Best practices for social change and environmental action

Archive for the ‘Tools’ Category

Shedding light on why the Web went dark

In Advocacy, Best practice, Communication, Methods, Online, Policy, Politics, Public Opinion, Tools on January 19, 2012 at 5:14 pm



Wondering what drove all those popular websites such as WikipediaInternet ArchiveReddit, and Boing Boing to “go dark” recently?  I didn’t really get it myself until I watched this presentation.

Leave it to Kahn Academy to figure out a clear, straightforward way to explain the near-unexplainable…in this case the cryptic sub-textual issues fueling the current brouhaha over the Stop Online Piracy Act – affectionately known as SOPA.  The simple hand-drawn animation elegantly amplifies the key points made by the narrator in a way that enables the audience to understand them without getting mired in sideshow minutiae and demagoguery.

All I can say is that we need a lot more of this clarity where the social sector meets public policy.  The Web seems to be the ideal venue for it.

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Think like a designer

In Best practice, Communication, Design, Methods, Resources, Social enterprise, Tools on December 22, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Can the same kind of thinking that conjured up the first laptop computer, Oral-B toothbrushes, and Steelcase chairs work in the social sectors? Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review,  two experts suggest that it most certainly can.

Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt of the consulting firm Ideo posit that the way is through the emerging practice of design thinking.  They should know; Ideo is renowned for the application of such thinking to things as diverse as utility bicycles and pharmaceutical innovation processes.  Moreover, the consultancy now puts design thinking to work on some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems.

The three step process they describe is deceptively simple: inspiration, ideation, implementation.  The catch is that it all demands new approaches, real-world insight, and a much wider frame of reference. None of it is easy to come by.

Design Thinking for Social Innovation is available online for free at the publication web site.

It validates the common wisdom that real impact now demands systemic solutions rooted in the real world of daily lives.

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Leap of Reason

In Best practice, Books, Fund raising, Grant writing, Methods, Nonprofit management, Resources, Tools on June 23, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Business books come at us a dime-a-dozen across the channels of the information age. Many, if not most, offer advice and “insights” that hardly make them worth the trouble to read, never mind the cost of purchase.  Yet, every now and then, something towers above the noise with uncommon wisdom, clarity, and sheer relevance. The justifiably-renowned From Good to Great is such a read – made even more useful for nonprofit and NGO leaders with the followup publication of a monograph for the social services sector. My advice on those is simple: read them, and read them again — taking notes.

Now comes along Leap of Reason, a compendium of essays and tools focused on the theme of Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity.  The project is a collaboration between Venture Philanthropy Partners and McKinsey & Company, who have worked together across the global nonprofit sector for years.  They’ve recruited an array of authors to lend their practical experience and know-how along with frameworks for addressing some well-known challenges out here in the real world.

There’s no need to go into the details here, other than to note that the publishers and writers are quite serious about getting this excellent resource in the hands of as many nonprofits as possible. In addition to making the hardcopy available through Amazon for a small handling and shipping fee, and a Kindle version with just a handling charge, the entire book is online for free in an iBook version or PDF.

Judging by a quick read, I’d say this one is definitely worth the time…and some discussion.

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It’s about impact…not output!

In Best practice, Communication, Fund raising, Grant writing, Nonprofit funding, Nonprofit management, Online, Resources, Tools on June 14, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Talking about impact – real impact – seldom comes easy for an issues-oriented organization.

It’s one thing to describe programs, services, and activities that depict output.  It’s quite another to frame results in a way that shows how it all solves problems out there in the real world. Yet, that is what funders and supporters want to know. Increasingly, they need to know it before making a commitment.  The problem is that many nonprofits and NGOs don’t even understand it themselves.

This is a common enough situation that several organizations serving the nonprofit sector have done something about it.  The result of their collaboration recently went online with Charting Impact–  a new web-based tool that helps nonprofits, NGOs, and social enterprises think strategically about what they are trying to achieve and how they go about it.

Developed with input from nearly 200 organizations, Charting Impact applies a proven framework predicated on five deceptively simple questions.

