Charity Tickers

When you are thinking about investing in a public company, something you often think about is the news coverage surrounding the company. Are there insights about CEO? How is the public responding a product? How is the company responding to any issues that have surfaced about them? This information isn’t quantitative, but it often provides useful guidance.

I’ve been wondering if a similar idea could be applied to public charities. They often have the same considerations: there is robust coverage in the media of management teams, response to services, etc., and that same knowledge could be helpful to inform donors or potential donors.

In the for-profit world, this data can be crawled/aggregated using a unique, easy to read text string that works for both humans and computers: the ticker. For example, in an article about Google, you’ll might see the company name displayed as Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) or just as a hyperlink with the ticker embedded. Those article get picked up and included in research sites like Yahoo! Finance. Tickers have become so ubiquitous that no one even thinks about them any more.

Why wouldn’t something like that work in the public charity world? Like public companies, there are comprehensive data sets available to make finding tickers trivial and aggregating the media mentions useful. That kind of aggregation would be helpful in providing context to any given article as well as in evaluating the organization over all.

In some cases, it may be possible to do without tickers, for example “Red Cross” is a reasonably unique phrase that may be possible to parse out of articles automatically, but most organizations don’t have that luxury. Take Open Books, for example, which could refer to my friends in River North, but could also be Open Book in Minneapolis (dedicated to literary and book arts) or Open Book Players, a performing arts organization in Maine, to name but two. Even Red Cross isn’t as unique as it at first appears: there are hundreds of regional chapter organizations (e.g. Red Cross of Greater Chicago) among other potential false matches.

If instead an article said something like “Open Books (OBOO) is doing amazing things…” that ambiguity would go away. There would be no doubt that the amazing things being done were by a Chicago-based literacy organization rather than a Maine-based theatrical one (or vice versa). For media outlets, it could result in more impressions for archival content as well as a richer user experience as well.

Three Paper Books

While I’ve been up here in Maine, I’ve been able to reacquaint myself with an old pleasure – reading printed books. There is both a technical reason for this (an increasing amount of research that shows that electronic readers are bad for sleep) as well as an aesthetic one. But it’s also led me to read three books that I can’t see being replicated as e-books any time soon:

One Fish Two Fish

One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish

Children’s books remain a perennial favorite at Open Books’ used book store and for good reason. Beautiful pictures, big formats and, of course, the fact that a mashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich does not mean their doom or a $600 replacement bill. While custom apps can provide some of the images that e-reader apps can’t, the need to build custom apps immediately lets out people who are just great writers and illustrators and don’t have the time, money or skills to build their own apps.

Seacoast Maine

Seacoast Maine: People and Places

With photos by George Tice and text by my friend and former neighbor Martin Dibner, this is an evocative ramble along the titular Maine coast (no spoilers there.) I particularly like this cover image since Amazon couldn’t even get a photo of the cover, let alone what lies inside.

S.

S.

Perhaps most interesting of all is S. This novel is based on the concept of a relationship between two people developing via an exchange in the margin notes of a book. There’s another underlying mystery that gets explored through wonderful inclusions like postcards, vintage feeling newspaper articles, etc. While I’m not done with the book yet and can’t yet say what I think of the story, the production is stunning and well worth a look through.

Social Media Conversion – The Wrong Question?

During a talk tonight I was asked why charities tend to be bad at converting social media relationships into concrete support and donations (aka combating clicktivism.) It seems to me that this is actually the wrong question: generally, social media is not so much a way for finding new customers as it is for developing existing relationships with your supporters. It isn’t the top of the funnel, it’s somewhere further down.

Take this as a for-instance: I support a local dog shelter in Chicago and I tweet about my experience there, asking my friends to support it. You might favorite the tweet because you want to support me and I’m doing a good thing. But if you live in California and are a cat person, the chances that my tweet will suddenly convince you to support the shelter are low to nil. (Of course so are the chances that we are friends.)

My contention is that much giving is local and all meaningful giving is cause-based. I might briefly support a charity I don’t really care about because a friend is running a marathon in support, but that will not result in a real and lasting relationship with the charity even if I like, favorite and rebroadcast my friend’s posts.

On the other hand, if you’re motivated about a cause – you just moved to Chicago and you’ve had a soft spot for our canine friends – then my support of a relevant charity will serve as proofing – as an indicator of which organization might be good to support.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but an analogy is Trip Advisor. My friends may tweet all day long about the amazing places they go to eat in New York and San Francisco, but I don’t care and won’t engage until I go there myself. On the other hand, if I’m on my way to New York and Trip Advisor shows me my friends’ favorite spots, I’m going to make an effort to get a reservation.

My point here is that thinking of social media as the top of the funnel is wrong for charities in a lot of cases. List building needs to begin with the cause that motivates someone. Social media’s strength is in the consideration phase of supporting an organization. This is the approach we’re pushing at Public Good Software and I think it more accurately models how people really thing about giving. 

