Today I’m making an investment of $1,000 into FORGE (via the widget at the bottom of this post).
Over the last 6 weeks, we’ve seen the story of FORGE unfold. We’ve seen the Tactical Philanthropy Community engage with FORGE, not as cheerleaders for a cause, but as a group of people who care deeply about how philanthropy is practiced.
After reviewing the report prepared by Curtis Chang, I’m making my investment in FORGE for the following reasons:
- I think believe that FORGE offers high impact programs and their current financial crisis is a function of identified, fixable problems with their fundraising model. I believe that FORGE is well on their way to closing their short term funding gap and I believe that they have the ability to restructure their fundraising model so as to create a sustainable organizational profile.
- Like Bill Somerville, I believe that one key element of philanthropy is finding outstanding people and funding them. I believe that FORGE’s executive director Kjerstin Erickson is an outstanding person.
- While I cannot predict FORGE’s future, the organization’s embrace of radical transparency makes me believe that I am aware of all knowable, material information regarding the organization.
- Due to the organizations transparency, I also know that many other people have access to FORGE’s information and are able to come to their own conclusions. To date, I have not been made aware of any other person’s analysis of FORGE that has made me change my own view.
- While the potential return on my investment is high (potentially saving an organization offering high impact programs), the risk is actually relatively low. At first, it seems that the failure of FORGE would result in zero social impact from my gift. However, I see two ways in which my investment can produce impact even in the face of FORGE’s potential failure, 1) I’m investing in Kjerstin Erickson, supporting her now will help her land at another organization should FORGE fail, 2) I’m supporting the broader concept of transparency in a way that I hope impacts the field (see next paragraph).
Finally, I am making this investment as a way to encourage other nonprofits to embrace transparency. A year and a half ago I wrote a post titled Demonstrating Impact: Philanthropy’s Urgent Call to Action. For a long time, the post was one of the most read posts I had ever written. In the post I wrote about a Council on Foundations conference session in which the value of transparency as a core value of philanthropy was made clear. In the post I wrote:
Humans don’t like to talk about their own “failures”. But halfway through the session, someone from the audience who identified herself as a professor of marketing stood up to say that people who admit their mistakes publicly are viewed with more trust afterwards. We need to reframe transparency away from some sort of thing that philanthropy is being forced to consider by outside forces and instead celebrate transparency as the mark of an organization that is truly committed to improving the field.
It is incredibly important that we build more trust within philanthropy. It is incredibly important that we move away from soliciting donations via a “sales pitch” and shift it towards a process of making a well reasoned argument centered on impact potential. FORGE hasn’t sugared coated things for us. They haven’t pushed pictures of the refugees they help at us. They’ve explained their situation, made a well reasoned argument for why they think they deserve funding and they’ve openly accepted any and all criticism with grace and humility.
FORGE gets my money.
@jefftrexler @cpreston http://tinyurl.com/5oqsgc Note the rationale has nothing to do with programs.
I was thinking about Kjerstin and Nicholas and the rest of the team after reading Curtis’s post and you know, it kinda made me feel like I do when watching my nephews work their tails off for something.
Whether they fail or succeed doesn’t matter to me as much as does the sense of pride I see when people pursue something higher and harder than they ever thought possible.
In the end, I leave the FORGE story the same way I entered it, with heart and hope.
This was good, Sean. So very, very good. Thank you.
You make some great points. However, it seems to me that much of this would apply to individuals making significant contributions and others who, like those in the field, take a very rational approach to giving. Given the success of campaigns that aggregate smaller donations from many more people (like the Obama campaign), I wonder – would individuals giving in this way be as tuned to transparency? Or would this possibly turn off some of the smaller contributors?
This is an important point Sonia. I think that transparency is functionally useful for professionals who will actually look at what is under the hood. But the standard of transparency reassures smaller donors that someone, somewhere is looking under the hood.
For instance, a lot of progress has been made to made politics more transparent. Most voters will not actually go online to look up all the available info. But some will and those that do will make a fuss if things are not right.
In the stock markets, the fact that many financial companies have not been transparent about the issues they face has triggered a crisis in confidence. The lack of confidence extends to the vast majority of American’s who have never actually examined any public statements released by the firms.
We are in the midst of a major crisis in confidence in the nonprofit sector and the philanthropic sector.
Thank you so much for assembling a team to analyze FORGE’s story in detail. I met Annelisa from FORGE a few weeks ago, and I’m so inspired by the projects they have taken on. The lessons that you and your team have highlighted have been incredibly useful for our team, as we fundraise for our young, international non-profit, Wokai. We have discussed radical transparency quite a bit, and have cautiously embraced it on our blog: http://www.wokai.typepad.com
Our work focuses on microfinance in China, and my hunch is that radical transparency might not mesh with Chinese culture as well as it does with the culture of social entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. The Chinese highly value “saving face” and we’re working on creating a new blog that features various authorities in China’s social sector.
Thanks again for your fascinating insights. I really enjoy reading this blog.
As a community foundation employee, I have been following the FORGE story with great interest. However, it is the comments about transparency generally that got my eye in this post.
I was struck by the comments on how admitting failure actually builds trust. What would you say to someone in my position when being transparent about our own failures can also mean exposing other organizations (our partners or grantees)to a level of transparency their are not comfortable with?
