Where rhetoric is substance

From Chris Rabb’s Invisible Capital on business plan competitions.

As a former director of a nationally recognized urban business incubator, I know firsthand the opportunities they have to help their clients develop invisible capital as well as the challenges that incubators face. When I was the vice president of entrepreneurial programs at a nonprofit-based business assistance organization born out of an independent study conceived by Wharton MBA students, I was asked on occasion to be a judge for a business plan competition, a feature of the program mandated by its well-intentioned philanthropic funder.

The participants were all under twenty-five years old. Some were high school dropouts, while others had earned their GEDs. Some were attending or had received an associate’s degree fro the Community College of Philadelphia, and a few were students at the University of Pennsylvania or Drexel University.

Invariable, the winners of these business plan competitions were students from the more selective schools. Were they more entrepreneurially oriented than their counterparts? No. Were they harder working? No. Were they more business savvy? No. Were their ideas or business models more compelling than those of their less educated peers? Rarely. So why did students from elite schools always win these competitions? Two words: invisible capital.

The Penn and Drexel students were more adept at using technology. They could write better. They were better trained in conducting research. They were more confident speaking in front of audiences. Their projects were often connected to experiences they had working in other professional or educational environments, and their plans incorporated how they would secure funding, talent, or customers based on their various social networks. They had more human, cultural, and social capital, not to mention economic capital. It wasn’t even close.

The problem with these competitions, I soon realized, was they did not rate the viability of the business model but the ability of the contestant to advocate for her venture in clear, substantive, and compelling ways. While this is important, it was not supposed to be the purpose of the competition, which was to reward the person with the best business plan, one that (at least in theory) would be related to the most viable business model. However, the contests always turned into a virtual beauty contest, where beauty was defined by eloquence, clarity of thought, poise, presentation, and the use of language often associated with conventional intelligence (aka cultural capital). Eliza Doolittle [of “Pygmalion”, which Rabb references throughout this chapter] mimicked the patrician ladies, and in so doing, she was accepted as their peer regardless of her intellect, values, or skills. To them, Eliza’s most important tacit skill was her ability to assimilate.

The winners of these business competitions walked away with a nominal prize, big smiles, and their egos stroked. The losers left with serious mixed lessons. First, many undoubtedly thought that their business concepts and models were inferior to those of the winners, without any indication why that was the case (when in fact it rarely was). Second, they did not know how influential their lack of invisible capital was in diminishing their chances of excelling, largely because they didn’t even know that the were being judged (albeit unconsciously) on the amount of invisible capital they brought to the competition.


7 years in Boston

This August marks the completion of my 7th year in Boston, with the loose exceptions of the 1 month I commuted into Boston from Ashland, and the 1 year I commuted out of Boston to Lowell.

_Also this is the [link to generate the Google Map](http://maps.googleapis.com/maps/api/staticmap?center=42.360129,-71.059227&zoom=15&size=800x1000&maptype=roadmap&sensor=false&style=style=feature:road.local element:labels visibility:off &style=feature:landscape element:geometry visibility:off)._

Similar message, wider audience

I was interviewed for NAMAC’s (National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture) Idea Exchange and the interview is now up on their website. The interview went great and I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to share our work at the Transmission Project with a wider audience. An excerpt:

NAMAC:_ August 2011 marks the end of The Transmission Project’s main initiative, The Digital Arts Service Corps. What do you think The Digital Arts Service Corps’s legacy will be?_

Sheldon: There are countless transformative projects and organizations that we’ve supported over the years, but I think the most enduring aspect of the Digital Arts Service Corps comes from maintaining a leadership pipeline into media arts and technology. For example, every conference I go to has at least one presenter who is an alumni of the Corps. And not just the number of people we’ve been able to bring into the field, but the diversity of individuals who might not otherwise have seen a role for themselves in the field. Many of our most successful members could never edit a video or build a web page, but they brought new perspectives and leadership qualities to organizations who could not have otherwise taken the risk to hire them. Unfortunately though, it’s this aspect of building a leadership pipeline that I see missing from other national service proposals – and yet I think the results of such a pipeline will have the most long-lasting benefits.

NAMAC: What’s next for The Transmission Project?

Sheldon: To be honest we’re still figuring that out. The past 18 months have taken all our energy to ensure that Corps members in the field were little impacted by the funding and oversight environment we’ve had at home: the non-renewal of our funding, a national fundraising tour, a federal audit (which was copacetic, BTW), and now our impending closure. Not to mention trying to get in front of the emerging foundation and governmental recommendations to create a corps just like ours…it’s been distracting, to say the least. We’re using our last month on the payroll to archive as much knowledge as possible to make sure we can play an active role should those foundation and governmental recommendations turn into action.