The Future of Higher Ed – A Hybrid?

I was interested to read the Economist’s take on the future of universities, but I was a bit disappointed by the content. After stating the obvious with extreme rigor (costs are sky-rocketing and financial support is plunging), there were few interesting or intriguing ideas. Instead it seemed to come back to MOOCs, MOOCs and more MOOCs.

In fairness, the piece lays out many of the short-comings of MOOCs like poor completion rates, the challenge of testing and credentialing, etc., but it then kind of leaves the issue flat. My dad has been a professor at Northwestern for some 40 years so I asked him for another view. His point was an intriguing one – MOOCs recreate online the least important part of the college or university experience. In a sense, they are little better than open-source textbooks. They don’t have a social element, teach critical thinking, provide networking opportunities or have any kind of brand affiliation. They are useful for self-motivated learners who want to increase their knowledge, but they do very little for an average college student.

So how could this be better?

I propose a hybrid approach. First off, what’s driving up the costs of college tuitions? It’s primarily faculty and amenities ranging from fancy dorms to gleaming athletic facilities. But there are parts of the university experience that still work very well and at a quite reasonable price. So here’s how a hybrid would work:

First, a university would set up a separate, virtual college. This is not dissimilar to having an executive MBA program coexist alongside a traditional MBA program. Both are part of the university, but they have slightly different branding, requirements and admissions guidelines.

Second, students apply to the virtual college the same way they would to the traditional one. The expectation is that students would either be within transit distance of the university or be willing to relocate there if they get in. There would still be academic requirements and even an application fee (though a marginal one) to apply.

Once admitted, the student would register for the classes they want to take just like traditional students, but they would attend the lectures online, via MOOCs. Study groups could be created by geolocating users and picking a central point (like a Starbucks) and a regular time for meeting. This begins to solve for the social aspect of the experience.

Where they hybrid part really kicks in, however, is with office hours and exams. These would actually be delivered on the university campus, but typically off-hours from traditional lectures. The office hours would be overseen by TAs rather than professors (not uncommon in many universities anyway), incidentally creating more work-study opportunities for traditional students (in fact traditional students in those same classes could attend as well, providing some additional value.)

Also, exams, though taken online, would be administered on campus. TAs can check IDs or do other basic identity verification. Many exam sessions could be made available for flexible scheduling, since the students in the room can be taking exams for all different subjects. The point of being in the room is only to verify who is taking the tests.

By using cheap resources (TAs, unused lecture halls after hours), the university can make up for many of the short-comings of MOOCs without burdening students with the most expensive line items. The goal would be something like an 80/20 value split – 80% of the educational value of a traditional degree at 20% of the cost.

It used to be a big no-no for tech companies to try to leverage real world assets since they were seen as non-scalable. However, as Uber, Airbnb, OpenTable, Groupon and so many other have shown, leverage the excess capacity of existing assets is a beautiful business model that scales wonderfully.

If an approach like this worked for higher ed, it would have many ancillary benefits: a bigger donor base for the sponsoring universities, greater credibility for online degrees with employers and more. And while charging some tuition may put some people off, generally people don’t value something they got for free (often for good reason.) I’ll certainly wager that the drop-out rates from a hybrid program would be far lower than for a fully online degree. There are also opportunities to customize such a program in many ways: virtual college students could be offered access to campus services ranging from libraries to sports centers for incremental fees.

It’s just an idea, but I haven’t seen anything like this yet. Have you?

Charities: outputs, outcomes and resolutions

On my recent trip to Africa, I was reminded about the level of poverty and suffering that can exist immediately adjacent to verdant, gorgeous landscapes and bustling, thriving cities. We planned to drive from Cape Town to Franschhoek, in wine country, where my sister-in-law Kate was getting married the next day. As I wedged myself into the overburdened car with bags under my legs and on my lap there was a knock on the window. A man was begging for money with his small son perched on his shoulders, a boy who was only a little older than my own sons, Ari and Leo. I could barely move so I didn’t reach into my pocket to give him anything, but I regretted for weeks afterwards. I can’t imagine not being able to provide for my own boys.

Franchhoek

So beautiful, it’s easy to think about just that.

Later on the drive, I asked Kate, who runs an amazing organization called Africa Health Placements, if she could recommend a well-run charity that was making a difference in poverty relief in South Africa. She thought about the question and answered that the best places to donate to were those making a lasting impact, for example those engaged in health issues and education.

At one level, I think Kate is completely right. In the long term, that father and son in Cape Town only have a future if one or both of them can get an education, learn skills to get a job and ultimately provide for themselves. However, to paraphrase Keynes, it doesn’t help if in the long term they’re dead.

