An open letter to dreamers, storytellers, and supporters

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

One million dollars.  Wow.

Yesterday, the peer-to-peer fundraising platform that we built hit a major milestone – $1,000,000 raised (it feels good to type so many zeros).  The reactions – over text message, through email, over facebook – have been astounding and humbling.

Five years ago, George came in with an idea, and Kyle and I spent a few days on the most rushed – but I’d also say, one of the most polished – projects that we have done in EWB.  Two weeks and $120,000 later (and after countless hours of doing nothing but hitting refresh!), and we still couldn’t believe how EWBers had embraced the campaign.

The campaign was never just about money and fundraising.  It was a way for us to tell our story; to explain to our friends and family why we poured so many hours into this organization.  The ask was never a generic please give us money – it was authentic, it was our passion and our hopes and our dreams written down for the world to see.  It was scary and uncomfortable.  But it also felt great, to share these stories, and to receive the many messages of support and affirmation.

Fast forward.  Four holiday campaigns; marathons and half-marathons and 5k runs across Canada; a corporate challenge (the EWB Draft); and our overseas-sending fundraising pages — all running off this platform.  Four re-designs of the graphics.  One complete re-writing of the tech backend by the incredible Sean Boots.  (and one year where we outsourced the tech – stats from that year aren’t included in this celebration, though we certainly learned a lot that year as well).

2689 campaigns and 14,000 donations.  170,000 visits to the site by 92,000 unique visitors.  And one million dollars of unrestricted, untied funding.

As we approached this milestone, we were reflecting on what exactly $1m is to us.  That’s enough money to fund the WatSan venture for 4 years. That’s 7 years of supporting chapters and offering leadership development and transformative experiences. It’s 40 APS – all costs AND management support. It’s our advocacy work from 2012 multiplied by 10, the same advocacy work that allowed us to become the most prominent voice on aid effectiveness in Canada, and that brought IATI, COD, and untied aid to the public. It’s enough to develop 65 new EWBer-led systemic change ventures, or to offer incredible opportunities for 111 African leaders to learn and partner with EWB through Kumvana.

But ultimately, it’s money that lets EWB be EWB.  Not tied to a specific project, no conditions or excessive reporting – just a vote of confidence in who we are and what we do.

So thank you.

Thank you to everyone who donated to a friend or family member: even beyond the dollars, your support and encouragement are priceless and precious.

Thank you to everyone who has been apart of running the campaign over the years: Kyle, Sean, Brenna, Ward, Amanda, Dan, Ayon, Mica, Marc, Beth, George… I cannot describe the pleasure and privilege it has been working with all of you on this – both the fun times and the frustrating ones.  I have learned so much from all of you.

And thank you to everyone who shared a campaign.  To the dreamers and the storytellers. To all of you with a vision for a better world.  You are the core of EWB, the heart and soul of this movement; your visions shape our future and provide the fuel and motivation we need to get there.

Dream on.



SWOR 2012 – Passion, Action, Intention

This entry was cross-posted to The Network Buzz

Last weekend was SWOR 2012 – the SouthWest Ontario Retreat, and apart from an opening talk that I gave, it was completely chapter-run.  Seven chapters, with over 60 people. The content was absolutely fantastic, and the connection and community among the group was amazing.

I also wanted to share the notes from the opening thoughts that I gave:

Connect to your passion: why are you here?

I’ll admit, the past week has been a pretty long one for me.  I’ve been helping a few chapters with Junior Fellow interviews, and I feel like I’ve been living and breathing that interview… could probably recite all the questions by memory now.

But I really enjoy interviews.  Not everyone does – they are long and can get tedious… especially if you’re on Skype… and some people really aren’t comfortable with the thought of evaluating others in an interview setting.

But I approach interviews as a way to really get to know someone – to hear their story, let their motivation shine through.  It’s pretty amazing.  Whether new to EWB or a long time’er, I feel like I met and got to know so many incredible, incredible people over the past week – and it was not an easy decision at all for the interview panels.  And I want to really commend each and every single person who applied, for putting themselves out there, for having the courage to follow their passion.

I want to highlight some quotes that came out of the applications:

And that’s how incredible it has been.  I’ve been floored by the motivation, commitment, and passion of so many people this past week.

But I want to turn this to you now, and your motivations.

What has been your “defining moment” in EWB?

  • Maybe you’re new, that’s OK
  • Maybe you’ve been around for a while …
  • When did you take that step?  Into a role?  Deciding to come here?
  • Put yourself in that moment
  •  What were you thinking?  Feeling?
  • Hesitations?  Motivations?
  • What about that moment was unique?

