Scarcity & the Social Sector


What do we do when we don’t have enough? When we can’t pay a bill or we constantly run out of time? We drop things — we go into debt or we do a rush job on a report. Or, in the words of Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir: we tunnel, we borrow and we fail to plan. A lack of resources adds up to scarcity, which has implications greater than a simple sum of its parts. When these two social scientists describe the challenges of scarcity for individuals they could just as easily be talking about today’s charities. If we want to improve the quality and the pace of the social sector, maybe it’s time to think about giving them more slack.

Mullainathan and Shafir call slack the extra mental bandwidth you have when you’re not experiencing scarcity. They use the example of packing for a long vacation. If you have a big suitcase, you have slack. You can bring things you might not use, you can toss things in without rolling them up tightly, and you bring that carefree mindset with you to the beach. If you have a very small suitcase, you have to spend a lot of effort figuring out exactly what to take. You’ll plan in advance, maybe purchase new things, and you might spend time on the plane and during your trip wishing you had packed better or brought that other pair of shoes. This is how scarcity begets scarcity; the lack of money isn’t just a financial tax, it’s a tax on your mental capacity.

Nonprofits spend a lot of their mental bandwidth fundraising and reporting to their members and funders. Donors are right to expect transparency for their donations but they’re not always willing to pay for the cost of all that transparency. It takes staff and internet access and rent to track progress and write up reports, which are costs often lumped together as ‘overhead.’ Foundations and charity rating sites have often evaluated organizations by how much they spend on overhead as opposed to what they spend protecting forests or serving meals. Most foundations limit the percent of any grant that can be spent on overhead. The implication is that restricting your charitable dollars for food or medicine or research is more valuable, or more virtuous, than investing in a nonprofit’s management infrastructure.

The problem is that this gives nonprofits no slack to work with. When all your funds are tightly tied to specific deliverables, you’re scrambling to cover the coffee for your volunteer clean-up. Setting aside time for staff training or researching new ideas can seem wildly out of reach. When I was a foundation program officer, I once had a finance advisor recommend against a grant because the grantee regularly used a standing line of credit. She thought it was a sign of weakness. I thought it was pretty impressive that the bank had that much faith in the nonprofit and besides, grants and donations didn’t arrive on regular schedules. The line of credit let them make payroll between grants, which meant they had staff around to actually write the grant proposals and do the program work. It gave them the slack to spend more time thinking about changing the world and less time worrying about layoffs. We made the grant anyways.

Getting out of a scarcity trap takes more than a simple, one-time intervention; you need to step back and see the cumulative stresses on the system. If you’re a funder worried about accountability, ask for breakouts of where unrestricted funds go but don’t limit up front. You could give money to infrastructure like staff training, R&D, and grant development. Or you could take an experimental tip from Mullainathan and Shafir and try and understand where the scarcity bottlenecks occur and target those. Create a ‘scarcity fund’ and track when the organization draws against it. You could find it’s not truly lack of money but a need to change the timing of when grants arrive, something you could improve by collaborating with other foundations.

Scarcity isn’t always bad. Scarcity can focus the mind, like a deadline, and too much slack can make people wasteful. But we’re far from that end of the spectrum in the social sector today. As we look more and more into taking business practices into the independent sector, we should consider importing some of their approaches to slack, like a Google 20 percent time for nonprofits. Finding and retaining good talent and designing and iterating social solutions takes investors and funders who understand the need for flexible funds. Focusing on impact might mean untying the hands of your grantees.

Next Story — Invisible Sea
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Invisible Sea

When I walk around Oakland, I see the ocean. Not because I’m on a hill, or peering through cranes at the port, but because once you know where to look, the ocean is everywhere. When I watch clouds blow across the sky, I’m watching wind powered by ocean temperatures and currents. Stacks of folded jeans or the bags of beans at my corner market conjure up images of shipping containers stacked end to end on Panamax ships, slowly plowing through the high seas. The oxygen I’m sucking in on my run was once carried around the ocean in the grip of cold, cold water molecules.

