Sharing Solutions: An Interview with Alex Steffen of WorldChanging

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Here is the transcript I promised last week of an interview with Alex Steffen, Executive Editor of WorldChanging. You can also listen to it on the NetSquared Podcast

Alex Steffen: WorldChanging is a non-profit, solutions-based journalism outfit. What we do is essentially look around for the best available solutions to the world's most pressing problems, including environmental sustainability, the need for environmental sustainability, poverty, human rights, democracy-building, ways of dealing with emerging technologies, and so forth. We got started about three-and-a-half years ago. It basically started because there was a small group of us who were working as journalists and consultants and activists, and we all felt that there was plenty of attention being given to trying to raise people's consciousness about the nature and magnitude of the problems, but that there was very little attention given to trying to increase awareness of the kinds of solutions that might be available to us.

So we started, originally, just almost as a hobby, just blogging interesting ideas and solutions that we found in our daily lives, working in these fields, and it just grew. The first month, I think we had actually fewer people read the site than were writing for it. So in months after that, we rapidly sort of gained an audience, to the point where now we are serving like three-and-a-half million page views a month. I think it is just an example of stumbling upon a good idea. It has proven to be very popular, and from what we hear from our readers it is helpful for people who are in various fields to hear about the solutions that people are coming up with in other fields, and we seem to be having some sort of an impact.

In October of 2004, we hit a point where doing WorldChanging was enough work that if we didn't make it into a job, we were not going to be able to continue; and so we decided that we would see if we could start a little non-profit and find some funding. I spoke at a conference called PopTech, and while there, a gentleman named Chris Anderson, who curates another conference called TED, heard me speak and invited me to meet him for lunch. I knew that he was very well connected, and we had not been having much luck getting support from the usual foundations and so forth, and so I actually intended to meet with him and see if he might know of anybody who could support us in the work we were doing. As it turned out, I sort of told him what we were up to, and told him about the effectiveness of what we had been doing, and what we would do with money if we got it, and he asked how much we needed, and I told him, and he said, "OK."

So it turned out to be the world's easiest start-up grant to get, in that he basically just, he heard what we wanted it for and agree to help. Specifically, the reason why he was in a position to be able to do that was that Ed Burtynsky, the nature photographer, who takes pictures of profoundly altered landscapes--things like strip mines and clear-cuts and so forth--had just won the TED Prize, which is an award that the TED conference gives to people who are doing remarkable work; and as a result of that, he could make a wish, he could say, "I really want something to happen." And what he had decided, what Ed had decided, was that he really wanted to support WorldChanging; that he wanted to support a web site that could really help people think in new ways about sustainability.

So unbeknownst to me, we were already sort of, we already had a fan and supporter in Ed, so it just really worked well.

Britt Bravo: Now, as you mentioned, what you all write about are solutions, and since NetSquared is about non-profits using the social web for social change for solutions, what in all the things you have been reading about and writing about and researching, what do you think are some of the most exciting examples of how non-profits and NGOs are using the social web for social change?

AS: I think there are an awful lot of them. I think that we are still in an experimental stage, in that there are a lot of tools that are becoming more and more available, but that we are not quite yet sure how to use in the best manner. In addition, a lot of these tools sort of intersect in interesting ways with social practices, with new innovations in how to work together socially. So, we are starting to see not only better tools, but a culture of innovative practices, and those things are sort of feeding each other.

I would start by saying just that we have not yet seen, we don't yet know what the final answers are to, the last answers to what we are going to be able to do with this stuff. We are still in the early days, right? But that said, I think that there are a number of things that are really encouraging to me. We just posted about one that I rather liked that Sarah found. It is the Howtopedia, which is a collection of pages which basically give how-tos, simple instructions for DIY projects. It essentially creates a collaborative platform for knowledge sharing.

One of the reasons I like this is because we are all familiar with Wikipedia, which is the ultimate example, at the moment, of people being able to collaborate together to produce a phenomenal result in shared knowledge; but what I think we are starting to see is that those tools can in fact do more than just help people build an encyclopedia or a dictionary, that we actually are gaining the ability for large numbers of people to collaborate on sharing the best practices they have for doing other things, and that, I think, is a phenomenally useful tool.

