazed. About 300 people in 70 countries offered to do this. The meetings happened last week. We're getting all these amazing photos now, and reports, and people want to do it again. People talk about all kinds of things. But essentially, there was definitely a sense of commonality. Common values, common challenges, shared ideas. And, yeah, very much a confirmation that clearly we could all be doing much more together. So that was the beginning, I guess.

BB: As you're getting reports back from the first meetings from the week of February 5th through 11th, are there any particular success stories from the meetings that stand out?

AD: I think in most of the meetings people just connected for the first time. In some cases people are launching projects right there. They want to go and do something in a community. In many cases the success really is people meeting, realizing they are not alone, realizing that they are not isolated, realizing that in their town or city there are many, many more people like them, waiting to do good stuff together.

And so it was really just an initial trust-building experience for many people. Also I think people were a little bit in awe of the idea that in 70 countries this was happening at the same time. We read in the papers about how the world is divided and at the same time we can go and do something that unites us across every border. People were meeting in China, in Syria, all over South America. We did it in French, Spanish, and English. This was happening really all over the world.

And, again, the goal of these meetings is not just to talk or not to necessarily find one issue to work on. The goal of the whole initiative is to say how do we make sure that every person in the world who wants to make a difference has an opportunity to do so. So the meetings are about looking around in every community and saying: What now gets in the way of people who want to get involved? What gets in the way of people who want to connect? And how do we create mechanisms, anything from a bulletin board to more complex things, that will allow people to connect around any issue that concerns them?

So essentially, how do we all together build the platform, for lack of a better word, I know platform can sound technical. It's not necessarily an online platform. But how do we build a global platform that has online and offline components, through which then any connection can be made and any action that you like can flow. But the goal, really, is to create a platform that will allow any two people, or more, anywhere, to work together on any issue that they have in common.

BB: Were there any challenges in launching this campaign?

AD: Sure. The first challenge, of course, is one of just outreach. We basically have a small critical mass. In some places, New York is a great example, we had 12 meetings just in New York City, and most of them filled up. Most of them ended up with waiting lists. And then you have other cities, where somebody posts a meeting in a small town in India, and then finds out, in fact, that he's the only person that we know in that small town in India. And so the challenge of getting more people to show up ends up falling to him or her. We can't necessarily send people their way.

We also, this time, kept things deliberately a little bit quiet. We didn't go to the media; we simply went to our list and told people to tell other people. All we did was email our list. We didn't blog much, we didn't go to the big bloggers, we didn't go to the big media. We wanted to keep things quiet at first and see how they go.

This next cycle, which is happening in March, the week of March 12-18, we wanted to deliberately make a bit more noise and get other people involved, and break out of our relatively small network.

BB: Are your hopes and goals for the March meet-ups different or similar to the meet-ups you had in February?

AD: Similar and different. Similar in that the goal is essentially the same, although we want to basically sharpen it, we want to sharpen the messaging a little bit, and make it clear that it's really about, I know it sounds a little bit nutty at first, the world's idealists coming together. We want to define that and to have a clear definition of what we mean by that, and then put the word out that this is really the beginning of, for lack of a better word, a global movement of people who want to work together to make the world a better place.

And yes, on the other hand, we want to make it broader, to make it bigger. To reach new countries, new cities, new people, and draw more people in. We really see this now as a series of successive waves, where this is just the first one and we want to do it now again, then in April, then in May, and reach more people every time.

We're beginning to really set up more of a network, and also, at the same time, adding components to Idealist that weren't there. We're going to launch online forums for the first time this week so people can actually talk to each other. These people have been all leaving comments on the site, but they haven't been able to talk to one another, so we're going to add that now.

We're beginning to use video more, podcasting more, to actually allow for people to hear voices online, to really draw in every way that we can, to make this much more visible and concrete to people.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about the social web tools that Idealist has used to promote the event, or to encourage participation, and/or how some of the participants have used social web tools, like the Silicon Valley wiki, or I saw there was a Chicago Idealist blog.

AD: You drew a great distinction between the tools that we have used, and the tools that people are beginning to use out there.

The tools that we've used so far with Idealist itself, we've added a series of social components. People can create a profile, they can put their photo, and we have our own version of a Meetup software where people post their meetings or sign up for meetings.

We're not using Meetup because we need it to be integrated with Idealist, and for it to be multi-lingual, and free, and to be able to be used everywhere, so we built our own. So the Meetup component, there is a profile component, there's a messaging component between people.

We've set up a group in MySpace that has about 500 people on it, for friends of Idealist. It's MySpace.com/idealists.

There's a group on Facebook called, "I'm an Idealist" that has about a thousand people on it, so we're using that too.

We experimented with YouTube for the first time a couple weeks ago. I taped a two minute message to the meeting hosts and attendees. We also put up a couple of tapes from meetings that happened. Those are there as well. We're using Flickr to collect all the photos that are coming in. You know, sort of regular, routine stuff that people do these days.

We're also beginning to encourage people now to use any kind of blogs, listservs, wikis, to get this thing going. One of the things that makes me optimistic is that all these tools are out there now. All you have to do is to use them and connect them. It's incredible how many tools are available. Sometimes it even seems as if there are too many tools and it's hard to choose.

The next piece of this for us, again, is to incorporate forums and online communities, to use video and podcasting even more. It seems strange at first, but there is no reason why we shouldn't be talking to all these people much more and much more directly. So, we will be experimenting with that in the next few days and weeks as well.

BB: Have you used any tagging?

AD: The only way that we're using tags right now is that we've told people to post their photos and videos on Flickr and YouTube using a tag called, "idealistcommunity". We're not using it for anything else so far.

BB: Is there anything about how the project has been evolving that has surprised you?

AD: I think, honestly I've been hoping and thinking about it for so long that it wasn't so much that it surprised me. The thing that amazes me is people's willingness. I'm sort of shocked. I don't know if I would do that. I'm amazed by people's willingness and generosity to invite strangers into their homes. People are meeting everywhere. These meetings are happening all over the world.

You know, it's summer now in South America and South Africa, so people are meeting in parks, in beaches. People are meeting in coffee shops, restaurants, wherever, but also in homes. That, to me, is the most amazing thing of all. When people just say, "Here's my address. Just come to my house." It just blows me away that people are definitely willing to trust each other to that extent.

I think it's wonderful, but every time I see it, I think, "Oh, my God. People are amazing."

BB: How can people get involved in the Imagine a Better World campaign?

AD: Definitely get a sense of what the idea is about. Go to idealist.org/imagine, or just look at the home page, you can really get a sense of what we're trying to do in more detail than I can describe here.

Then, I think one great thing to do is to attend one of these meetings. In the U.S., they happened in at least a hundred different places. I hope that by March they will be happening all over the country, and definitely in April, as well. So, attend a meeting, meet other people, and then we'll start building this thing together.

Really, in the end, it starts from the site, and then people can take it from there.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about Idealist, or the Imagine a Better World campaign?

AD: I'm very optimistic. I think that we are living in, honestly, in a very special moment. I think 2007 is a very special year, in the sense that all of these things that have been coming at us, in some cases for decades--radio, television, satellites, whatever--and now more recently, things like YouTube, Flickr, instant messaging, MySpace, all these things are really converging while at the same time we're more aware than ever of all these local and global problems that we face. I think that this year, all of that, in some sense, is going to come together. I think that in some way we, all of us collectively, are going to find a way of truly making use of all this to create a better world for all of us.

So, we'd like to play whatever role we can in that, but I really believe it's going to happen this year.

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Ami Dar
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