Monday, June 29, 2009

This weekend's article

I am saddened and discouraged to learn that David Baines is attacking me yet again, this time using GiveMeaning Foundation's 2008 annual report as the basis for his attack. This blog was once a place I used to share my thoughts about the emerging field of online micro-philanthropy. I shared my thoughts, ideas and enthusiasm with readers but early last year, in fact, on the day of my 29th birthday, a columnist from the Vancouver Sun, David Baines, began writing what became a series of articles questioning my character and the integrity of GiveMeaning Foundation.

Baines and my anonymous internet blogging commenting detractors have spent the last year doing their absolute best to smear me, attack my character and question my integrity.

And no doubt, within some circles, they have succeeded.

As far as I can tell, what provoked this vitriol is at least in part my promoting GiveMeaning in the media by talking about myself as a "former whiz kid" and that I attracted so much positive media coverage including in Baines' own Vancouver Sun that, Baines & Co thought I needed to be taken-down several notches.

If you troll through my past, you will find many stories that one can use of someone who was arrogant, selfish, dishonest and more or less lost. That said, I'm sure if most people's lives are subjected to Baines level of scrutiny, those same things can be found of most people in their late teens and twenties, to lesser or greater extents.

I've always said that the media tells stories in binary forms. Either they build you up, and exaggerate your own story to the positive or they tear you down, again exaggerating the negative. When someone enters the public eye, they make a contract to accept the good with the bad.

When I started GiveMeaning, I started it because I wanted to be known for something other than being hired by Apple when I was 15 years-old. And yes, in GiveMeaning's first few years, when I was articulating a novel concept for the charitable sector, I used the "whiz kid" story to attract national press coverage to grow GiveMeaning's awareness. And I don't in any way regret that.

The last time, Baines wrote about GiveMeaning, he took issue with $645,000 of donations that came in through the foundation and were distributed to charities that did not have projects listed on the website. He asked the readers to subtract that donation, and suggested that the "real" amount GiveMeaning should have reported last year was $746,118.

Baines has always portrayed our numbers in the most skewed and negative light possible. This time around, he adds back in the $645,000 he asked readers to discount in the last article so that he can claim that our donations were down 63% year-over-year. Regardless of how he presents our numbers, the actual amount raised through the website is down slightly year-over-year to $728,165. Some of that is Baines' own self-fulfilling prophesy here. His continued negative coverage exacerbated with anonymous bloggers who seek any site that mentions GiveMeaning to post Baines articles and nasty comments about me has no doubt had a negative effect. But in what has become the toughest economic climate in the last few decades, and with his flurry of negative articles, our web donations were down only slightly.

But let's remember what GiveMeaning is: A site that facilitates micro-philanthropy. Most people donate $10, $20 at a time to the projects on our website. The whole point of the website is to pool small contributions together to achieve small but meaningful projects all around the World. And $728,165 in small contributions for projects all around the World is a huge achievement in micro-philanthropy,

Since last fall, I have stopped taking any form of compensation from GiveMeaning yet still serve as GiveMeaning's CEO as a volunteer. No expenses are reimbursed by the Foundation, nothing. Baines knows that my wife has long stopped being paid for her work at GiveMeaning, but continues to mention it.

At the end of his most recent article, he says that I still tell the "whiz-kid" story and that it's tiring and tired. I haven't done a single media interview since he began writing about me. In fact, I spent most of the last year trying to get over the hurt and pain of it all, and the last thing I've wanted is to attract more media attention, knowing that it's the positive profile that is - at least, in part - what makes Baines want to target me. When asked, I still give talks free to students about the importance of pursuing one's passions, but any reference to my past is rooted in that I started GiveMeaning not in a place of riches and wild success but rather pursuing a path that wasn't working.

But more than that, Baines & Co have achieved something that in some perverse way, I am grateful for. They have helped strip me of a layer or layers of skin that I have had since the whiz-kid story was first written about more than a decade ago. I no longer have interest in being a public person. That part of my life is over and done with. I have been humbled not by the actual vitriol of my attackers but my the process of struggling hard to keep running an organization that I care so much about, and have spent the last four years working hard at.

Baines concludes by indicating that he thinks GiveMeaning is an enterprise on the wane. He's right in some respects. My enthusiasm and energy to continue with GiveMeaning have been significantly deflated but I continue to invest my energy and resources in it, because of the positive impact it continues to have. Whether the sum total of our donation revenues grows or declines is less important to me than knowing that GiveMeaning continues to play a valuable role in achieving small but necessary impacts on communities here at home and around the World.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Update from the Online Giving Markets

This is my second year attending the Online Giving Markets forum, a gathering of leading giving sites from around the World. Officially, the conference ends today (just before tonight’s Presidential debate) but there is a conference hosted by Stanford tomorrow that many of us will be taking part in.