I first jumped into marine biology in high school and even as I drifted into other fields, I brought that sea view with me. It’s as if I were a radiologist and I couldn’t stop picturing the bones inside the kid sitting next to me on the train, or a web designer with View Source on all the time. The sea is the steel behind the building façade, the miniature watch gears beneath the face, the details you take for granted so that you can get on with your task list. Infrastructure — built or grown — succeeds when it moves so smoothly that it’s invisible, and by succeeding in that way, it helps you forget it exists. The ocean’s imperturbable surface gives the appearance of a miraculous, perpetual motion machine that needs no maintenance from us.

The downside of invisibility is being ignored.

The ocean does need maintenance. For millennia, we’ve expected it to feed us, take us from one place to another, and keep our weather running along smoothly while we dumped trash and carbon dioxide into it and spent our time with our cooler friend, the moon. I mean, we just discovered glow-in-the-dark sea turtles in July. Almost half of the world’s population lives within 75 miles of the coast now, and rising sea levels are bringing the oceans closer to the other half. It’s time to get to know your neighbor.

To do that, we need give the oceans a little more attention and raise our expectations. Twenty years ago we didn’t expect glass to respond to our touch or that we could track our packages from the warehouse to our door. Now we take these things for granted. Many of our ocean information systems are stuck in the 1980s, or even the 1780s. We hand enter millions of paper receipts so that six months later we know how many fish were caught. We call recreational fishermen on the phone and ask them what they caught last month. We may adopt high-tech tools on one end, like identifying pirate fishing ships with satellites, but the data still flow into outdated systems with limited public accessibility. It should be easier to see if countries are cheating on their fishing reports, what the pH of the ocean is, or how your shrimp were farmed. The lack of ocean transparency helps high seas criminals and unscrupulous dealers who want to pass off one fish as another, and it hurts the scientists, fishermen, and managers who are playing by the rules and planning for an ocean that can sustain us through the next millennium.


You don’t have to make the sea your full time job to help open up the oceans (although if you want to, you’d be in good company and the benefits are pretty great). Whatever you’re doing now, chances are the oceans could use a little bit of your expertise. The oceans deserve good design and user interfaces. They need SQL and R and machine vision. They need data mining to reveal the dynamics at the heart of the ocean’s food system. They need citizen scientists, entering what they find on beach walks and explorations with their $900 underwater robots. Right now, the winners of the U.S. State Department’s 2015 fishackathon are at Chile’s global ocean summit presenting their app to help stop illegal fishing. Which they built as a hobby project. If you’re wondering what to do with your life, you could do much worse than pivoting to ocean ideas and spending time at fisherpoet festivals.

I imagine a world where the ocean is visible to everyone. Where your smartwatch can tell you the tides and the surf and what you took out of the sea that day — oxygen, fish tacos, imported printer paper. Where the back end of your search engine is also compiling and training ocean algorithms. Where your recaptcha is a sea creature you have to name. Where you can see your connection to the common sea, and, if you choose, dive in. It’s time to open up the ocean’s data for the ocean’s sake and for ours.

Next Story — Why we’re not shipping Boston’s snow to California
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Why we’re not shipping Boston’s snow to California

Boston’s trapped under record snow, so much that they’re considering dumping it in Boston Harbor. The West is facing another year of drought, with “megadroughts” predicted before the end of the century. When will the economics be right for that snow shipping start-up? Short answer: not for a while.

Based on this estimate, Boston is paying $11.43 to melt a ton of snow. What if they put it in a shipping container instead? You can fit 2,385 cubic feet of snow in a standard 40-foot shipping container, or about 35 tons, saving the city of Boston $408.86 in snow-melting costs. That shipping container now holds about 17,887 gallons of water, or 1/10 of what an average family of four uses in a year. 17,887 gallons will bring you $116.29 at current LA rates.