Now this is a bit of an experiment.  But if you can, I want you to try to sum up that moment in one or two words, and write them on one of these labels.  Share it with the room and stick the label on one of these balloons; let’s see if we can use the balloons to fill the room with our passion and ambition.

Collective Action: seven chapters in the room… what can we do together?

I also wanted to share my “defining moment”, when I decided EWB was for me.. it was back in 2003, when I first joined the University of Toronto chapter.  I volunteered to help out with this national conference thing, without really knowing what I was getting myself into… and I still remember the first day of conference, walking into the main room.  Up until that point I had been involved in the chapter, and had liked the work we were doing – but we were a group of maybe 10 people.  As I walked into this room, I was suddenly surrounded by 300 people, who all cared about the same things.

I was floored by the collective energy in the room.  Discussions going late into the night.  That combination of head and heart.  And a real passion and desire to work together and support each other, toward the change we wanted to see.

And the really incredible thing?  I’m here nearly ten years later, and that feeling hasn’t gone away.

  • Make Poverty History & Live 8
  • Getting phone calls from Second Cup on Fair Trade outreach days
  • IATI and untying aid
  • Ignatieff’s cross-Canada tour, with EWBers following up on other chapters’ questions

The whole is definitely greater than sum of its parts; and all that happened because of the combination and merging of so many peoples’ passion and motivation.

And now it’s our turn.  What’s our ambition??  What collective action will we create in this room??

  • A Fair Trade wave across the province?
  • National Engineering Month to re-define engineering?
  • Another completely new idea that may be born in the next couple of days?

Intentions: how will we get there?

Which brings me to the final thought that I want to share.  Goals and dreams are great – but how will we get there?

We’ve talked about the power of collective action; now this weekend is collective action in practice.  It is a unique opportunity … what are you going to get out of it?

If you are a newer member – perhaps trying to find out more about EWB, or figure out if EWB is right for you – what questions will you be asking?  What do you need to know, in order to make that decision … and how will you seek that out?

If you have been around for a while, how will this retreat be different than past ones?  I find that, if I’m not careful, I go on auto-pilot sometimes… what do you want to get out of the next few days, and how will you make that happen?

There is a variety of experience present, and the lifetime of an EWBer is definitely a bit of an evolution.  It’s OK for different people to want different things. But know what you want, and be honest with yourself.

Now if you have a notebook, or some paper, open it up and take a moment to list out some goals for yourself.  Maybe..

  • what is a topic that you really want to discuss, that you want to make time for?
  • what is that burning question that you really want answered?
  • what are 3 specific skills you want to learn or practice?
  • how will you push yourself outside of your comfort zone?

I was reading an article a while ago, by a guy in advertising who was reflecting on his past. It’s a bit of a depressing article, to be honest, but I’d like to share part of it:

My point here isn’t that we should bury our passion … but passion alone isn’t enough.  That passion also needs to be grounded in reality.  Our friend in advertising got too caught up in the day-to-day, and it took a cancer diagnosis to push him out of it, and to give him some perspective.

How are you using each moment?  How does every action and decision fit into your broader purpose and vision?  What intentions do you carry around with you, and how do they keep you connected to the big picture?  Because our intentions keep us grounded.

But I don’t want to end on such a heavy note.  I was looking at the content and schedule for this retreat, and I was blown away by the amazing stuff that is coming up.  Seriously, I wish I could be in four places at once!

There will be opportunities to dive into deep discussions; to build your skills; to connect to our work in Africa; and to meet the really amazing people sitting around you.  This weekend is a great and unique opportunity, and I challenge you to make the absolute most of it.

So.  Sum it up.

And so, in summary.  Passion: why are you here?  Collective action: what can we do together?  And intention: how do we get there?

I hope you have a fantastic weekend!


myEWB with a team of 100…

This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

Today, the Obama campaign launched its new online tool for political campaigning.  Obama’s team has always been at the cutting edge of online organizing, and this new tool – Dashboard – promises to push the field forward yet again.

From the sound of it, they are finding the sweet spot between grassroots initiatives and organization-wide objectives; between open discussion and top-down communication; and between online organizing and offline action.  Sound familiar?  (that’s also the goal of myEWB in a nutshell)

It also says that the tool was build by a team of “more than 100 statisticians, predictive modellers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software engineers, bloggers, internet advertising experts and online organisers”.  Incredible, and a reminder that building technology is only a small fraction of the work.  I’d love to know the break-down of skillsets on their team, to see if we can build a more balanced team as well.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Dashboard is actually successful… though given Obama’s track record here, I’d be optimistic.  And people like me will be watching closely, to see what lessons we can apply to our own efforts…


Conversation or Creation?