I personally feel strongly that owning your mistakes and learning from them is valuable…but is it appropriate to make that decision for others (see comments about working in China above)?
Interested in hearing your thoughts.
Great point regarding cultural differences. I have to admit that I’m writing from an American point of view. For a moment, let me reframe “transparency”. What does Chinese culture say about being “authentic”? I’m glad to hear this discussion has been valuable to you.
Suzy, very good question. I believe in a vision where funders and grantees engage in authentic, public discussion. We have a model for this in the US stock market (although it is not as transparent as it should be, in fact lack of transparency is part of what has created the current crisis). But if you flip on the financial news channel CNBC you will see a parade of people authentically debating the pros and cons of various organizations. No one likes being talked negatively about, but life goes on and investors don’t flee due to a single negative comment.
However, If that vision is the destination, what is the path to get there? I admit that the “first movers” in transparency face risks. Risks to themselves and risks to those around them. My hope is that a small movement of groups like FORGE (and the Hewlett Foundation and Irvine Foundation who released self critical reports last year), can spur a top down move to characterize transparency as a best practice so as to give individual organizations the cover they need.
I will note that FORGE, Hewlett and Irvine have gotten nothing but praise for their actions.
Last thought. The most important thing is the cause. If you speak the truth it will always help the cause. It might hurt organizations working on the cause, but helping organizations isn’t the point, the point is helping the cause.
Sean, I’ve been very interested in the discussion about FORGE and the reports from the team you have assembled. It seems like a worthwhile organization and Kjerstin seems like a talented social entrepreneur. However, I am troubled by a couple of things. First, Curtis’ report details a hard road ahead for FORGE. He is basically talking about a complete overhaul of the board, fundraising function and general infrastructure. He also says that is outside the scope of his work. So it begs the question: who will do that work? FORGE obviously needs a lot of help to get out of this situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again. But they need quite a bit of help to get there. It would be disappointing after all of this discussion and analysis to just leave them hanging. What is the plan going forward?
And secondly, the discussions about radical transparency are interesting, but I wonder if there is some hype there. Yes, radical transparency is important in order for donors to understand what they are investing in and for nonprofit organizations to be accountable. But I don’t think radical transparency is the end goal. Radical transparency is a part of, but not the complete picture of, how we get to a social sector that is working more effectively to solve social problems. I think there are several things that are higher priorities: adequate capital for the sector so that great ideas and models can thrive and grow, adequate strategic management expertise so that social entrepreneurs like Kjerstin who have a great model can get support on the backend functions that she otherwise might not excel at, and so on. Radical transparency is a great goal, but it cannot be the focus or the only goal by far. There are much larger structural issues facing our ability to bring great ideas like FORGE to fruition.
Nell, there’s no doubt that there are many other important issues. Transparency is one critical element to a robust social capital market. We can see from traditional capital markets, that lack of transparency breeds distrust and distorts capital allocation. But transparency is only one important element. I’m not sure how long you’ve been a reader, but transparency is only a relatively minor topic on Tactical Philanthropy. FORGE just happens to have dominated the conversation recently.
I’ll let Curtis and/or Kjerstin respond regarding what’s next. Curtis has been a pro bono consultant. Maybe a funder who cares about this issue will fund him to keep working with FORGE?
I work at a foundation that is not affiliated with FORGE in any way, but I have been following the FORGE story rather closely as I know several of the college students who have worked for FORGE in the past. I don’t like to play the nonprofit gossip game, but the stories I’ve heard from the inside do not match up with the updates I’ve read from Kjersten, and I don’t feel comfortable keeping them to myself. Obviously all organizations are flawed to some extent, but some of FORGE’s actions have been extremely troubling.
One former volunteer has frequently voiced her frustration at the way that she and other ground staff were treated by FORGE management. Rather than helping ground staff to work through problems and difficult situations at the camps, FORGE management treated staff concerns as interruptions to their busy schedules, and seemed annoyed when they were told about situations that deviated from FORGE’s vision of its work. I understand that FORGE has a small management staff to do a lot of work, but the operations on the ground are why the organization exists, and the concerns there need to take priority.
FORGE management was, however, very communicative about fundraising, expecting ground staff to raise money while working full time in refugee camps without consistent email or phone access. Staff who did not raise the required level of money were made to feel as though they should not contact management until they had raised more. Again, I realize that FORGE was in dire financial straits, but the fact that they hired a full-time fundraising staff member yet still relied so heavily on the friends and family of volunteers (most of whom had already made significant contributions) is ridiculous.
Despite being so proactive about communication regarding fundraising, FORGE’s field staff learned of the financial crisis after it was already being publicly discussed on several blogs. As a result of FORGE’s financial situation, the staff in the camps were forced to fire more than half of the refugee employees with less than one week’s warning. In doing so, FORGE fell into the classic NGO pattern of going into a region with some money, starting a few programs, building some level of trust and expectation in the community there, and then pulling out abruptly. This is obviously disappointing to refugees who had jobs and salaries, but it’s also extremely disappointing to everyone in the camp who slowly grew to trust FORGE and look forward to working with FORGE on solutions to the camp’s problems.
