Amplifying Local Voices

By Boss, Suzie | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Amplifying Local Voices


Boss, Suzie, Stanford Social Innovation Review


GlobalGiving's storytelling project turns anecdotes into useful data

A COUPLE OF YEARS BACK, an American visitor to the slums in Kisumu, Kenya's third largest city, handed out bumper stickers asking an open-ended question: "What does your community need? Tell us." That got people talking. Their stories revealed growing dissatisfaction with a community-based youth sports organization that was receiving funding through GlobalGiving, a nonprofit marketplace for matching donors with projects. Eventually, and with community approval, the donor funding stream was redirected to a new organization that enjoyed stronger local support.

That's far from the end of the story, however. Inspired by what happened when people were given a voice in Kisumu, GlobalGiving has continued to fine-tune its strategies for soliciting and making sense of the stories people tell about the projects intended to help them. For nonprofits and potential donors, "this helps you see what you're doing through the eyes of the beneficiaries," explains John Hecklinger, chief program officer for GlobalGiving.

Listening to stories may seem simple, but turning this into a method for monitoring development work has meant drawing on fields as diverse as complexity theory, behavioral psychology, and technology. Although GlobalGiving's typical partners are grassroots organizations with small budgets, the storytelling project has garnered grant support from the Rockefeller Foundation because of potential benefits across the development sector. "There are thousands of small organizations that will never be able to afford or manage typical monitoring and evaluation functions," says Nancy MacPherson, managing director of evaluation for the Rockefeller Foundation. "This could be a way to help smaller grantees be more systematic."

The big goal, Hecklinger adds, is helping organizations get to better results more quickly. "We hope this leads to much faster and earlier detection of successes and failures to make the marketplace work better," he explains. "It's a way to create an organized and convenient mass of information that helps everyone from donors to beneficiaries make better decisions about what gets funded and what gets done."

MAKING SENSE OF STORIES

David Snowden, a Welsh cognitive scientist and founder of a UK-based firm called Cognitive Edge, acknowledges that storytelling "is kind of in fashion with a lot of organizations." Gathering heartwarming stories for their emotional appeal is not his aim. Rather, he's interested in analyzing what he calls "micro-narratives." These are the snippets of conversation we exchange while waiting in line at the supermarket or talking around a village campfire. They turn out to be quite useful for providing a snapshot of what's on people's minds.

Over the past decade, Snowden has developed a system for gathering and making sense of large quantities of micro-narratives. Listening to soldiers' stories can improve troop safety in combat zones. Sales representatives' stories can yield important insights for marketing. Until the GlobalGiving project came along, however, this approach had never been applied to development work.

Central to the Cognitive Edge approach is the conviction that storytellers are best qualified to interpret what their own narratives mean. Snowden has devised a simple system that enables people to put their stories into context. For example, if people are sharing stories about justice in their community, they might be asked whether a specific example is more about retribution, restitution, or revenge. They show how their story relates to those three potentially intertwining meanings by placing a dot on a triangle.

Cognitive Edge's proprietary software, called SenseMaker, then turns this raw information into data that can be visually represented and analyzed to reveal patterns. With large volumes of data, the result "is like a 3-D landscape," Snowden says. …

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