This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

I’ve written in the past about the importance of conversation in online spaces (both in myEWB strategyand blog post), and I think this will continue to be an important trend.

Yet, in looking at new myEWB features and the evolution of our online platform, I am placing a large emphasis on collaboration and resource-sharing: taking the idea behind (our resource-sharing hub) and turning them into “living resources” … not only the ability to rate and comment on resources, and to see who else has used a resource in the past… but also a strong focus on iterating on documents, editing/updating them, and collaborating on them.

The two ideas seem to be at odds, though.  If the shift is from content creation to conversation, then what is the role of highly collaborative content creation? (think Google Docs on steroids).  Is this, in fact, a good direction to head in … or am I wandering down a dead-end road?  Will the tendency be to share and comment (the ideas underpinning conversation), rather than update and iterate (the ideas behind collaboration)?


Solving Yesterday’s Problems

This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

There is a constant struggle between idea generation and implementation.  I often find that we have a bunch of really great ideas, but we fall behind in fleshing them out, building a strategy around them, and actually following through.

Lately, I’ve found that the gap between idea and implementation in my work has grown to one year or more; work in improving the Perspectives platform lags (we’ve been talking about making it a general-use platform for a long time, and have finally started using it for the Run To End Poverty), features likemyEWB mailing list improvements were ideas from over five years ago (and yet remains a beta feature), and the list goes on.

The danger here is that, by the time we implement something, what was once a great idea may not be so relevant any more.  Taking the mailing list example above: social media has evolved, and mailing lists & newsletters are nothing special – in fact, they are probably declining in usefulness.  It is not at all clear whether the effort to build the feature is actually worth it any more.  But, had we actually built this back in 2005, when Nick and I first discussed it, there would have been a much higher benefit.

Likewise, we are in the middle of planning out a new version of CHAMP (our monitoring & evaluation system, that focuses on collecting & aggregating output metrics from our chapters).  We have a number of ideas from the past couple of years around creating the right incentives and culture for monitoring and evaluation, originally based on the “four outcome areas” of EWB.  But earlier this year we released our new vision, which has huge implications for the metrics we track… and thus the entire system we use for monitoring & evaluation.

Ideally we’d eliminate the gap between idea and implementation; however that is not realistic.  Even in a fully-resourced environment, implementation takes time (never mind in the resource-constrained non-profit world, where ideas often sit in a queue before we get around to starting on them).  The real need is to recognize that an idea is no longer beneficial, and to have the discipline to let it go… no matter how attached you have grown to it.

I won’t pretend that it is easy, or that I am any good at it.  I am certainly someone who hangs onto ideas, builds them up in my head, and has a vision for how great it would be (once we finally have a chance to build it, of course!).  That makes an idea so much more difficult to let go of.  But letting go makes sense sometimes; especially if it creates space in that queue for an idea that is still relevant.

I’ve gotten fairly good at solving yesterday’s problems.  But the real challenge is predicting tomorrow’s problems instead.


The Slow Burn

This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

There’s a piece of conventional wisdom: if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out… however if you put it in a pot of cold water and warm it up slowly … you get frog legs for dinner.  Now I’ve never tried to cook a frog – and there have got to be better ways of cooking – but I can relate to the poor frog.

I’ve just returned from a two week vacation, and it took the vacation to make me realize just how tired I was.  Not so much physically tired, but mentally and emotionally tired.  Burnt out.

It is a danger, especially when you enjoy and are deeply connected to the work you do.  I was reminded of this by an article I read recently.  But of course no one chooses obsessive passion.  It starts in a very positive space, but slowly shifts to a negative energy… it’s a slow burn.

It is astonishing  how much more energetic and engaged I feel after some time away – time where I wasn’t doing meeting prep while commuting or brainstorming strategic direction while in the shower.  I hadn’t been working particularly long hours, but in retrospect I had definitely been thinking (and worrying) about work too much.

Now, I’ve restored the energy to take on high-level issues with a new perspective.  I’m finding time to do some more reading and professional development (which is already paying off!).  I’m hoping to rejuvenate this blog.

It’s tempting to over-commit to your work, especially in an environment like this.  And there will certainly be periods where we need to go all-out.  But it is equally important to give yourself permission to take a break and recharge… not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too.



This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

It’s no secret that people don’t like change… I was reminded of this a while ago, when on facebook, someone wondered out loud, “Who likes this new timeline thing??”  Personally, I rather like the new timeline layout, but the responses were mostly negative… and summed up by one comment at the end: “People don’t like change”.

And I agree.  People don’t like change; especially not change just for the sake of change.  We don’t like re-learning things all the time, so if you’re going to change things on us, you’d better make a good case for why the new way is better.  Fast.  And if you do make a major change – say, re-doing the layout of a site – expect resistance.  Even if the new layout is significantly better, you’ll probably have a few hold-outs complaining that they liked the old way better, that they “can’t find anything on the new site!!”.  It’s normal.  It comes with the territory.

Don’t let the hold-outs deter you, because despite this resistance to change, there is also an unwritten expectation that things online will change often.  It shows progress – or at least gives is that illusion… so it was long overdue for us to revamp not one, but both of our major websites – and (neither had received any major layout/concept changes in over five years… astonishing!  I’m hoping that these updates will give our online presence a jolt of much-needed energy!)

Online trends move so fast that nothing online stays the same for very long.  The trick, of course, is identifying & following the important trends, while not getting caught up in a “ohhh – shiney!!” mentality.  You can’t chase every trend, but you can’t ignore them all either.

And when it does come time for change, manage expectations.  Know your audience and be in tune with them; recognize (but don’t be held back) by the handful of change-adverse hold-outs, and ensure the changes you make serve the needs of your audience.


The Problem with Process

This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

While grocery shopping the other day, on a complete whim, I bought some of those processed cheese slices that I used to have as a kid.  You know, the individually packaged, super-salty kind that’s oh so good in a grilled cheese sandwich.  I’m not sure how it can be called cheese, since it’s so processed it has the consistency of rubber … and yet there’s something addictively (if not disgustingly) delicious about it.

Funny how that’s the case with so much processed food … bacon and sausages definitely come to mind too.  They may last much longer before going bad, but all the nutrition, all the character of the food is stripped out during processing.

Somewhere along the line, “processed” picked up a bad rap.  Boring.  Unhealthy and unnatural.  Mass-produced.

Then again, there’s “process” in an office or work context.  Instead of something you do to your food, process can also be the magical saviour to improve efficiency in your work… improved processes can help prevent things from falling through the cracks, and ensure that everything is working as it should be.

So.  Is process a good thing or a bad thing?

It depends on context.  Or, rather, how much context the process has.

The idea of a “process”, at its core, is about taking a task, and reliably & effortlessly repeating its execution.  Having a good process can help you leap-frog the learning curve, and reduce the unpredictable “human” factor in a task.  It removes the need for direct experience, replacing it with a prescriptive “checklist”.

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of process.  I recognize the importance of it, but have never been excited by it.  I think I’ve always found it too prescriptive and inflexible; I don’t like following a procedure without knowing where it came from, and how it fits into the big picture.  That’s a risk with process.  When you use chemicals to maximize shelf-life, but lose track of the big picture of providing good food options, for example.  Or when bureaucracy and paperwork take over in an organization, preventing any real work from being done.

But there’s another kind of process – one that is less prescriptive, and goes back to the idea of process as simply the way in which you accomplish a task.  Instead of being told what to do, you can allow for discovery and experience while also supporting and encouraging best-practices.  Instead of an explicit checklist or procedure, the “process” can be embedded in the environment itself.

I’ve started to see a lot of my work in this way.  When building a user interface (or user experience) online, aren’t you building the “process” by which someone will interact with your site?  If I’m looking to improve the way we work together, isn’t that the “process” of online collaboration?  Effective web design doesn’t explicitly tell the user what to do, but implicitly encourages certain actions in the design itself.

This gets into the realm of crafting an online experience.  It’s not just graphic design, or programming, or usability studies – it’s combining all these areas, and and creating an implicit process for people to follow… one which helps them accomplish their tasks in a more effective and efficient way.

It doesn’t get prescriptive enough that context is lost, but it also builds on past knowledge and experience.  Certain actions are encouraged, but it doesn’t feel like following a checklist.

Perhaps the best process is one which doesn’t look like a process at all.


Shared Experience

This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

The Internet is moving from content to conversation… that is the message of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which I’ve started reading recently (at long last; it’s a bit embarrassing to admit I haven’t read it yet!).  When the book was written, ten years ago, it was revolutionary – we were just starting to realize the potential of the internet; many people were still on dial-up (and I fondly remember the shouting wars at my house – “get off the internet! I want to make a phone call!”.  In fact, we got our first cell phone so that we could call-forward our landline to the cell phone whenever we were on the internet.  Crazy.)