I understand that if the money isn’t there, people can’t be paid, but the cuts were made entirely in the camp programming budgets, whereas relatively small cuts to the FORGE operational budget would have been enough to save refugee jobs. Although I think that the public often has unrealistic expectations about what overhead costs can and should be, I am concerned – particularly in light of the discussion about transparency – that FORGE’s self-reported overhead costs are not entirely accurate. For example, one camp’s current programming is operating on less than $1000 total—for the next 3 months. That number is troubling not only because it is so much lower than what field staff had anticipated and planned for, but also because of it’s tiny percentage of FORGE’s total $400,000 annual costs.
All of this brings me to an important question: why is FORGE based in Oakland? The costs of running an organization are much higher in Oakland, and travel costs to and from Zambia are also significant. FORGE currently pays 3 American salaries (making up close to 25% of their entire budget), and purchases at least 10 round trip plane tickets per year, at about $2000 each. Moreover, locating the organization’s management 10,000 miles away from the work that is being managed is a recipe for confusion, miscommunication, and ineffectiveness.
Quite frankly, there’s a lot more to say, but this is already a significant post. Sean, although I do think that FORGE’s mission and vision are great and its ideas about working with refugee camps in Africa are potentially very exciting (pathfinders etc.), the way that the organization has been run is appalling. Yes, they are young and have made mistakes, but I think that they have not been as forthcoming about the operational (as opposed to fundraising) problems as I’d like them to be, and there’s only so much slack I’m willing to cut them. In addition, I am uncomfortable with rewarding the hubris of college students who start organizations without thinking through the implications of doing so or what it takes to be effective. Some mistakes are unavoidable and understandable, but I think we also need to be thinking about the real impact that those mistakes have on the refugees that FORGE is trying to help, not just about Kjersten’s future as a social entrepreneur.
Thank you for voicing your concerns about FORGE. I am admittedly very surprised and taken aback by some of the claims here, and less surprised about others. I figure that there is little else to do but to respond to each of your claims point-by-point.
Firstly, though, I’d like to take the opportunity to say that FORGE is indeed committed to being forthcoming and ‘transparent’ about all aspects of running a nonprofit – not just fundraising. As it so happens, our funding situation is what has generated the most interest and, therefore, the most discussion. But I’m happy to discuss what you bring up as well.
So – I guess I’ll start from the top of your message where you say that “rather than helping ground staff to work through problems and difficult situations at the camps, FORGE management treated staff concerns as interruptions to their busy schedules, and seemed annoyed when they were told about situations that deviated from FORGE’s vision of its work.”
To be honest, we are all looking at each other here wondering what this could be referring to. While there is no doubt that we all work hard, we work hard precisely to keep the organization moving forward for the sake of the impact on the ground. I’m not sure which type of staff concerns we treated in this way, but would love to hear more so that they could be adequately addressed. We can’t promise to always agree with the perspectives of the staff in the field, but we certainly are committed to knowing what those are and presenting our perspectives in return.
One thing that we always stress to incoming staff members during their training is how difficult communication will be between Zambia and the US. The camps we work in have no electricity, no cell phone service (until just last month in one of the camps), and obviously no internet. We are thus only able to communicate with Project Managers once every 1-2 weeks when they come into town for a day to buy supplies and use internet. Their time is necessarily limited, and it happens between 11pm and 7am PST, so we have to work extra hard to communicate effectively. Fortunately, we have a Programming Director who is extremely proactive about addressing each of the Project Managers ideas and concerns, and a Camp Operations Coordinator based in Lusaka who can answer most questions or act as an intermediary. If there has ever been a case in which something was not addressed to the satisfaction of our Project Managers, we’d love to hear what that was so we can address it better rather than having it stew in-the-bush. Because ultimately, as you stated, the operations on the ground are why the organization exists, and the concerns there need to take priority. We completely agree and would welcome the opportunity to learn where we might have missed something.
Now, to address your concerns about fundraising. FORGE is very clear to anyone that applies for a position that we have a fundraising requirement of $5000 per staff member. This is something that FORGE has always done, and something that Project Managers agree to when they initially sign their contracts. They have a total of 6 months to do so, at least 3 of which occur before they ever hit-the-ground (we encourage people to do as much fundraising as possible before leaving, and many are able to finish before they get to the ground). This year, for the first time ever, we’ve had several staff members who did not reach their fundraising requirement within that time period (the economy is affecting us all). In response, we have simply required that they be communicative with us and proactive in their attempts to continue raising funds. The person who communicates with them about fundraising is an entirely different person than who communicates with them about programming and on-the-ground issues, so it’s hard to imagine how we ever sent the message that they shouldn’t communicate with us until they’ve finished fundraising. If anything, we are always encouraging and requesting our staff members to be more communicative from the ground, not less.
As to the question of whether staff members should or should not be required to raise funds for the organization, that’s a tough one. FORGE has been built on a shoe-string on the passions and dreams of individuals, and it takes a group of people to keep that together. Perhaps its expecting too much of people that each member of our team contribute to the organization’s existence with their own fundraising efforts and networks, just like the three of us who work in the States must do. The truth is, that if we didn’t require that of people, we wouldn’t be working today. Perhaps someday we will have the financial freedom to not have that requirement, and I’m sure that many of our Project Managers would find that very freeing, but in many ways it has been a part of the philosophy of joint sacrifice that we have all shared to keep our work going. Fundraising is no fun (to most people at least), and depending on our own family and networks can be really tough, but how else do we continue this critically important work that we believe in so much? In the end, its something that nonprofits simply must do to continue their work, and FORGE has taken the stance that we can do more meaningful work if our Project Managers each raise $5000 (which comes to just 12% of our budget, meaning that the Board, the Development Director and I need to raise the other 88%, but it helps immensely).