So, you could conceivably get Boston to pay you to take the snow and sell it to LA to make $525, except for that shipping & handling. And that’s gonna cost you. You could go cheap and ship it via the Panama Canal for $2,071, or you could put it on a train for $2,595. Trucking it is even pricier. None of these estimates include the costs of shoveling that snow into the container in the first place. Or the carbon costs of that shipping, which you might want to add, considering the links between climate change and extreme weather.

I might be underestimating the citizens of Boston and their determination to dig out. They might be willing to pay $1,700 to send their snow to a needy California family. Or maybe a cross-country water pipeline is looking like a bargain investment for future storms and droughts.

Duxbury, Massachusetts Feb 15, 2015 via @Daniel_Miller8
Next Story — Should scientists be on Twitter?
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What are scientists doing on Twitter?


Last week there was an awkward date between Science Magazine and Twitter. A fairly thoughtful piece about how scientists can, should and do use Twitter was wrapped around a list of the “Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter.” The internet was not amused:

Science, you can do better than this. As can the big scientific community that is already actively using social media. Let’s break this down and get to some learnings, starting with the criteria for “Top Scientists”.

Twitter follower numbers are not a great metric for anything but number of Twitter followers. Five percent of Twitter accounts are fake and eight percent are autoretweeting robots. That’s 30 million followers that aren’t actually listening. Generally, the more you tweet, the more robots you’ll get following you. So, without analyzing the individual follower lists of each of each scientist, you can’t be sure that, say, P.Z. Myers actually reaches more humans than Steven Pinker. Science points out that follower number is a ‘very crude proxy of influence’ but that they chose this as a criteria because it was the ‘most accessible’. And yet somehow not accessible enough to catch many female scientists, including Dr. Sylvia Earle, whose 34,600 followers would have placed her 20th.

Science – you are one of the top science journals in the world. You do not get a pass on your methods. Especially when you lead your story with the summer’s new metric: The Kardashian Index.

Geneticist Neil Hall was perturbed that scientists seemed to be ‘famous for being famous’ while not contributing to science in the true coin of the realm – academic publications. He created a formula comparing scientific citations against Twitter followers and dubbed it the “K-Index.” I give Dr. Hall credit for coming up with a metric to get at what he saw as a problem: the overexposure of scientists who don’t publish enough. Even in its current rough and cheeky form, the K-Index still provides slightly more information than Science’s choice of straight Twitter followers. If Science did its rankings by K-Index, Neil Tyson drops to the bottom, Daniel Gilbert rockets into third place and two women – Karen James & Amy Mainzer – move into the top 20. Dr. Hall suggests that anyone with a K-Index over five should stop Tweeting and get back to publishing. Everyone on Science Magazine’s list has at least an eight, so they won’t get invited to any of Dr. Hall’s panels.


That gives us two definitions of “Top” — the most followers and the K-Index. Neither of which tell you much about influence. Is a scientist who gets the most retweets more influential than one who cultivates a network of scientists across disciplines? How would you evaluate scientists who use Twitter for conversations, so their high tweet count is more replies than broadcasts? If only there were data scientists and social media companies thinking about this very issue. Oh wait, it’s 2014.

I took the totally free step of checking the 9/21/2014 Tweetreach of Science’s top scientist, Neil Tyson, along with Sylvia Earle, and popular science blogger Dr. Bethany Brookshire. Both Sylvia & Bethany crushed Neil. You would expect Science, a nonprofit media organization, would have some social media protocols and metrics that they use to track their own blogs and excellent writers. Perhaps they could have used those to rank scientists and compared that to the K-Index.


wiredforlego’s Flickr collection https://flic.kr/p/iJbvPz

For all the flaws in Science’s approach, they’ve opened up a conversation about what should be measured and how. Dr. Hall initially thought his K-Index would highlight the contributions of women scientists like Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace, who did not get much public attention in their day. You could tweak the K-Index to include other social media, adjust for time in the field (and Twitter start date) and other factors if your goal was to identify scientists who accomplish great things without notoriety. But is that the greatest goal for scientists? Or for the universities and foundations who support them?