NAMAC: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start a service corps to build capacity in the public media and technology field?

Sheldon: I’ve already touched on building a leadership pipeline – which means structuring roles and workplans to allow for leadership just as much as recruiting broadly in age, background, education and experience. In regards to outcomes, I’m really troubled by prescriptive “nonprofits need…” or “nonprofits suck at…” narratives that equate technical assistance with true capacity building. As if a dusting of “best practices” by volunteer trainers is all that stands between an organization and the realization of its mission. The Transmission Project takes a very active role in the RFP process: drawing upon our experience to help organizational applicants better define their projects and workplans over multiple feedback rounds – sometimes to the surprise of applicants not used to being Socratically engaged by a potential funder. We call the methodology “Honest Practice” and it means looking at project stakeholders, organizational structure, community context and the potential for overall success. One of the most interesting questions in the final evaluation we send to our grantees is “What was accomplished that wasn’t part of the original proposal?”. Because we’re granting something infinitely more valuable than money – a person – there is a wonderful opportunity to create unexpected, positive outcomes that just aren’t possible in a one-size-fits-all approach.


DonorsChoose Contest Update: Consolation Prize Edition

DonorsChoose announced the winners for their Hacking Education contest today and unfortunately Print & Share, the app I developed with my coworker Billy, didn’t win. The consolation prize is all of the positive feedback I’ve received from teachers who are using Print & Share:

Now this is probably just sour-grapes writing, but I am disappointed by the nature of the applications that won: most of them are based around automated referrals:

  • a Wordpress plugin, and TwitterAPI app that use geographic location to suggest DonorsChoose projects,

  • an email signature generator that suggests projects based on the projects’ funding needs

  • a browser extension that suggests DonorsChoose projects when you search Amazon.com

The one winner I do like sends automated press-releases to local news outlets. The content of the release isn’t much to work with (though Print & Share shares that problem), but it could be an effective news peg for general school issues (not that “Local schools must turn to the internet because of waste/fraud/abuse” is the story I’d want to see run).

My criticism of those automated referral tools is that they all require an advocate to install the tool—but that advocate has little control over the projects they refer people to. In other words, these winners require someone to really care about DonorsChoose as a whole, not necessarily any specific project. Do those individuals exist, en masse? I’ve learned there is a big network of teachers who promote eachother’s DonorsChoose projects, but since they can’t specifically suggest a friend or colleague’s project, will they adopt the winning tools? It’s the sizzle of social networking without the (tofu-) steak .

The fact that these tools seem in search of an audience is what disappoints me most. As attributed to thinker Seth Godin by  Richard Millington: “Find products for your audience, not audiences for your products.” We built Print & Share as a tool for teachers to better promote their own projects—because teachers are the audience that cares most about their projects’ success– which is why the tweet I just received while writing this post cracks me up:


A modest web-app proposal

Advanced algorithms analyze your social graph to provide deep introspection through animal shapes and SEO-optimized pithy sayings. Once we close Series A we will be hiring unpaid interns; only serious inquiries, please.


Competitive Collaboration or Collaborative Competition

Howard Fisher in the Transmission Project’s newly released report “ Back to the Source: How Collaboration Can Transform Online Engagement”:

In 2010, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation pioneered the use of open commenting on its Knight News Challenge. The Challenge aims to spur innovation around providing information to communities using digital, open-source technology. Anyone who has access to Knight’s website can apply, and last year applicants had the option of applying openly – that is, making their application available to be read, rated, and commented on by visitors to the website. By doing so, applicants might benefit from the public’s feedback. Between the time applicants posted their proposals and the December 1 deadline, they could change their proposals to reflect improvements based on others’ suggestions. Because Knight’s News Challenge drew experience from the crowd in the form of feedback, allowed users to rate projects, and comprised a funding contest, it exemplifies a hybrid model that includes elements of the crowdsourcing approaches Kanter terms wisdom, voting, and funding.

Recognizing the gap between foundations and the work of organizations, Knight director of Digital Media Grants John Bracken says that in crowdsourcing feedback, the foundation saw the opportunity to bring expertise from the field to its technology initiative. In an online Q&A, Bracken likewise says Knight was looking “to be surprised and see things we haven’t seen before.” He acknowledges, however, that he doesn’t think Knight executed its crowdsourcing effort well.