Regarding the decision to bring camp budgets down between November and February, it seems that there is some misunderstanding about what is going on. When we started seeing the returns from our direct mail, we realized that we were going to have trouble meeting our funding targets for the end of the year, and thus have trouble sending new funds for the projects and camps in January (each of the camps already had the funds that they needed to run through the end of 2008). Rather than taking the risk of waiting it out and finding ourselves with no cash at the end of the year, we decided to take the proactive route of making our current resources last an extra two months to essentially ‘buy ourselves time’ to raise the requisite funds. Taking a long-term view, we decided that it would be better to dial down our resources for four months because that would give us a much greater chance of being able to continue for years to come. It was a simple cost-benefit analysis.
Unfortunately, that did mean that some people lost their jobs between November and February. Our intention is for this to be temporary for these four months only. We thought that even they would prefer to lose their jobs or decrease their hours for four months than to lose their jobs permanently in December. Could we have given them more notice? I think that it would have been very nice to have been able to, but we simply could not have done so. We made the decision to extend our resources on the night of October 16th, I posted the first blog about being in trouble on Friday October 17th, and we informed the staff on Sunday October 19th, before it was ever being discussed on many blogs (unfortunately because staff do not have communication while in the camp, some did not find out until a week later). As we all know, in the current economy many companies are facing similar realities as funding dried up within the course of a week and the credit markets froze. We are not proud of not being able to give more warning that there would be a temporary job freeze, but we found that situation better than the prospect of it being permanent.
The point that I found most saddening in your post was to say that “FORGE fell into the classic NGO pattern of going into a region with some money, starting a few programs, building some level of trust and expectation in the community there, and then pulling out abruptly.” This is something that FORGE takes very seriously, and that we are careful never to do. We have been working in each of these camps for at least four years, and have been so committed to the communities that we have made plans to cross the border with them as they repatriate (at their request). As any refugee will tell you, FORGE is the ONLY organization that always pays its employees on time and accurately and that can be trusted to do what it says it will do. In one camp, we are the only organization left. We maintain an extremely high level of integrity with the communities we work with, and we hope to continue devoting ourselves to the partnership. Funding, as always, is the primary concern. It’s a concern that we are doing all in our power to solve.
Now – that leads us to your question about overhead and project costs, which is probably the most troubling thing that you mentioned. Firstly, I just need to clarify that NONE of our camps are operating on programming budgets of $1000 for the next 3 months – that number is simply absurd. After cutting down to their bare-bones budgets, we have Kala operating on $6439, Mwange on $7033, and Meheba on $12,869. We also have our University Program (based in Lusaka) operating on $18,000. We are happy to share these full budgets with you if you’d like to see them.
Regarding the question of how much we spend on “overhead” and whether we are paying too much for our staff in the States (or essentially whether we are worth it), that is a question we have struggled with ourselves. I’ll tell you, there is something very difficult about paying $100,000 out of your budget to staff and operate our US office. In fact, that’s why we went 4 years without it (as Curtis has mentioned, we only hired our first paid staff member 14 months ago, I wasn’t paid until February of this year, and our Programming Director came on full-time starting in July). After all the personal finances ran dry, we came to a point that we had to decide whether it was worth it to FORGE to have people paid to work in the States or not. In the end, I don’t think that it’s actually much of a question. We have an organizational budget of $400,000, of which at least 95% is raised from the States (there really is not option to raise these funds in Zambia, I assure you). To do this, we must a) be a 501(c)3 organization and complete all the requirements therein, b) spend time actually raising the funds, building relationships, and maintaining the organizational infrastructure, and c) recruit and train personnel for our on-the-ground positions. I simply don’t see how FORGE could continue to exist without the modest staff (with extremely modest salaries) that we currently employ in the States. If anything, Curtis and other nonprofit professionals have been encouraging us to let go of some of our fears about spending money on infrastructure and put more into what is going to make us sustainable. And I know that many other international organizations are structured exactly the same as we are, with even higher institutional costs. Even this year, as we’ve built a new website, built out our domestic staff (finally!), and invested more in fundraising, our organizational overhead comes to under 10%. I am happy to share those budgets with you as well.
In the end, I think that you are right when you state that “I am uncomfortable with rewarding the hubris of college students who start organizations without thinking through the implications of doing so or what it takes to be effective.” To be perfectly honest, so am I. But the truth is, and I don’t think any of our staff would disagree, FORGE is doing incredibly important work with a level of trust and integrity that is unrivaled by our on-the-ground partners. It may have taken hubris to start it, but start it I did. And now its here, and its truly impacting the lives of thousands of individuals. We take our responsibility to the communities we serve more seriously than any part of what we do, and we are usually accused of thinking things through too much rather than not enough. We are not perfect in how we do things, and we will invariably run into conflict and disagreement. But none of us would be here if FORGE didn’t maintain an extreme commitment to thinking through the implications of what it takes to be effective. Its what we are most proud of.