We are starting to see things coming out of groups like the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group and so forth, that are really brilliant ideas that are now being spread far and wide. So that would be one thing that I would point out, is just the increase in ability to collaboratively share information about how to do things better.

Another thing that I think is really interesting is the spread of these tools into contexts where they previously didn't exist. I was recently at a conference, and heard that there were people from Tanzania, who were exiles, and who were working on what they hoped would eventually become the constitution of their country by doing it in a wiki. They were essentially writing their future constitution on a wiki, and I thought that was pretty interesting. I think that we are beginning to see more and more people using these tools to do things that really have nothing to do with technology at all. You could very easily sit down and you could write out by hand a constitution, and we wrote ours that way, but where the technology, though these fields have nothing particularly to do with technology--where the technology allows something new to happen, and something new to emerge. So I think that that is also a real force.

What I haven't seen enough of is, well, the third thing, which I guess is probably obvious, I suppose, to most people reading this or hearing this, is that these technologies also enable people to better connect to do activism and other kinds of cooperative work. So we are seeing examples of very small groups which have very big networks becoming incredibly powerful. An example, I would point out is GlobalWatch (correction GlobalWitness) which really pretty much singlehandedly, a very small NGO in the UK, pretty much singlehandedly put the issue of blood diamonds on the international agenda, simply by being very good at spreading information, and using networks, and communicating effectively through those networks. But they are not alone, lots and lots of people have done that, and we have seen the effect in everything from U.S. presidential politics to the corporate landscape and sort of boycotts and social pressures on corporations, and I think we are going to continue to see that; but I think that is probably obvious to a lot of folks who are seeing this.What I think we haven't yet seen enough of, in terms of trying to do good work with social technology, is the impacts of social technology on both social entrepreneurship and on philanthropy. We are still in the early days of figuring out how to make, how to do all of those things better, how to do business and giving, how to make selling and giving work better for the planet and for the people who live on it. But one of the things that we really need is more transparency, and more ability to really measure what the impacts are of various activities, of somebody's business footprint or of their philanthropic footprint, and those are things that really, social technologies are perfect for doing.
I mean, if you can get a large number of people working together to evaluate the effectiveness of a program, or to evaluate the impacts of a set of business practices, and if you can make that information freely available, and if you can provide objective measurements for it, then you actually could gain, potentially, the ability to make sure that you don't have situations like the Gates Foundation, the world's largest foundation, on the one hand giving to programs to promote social health, but on the other hand investing in companies which are creating terrible situations for the very people who are their donation recipients; or companies which are attempting to do good things through social entrepreneurship or just through socially conscious practices, sort of having one part of their business undermine the other, even inadvertently.

If you could, in fact, create more systems like that, I think that we may well be able to see really rapid transformation in existing companies and philanthropic organizations, which would really increase the effectiveness of their ability to make change, and that is a really big area that I think we have not seen enough work in.

BB: That was actually my next question, was what tools do you think need to be developed for non-profits and NGOs for their work?

AS: Well, I would really love to see an effective, open and donor-oriented giving network arise. There have been groups that have gone out and tried to do portions of this, but in the past some of them have been largely oriented towards the needs of the groups which are receiving the donations, right? So, for example, if you look at the Care2 network, you don't actually as an individual have much ability to create your own space for discussion there, or to demand certain kinds of accountability there, those spaces are really run by the organizations. So it's just, in the Care2 network it becomes another method of essentially delivering a direct-mail kind of solicitation to somebody, rather than engaging in a real conversation about what is going on. That's a little bit of an over generalization, but it is generally fair, I think.

The sort of next wave of things have been things that aim to get you really good information, which are done in objective ways, but which still sort of leave you with essentially a menu of choices. So, for example, I would put Universal Giving in this category, which I think is a very good group. They set the non-profits that they are offering as their choices for donation recipients, and they give you lots of sort of accountability and so forth as a person who is giving money, but what they still don't do is let you make the decisions, is let you drive. You just have a better sort of menu of preordained options from which you can select.

