Archive for March, 2008

The Skoll Forum: Looking back – moving forward

The Skoll World Forum 2008 has drawn to a close – I feel energized, stimulated, encouraged, inspired – and utterly exhausted.

How many times in the last few days have I repeated the words:
/betterplace – an internet platform for philanthropy. /
/We link those who want to give to those in need of receiving.
We are German.
We are European.
We are expanding.
We seek partners. We seek projects. We seek users.
It was also a pleasure meeting you.
Here’s my business card.
We will be in touch./

The event was well organised. The delegates were enthusiastic. The speakers profound.
From Jimmy Carter, Jody Williams and Karen Tse, to Paul Farmer, Ashraf Ghani and Al Gore – these were but a few of the great speakers at the forum that guided the discussion on the responsibility of social entrepreneurs to overcome the challenges in today’s world.

And although the words of these powerful individuals have sunk deep into my mind, leaving me to process and digest their message for long after this Forum is passed – it is not these voices that have left the deepest impact – but rather a small “community” of individuals that share a similar vision and understanding of how the internet can be used as a lever to make real change.

In the very beginning of the Skoll Forum, at the Opening Plenary Karen Tse spoke of how individuals can be connected through shared ideas that often transcend traditional cultural borders.
It is this sense of “connectedness” that has left the greatest impact. Connected because, as delegates, we share the unique experience of the Skoll Forum. Connected because we share a common vision for overcoming the many social challenges of our times. And connected because betterplace, like other internet based organisations, provides a solution to linking people, ideas and support across the globe.


The Art of Raising Money

Recently the New York Times brought an article about new research concerning the economics of philanthropy. John List and Dean Karlan, both economics professors at the University of Chicago and Yale respectively, conduct real-world experiments in order to find out what works in philanthropy and what doesn’t.

One of the experiments concerned matching gifts, the idea that a donor agrees to match any gift, dollar for dollar or dollar for 2 dollars etc. The idea seems to work and is common practice in many fundraisers, but nobody really knows if matching gifts really are effective.

In order to find out, Karlan and List drew up different solicitation letters for a fundraising group. The letters were similar except for the part that mentioned (or didn’t mention) a match. In one letter they announced a dollar for dollar match, in another the match was increased to two to one, in a third one it was three to one. A control group received letters in which no match was offered.

What did they find out? The existence of a matching gift did matter very much, Thus 2.2 % of people who recieved the match offer made a donation, compared with only 1.8% of the control group, resulting in a 20% gap between the two responses. But surprisingly, the size of the match didn’t have any effect on giving. “Donors who recieved the offer of a one-to-one match gave just as often, and just as much, as those responding to the three-to-one offer.”

In another experiment, List set out to see whether donors cared about so-called seed money. In a letter to potential donors, they varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised for a cause. The results were striking: The more upfront money the charity claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised. When paired with the matching-gift research, the study suggests that seed money is a better investments for charities than generous matches.

Interesting stuff, no?

Fighting Landmines – The Hero Rat

This is one hot link tipp I just got from Line – who is currently attending the Skoll World Forum in Oxford:

Hero Rat

Rats have a very fine sense of smell and are can be trained for landmine detection. A great idea, and a fun website. Go check it out now! Adopt a rat!

P. S.: I would have loved to adopt one straight away but the page is ‘under repair’. They better fix it soon.

“We are here” – The Skoll World Forum 2008 in Oxford

The start of Skoll World Forum 2008 has been as unpredictable and refreshing as the (much discussed) weather in Oxford.

The rain was drizzling down on the front door steps of the Said Business School as newly arrived delegates gathered to complete their registration and begin the first of a 3 day forum on Social Entrepreneurship. The drizzle continued as delegates were seen mingling, shaking hands, chatting in gentle murmurs, and sipping cups of organic tea in the lobby. A sense of anticipation simmered through the crowd as more and more people arrived, together with the occasional shaft of sunshine the sound of enthusiastic voices of friends and acquaintances greeting one another broke through the crowd.

The theme of this years Skoll Forum is culture. Asking the question: if social entrepreneurship is truly about changing the world, then what are the cultural and contextual barriers that social entrepreneurs need to overcome to create sustainable change in the areas where they work?

Amongst the speakers at the opening plenary, was an impressive panel of women, each telling their story about how they have had to having to overcome challenging cultural barriers to be successful, and thereby having a profound global impact.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Jody Williams spoke of communication being the key to success. That everyone needs the same information to be empowered.

Karen Tse, Founder and CEO of Bridges of Justice told a story of warriors before a battle to illustrate what was needed to overcome cultural barriers. The warriors were told that were 2 things that must be remembered throughout if they were to be successful: compassion and interconnectedness. Both of which remain important in our growing global village.

As we left the prestigious Sheldonian Theatre the rain thundered down – as if in confirmation of Jeff Skoll‘s opening remarks of the forum “We are here”.
We are here, as social entrepreneurs, to cross cultural barriers and make a significant and lasting impact on the discourse of social change and development.

The Skoll World Forum can be followed online.

Line Hadsbjerg

They come in the name of helping

Last night I saw “They come in the name of helping”, a film (coming to me via Global Giving. The film originally appeared in Peter Deitzs blog about micro-philanthropy, which features individuals, organisations and platforms using Web 2.0 applications to enable micro-donations and social change) by 22 year old Political Science student Peter Brock. Shot in Sierra Leone, the second poorest country in the world, it portrays young students voicing their views about development aid.