Finally, I want to speak a bit to the conflicts you alluded to in your speaking with former/current staff members. I will say very simply that the vast majority of our relationship with former volunteers are highly positive, friendly, and supportive. However… as with any organization that employs/employed a student volunteer model, feelings do come into play. One of the largest reasons that FORGE moved away from the student volunteer model is that oftentimes, young, inexperienced people in the new and stressful world of international development will react negatively and focus on personal feelings rather than collective goals. More often than we’d like, volunteers would view their own situation and deduce their own solution, without giving proper regard to organizational limits or collective movement. I and all FORGE Team Coordinators have always been available to work with people to overcome individual situations. In speaking with the majority of our staff, that would be clear to anyone. It would also be clear that FORGE’s model has been driven and shifted by volunteer feedback from the field. Nobody in FORGE management has a vision that they don’t allow to be shaped. But there are limits and sometimes it takes the collective years of experience that the FORGE management team possesses to see all the fine details about why an idea may or may not work. But yes… there have been instances in which we’ve become frustrated by volunteers’ notion that they know better than management. At the very end of their term, the longest tenured volunteer may have spent a year on the ground. Each of our Management staff has been with FORGE for a minimum of 3 years, having acted in various capacities both stateside and on-the-ground (myself spending over 2 years on-the-ground), giving us an overarching perspective that guides decision making in a more nuanced way than is afforded to one that has spent several months to a year on the ground in a single camp or capacity. We each have areas of strength or expertise, and we maintain and have always maintained open lines of communication. The organization and its projects have been shaped by our volunteers to a great extent, and we allow our Project Managers great leeway in moving the projects forward as they see fit. Disagreements will always occur within a professional environment, especially one as open and small as FORGE. At a certain point, management must retain the duty to make decisions and organizationally, we must all move on rather than stagnate. I wouldn’t characterize that as stubbornness, but rather as a commitment to continuing to fulfill our vision.
Finally, I’d like to conclude by saying that I am not interested in a career as a social entrepreneur. While Curtis or Sean may think that it is natural to me, I know that I am simply devoted to what I believe is a very meaningful and powerful organization. After FORGE, I have no idea what I’ll do, but I don’t intend to start another organization. If FORGE ever comes to the point where I am no longer the best person for the job of ED (or if it is at that point already), I will gladly and respectfully step down. In the end, it’s just not about us (me or any of our other American staff). We are going to be okay, not matter what happens to FORGE. Unfortunately, the world is not so fair and many of the people we work with just don’t have that same luxury.
I am a former FORGE volunteer, who worked for one year on the ground in Zambia. While FORGE has made their fair share of mistakes, in my experience these mistakes have never negatively impacted the projects nor the lives of the refugees living there. Kjerstin and the staff in Oakland (as well as the management staff based in Zambia) really did a great job making sure that the projects and the staff on the ground were given everything we needed.
I also cannot agree with what was mentioned about how the volunteer staff were treated or felt they were treated by FORGE. I felt that my suggestions were always considered, and I cannot say I ever thought that management was annoyed with suggestions I made for project development or for improvement of the staff?s quality of life. In fact, they frequently asked me and my fellow volunteers how things could be improved. I felt that budget decisions for the projects were always made based on the input of the management staff and the FORGE staff in Zambia, and all members of the FORGE team usually had adequate warning before major changes needed to be implemented.
I do not believe that the recently limited budgets for FORGE projects will impact the relationship the refugees have with FORGE. Based on my experience over the past year, I have seen firsthand the strong bond FORGE has developed with the refugees in all three Camps in Zambia. I know the refugees trust FORGE to do whatever they can to continue to bring positive change to the Camps. In fact, refugees usually come to FORGE to take on more and more projects (even projects already run by other organizations in the Camps) because they know how much FORGE can do even with a limited budget.
In short, I believe in FORGE. While there are always going to be problems when you have projects in such remote locations, I do not believe there are major operational problems on the ground that FORGE has not already fixed or that FORGE is not trying to fix.
Casey, I appreciate you sharing what you know. To me, this is very much a “he said, she said” issue. I don’t know, at this point that any outsider can know the truth. But I’ll certainly add your concerns to the list of “risks” facing my investment in FORGE.
On the other hand, I greatly appreciate Kjerstin’s response. I appreciate that while she so clearly disagrees, she is able to do so in a way that displays a willingness to accept criticism and engage with doubters. One lesson that stock market investors have learned over the years is that when company management shouts down criticisms from “short sellers” (people betting that a stock will go down), it almost always suggests that the criticisms are valid.
One of the things I wrote in my post about why I was investing in FORGE was, “Due to the organizations transparency, I also know that many other people have access to FORGE’s information and are able to come to their own conclusions. To date, I have not been made aware of any other person’s analysis of FORGE that has made me change my own view.”
As an investor in for-profit companies, one of the things I always do is seek out people who disagree with the investments I plan to make or have made and make sure I understand “the bear case” (the argument for why a stock should go down rather than up). You’ve presented a bear case and I now will be alert to further evidence that FORGE’s volunteer/management relationship is shaky and potentially undermining to their success.
At this point, Kjerstin has built up a reservoir of trust with me and having seen no evidence of the issue you bring up other than your statements, Kjerstin and FORGE maintains my trust.
One of the benefits of transparency to grantee organizations is that once they’ve engaged in it for awhile, they build much deeper trust with their supporters than they ever could if they focused on “selling” their donors a good story.
Oh wow. I just read the comments of Casey and Kjersten and my heart just skipped a beat. Props to Kjersten for responding in a way that gives credit to the integrity of FORGE, her leadership, and FORGE’s laser-like focus on impact in their decisionmaking. Even if FORGE made errors in their decisionmaking, it’s difficult for me to believe that FORGE and Kjersten haven’t been focusing on the right goals and values, which is why I too am putting my money in the bucket – to, in my own small way, support young social entrepreneurs who learn to do it for the right reasons. Hopefully, I’m not getting my facts wrong – and hopefully, Casey’s view of FORGE will change after the full story comes out.
I also wanted to address the following quote in particular:
“In addition, I am uncomfortable with rewarding the hubris of college students who start organizations without thinking through the implications of doing so or what it takes to be effective.”
In an earlier comment, I mentioned the ageism that I think exists in the sector, and thought that this quote was illustrative of the stereotypes that seem to exist on the funder’s side. I’d also like to highlight Kjersten’s response:
“In the end, I think that you are right when you state that ‘I am uncomfortable with rewarding the hubris of college students who start organizations without thinking through the implications of doing so or what it takes to be effective.’ To be perfectly honest, so am I… It may have taken hubris to start it, but start it I did.”
Perhaps the stereotype against nonprofit startups by young folk is a legitimate one – there are plenty of students I know that have started nonprofit organizations without any thought to sustainability, scale, or real impact. Many of the times these organizations are founded in hubris (partially due to personal insecurities as well as the perverse incentives caused by graduate schools and the press for focusing on those who start organizations) and I could name at least five student-led nonprofits that were given lots of press, whose leaders were profiled, that have now faded into the nonprofit graveyard.
But the point I want to make here is that funders, if they want to help improve the sector and support those young leaders who are committed to the better side of social entrepreneurship, need to differentiate those who have integrity and those who don’t, lest they give up on young social entrepreneurs everywhere. And perhaps more importantly, funders and educators should use their roles and their engagements to teach young social entrepreneurs how to be the social entrepreneurs they would like to see.
Hubris and bad decisionmaking are more often than not a product of ignorance, rather than choice. So let’s not have unfair perceptions get the better of us and create the stereotypes that push the younger generation away from public service, but give them the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to be effective leaders.
As another former FORGE Project Manager (I preceded Michelle in Mwange Camp) I would like to say that my experience with FORGE was entirely the opposite of what Casey has described above.
The most important point to consider, which Kjerstin mentioned, is the difficulty in communicating with Staff on the ground. In my training for FORGE it was made clear that the Project Managers would be trusted to make on-the-ground decisions without being able to make immediate contact with FORGE in the US. This attitude was extremely important for maintaining competent staff who weren’t always reliant on US-side advice. In fact, I was often encouraged to seek the advice of our translators and refugee staff members. This is a key characteristic of the work that FORGE does in Zambia – and it is reflected in the recent changes we have made to the organization’s goals and structure: we are now focusing on training refugees to develop and run their OWN projects. This change was made after only a couple years with the initial college-student-based model and is a sign of just how much self-reflection and questioning goes on among FORGE leadership.
I think that it is VERY difficult to prepare staff (in any international aid organization) for exactly what they will experience on the ground. During training, Kjerstin and my own Team Leader Meredith, were always very honest with us that there would be TOUGH situations to face – guaranteed. I was not expecting a walk in the park when I went to Zambia, and that’s not what I got. But with FORGE’s excellent reputation among the refugees I was always surrounded by competent and helpful friends. This is the spirit of FORGE. And it’s the reason why we are going to make it through this financial trouble -all of us: alumni, US staff, refugee staff, Zambian friends, and supporters. This is another bump in the road for a very strong organization.
With John Mulrow, I was also a project manager in two of the camps for a year. I echo his sentiments that while the job was challenging, I was continually impressed by FORGE’s success in providing community-focused, cost-effective aid.
There are many inherent challenges in running a States-based organization with humanitarian operations focused overseas. However FORGE has excelled surmounting those obstacles, primarily through its flexibility. FORGE has done an incredible job at balancing both overseeing its volunteers and supporting them to be independent enough to make on-the-ground decisions. In our training, FORGE emphasized what our expectations should be.
FORGE’s model is incredibly effective and responsive to the needs of the community. In prioritizing the quality of aid over the ease of securing funding, FORGE does face challenges in switching funding sources. Due to all the support by the FORGE network, I am confident they will succeed. If I could empty my bank account for them I would. As it is, I am happy to promote FORGE with my guarantee that it is deserving of your confidence and support.
Michelle, John and Jolie, Thanks so much for sharing.
Tony, I loved to hear that your heart skipped a beat. Mine too! The thing is, pursuing the truth when you invest is fun, exciting and at times terrifying. But it is a hell of a lot better than just reactively giving money away to organizations with a sad story.
Thinking about http://tinyurl.com/5oqsgc
Today’s fundraising news is tremendously exciting. Still, as a longtime supporter of FORGE who has worked in both the U.S. and Zambia, I feel compelled to respond to the comment by Casey on Dec. 11 [appended throughout inside brackets]. My admiration and thanks go out to Kjerstin, Michelle, John and Jolie for already doing so with such eloquence.