  1. What is your organization aiming to accomplish?
  2. What are your strategies for making this happen?
  3. What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this?
  4. How will your organization know if you are making progress?
  5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?
Some organizations might not be able to answer those questions quickly, but if they take the time – and effort – to work through the framework they will be rewarded with a crisp, detailed report that funders will appreciate.   Well worth the trouble…and well done by the creators – BBB Wise Giving AllianceGuideStar USA and Independent Sector.
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WEAP for freshwater

In Climate, Energy, Environment, Government, Growth and Development, Health, Mapping, Sustainability, Tools, Water, Weather on April 11, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Anyone who works in the fields of natural resources, environmental sustainability, or climate adaptation is likely to be familiar with the acronym IWRM — meaning Integrated Water Resource Management.   If that acronym actually describes their work, they are probably getting to know a newer one: WEAP the name of a software tool  for Water Evaluation And Planning.  This tool is especially useful for NGOs, agencies, and planners in the developing world where IWRM has become a cornerstone for healthy economic growth and community well being.

The creator of WEAP – the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) – recently introduced version 3.0 of the software, which was developed by its US center based at Tufts University near Boston.  The great virtue of the software is that it encompasses much of the current practice and know-how of IWRM practitioners around the globe.

SEI describes WEAP as “a laboratory for examining alternative water development and management strategies.”   As such, it is a functional and versatile addition to the toolbox of models, databases, spreadsheets and even other software systems currently in use worldwide.

The software now has three operational modes:

  • A water balance database for maintaining water demand and supply information.
  • A scenario generation tool for simulating water demand, supply, runoff, streamflows, storage, pollution generation, treatment and discharge and instream water quality.
  • A policy analysis tool that evaluates water development and management options, and takes account of multiple and competing uses of water systems.

SEI has a licensing arrangement by which organizations in developing countries can obtain and use the software at no cost, supported by a progressive fee structure for individuals, institutions, and companies in higher-income nations. That certainly seems fair to this writer.

The WEAP site includes excellent tutorials and educational materials.  A trial version is also available.  To access all of this, you do need to sign up for the site’s WEAP Forum, but that shouldn’t be an issue for any professional involved in the conservation and management of the planet’s vital freshwater resources.

Where in the world is the latest outbreak?

In Disease, Health, Mapping, Online on April 8, 2011 at 6:53 pm

The recent Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder included a panel on “Superbugs and Pandemics” that highlighted — among other things – the many uses of Healthmap.  This is an interactive global mapping site that aggregates news and information from sources such as the World Health Organization, Google News, and the ProMed information service on disease outbreaks.

Click to expand

As a “crowdsourced” tool, it’s not perfect nor verified for accuracy. But it’s quite useful as a window on very current public health problems for NGOs engaged in the sector, government agencies allocating assistance, crisis relief organizations monitoring the global situation for certain types of illness, or public health researchers tracking the vectors that contribute to those illnesses.

Travelers would also find Healthmap an effective way to see if their destinations are experiencing outbreaks that might affect their plans or their preparations.  Because it enables users to search by disease, nation, or region, it can produce helpful detail that is both targeted and specific.  The system has also gone mobile with the Outbreaks Near Me application for the iPhone and Android platforms.

Healthmap is the brainchild and creation of Clark Freifeld and John Brownstein at Children’s Hospital in Boston.  A quick summary of how they did it ran earlier this year in Fast Company. The Healthmap site includes excellent tutorials and some background information for the general public and health practitioners alike.

Put the Earth to work

In Communication, Mapping, Media, Online on March 31, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Geography can mean many things to a cause-oriented NGO or nonprofit: organizational framework, operational constraints, strategic opportunities, cultural boundaries…to name just a few.  Now, thanks to the enterprising folks at Google, geographic knowledge can be a brilliantly effective communication tool for conveying the scope and detail of an organization’s work.

Google has a rather extensive nonprofit outreach facility for the popular Google Earth application. It has the potential to become an ideal channel for global initiatives in particular because it supports visualization of key issues geographically, often in remarkable detail. But it can also be an engaging way for local and regional organizations to tell their stories.  It’s all a matter of scale, a concept that has almost become synonymous with Google Earth and the growing array of online mapping tools.

While there is much to consider and learn about this channel, it is quite feasible to develop and implement the following potential applications.

  • Images and information overlays illustrating  geo-political issues, regional initiatives, crisis points, trends, and human interest stories.
  • Placemark-based perspectives that illustrate concepts using snapshot views.
  • Narrated “tours” based on specific themes and concepts; the viewer can “fly” from one point to another automatically, or at the click of a mouse.
  • Embedding of these features within websites, blogs, and presentations.
  • Collaboration features that enable group work, enhancements and additions to all of these.

This is a low or no-cost way to add functionality to an online presence. Yet, its real value is in its potential to make the full scope of the organization’s work and outreach more accessible, understandable, and engaging for multiple audiences.

Google has an abundance of  resources to help make the most of this tool.  The showcase gallery should give you a sense of the possibilities.

Google Earth Outreach