In Knight’s case, increased inclusiveness came into conflict with the structure of a funding contest. The Challenge’s website conveys mixed messages about how the public’s feedback influences the review and judging process. On one hand, the site stated as of June 6, 2011 (before winners were announced), “applicants who choose the public option will not receive preferential consideration. Likewise, those who choose the closed option will not be penalized.” On the other hand, the site elaborated, “the public rating and commenting is by no means the only parameter we use to choose the best projects. We give more weight to our panel of experts,” who gauge projects’ potential impact based on how well it fits into one of the predetermined categories “mobile,” “authenticity, “sustainability,” or “community.” The website implies that review panelists do give some weight to public comments even as it denies showing preference for open submissions. Lack of transparency and intentionality regarding the rating and commenting system limited the benefits Knight could reap from its use of crowdsourcing.

To its credit, Knight reflects on the complications of crowdsourcing feedback in the context of a funding competition. In particular, its FAQ about the section pointed to the bias of users: “We hope everyone is acting in good faith, but we understand that applicants can subjectively rate other entrants’ projects.” This implies users could leave negative feedback on their competitors’ projects in an attempt at subterfuge. Likewise, Knight addresses concerns about viewers stealing participants’ ideas:

It’s the trade-off for having the opportunity to use the wisdom of the crowd to improve your entry… Submitting an ‘open’ application means you are either confident enough in your own abilities and track record that you’ll be chosen to do the work even if others have similar ideas, or that you don’t really care who does the work as long as it gets done. Here Knight anticipates the central tension that crowdsourcing introduces to a contest. By sponsoring a funding challenge, Knight hopes to drive social innovation by encouraging healthy competition among innovators. However, opening up innovators’ ideas to public collaboration would seem to undermine the spirit of competition; even as Knight highlights how crowd wisdom can improve a project and make it a more competitive candidate, it instructs applicants to only include the crowd if they “don’t really care who does the work as long as it gets done.” In the end, Knight resolves this tension by subordinating the role of the crowd: getting public support is made optional rather than essential to the success of a project. True to its name, Knight’s initiative is a challenge first and foremost.

The challenges of resolving these tensions not only indicate that practical applications of crowdsourcing are still experimental, but also reiterate what experts like Geoff Livingston have said: “While the crowd craves freedom, it desperately needs structure. People need to be told how to participate and the rules of engagement. These rules have to be clear, empowering of the crowd, and directive in their end result.” Effective use of crowdsourcing requires a great deal of intentionality and structure. Knight provides plenty of guidance for applicants but not for commentators. Moreover, the crowd needs to be the hero. Its contributions would have to equal if not supersede in importance the ideas of innovators as the focus of the funding process. Indeed, Knight’s Challenge merely emphasizes what is already true about applying for funding – that it is a competitive undertaking.

The conflict between “collaboration” and “competition” really bothers me on a rhetorical level about these app contests. They use the evolutionary language of competitive innovation yet often rely on collegial cooperation and altruism (not to mention existing capacity) as the efforts required to participate may significantly outweigh the probability for prizes or benefits. The idea of “online” has become intrinsically tied to democratic participation (and other feel-goody stuff like collaboration) when—except when specifically designed for with much effort and forethought—it’s nothing of the sort.

On the other hand, while public collaboration may be difficult to organize, private collaboration between participating developers can be relatively easy yet awesome. Whether private collaboration is the result of physical closeness (such as at a weekend hackathon) or electronic (such as a listserv set up for participants and organizers), creating a space where participants can ask and answer questions, share ideas, gently boast about their progress and implicitly network can provide fulfilling benefits for participation than just the prize at the end. From my participation in the Boston Hackday Challenge (physical collaboration) and   DonorsChoose Hacking Education (listserv-based collaboration) winning a prize becomes more of the icing than the cake. Of course, these contests I’ve been involved with have also kept their bloviations about creating the “future of whatever” to a minimum, so maybe that has something to do with it too.

I could also go into how these contests may (briefly) fulfill many of the human and social needs that current technology careers lack, but that’s another blog post.

**Update: **My boss Belinda suggested I note that the Knight Foundation has previously funded DonorsChoose (she received a DonorsChoose GivingCard at a Knight conference).