This brought me to further questioning some common wisdom about charities, that it’s outcomes that matter. As I understand it, the effort to differentiate outputs (something like a meal served to a hungry person) from outcomes (getting the hungry person a job so they don’t need food support) is an effort to try to focus more resources on programs that are more than a bandaid on a wound. But I think that sometimes bandaids make sense. People don’t learn skills when they’re hungry and they don’t do anything when they’re starving.

In less acute circumstances, outcomes can take a very long time to measure. For example, I’m on the board of Open Books, an outstanding literacy organization. Many Open Books programs are focussed on engendering a love of words and reading rather than purely on improving technical reading skills. I know this makes a difference in the long term, but Open Books works with very young kids and it can take a few years before the measurable results (improvements in reading level, etc.) are in. If no one supports the programs in the meantime, they won’t be able to do them. This is an example of where a focus on outcomes over outputs can stifle innovation. So for me, in this case, outputs are good enough.

More broadly, in my own giving, I’m trying to move towards more of a portfolio approach: some outputs, some outcomes. In Africa, I’ll make a donation for direct poverty relief and also make one to AHP. 

I thought I’d found a comfortable mix until I was reading the news this week and saw an article about India being (or nearly being) free of polio. It now strikes me that in addition to the two categories of outputs and outcomes there’s a third: resolutions. In some areas, there are moonshot projects that hope not just to make things better for individuals or communities, but which have the potential to eliminate problems altogether, like India’s vaccination program. Resolution focussed projects have the longest time horizons and the largest risk of failure, but beat even outcomes in terms of making things better.

By the old outcomes vs. outputs argument, that would mean that in areas where there are possible resolutions all resources should be brought to bear on finding those resolutions at the expense of any programs for relief. For example, stop worrying about AIDS prevention or education and just spend all the available dollars on finding a cure or a vaccine already!

I don’t believe that’s right, but I do believe that potential resolutions, where they do exist, definitely belong in the portfolio.

I think that if donors focus on a mix of outputs, outcomes and resolutions, we have the most ability to affect real change in the causes we care about. Unlike in a traditional market, this balance of “products” doesn’t happen naturally based on supply on demand. That’s in part because donors are the “buyers”- in that we foot the bills – but are infrequently the recipients of the “products” for which we’re paying. Using a simple filter like a portfolio may help keep resources distributed where they can do the most good. And hopefully, rather than having to choose, that boy and his father can get a meal, an education and ultimately live in a country where they can get those things without needing any more donations.

After Mandela

The passing of Nelson Mandela is particularly on my mind not only because he was a great man, but also because I’m heading back to South Africa in two weeks for my sister-in-law’s wedding.

When I was there last time, I had the opportunity to explore Johannesburg and one memory particularly sticks with me. As you leave the Apartheid Museum, you enter a gallery bisected by beams of light. On the walls are quotes with hope for the future. It is a very different message than the one you get leave Yad Vashem. Instead of “Never again!”, the message of the end of Apartheid is one of reconciliation and hope. That, as much as anything, is the ultimate tribute to Mandela. Remember the past, but move to a better future.

With that in mind, I wonder if for all his contributions, Mandela’s passing will also open an opportunity for the country. While he was alive, it was impossible for alternative political parties to get real power outside of tribal and white-dominated districts. This has resulted in single party rule since Apartheid ended in 1994. All four presidents have been ANC and the ANC has dominated the National Assembly, most of the time with a supermajority sufficient to unilaterally amend the constitution. I believe that much of the stagnation, corruption and missed potential of the South African government can be attributed to this fact. When king-making happens within a single party and elections are essentially pre-determined, winners tend to be those who excel at patronage, not those who deliver for the voters. This isn’t uniquely South African by any means – it’s true all over the world. And this isn’t a condemnation of the ANC – no organization flourishes without real competition.

Rightly or wrongly, while Mandela was still alive, loyalty to him helped keep the party together. While he will be sorely missed, a competitive South Africa would not be a bad thing. Maybe now it can move forward and realize more of its potential as the economic powerhouse of the continent, providing essential services and lifting its citizens out of poverty. Mandela gave it a chance. Now it’s up to the country to seize it.

Lessons from Healthcare.gov

I’d like to reemphasize that the opinions in this article and on this blog are completely my own and that I have no access to privileged information. However, I’m a career technology executive and because of other past experiences people ask me about this subject all the time. I decided it was time to write some thoughts down.

A tale of two programs

It’s interesting to contrast the turbulent rollout of Healthcare.gov with that of another government technology program that has been very much in the news of late. This other program was everything Healthcare.gov was meant to be: wildly successful, able to handle massive scale and so brilliantly executed that it left the biggest technology companies in the world scratching their heads and wondering how it was done. I’m referring, of course, to Prism, the NSA’s controversial surveillance program.