If we want scientists to innovate, collaborate,
or work on topics that impact society,
we should reward them
when they use the internet to do so.

There are scientists who use social media very deliberately. They have a strategy, as any good organization or business does. They’re crowdfunding research or recruiting volunteers. They’re having public conversations about their work with colleagues and potential graduate students. They’re actively building networks to discover new research partners. They use Twitter and other social media platforms as “an informal arena for the pre-review of works in progress.” These scientists should be evaluated by their success in hitting their strategic goals, not by follower numbers. I’m not saying every scientist needs to be on Twitter or Instagram or whatever the latest platform is but it wouldn’t hurt scientists to understand social media better — including how their peers & funders will evaluate their performance — so they can make an informed decision to opt out.

A few months ago, I was at dinner with a very social media savvy biologist who’d just finished reviewing grants for the National Science Foundation. NSF asks scientists to explain how a project will have ‘broader impact.’ He said the vast majority of proposals filled in that section by saying “I’ll put the results on the internet” and then, magically, impact will happen. I know other colleagues who’ve put social media metrics into their tenure packages, which are then reviewed by senior members of their department who have little or no experience with social media. Or view it with some of the same skepticism as Dr. Hall. The latest generation of scientists grew up with social media woven into their lives. If the scientific community adopts an index that penalizes scientists for their online presence we run the risk of discriminating against an entire cohort of new researchers.

Until scientists across disciplines get to better agreement on social media metrics – what to measure and why – good science won’t get out to the audience it deserves and scientists won’t be applauded for using social media wisely and well. Which is a waste.


Title photo by Karyn Traphagen from 2013 ScienceOnline Oceans,
where the Twitter traffic shuts the servers down.

Next Story — Real Rewards
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Real Rewards

Does success mean what you think it means?


Delta Airlines’ recent announcement that they would be changing their frequent flyer program brought a wave of angry customer tweets. While the old system rewarded passengers for miles flown the new program is pretty much pay to play — the more you spend the more you get to fly free. Some prior loyal flyers are dumping Delta, vowing only to fly them as a last resort. Business wonks are celebrating this as a smart move, one that truly rewards the “best” customers. That’s true if you define “best” as “spending the most money” but it’s clear there are a lot of frustrated fliers out there who took Delta at their word when they said it was about loyalty and frequency. I sat in an airport lounge watching this news play out and the disappointment and anger sounded so familiar. You think you and your partners have the same definition of success and it turns out you just used the same words to mean very different things.

I work in the social economy, where we spend a good deal of time talking about tracking impact and measuring what matters most. When you’re a public company, it’s obvious that you measure success by your profits. You don’t need to hold meetings with your shareholders to explain why you’re tracking your revenue. You’ve got one solid indicator of success everyone understands.

That’s rarely the case in the social economy. When your goals are housing veterans or restoring beaches quarterly profit targets don’t make much sense as metrics. Even if you have profits to show, that’s not enough information to know if you’re really having an impact. That means it’s up to you — your group, your field, your funders, and your clients — to define success and figure out metrics that do make sense. And getting everyone on the same page is a key part that’s too often left out. One group defines success as more college engineering graduates, while another measures new tech start-ups and another tracks elementary science education. A foundation or a donor wants to build the U.S. tech economy over the next five years. Are they all working towards the same goal? How can they see if their individual efforts will add up? You need a shared vision of the system, of how it works and how to make change. You need a nested set of indicators to track progress within a year and over multiple years. You don’t all need to waste time and money measuring things that don’t matter, just because they’re easily measured.

Taking your temperature every day won’t tell you your risk for getting diabetes and tracking the Dow Jones Index won’t give you a full picture of the U.S. Economy.

When you and your partners share an understanding of what you want to change and what success looks like, it’s easier to identify your metrics and trace a throughline from what you see today to what you want to see in the future. Right now the social sector is hungry for data and there’s a risk of making a Delta-like mistake, where one group thinks “best” means more forests and another thinks it’s less CO2. They may both be right, but they’ll be talking past each other. And then everyone is frustrated.

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