In conference calls leading-up to this gathering, a number of participants from last year (which includes representatives from GiveMeaning GiveIndia, DonorsChoose and GlobalGiving) had been trying to achieve a “Quick Win” from this gathering that would create the potential for collaboration amongst our platforms. What we had been trying to do was determine a way in which for us to share our project data with each other’s platforms as a first-step to potential collaboration.

On a separate track but also involving discussions with technical representatives from a number of our marketplaces, Peter Deitz and his colleagues at SocialActions had been facilitating discussions on defining a philanthropy microformat.

A microformat is most simply described as a structured way of describing common data so that our data is easier to read by search-engines and 3rd party applications like SocialActions that want to make use of our data.

Throughout the conference calls and our break-out session yesterday on this issue, a concern that was expressed a lot was whether a compelling business win needed to be in place as an incentive for our individual marketplaces to do the work required to implement a microformat (or other semantic description schema) and thanks to Pawan Mehra of GiveIndia, we were able to agree upon a tangible goal that would drive usage of the philanthropy microformat.

Once a sufficient number of our marketplaces implement the microformat (which – from a technical perspective – shouldn’t be too cumbersome), we will submit the microformat to one of the two major search engines and engage in evangelism with the search engine folks to ask them to pilot including our collective microphilanthropy offers in their general search during December (the month of the year where most giving occurs).

This would increase the overall traffic to all of the participating marketplaces and – assuming we can get buy-in from one or both major search engines – provide the necessary incentive likely required for significant buy-in amongst our marketplaces.

More later. The conference is resuming after our lunch-break

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, August 15, 2008

GiveMeaning Voting System

When someone wants to start fundraising at, the first step is to submit a proposal at the site, outlining a specific goal that they want to accomplish.

It's then up to the person who submitted the proposal to gather 100 votes in support of the proposal. This system of collecting the votes is meant for two reasons:

First, it puts the onus on the person to recruit a sufficient mass of support within their social network because if the person submitting the proposal can't collect 100 votes, they are not likely going to be able to recruit sufficient donors to fund their proposal. Second, it helps eliminate proposals with vague or questionable objectives.

A number of proposals at GiveMeaning are for micro-philanthropy initiatives in Africa. Up until recently, most all of these proposals have come from people in North America who have returned home from travels with a promise to fundraise for a project that benefits a community they recently returned from. But we're now seeing a significant increase in proposals submitted directly from African NGO's.

Based on the content of their proposals, many of these organizations seem to think that by posting a proposal, they are submitting a grant proposal to be considered for funding.

Given that our site is fundraiser-centric (meaning that it's up to the person who submitted the proposal to gather funds within their social network to fund the initiative they are supporting), I think it unlikely that most rural African NGO's are going to succeed with micro-philanthropy campaigns but it's got me to thinking.

My question is this: Is there something that can be done to better leverage the proposals being submitted directly by African NGO's? Could we create a new system which focuses first on a more crowd-sourced approach to approving proposals?

For example, a more elaborate discussion system on each proposal could see greater clarification/detail emerge for each proposal. Instead of each vote being equal, people who have volunteered or traveled in the region could "vouch" for the local NGO, thus increasing its credibility to potential donors. A pledge-based system where funds are released only after a critical threshold has been raised could ensure that no project goes underfunded.

It's a real shame to see so many great proposals go unserved by our current process and I'm not sure that what I'm describing above is something we could do but if someone isn't doing this already, I think someone should be looking into this.

What are your thoughts?

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What is it with me and Texan Congressmen?

A couple of months ago, I saw a movie that became an instant favorite of mine: Charlie Wilson's War. Charles Wilson was Congressman for the 2nd Congressional District of Texas. If you haven't seen the movie, check it out.

Today, I checked out, a Hollywood gossip website that is one of my guilty pleasures. Under the title Who Knew Congressman Were Cool? there was a small post about US Congressman John Culberson, who represents the 7th Congressional district who TMZ mentioned Twitters from the House floor.

So I followed him on Twitter and got a follow back immediately. I went to his website and noticed that he was about to hold a live town-hall webcast.

Congressman Culberson was the first to tweet from the House floor (even though Blackberry's are frowned upon on the floor) and tonight made history with the first ever live town hall web cast by a US Congressman.

I was interacting with him through Twitter and his UStream chat just before they started recording on UStream and it was great to see him using Summize, USTream, Twitter, and some kind of group phone-bank conference app. Talk about convergence.

Here is the embedded link to the town hall which at the time of this post is still going on:

Congressman Culberson was in his office alone and what was remarkable was that not only was he using these tools but he was totally open (i.e. not screening comments and phoners) and connected to his Constituents.

Congressman Culberson reminds me of Charlie in that he is very confident in his positions, a great orator, and quick on his feet.