It took quite some time to load, but the authentic voices are worth the wait.

Whose Internet is it?

A few weeks ago I posted an internet traffic map on this blog, which depicted in a visually striking way who connects to whom through the web. After looking at the map, a member of our team suggested that we quit our jobs and wait until internet access was more evenly spread. It is estimated that 1.1 billion people have Internet access world-wide, but access is very uneven: the so-called digital divide separates industrial nations and the countries of the South, as well as people within regions and countries.

The whole of Sub-Saharan Africa has fewer internet connections than Manhattan, and while 54% of households are online in Hong Kong, less than 0,25% are in Nepal. But even in a country such as the United States, Black Americans and Hispanics have far lower rates of connectivity than the white population. In addition there are a number of other barriers: inflated prices, old and very slow electricity lines and frequent power shortages, illiteracy and inadequate knowledge about the potential of the World Wide Web.

Time and time again we hear from people responsible for projects in Uganda or Cameroon, how difficult it is to efficiently work online when daily power cuts interrupt your session or web pages take minutes to load. At the same time there are enormous efforts underway to bridge the digital divide: communal access points in town halls, shopping malls, churches and kiosks are being established, schools are being equipped with computers, and in many countries – from Ghana to Vietnam and Trinidad – internet cafes are booming.

New technological solutions, such as developed by Meraki, a Silican Valley company, enable ordinary internet users to set up networks and share costs so that more people can connect. Thus we are confronted with the interesting situation were people living in mud houses use communal internet access points to check the weather forecast in order to optimize their planting season. Moreover, with the worldwide explosion of mobile phones a completely new and very promising market for telephone-based internet connections is opening up.

It seems realistic to say that over the course of the next decade many serious connectivity problems will be solved and more and more people will have the possibility to communicate via the internet. At the same time we have to be realistic: at the moment betterplace will only be able to reach fairly well educated and enterprising people, who can articulate themselves and voice their needs in English or German. Yet in this we don’t differ from more conventional development agencies, whose work is also most efficient when working together with those local individuals who they can relate to and communicate with most effortlessly – i.e. those with a certain educational level and economic and social capital.

For many poor people, the internet is already playing a very important role: they use it to stay in close contact with family members living and working abroad, who often assist them in financial crises. Websites, blogs and chatrooms are used to freely exchange opinions, and even in totalitarian states, oppositional voices can be heard. Thus, for many citizens from Tanzania to China and Brazil, the internet harbours the potential for important change and development in their countries. In this environment, an internet platform which matches interests between people worldwide is of major importance.

Many initiatives all over the world have developed cost-effective solutions to problems common to many countries in the South, from medical treatment of river blindness to back-friendly water tanks, which can make a big difference in people’s lives. Over the platform, these innovations can reach a far larger audience of potential users. Single initiatives, searching for solutions to the same problems, can get in touch with each other – not only from North to South, but even more so within the South.

betterplace – moving from the governmental district to artsy kreuzberg


It was never boring. Outside, there was always something going on – police, the street being blocked due to some VIP (very important politician) visiting, sirenes, blue light. There were so many convois of big black cars with tinted windows. Of course there were also loads and loads of tourists, sitting in double decker busses, or sightseeing by foot, and school classes, either on their way to Bahnhof Friedrichstraße or to the Reichstag with its famous glass cupola. So on our way to lunch, if the flags sitting on the corners of the German Parliament were at half-mast, we always knew how the official mood was like. As for our eating habits, we mostly ended up at the Thai on Luisenstraße – there weren’t too many options. Some of us developed a dangerous addiction to Butter Lindner products (delicious yet close to affordable deli pastries). It was only in our last days in the Wilhelmstraße that we discovered the City Casino. No, it’s not what you think, we didn’t play blackjack or anything like that – it is more of a police staff canteen.


The Humboldt Viadrina School of Governance which used to be our home for 7 1/2 months, was a bit of a stage itself. There, Peter Eigen of Transparency International and Gesine Schwan host a number of illustrious people, like Kofi Annan (who we, unfortunately, missed) or Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan. The Prince came round for a spontaneous visit together with Princess Sarvath, who is as interested, studied and involved as His Royal Highness himself (plus she has a black belt in Taekwondo), his entourage and security. Having no other solution at hand I was asked if I was willing to be the officially accredited “house photographer” to capture this important visit to the School. I was willing – and honoured. What a unique experience!


Now Kreuzberg. betterplace has moved closer to the scene. If I get up just a little from my seat I can overlook the Spree river with the huge sculpture of the three metal men, the canal, the sluice, the Badeschiff swimming pool, and a huge construction site right opposite our building – there is so much happening and moving around this zone between Schlesisches Tor, Oberbaumbrücke and the Arena. Our new office mainly consists of one beautiful room so big that it could easily accomodate a skate ramp. Since we are based on the fifth floor and the elevator has to be ordered (AND paid for) we don’t have to worry about exercising too little any more. Also, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating a huge plate of penne ai quattro formaggi at Heinz Minki, and topping it off with a brownie or other sweet sins.


In spite of the interesting times at the School (especially Marion Schulze, Cosima, Jutta, and caretaker Holger & Co supported betterplace a great deal) – it’s so wonderful that we can be here now. Above all, it’s a big motivation booster!