What I think that we really need, or what I think would be an interesting thing for somebody to do, and if it works then it would be very, very useful, is to create really a donor-driven donation service. By which I mean that the choices of giving areas, the choices of the creation of discussion spaces, the kind of information that is demanded and shared and vetted, the kinds of money flows that were given, were all decided by the people who are actually giving the money.

I wrote an overly-long essay on this on WorldChanging, called "Members Unite", but essentially, I think that we have seen the power of groups of people who are able to be totally transparent about the reasons they are making their decisions, the decisions they are making and the implications of those decisions. And when you get large groups of people being really transparent, with common goals, and sharing that kind of information, you actually see a real empowerment of the people who are a part of that.

We haven't really seen that happen in philanthropy yet, and I think it is too bad, because small donors, individual donors, just regular people, still give the bulk of all the money that is given in the world. And it would be really nice if we could empower people who were small donors to act together, to be as effective as large financial institutions which were being philanthropic. So that is one thing that I would really love to see somebody do well.

I think that we still also have not figured out... I'm pretty sure that we are not going to be talking about blogs in ten years. I think that we have not quite figured out how to use some of these tools, whether you're talking about tools for sequentially posting entries in a web site, such as Movable Type, or whether you are talking about podcasting tools or discussion tools. I think that we are still pretty clunky. We're in, like, the Model T era of how to do online content, and how to share information online and create communities, and really create compelling stuff online.

I think that while it is great that, you know, the advantage of the Model T is that it's the first time lots of people got their hands on things, it was still pretty clunky technology, and there were a lot of things about it that were not strictly beautiful or graceful, and lots of things about it that didn't work very well. So I think that we will probably see...I hope that we will see, in the next few years, some much more ambitious experiments about how content gets created and shared in a group of people in an effective way.

I suspect that it won't be two things. I think that it won't be simply practices and standards that were created in formerly physical media applied to online stuff. For example, those of us who have been working with text online for a while know you can't just slug a book into a series of web pages and have it really work very well. You can't just directly translate a magazine onto a web page and have it work very well. So I don't think it will be that. I don't think it will be simply that every newspaper has its web site, and the web site is essentially the same as the newspaper, and so on and so forth. I think that that we already know.

But I also don't think it will be another thing, which is I don't think it's going to be YouTube. I think things like YouTube, where you have masses of people creating content, sharing it, and sort of bubbling up the hot stuff. I think that those sorts of things are very much an artifact of simply not having been able to do that before, that the thrill is going to wear off that in a fairly short period of time. I think that we are seeing that, in fact, large numbers of people doing bits of content don't always actually lead to very good content, and that there is some model in there which is a sweet spot as yet uncreated, where the curatorial excellence of old media meets the freedom and versatility of new media, and we have a whole new form born. I don't know what it looks like--if I did I'd be doing that--but I'm pretty sure we don't have it yet, and I'm pretty sure that when it comes it's going to allow us to do new things that are pretty cool.

BB: A lot of non-profits are thinking about adding blogs to their site, and you all have the interesting distinction of being a non-profit that is a blog. So for folks who are really just at those kind of first steps, what advice do you have for them for whether they should or shouldn't incorporate a blog into their organization?

AS: I guess my first advice would be: go talk to somebody who actually knows what they're doing, and sit down and work through what your communications needs are with that person or that organization. There are great outfits there who are doing this work of helping non-profits connect to technology, and a smart non-profit will tap good people and pay them money to help come up with precisely the right answer.

That said, in terms of general rules I think that more and more, non-profits are going to be in the business of not so much maintaining memberships, which is what they have done up until now, where basically it's a series of one-to-many communication where you basically send people various form letters and ask them to give you money and to support what you are doing in other ways. I think that is on its way out.

