August 2009

Here is a list of the books that I would review today if I’d finished any of them.  They’re all on my overly-ambitious summer professional reading list.  I got them from the library but have only been able to crack two.  Recommendations came from Andy Goodman and Katya Andresen at Network for Good.

How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer

How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I’ve managed to read the first 100 pages of this one.  It’s popular neuroscience – summarizing all kinds of experiments and the reasons for human reactions.  In a work context, it helps to think about setting up the right incentives for people to join in for success.

Nudge; Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Nudge; Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

The first 8 pages are incredible.  But not as incredible as Lehrer’s first 8 pages.  This book is apparently about influencing people to make decisions you want them to make.  Or it may be about large elephants and smaller elephants.

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Apparently, we nonprofit folk have something to learn from the Hollywood screenwriting game.  That’s what Katya says, anyway.

Immunity to Change; How to Overcome it and Unlck the Potential in Yourself and Your Orgnaization by Robert Kegan

Immunity to Change; How to Overcome it and Unlck the Potential in Yourself and Your Orgnaization by Robert Kegan

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?


I was supposed to do a blog post yesterday and I missed my target.  But…I have a very good excuse.

All this week, the Bayer Center is hosting The Grantsmanship Center’s Training Program.  I am attending and it is awesome!  I am learning so much about grants and the search/proposal process.  Development is certainly an art form!

The trainer from TGC is excellent as well.  She very obviously has years of experience in development and proposal writing and shares her knowledge as well as lots of real world examples and stories.  Today we start working in groups and will produce a full-fledged proposal by 1:30 tomorrow afternoon!

If anyone wants to learn more about this workshop, here’s the link to the information for it on TGC’s website:

Here’s a risky strategy: begin a blog post with the bold step of combining two cliches in order to say something potentially new and useful.  The first cliche shall be the business school action phrase “adding value”.  The second shall be the rule that destroys Internet business models: “information wants to be free”.  From these two old saws, we shall construct a useful question (and potentially some answers):

How do we add value to information that wants to be free?

In a delicious bit of blog post research transforming blog post thesis, my background work on this post turned up a very interesting fact about that “information wants to be free” motto.  It turns out that the original remark was more complex and interesting than the shortened motto that has emerged into the culturel.  Furthermore, the more complete original quote delves right into the question I’ve knitted together from these handy cliches.

Stewart Brand, speaking at the first Hackers conference back in 1984 (way pre-Internet) said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Yes, “information want to be free” has developed a life as an organizing philosophy around free content and free access and data sources playing nicely with each other.  But the original statement raises the problematic flip side of free information.  Information has value, and that value creates tension with the impulse toward freedom now thought to be possessed by information, espeically on the web.

There are some ways that we can add value to information.  Some examples:


This is like a children’s puzzle: What’s the difference between these two lists?  It’s easy, right?  List B is sorted, and list A is not.  Sorting is a simple way to add value to information.  We mostly notice the value of sorting when we encounter a list in no recognizable order.  Alphabetical is wonderful; scope and scale (in any measure) is often useful; for some lists, time is irreplaceable as an order.

When we rate information, we add value to it.  A few ways to add rating to lists:



The second rating may be more familiar: it’s the Populartiy bar in the iTunes store.  We gain information by seeing what track has been purchased most often.  This helps in iTunes because different versions of a given song are available for sale, and often the most popular one is the most familiar one and more likely the one you want.  The first rating is a simple checkmark on the list of songs at the AllMusic Guide, which indicates that this is a “track pick” by the editors at the site.  Expert picking rates in a very different way than populartiy, right?  The Internet tends to raise questions about the role of the expert in the face of crowdsourcing.  Both kinds of ratings add value, though: the wisdom/traffic of the crowd on the one hand and the highlighting by the expert on the other.

Finally, if you love something, set it free.  Paradoxically, when we free information, we can add value to it.


The above image comes from Google Transit, a result of the Port Authority of Allegheny County opening up its route data to Google, who enhanced that information by putting it in an interface that the Port Authority had not developed on its own.  Google Transit enhances searches for transit directions by making the search and results work as well as (and actually quite similarly to) online driving directions.  I would argue that even as Port Authority gave away something of value in making its information available for Google’s interface, there was an exchange of value.  Ridership should increase because people can find their way more easily on Port Authority’s buses and trolleysdue to Google Transit.  In being freed, the information gains value.

What information in your vaults could be enhanced today by some sorting, rating or freeing?

Raise your hand if you remember dial-up Internet access.  For those of us who got online early in the game before broadband was affordable and readily available, you’ll remember it well.  Dialing up (waaah, dee do dee do dee, hissss), and then going to get a cup of coffee while waiting for pages to load.  Forget doing anything fancy, like watching videos or even viewing pages with a lot of photos.  Thank goodness social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube weren’t around back then – almost nobody would have been able to use them.

If you have broadband (cable, DSL, etc.) Internet access at work or home, I bet you take it for granted.  Broadband is available everywhere in the U.S. these days, right?

Wrong.  Broadband Internet access is still lacking in many rural parts of the United States, even right here in Pennsylvania.  Even in places you’d expect it to be.

For example, consider the case of a Beaver County nonprofit called the Independence Conservancy.  Victoria Michaels, executive director of this all-volunteer organization, works from her home office located about 6 miles from downtown Beaver.  She spent many years using dial-up, half-jokingly referring to it as her “tin-can-on-a-string” Internet access.  She has spoken to all of the neighbors who live on her road – everyone wants and is willing to pay for broadband access.  Unfortunately, no company will run the line down their road, Verizon, Comcast or otherwise.  She and a few neighbors have recently settled for obtaining a satellite dish for access, but she says it is almost as slow as the dial-up.  She still cannot view videos and multimedia or participate easily on social media sites.

Vicky Michaels goofing on her "Tin-Can-on-a-String" Internet access.

Vicky Michaels goofing on her "Tin-Can-on-a-String" Internet access.

Here are some considerations for nonprofits serving rural populations:

  1. Is your website usable for all constituents in your target audience?  Have you optimized it so that people with dial-up and slower Internet access can easily view it?  Or, is it attractive (lots of pics and interactivity) but takes forever to load.  If you serve rural populations, consider the implications involved.  You cannot assume everyone can access your site or that they can access all components of your site.
  2. Social media still excludes many people in rural areas because they do not have enough bandwidth to get the various tools like Facebook or YouTube to operate efficiently (if at all).
  3. Emails with large file attachments (PDF newsletters, photos, etc.) can be nearly impossible for people with dial-up to download.

Until broadband has truly become available everywhere, your organization will need to consider its rural constituents and continue to provide alternative ways for those people to access your agency’s information and to participate.

For statistics on Internet access in rural Pennsylvania, check out this fact sheet from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania:

Here’s some good news on this front – vice president Biden recently announced rural PA broadband funding: