TWIAN: From anthropology to social entrepreneurship

[TWIAN (i.e., This Week in Anthropology) focuses on issues of anthropological practice that are of interest to the NAPA Anthro membership.  The following post from Savage Minds.]

This time it’s Joana writing on her own as for the past two years my life has been largely taken over by an enterprise in which Pál only plays a minor part. As much as I like popularizing anthropology I have discovered that I am even more enthusiastic about social entrepreneurship. Recently I read on this blog that anthropology was „leaning its trendy shoulder onto social media and new economy corporations“. Well, that is me and


Three years ago when my family and I went on a trip around the world, we came across a number of local social initiatives, we really liked. There was one in particular – the Choki Traditional Arts School in Bhutan – which seemed to us to embody an alternative to the all too many ill-conceived or failed development projects the anthropological literature as well as other aid critics have documented.

The internet had already turned so many industries around by making the „the long tail“ of music or news visible, that it seemed timely to create a plattform for the long tail of help which matches local project managers with supporters/donors worldwide (many of the latter having serious doubts about the effectiveness and efficiency of large NGOs such as the German Red Cross.

Back in Berlin we linked up with another team, who had just began to conceive of a very similar plattform, whose head, Till Behnke became CEO of betterplace as well as an Ashoka fellow in 2008. Part of our team was also one of the founders and long-time CEO of eBay Germany, who brought highly valuable knowhow about online marketplaces to the table.

Crowdsourcing trust

As a plattform open to projects from all over the world (so far over 2.200 projects use betterplace, a figure which is growing by between 30-60 per week) one of the challenges was how to create trust mechanisms for the many grassroot projects. German donors knew UNICEF, which is not only a highly developed brand, but also registered as charitable by the German tax authorities. The Choki Traditional Arts School had no such references. But it had a number of individuals who knew and valued its work. In order to formalise bottom-up, crowdsourced trust mechanisms, we developed the „web of trust“: Every project on the plattform can be commented on and evaluated by its stakeholders; visitors can describe what they have seen on the ground, advocates can state why they believe in the project, beneficiaries can say whether the intenvention has had a positive impact on their lives (or not!). Donors looking for a project to support can thus get a much more differentiated impression of projects and make a more informed choice.

Shifting power-balances by giving beneficiaries a voice

I am very excited about the potential this bears: one of the reasons why so many social and development programmes fail has to do with the malfunctioning accountibility practices (especially towards beneficiaries) and we seriously hope that this can slowly be corrected by giving people a voice who have so far been mute.

Despite the obvious technological hurdles, we already see beneficiaries posting their own projects on the plattform. Let me give you one example: The small German NGO Twende Pamoja has been operating in Sansibar for many years, devising projects with their local counterparts. Last summer they organised a betterplace-workshop for their local partner organisation and shortly afterwards the Zanzibaris posted 2 projects themselves.

Increasing transparency by enabling easy feedback

Online donors can get in touch with project managers directly and collaborate with them, thus becoming co-creators and they get something back for their donations: direct feedback. In his blogpost about Social entrepreneurs Adam was asking how social entrepreneurs measure „para-economic value“. This is something we constantly ask ourselves: „what constitues success and how do we measure it?“ One answer we come back to is: „project needs fullfilled“ and „feedback received“, i.e. project managers are happy when they get money with which they can realise their projects and donors are satisfied if they get a story back, in writing, photos or videos. And we can proove that projects which give good feedback receive significantly more donations. (You may also want to take a look at Ashokas document on impact measurement in social entrepreneurship).

Enlarging the pie

It is important to us to reach groups who haven’t been socially active before. For example, the largest German online gaming website – Pennergame – invited its players to contribute to homeless-projects on betterplace, raising more than 27.000€ over the course of a few weekends. We also started a cooperation with Payback, a German loyalty card company with 20 million cardholders, who can now, instead of aquiring yet another frying pan or heating blanket, donate their points to a wide variety of small and large NGOs. Since we started the cooperation in mid December 2009 over 750.000€ were donated to social projects. Nearly all of this being „new money“.

Social Business

Our team currently consists of 30 people, from programmers to accountants and campaign managers and although many people volunteer for us, our young full-time employees need to be paid. The start-up capital was provided by us funders and we have since been able to attract a number of other high-powered individuals to support our work. Yet we need to be self-sustainable in the medium run and although we transfer 100% of all donations directly to project managers, we do charge commercial companies for their use of betterplace. Thus corporations such as Daimler pay us for our CSR-services, such as disaster relief actions. So far we are able to generate 1/3 of our income in this way.

Does any of this have to do with anthropology?

Writing Seeing Culture Everywhere was already a step away from deconstruction, as Pál and I really tried to think up very hands-on tools and rules which could help people critically interrogate the claims about culture they encountered in their workplaces and everyday lives.

At betterplace it’s all about application. But much of what I do is informed by what I learned as an anthropologist, from trying to give voice to a wide range of stakeholders to trying to inform donors about the many unintended consequences their donations may have. In contrast to my work as a writer, I love the way we can experiment with certain features, measuring their effects on project activity and donation volume, thus constantly testing our assumptions about how different people and groups act.

Call to action

I want to end this rather long post – sorry –  with asking you for support and advice:

Although mainly targets the German donation market, we have projects and visitors from all over the world . Among the ways we’d love to get anthropologists envolved, let me name just 3:

  1. Tell us about organisations and projects you are excited about. We’ll contact them and invite them onto betterplace.
  2. Visit projects already on the plattform while travelling and write down your impressions on the projects betterplace-page. This helps grow the Web of Trust.
  3. Check out projects in categories you have some expertise in (health, education, good governance) and critically interrogate project managers on their theory of change etc.

Sourced from: Savage Minds

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