I'm sure they will continue to exist for quite some time, but I think that non-profits that are going to be really effective in the coming decade are going to be the ones that create at least a sense of many-to-many communications, where people feel that they are not just a member, they are a participant; where there is lots of communication happening from people in all sorts of positions in the organization, and that there starts to be this blurring of the line, where certainly there are some people who are getting paid, and they're the staff, and there are some people who are outside workers, and they are not the staff, but they are still part of the team, but then there are also donors, and they are part the team, and there are members and they are part of the team, and there are people who are volunteers, so some of those volunteers work a lot. Some of the volunteers may work more than some of the staff. And where you get this whole blurring of what the organizational lines are.

I think, my sense is that the most effective non-profits out there actually create the sense that even just as "just" a member, you can become part of the team. You can find out what's going on on the inside, you can find out more about the issues, you can raise your voice, you can share what you have been doing, you can really sort of feel fully involved as a human being. It takes a very different set of tools and skills to do that than to just send members direct mail.

So I think that really, rather than even sort of suggesting conditions under which a non-profit should have a blog, I would really just ask is a non-profit ready to take that step? And if it already has taken that step, if it is already operating--as many are--in this sort of new realm where you have lots of different stakeholders and only some of them get a paycheck, then there are all sorts of really great tools that you can start to use. There are discussion tools--blogs work really, really well, especially if you have lots of people in an organization maintaining them, or maintaining one, where people who are not on staff or super-serious volunteers can sort of feel like they are in the loop, they are keeping abreast of what is happening day-to-day, whereas the organization sort of becomes a character in their lives, almost. I think that that is really, can be a really terrifically useful thing.

I also think, though, that what we haven't seen enough of is non-profits which--in fact, I don't know of any that have done this yet, and I'm hoping that it happens, which is this: I think that non-profits are, we found that NGOs are much, much, much more effective when they create effective partnerships, right? But NGOs are notoriously bad at doing that, because we are all afraid that if we share our secrets with another group they are going to steal our members and our funding. Well, I think that when people are able to overcome those fears that somehow you are going to lose something by partnering with another group, we have seen already that in very limited partnerships, incredible effects can happen, just when you have little coalitions form and so on and so forth.

Well, I suspect that one of the things that we are going to start to see is that if you imagine an NGO, not as a box in which there are some dots, but as sort of a pointillist pattern of dots that are connected to one another, some of which are farther away from the center than others, that you start to realize that in fact many of those dots connect more than one NGO, or more than one community practice or what have you.

I would love to see a group of NGOs start to consider itself part of a network that is woven together, and learn to find a way to be effective partners without feeling jealous that they share network connections. I think that if non-profits are able to make the transition to treating the people with whom they are working--whether we are talking staff, or board members, or donors, or individual members--treat all the people that they are working with as stakeholders, as people who are part of the team, and recognize that it is OK that some of them are paid and work all the time, and some of them are only in rare contact and are way out sort of on the fringe.

If you can do that, I think it becomes possible to then not only communicate in a way that draws more energy and effective action out of people who are already part of the team, but actually to start seeing the team as something larger than even what the NGO is, and that, I think, is really the critical step that we are still missing in terms of people who talk about the "networked movement" or "movement of networks" or various people have put it various ways, is that ability to recognize that at the edge of your NGO is not a boundary, is not a line that demarcates the box, but is a zone of sharing that you have with other people who are doing other similar kinds of work, and who have support from some of the same people who are supporting you, and that that is a good thing. That allows, potentially, for much greater action.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about WorldChanging or your plans for your future, or how they can get involved?

AS: Absolutely. Well yes, there are a few things. First, we've launched this experiment of trying to create local versions of the site, and we have got a handful up and running in North America, and we are planning to add more in North America and also more abroad; and we are looking for people to help with that. We are looking for people who are interested in trying to talk about what solutions are manifesting themselves in the places in which they live. So if somebody is interested in that, totally get in touch with us, because we are looking for good allies.

Secondly, we are a non-profit ourselves, and so if somebody is in a position where they can be helpful for us, we would love to receive that help. We are a very small staff; most of our stakeholders are unpaid and our budget is tiny, so little bits of help go a long way for us.

Then, I guess also just to mention that we have a book out. It is brand new. It addresses both directly and obliquely many of the things that we were touching on today.

Transcription by CastingWords.

Photo of Alex Steffen from the WorldChanging site.