I had the privilege of first getting to know Kjerstin personally in 2004, when coincidence found us sharing a house in Palo Alto. I learned a great deal about FORGE in its early years, and I watched her come and go with unbelievable energy and determination. My interests at that time lay in Latin America, and my role was nothing more than a curious observer of FORGE until fall 2006. I heard Stephen Lewis, the former UN Special Envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS, speak at Harvard, and was convinced that I wanted to work in Africa for my graduate summer internship. I immediately thought of FORGE because of its incredible track record and the opportunity it would offer me to work with refugees. My experience as a HIV/AIDS Project Facilitator in Meheba Refugee Settlement, Northwestern Province, Zambia, was the most challenging and the most rewarding of my life. Much more important than my personal benefit, however, are two points: 1) the truly staggering accomplishments of FORGE’s short history; and 2) the organization’s admirable flexibility and innovative model.
[I work at a foundation that is not affiliated with FORGE in any way, but I have been following the FORGE story rather closely as I know several of the college students who have worked for FORGE in the past. I don’t like to play the nonprofit gossip game, but the stories I’ve heard from the inside do not match up with the updates I’ve read from Kjersten, and I don’t feel comfortable keeping them to myself. Obviously all organizations are flawed to some extent, but some of FORGE’s actions have been extremely troubling. One former volunteer has frequently voiced her frustration at the way that she and other ground staff were treated by FORGE management. Rather than helping ground staff to work through problems and difficult situations at the camps, FORGE management treated staff concerns as interruptions to their busy schedules, and seemed annoyed when they were told about situations that deviated from FORGE’s vision of its work. I understand that FORGE has a small management staff to do a lot of work, but the operations on the ground are why the organization exists, and the concerns there need to take priority.]
I do not doubt that the “one former volunteer” you mention found her time in Zambia to be among the most difficult, challenging and frustrating experiences of her life. But, aside from matters of safety and health, the personal agendas of FORGE volunteers always have and will continue to come second to the organization’s agenda. This is the most difficult balance I’ve seen FORGE management negotiate over the years, and it (as in any team setting) inevitably results in hurt feelings and disagreements over decisions. But to its credit, FORGE management has always been firm and consistent in its policies and the lengths to which it goes to uphold them at all levels of the organization.
I, too, know more than several of the college students who have worked for FORGE since its inception, and I also know several of the impressive graduate degree holders and early-career professionals who have joined its staff in recent years. Many prospective FORGE staff have told me they are attracted to the organization’s objectives, but also to the compassion and dedication of its management and the (challenging but) positive experience of a field staff position (as described by former field staff).
[FORGE management was, however, very communicative about fundraising, expecting ground staff to raise money while working full time in refugee camps without consistent email or phone access. Staff who did not raise the required level of money were made to feel as though they should not contact management until they had raised more. Again, I realize that FORGE was in dire financial straits, but the fact that they hired a full-time fundraising staff member yet still relied so heavily on the friends and family of volunteers (most of whom had already made significant contributions) is ridiculous.]
Management has been communicative with everyone affiliated with FORGE about fundraising—the ground staff are no exception. Everyone I know is extremely familiar with FORGE and the current situation by now—this viral networking is crucial to the organization’s success. Kjerstin’s recent post (http://www.socialedge.org/blogs/forging-ahead/archive/2008/10/20/how-we-got-into-this-financial-crunch) outlining the reasons why the organization is facing such a difficult financial position should clarify the confluence of factors creating a financial gap. It should be obvious to someone working in a foundation that the variation in donor grant cycles, timelines and funding priorities all pose substantial challenges to achieving fundraising objectives within 12 months after such a massive overhaul to the organizational model. When my team was fundraising in preparation for project implementation in Zambia, we never felt as if there was a threat of being cut off from FORGE management if we fell short. On the contrary, there was a tremendous amount of group discussion about how to direct surplus/emergency funds at the end of our trip, and our first consideration went to funding gaps in fellow team member’s project budgets.
[Despite being so proactive about communication regarding fundraising, FORGE’s field staff learned of the financial crisis after it was already being publicly discussed on several blogs. As a result of FORGE’s financial situation, the staff in the camps were forced to fire more than half of the refugee employees with less than one week’s warning. In doing so, FORGE fell into the classic NGO pattern of going into a region with some money, starting a few programs, building some level of trust and expectation in the community there, and then pulling out abruptly. This is obviously disappointing to refugees who had jobs and salaries, but it’s also extremely disappointing to everyone in the camp who slowly grew to trust FORGE and look forward to working with FORGE on solutions to the camp’s problems.]
Again, having witnessed firsthand the patterns by which FORGE field staff actually leave camp posts and reach (functional) Internet access, there is nothing surprising about short time frames surrounding communication between and among camps/offices. Immediate, unpublicized firings have affected every organization in the world in recent months. FORGE is not alone in this, nor should it be disproportionately criticized for this.
To say that FORGE has fallen into a pattern of “going into a region with some money, starting a few programs, building some level of trust and expectation in the community there, and then pulling out abruptly” is absolutely incorrect. FORGE has not pulled out—in case you have not noticed, it is fighting to the death to avoid having to do just that. FORGE is committed to serving these 3 refugee camps in Zambia until each camp closes and the organization is asked to leave. FORGE has been recognized by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) and invited to consider launching operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While this is financially unlikely in the short term, it is a true testament to the achievements of the entire organization and its potential to effect long-term structural change in Africa.