The event is a tyrant

Charles Seife on journalism, news pegs and polls in Proofiness: The dark arts of mathematical deception:

Most journalists are primarily event-gatherers, picking and packing the choicest and freshest events to present to their audiences. Every time there is a sufficiently interesting or important event of some sort—a plane crash, say, or an earthquake—journalists rush in to relay the story. However, without an event to report, journalists are almost helpless. When there’s no event, almost by definition, there’s no news for them to report. As journalist Walter Lippmann put it in the 1920s:

It may be the act of going into bankruptcy, it may be a fire, a collision, an assault, a riot, an arrest, a denunciation, the introduction of a bill, a speech, a vote, a meeting, the expressed opinion of a well known citizen, an editorial in a newspaper, a sale, a wage-schedule, a price change, the proposal to build a bridge. There must be a manifestation. The course of events must assume a certain definable shape, and until it is in a phase where some aspect is an accomplished fact, news does not separate itself from the ocean of possible truth. To a journalist, the event is a tyrant. It is the authority that grants him liberty to speak. And this liberty is typically only given for a short amount of time. Unless the event is extraordinarily salacious or deadly or important, the journalist must move on to other topics quickly, as his powers to attract an audience rapidly wane as the event ages. He has a day or two or three to talk about an explosion or child abductions before he must once more hold his tongue, at least until the next event.

To a reporter who’s bubbling with ideas to write about, this can be terribly frustrating. Lots of interesting and important developments happen as a gradual trickle, rather than in a series of discrete, reportable events. However, journalists generally can’t write about broad trends or abstract ideas until they find what is called a “news peg”—a timely event that the reporter can tie, no matter how tenuously, to the subject that he really wants to talk about. For example, a journalist who has a vague hankering to write about his suspicions that airline safety has been getting worse would keep an eye out for a news peg of some sort—any event that might provide a convenient excuse for publishing the story. A high-profile plane crash would be an ideal peg, but other lesser events—perhaps not newsworthy on their own—would also suffice. A near miss would do. So would an incident where a pilot gets fired for showing up on the job drunk. Reports are also good news pegs; the journalist probably wouldn’t have to wait long before the FAA or some other government agency publishes a report or generates a new statistic about transportation that might imbue the piece with timeliness. Failing that, there’s always an anniversary of some disaster or another; if desperate, the reporter can dust off TWA 8OO or the Andes plane crash or even the R101 airship disaster to write a piece at the appropriate time. For a news peg need not even be a real event; it can be a fake one.

A real event tends to be spontaneous rather than planned; news happens on its own timetable. Even if the event isn’t a complete surprise (everybody knows that an election is coming, for example), its outcome is at least somewhat unpredictable. A real event can be complex; it might take months or years to tease out its significance and it might never be understood fully. A fake event—what historian Daniel Boorstin dubbed epseudoevent—tends to be just the opposite. Where real news is organic, pseudoevents are synthetic. A pseudoevent is planned rather than spontaneous. It occurs at a convenient time and at an accessible location. Any unpredictability is kept to a minimum. A good pseudoevent is simple and easy to understand. And it has a purpose. A pseudoevent like the presentation of a political speech or the orchestrated “leak” of a governmental memo is meant, at least in part, specifically for the consumption of the press—and once given an airing by the press, it is meant to get attention, to be talked about, and to shape public opinion. Though a pseudoevent might have information, that information has been massaged and molded with a purpose in mind. A plane crash has no hidden agenda; a speech from the president of Airbus certainly does.

Reporters make little distinction, if any, between events and pseudoevents. Both are useful; pseudoevents can serve as perfectly serviceable news pegs when an event is not readily available. A speech from the Airbus president can unshackle a reporter, allowing him to riff on the safety of airlines. Reporters are grateful for the freedom that the pseudoevents buy them, even though that freedom comes at the price of being manipulated by the creator of the pseudoevent. As a result, many corporations and government organizations have become adept at manufacturing pseudoevents that quickly get turned into pseudonews.

From the journalist’s point of view, the poll is the ultimate pseudoevent—it is entirely under his control. Any time a news organization wishes, it can conduct or commission a poll, whose results it then duly reports. A poll frees journalists from having to wait for news to happen or for others to manufacture pseudoevents for them. Polls allow a news organization to manufacture its own news. It’s incredibly liberating.*

What’s more, polls allow reporters to bend real events to a convenient timetable, completely freeing them from the less than ideal timing of bona fide news events. During the doldrums of an election season, in the boring stretch when a vote might be weeks or months away, it might seem that news organizations wouldn’t be able to talk about the election for lack of any events to report on. Not so. News organizations need only commission polls to give their reporters and talking heads something to pontificate about. Journalists chatter continuously throughout election season as if they were calling a horse race. Pundits spend countless hours rooting through the entrails of whatever national or local polls they can get their hands on, turning each little insignificant result into an important portent of future events. These polls allow the news media to keep their audiences tense and entertained even while crossing the vast, lonely electoral desert in between the results of the primaries—which usually aren’t that interesting to begin with—and the general election in November. And as election day comes nigh, the polling gets even more intense. In days of yore, reporters had to wait until the returns were in before announcing the winner of an election. No longer! Exit polls allow the networks to declare a winner before bedtime. Polls are an incredibly powerful tool, and they’ve become a staple of modern journalism—and not just during election season.