To take useful lessons out of the comparison, it’s necessary to depoliticize both programs. Assume, for the sake of argument, that you either support their intent or that they do something totally different that you do support. The point is that one is a lesson in technology done right, the other in technology done…well, not so right.

What caused in the difference in outcomes between the two programs? I’m sure there are many other answers out there, but my own view is that there are three key points:

Don’t outsource mission-critical programs.

Most CTOs will tell you that outsourcing is great for things that are routine or non-critical, but when a company’s main product and reputation are at stake, it pays to do the work inside. Not only does this give the management team the highest level of visibility, but it aligns incentives with outcomes. Even the best contractors who bill time and materials want to run out the clock to maximize their revenue and those doing flat rate want to cut corners to keep profits high. And none of them build componentized systems with reusable parts that can help support future products and prevent the government from continuing to rebuild the same things over and over (for example a single registration process that would allow you to access all government sites in much the same way as you log into commercial sites using Facebook or Twitter.) And contractors don’t live with the results of their decisions afterwards. At least, not unless the debacle is as high profile as Healthcare.gov.

The NSA has hired a cadre of the smartest computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers in the world over the last decade or more. Friends who have been approached were intrigued by the opportunity to work with incredibly bright people on interesting and meaningful problems. The compensation might not match Twitter or Facebook, but there’s the advantage that you’re also serving your country. It’s a pretty intriguing proposition to someone who might otherwise have become a professor or a career engineer at Cisco, IBM or Intel.

Healthcare.gov was contracted. I make no comment about the quality of the contractors having not seen their work (though what has come out is dubious – no queuing or caching?), but the problems with all contractors remain.

Does this point mean that in order to do technology well that the government needs to grow and add tens of thousands of engineers to its payroll like Google? Not exactly. In fact, net of everything, it would probably lead to government getting smaller and more responsive over time as it made better use of technology. And even a relatively small outfit to handle or at least manage significant projects would be a win. Outsource things like IT support, not critical citizen-facing applications.

Follow proven methodologies.

No matter how good the implementation team was for Healthcare.gov, the task as it was defined was an impossible one. Until someone got in there and started building stuff there was no way to know all the complexities that would be discovered. Healthcare.gov needs to talk to systems run by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as well as those of dozens and dozens of private insurers. Each of those systems has its own eccentricities and complications. As any data architect will tell you, once you’ve seen one system integration, you’ve seen one system integration. They are all different. And lest you think the private insurance companies’ systems are any better than the government’s, think about how comically inefficient medical billing and claims management is. By some estimates, it eats as much as 10% of the entire amount of money spent on healthcare.

What this means is that trying to light up a system pulling all this stuff together on day one would be hard or impossible. Have some states done it? Yes, but the problem is smaller and there are many fewer systems to glue together. While a better architecture might have solved some problems, at the end of the day the best way to build consumer internet software that industry has yet discovered is to deploy small pieces of functionality, test them with a small group, gather feedback, learn from what you’ve done and fix the problems. Then do it again and again until you’ve built a big, robust piece of software. For example, in the case of Healthcare.gov, registration could have been tested months ago, long before anyone even started writing code to talk to insurers. But if everything has to go live on day one…

It didn’t with Prism. Admittedly, the actual time frames are confidential, but precursors have been leaking to the press for around 10 years. The product evolved through multiple names, iterations and implementations (TIA, Echelon, Prism) before becoming the globe-spanning behemoth it is today. Even now, according to the Snowden files, smaller pieces of functionality (like Muscular) seem to be developed as sub-projects. I’m not advocating that Healthcare.gov should have taken 10 years to develop – actually, the deadline might not have even changed – only that smaller pieces should have been available for comment and beta testing long before the expected public launch.

Empower the CTO.

I do not know exactly how much power the office of the CTO of the United States has. But, if projects like Healthcare.gov are to be successful, it should be on a par with a cabinet secretary if it is not actually a cabinet post. When successful companies are doing big technology projects, the CTO or CIO (who reports directly to the CEO) generally runs the project directly. If an accounting department needs new software or a sales team wants a new CRM system, the technology executive either makes the call or at least has a veto right and oversees the implementation. While domain expertise is completely essential, it is not sufficient. And it’s not enough to bury a few technical people in the mix somewhere or to create a new sub-bureaucracy of some existing agency. That will just result in people doing what they are told rather than contributing real expertise.

There are technical people at the very top of the Prism project, you may be sure of that.

Final thought.

None of this is meant to be armchair generalship. In fact, often you need to make mistakes in order to see the contrast and get better (just as you need to as part of the software development process.) And, as I began this article by saying, the issue has become so politicized that the conversation has been about consequences and trying to burn everything down rather than how to do things better. I’m not saying that I or anyone else would have made better decisions when Healthcare.gov was kicking off. Only that we can (and must) do better in future and make sure that the next Prism-level success is something everyone can agree is wonderful and so that government can get better through the use of technology. Forward.