[I understand that if the money isn’t there, people can’t be paid, but the cuts were made entirely in the camp programming budgets, whereas relatively small cuts to the FORGE operational budget would have been enough to save refugee jobs. Although I think that the public often has unrealistic expectations about what overhead costs can and should be, I am concerned – particularly in light of the discussion about transparency – that FORGE’s self-reported overhead costs are not entirely accurate. For example, one camp’s current programming is operating on less than $1000 total—for the next 3 months. That number is troubling not only because it is so much lower than what field staff had anticipated and planned for, but also because of it’s tiny percentage of FORGE’s total $400,000 annual costs.]
You debate share of overall annual budget without any consideration to exchange rate or purchasing power differences between the U.S. and Zambia. While I have no doubt that the repercussions of the funding constraints have been dramatic in the camps, it is important to remember that every dollar goes a very long way in Zambia. The monthly/periodic costs of project support (beyond project start-up and/or initial implementation costs) in Zambia can often total far less than $US100 per project. (As reference, the average full-time salary for a Zambian national rarely exceeds $US 30-45 per month in the best of cases. Furthermore, FORGE projects often engage staff at half-time or part-time levels) Furthermore, the $400,000 annual cost, to my knowledge, represent planned spending at the beginning of the year; it should be no surprise that actually fundraising and subsequent expenditures will be much lower given the financial crisis.
On a related note, these issues form the very nature of small NGOs around the world. If 20 years’ worth of funding in the bank (or donor commitments) was a prerequisite for launching work, the U.S. government and the Gates Foundation would be the only players in international development. I disagree with anyone who would advocate such a course—the global community can’t afford such inaction.
[All of this brings me to an important question: why is FORGE based in Oakland? The costs of running an organization are much higher in Oakland, and travel costs to and from Zambia are also significant. FORGE currently pays 3 American salaries (making up close to 25% of their entire budget), and purchases at least 10 round trip plane tickets per year, at about $2000 each. Moreover, locating the organization’s management 10,000 miles away from the work that is being managed is a recipe for confusion, miscommunication, and ineffectiveness.]
To put it as briefly as I am able, there are few champions of refugee empowerment in Zambia, and Zambian nationals frequently discriminate against refugees. Without the connection to the United States, there would not be sufficient motivation, action, financial resources, or utilization of web 2.0 tools for outreach in order to deliver such high-quality programming in these settings. Neither the major/prominent international humanitarian agencies (concerned only with response to acute stages of the emergency cycle) nor Zambian social service providers have the interest or the capacity to serve these 3 protracted refugee settings the way FORGE does. The costs of opening a FORGE office anywhere other than the hometown of its founder have simply been prohibitive to date (let alone the costs of trying to relocate U.S. staff to another city or to Zambia). Finally, it is worth mentioning once more that the permanent staff position for Zambian camp coordination is based in Lusaka, Zambia, not Oakland.
[Quite frankly, there’s a lot more to say, but this is already a significant post. Sean, although I do think that FORGE’s mission and vision are great and its ideas about working with refugee camps in Africa are potentially very exciting (pathfinders etc.), the way that the organization has been run is appalling. Yes, they are young and have made mistakes, but I think that they have not been as forthcoming about the operational (as opposed to fundraising) problems as I’d like them to be, and there’s only so much slack I’m willing to cut them. In addition, I am uncomfortable with rewarding the hubris of college students who start organizations without thinking through the implications of doing so or what it takes to be effective. Some mistakes are unavoidable and understandable, but I think we also need to be thinking about the real impact that those mistakes have on the refugees that FORGE is trying to help, not just about Kjersten’s future as a social entrepreneur.]
We see how easy it is to criticize the work of others from the outside. You fault a staff with no formal management experience for making management mistakes, and you speak against the spirit of innovation and activism that is fundamental to social entrepreneurs, my fellow Stanford alumni, and the Bay Area as a whole. The implications of starting FORGE have been libraries, preschools, agricultural support, small loans, health care, computer education and many other opportunities and services for populations that no other organizations currently serve. Your (apparently) negative classification of FORGE as an organization started without a pause for thought to the implications of doing so completely and caustically disregards the dire African social needs that Kjerstin initially sought to meet and that FORGE continues to meet. The model works, and it continues to improve. Let me assure you that NO other organization in Zambia makes the effort or is able to operate effectively in these remote, isolated, challenging settings. These challenges are inherent to nonprofits and international development agencies, and it is obvious (albeit sad) that no model for international development works perfectly yet. I am so proud of the way FORGE continues to deliver unfathomable benefit to refugee communities while simultaneously inviting CONSTRUCTIVE input on these issues.
My lifelong personal, academic and professional passion is international development, and of the 3 international service organizations with which I have worked in the last 6 years, FORGE is hands down the best. I say this not only because of its high-quality response to a serious social/political challenge, but also because of its dynamic commitment to self-improvement as an entity. I will be the first to agree that honest criticism can be the most sincere form of loyalty, and that there is much room for FORGE to grow. But my myriad experiences, discussions and even disagreements with FORGE management have instilled in me a tremendous amount of respect for the vision and utterly selfless integrity of its leadership. I think it is well worth all of our time and effort to remain focused on what is the paramount issue here: the 60,000+ African refugees FORGE serves with grace, dedication, and a collaborative approach unprecedented among other UNHCR partners.
Harvard School of Public Health ‘08
aids 2031 Cost and Financing Project, Results for Development Institute