Now, we have facebook, we have twitter, we have blogs and mailing lists and discussion forums and social networking and social bookmarking and … you get the point.  From newspaper articles to videos to shopping sites, every page has a “comments” section at the bottom – in fact, we find it strange when we can’t comment or the section is disabled.  That shift to conversation is real, it’s happening, and I don’t think many of us have even realized it.  We just assume it’s always been like this.

There’s also another side of this conversation, and that’s the ability to build new shared experiences.  This is something I’ve appreciated much more – whether it’s a sports event (last year’s Olympics, for example), politics (the last federal election), or really any other major event worth discussing – we are no longer spectators, but participants.  Instead of listening to some “expert” commentary on TV, we hop onto twitter and read each others’ comments.  We become the commentators.  We share the experience together… we laugh at the ridiculous, we cry at the heartbreaking, we cheer the inspiring, and through real-time social media, we do so together.

This is nothing new in itself; relationships are built on shared experience and have always been.  But the real power I see here is the ability to build more of these experiences, with more people.  Instead of attending an event with five friends, I am suddenly able to share the experience with an additional 50 people.  Or, instead of discussing with the same people, I can share the experience with acquaintances who I wouldn’t normally talk to … and maybe get to know them better through it.

The key here is that our real opportunity is in conversation, not content generation.  Streaming video over the internet instead of an antenna is incremental change; real-time, collective discussion is the game-changer.  Case in point: last week’s Munk Debate, which I was looking forward to and found really interesting.  Initially I was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to get tickets to attend in person; in retrospect, I’m glad that I watched it at home – it gave me the opportunity to comment and discuss in real-time.  Engaging and following the #munkdebate hashtag actually built a much stronger sense of shared experience than sitting passively in an audience of 2500 would have.

So, this is all well and good and (hopefully) interesting, but so what?  It’s not a new idea; Cluetrainbasically said the same thing ten years ago.  But I don’t think we’ve all caught on to it yet.  If the main attraction is no longer content generation, but rather conversation, how do we evolve our online platforms and resources ( to take advantage of this?  That’s what I’m working on this summer… thoughts and suggestions welcome. =)


What’s Your Inspiration?

This entry was cross-posted to EWB IT Ninja Squad

Inspiration is a funny little beast; one moment it can be there, and the next moment it’s gone.  And then it can re-appear just as fast as it left.  I had a recent moment that I want to share…

It was a few days ago. After our weekly office meeting, we all went down to a park around the corner (it was a beautiful day!!) for a “team-building activity”.  Despite appearances, we actually don’t do much together as a full office… we’re a tight group, we work closely together and have fun together, but it’s rare to have all 20 of us doing the same thing at the same time… so it’s nice to have that chance once in a while.  This activity turned out to be one of my favorite retreat-closing activities, a variation of The Stand (EWBers will know this) using pieces of string to highlight the connectedness of the group… but instead of sharing best moments or commitments moving forward, we were simply sharing, “what’s your inspiration?”.

I had to put some thought into this one.  I’m not normally one for sharing, and I don’t have thatDorothy story in my back pocket that most of our African Programs staff (and others) do.  But looking around the circle, and thinking back to the university-chapter presidents’ retreat a few weeks ago, it struck me – something I’d known and felt and tried to describe many times before, and which all came together in that moment.

What inspires me?  Watching communities come together – seeing people work together for a common cause, and the fantastic friendships and networks that form in the process.  It inspires me to see strong, motivated, passionate leaders come together – knowing that, beyond the immediate work we are doing, these are the people who will continue to change the world 5, 10, 20 years from now, in whatever positions of leadership or influence they find themselves in… and that we will continue being a support network, safety net, and source of friendship and laughter and comfort for each other, regardless of where we end up.  This is just the foundation, the start of what’s to come.

I’m usually skeptical when people use the word “movement” – I think it’s over-used – but… really, this isa movement.  From the relationships within individual chapters, to cross-country communities and teams, to office staff, overseas sending groups, SCF/intern groups… up and down and across the organization; new members, executives, alumni, supporters, partners, and people who are not affiliated with EWB but who work toward the same cause.  Then taking all that, and multiplying it, year after year.  It’s incredibly inspiring to dig myself up out of the trenches once in a while and to take it all in, to realize the breadth and power of what we’re doing here.

So, that’s what inspires me.  What inspires you?