* Polls aren’t the only way for news organizations to synthesize news. Time’s annual Person of the Year issue is a long-running exercise in pseudo-newsy attention grabbing. Top-ten and top-hundred lists are also very effective—and they seem to be proliferating rapidly.


Planning is timeless

From the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum:

OPERATION HIGH HOPES

Explanation and Instruction Sheet

PURPOSE

TO RAISE DOLLARS ($1s) for KENNEDY

MATERIALS

RECORDS of the Official Campaign Song HIGH HOPES and ALL THE WAY (sample enclosed)

PT BOAT PINS - the Campaign Emblem in 3 different styles

Lapel Pins for Men   )

Tie Clasps for Men   )    Samples enclosed

Pins for Ladies      )

HOW OPERATION HIGH HOPES WORKS

In return for giving $1 to the Kennedy Campaign Fund, a supporter is to receive, as a token of appreciation, EITHER a RECORD containing HIGH HOPES and ALL THE WAY OR a PT PIN in the style of his choice.

In return for giving $2 to the Kennedy Campaign Fund, a supporter is to receive BOTH a RECORD and a PT PIN.

WHAT CLUBS SHOULD DO

  1. Appoint a Chairman for RECORDS and PT PINS.

  2. Decide on the number of RECORDS and PT PINS (minimum order of 25 of each) you think club members can distribute.

  3. Return enclosed ORDER BLANK to National Headquarters. Do not collect money until you receive RECORDS and PINS from this office.

  4. You will receive CONTRIBUTION ORDER PADS (samples enclosed) with your order. When a person gives $1 the appropirate slip is to be filled out in duplicate. One copy is to go to the contributor; other is to be sent here.

  5. At the end of ever two week period, slips must be sent back to OEPRATON HIGH HOPES, National Headquarters, 261 Constitution Avenue, N. W., Washington, D. C.

  6. Slips must be accompanied with a check or money order (no cash) covering correct amount (50 slips and $50). Checks should be made out to Washington D. C. KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT COMMITTEE.

  7. If a supporter wants to give more than $1 or $2 have him make out a check to Washington D. C. KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT COMMITTEE, and send it to this address.


Print & Share: not everyone is a social media ninja (nor need they be)

Today is the deadline for DonorsChoose’s Hacking Education Contest, and fortunately I have completed and submitted  Print and Share (with no small effort by Billy on the design). I previously wrote about the details.

Billy wrote my favorite part of the front-page copy: “Not everyone is a social media ninja.”

There is also a awkward screencast by yours truly. “This is a great” indeed.


Irrefutable gerunds

Gerunds were referenced in yesterday’s post. Below is from William Easterly’s “ Foreign Aid for Scoundrels”, published in the New York Review of Books:

The concept of development helps rationalize the position of autocrats by postulating an unstoppable transition toward a bright future. This is why donors call all poor countries “developing.” Once the donors started paying lip service to democracy, they could label undemocratic aid recipients as “democratizing.” Let’s call this the Gerund Defense for supporting dictators. Thomas Carothers, an expert on the connections between aid and democracy, described the Gerund Defense in a classic article [Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2004), p. 169]. He quoted a USAID description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as a country in “transition to a democratic, free market society.” (Such “democratizing” is still notably weak in 2010.)

The World Bank’s response to Helen Epstein’s article in these pages accusing the bank of supporting Ethiopian tyranny is a classic Gerund Defense. The World Bank’s country director for Ethiopia and Sudan, Ken Ohashi, replied:

We start…with a belief that in every country people want…to develop a transparent, accountable…governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task…is to support that innate tendency.

However, building institutions… takes a long time…. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks…. The Gerund Defense has the attraction of being irrefutable. We don’t know the future, so we don’t know whether a particular event is a “setback” to “building institutions,” or whether the “building” is a myth. We could of course observe the actual trend in “democratizing”—but this has been discouraging in Ethiopia, where parties and politicians that seriously challenge the government risk prison. Donors could conceivably overlook anything, even the 1994 Rwanda genocide, as a temporary “setback” to an “innate tendency.” Such a view is not as easily dismissed as you might think.