It's now 930pm and the Congressman is still holding court with his constituents and has a following on his UStream of slightly more than 100 people. He is a pioneer in "Government 2.0" and a great example of what constituent communications using Web 2.0 looks like.

My prediction is that Congressman Culberson will develop a cult following (I predict an appearance on Colbert or Stewart within weeks). He is authentic, connected and accountable to his constituents and the feedback from his constituents on the town hall was overwhelmingly positive.

Elected officials everywhere, take note.

Labels: , , , ,

Letter To The Editor

I submitted this Letter to the Editor last week in response to an article written by David Baines in the Vancouver Sun. I wanted to give the Sun sufficient time to run the letter prior to publishing this response on my blog.

I am writing in response to David Baines' column published Saturday, June 14th.

In it, Mr. Baines makes statements that are irresponsible, misleading and frankly, mistruths. First, I am asking for a retraction for the completely false and defamatory statement that "a lot of the money raised by GiveMeaning ends in [my] pocket." This statement is completely without merit. Second, there is ample media coverage of my reasons for starting GiveMeaning, and I in fact have said many times
that I was in search of something meaningful to do with my life and career. To suggest that "I have stumbled from one business and personal failure to another" is false and derogatory.

As GiveMeaning Foundation's CEO, it is my responsibility to point out that after Mr. Baines finishes with his attempts at character assassination, he then turns his attention to GiveMeaning Foundation's most recently filed financial statements with the Canada Revenue Agency. He starts by acknowledging that revenue nearly doubled from
our 2006 financial year, and that 73% of all revenue collected by the GiveMeaning Foundation in this most recent fiscal year was distributed to other charities. It should also be noted that this percentage is of all the revenue collected by the Foundation, including donations made to our Foundation for distribution to other charities, and gifts made to our Foundation specifically to cover our own costs of
providing the free service of a charity conduit. Mr. Baines also notes that as a percentage of overall donations, our administrative costs, which are covered by separate donations, have decreased from 2006.

Mr. Baines himself acknowledges that this recent annual report as filed with CRA is a significant improvement over our first full year of operations. However based on the slant of his editorials on me and GiveMeaning, it would be impossible for his editorial to end there, so he ridiculously asks your readers to subtract $645,000 of donations that GiveMeaning Foundation gave to registered charities, from our
annual report. He asks this in order to justify finishing with the statement, "This is a pretty ugly picture." The only ugly picture is the one drawn specifically from Mr. Baines' attempts at re-writing our annual report.

To be clear, in addition to processing gifts made directly via the website to specific projects, GiveMeaning also accepts donations made into donor advised funds. The purpose of a donor advised fund is to provide an individual donor benefits similar to those experienced by people with personal foundations. Having a donor advised fund at
GiveMeaning eliminates set-up costs and administrative obligations incurred by those with private foundations. Donor advised funds are not a new concept. This service is offered by leading financial institutions such as TD Bank and Scotiabank. Tides and Vancouver Foundation also offer donors the same service.

It should now be clear to readers that Mr. Baines has not made any attempt to analyze GiveMeaning from any fair or balanced perspective and that he is using his column to attempt to attack our credibility.

We are incredibly proud of how much progress has been made in creating and launching from scratch, a new, more efficient model for charitable giving. It's unfortunate that Mr. Baines continues to attempt to discredit GiveMeaning, a service which has helped hundreds of charities across Canada achieve their goals without charging any costs to them or their donors.


Tom Williams,
CEO, GiveMeaning Foundation

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Obama Donor Fatigue?

Most everyone knows that I am a card-carrying Obamite. Many of my friends also know of my mild depression after HRC's wins in Ohio and Texas.

As an Obamite, I've signed up at and receive regular email appeals signed by either David Plouffe or Barack Obama. Most of the emails are genuine communiques but inevitably include an appeal to "donate right now" typically asking for $25 dollars.

The success of Obama's online fundraising has been widely reported with particular emphasis Obama harnessing the "Power of Plenty" by receiving many small donations from a mass of individual donors.

After Ohio and Texas, I know I'm already fighting "Campaign Fatigue" but I wonder to what extent "Donor Fatigue" is starting to set-in.

A successful online fundraising campaign needs multiple appeals with different messaging which the Obama campaign has done well but I suspect that we'll see a dip (and perhaps a noticeable decline) in Obama's online fundraising due to a potent combination of Campaign and Donor Fatigue.

As a means by which to counteract both fatigues, I would advise the Obama campaign to send out several emails with links to their favorite YouTube clips, websites and articles with no mention of an appeal. Have some candid YouTube clips of Obama like the dinner-party clips from a while back. Adjust the momentum of their outbound emails and start rallying the troops before April 22nd.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Animals versus Humans

One of the most memorable nights I had last November in Africa was visiting with a couple that drilled bore holes (to provide clean drinking water) in Uganda. At the time of my visit, they were packing up to move operations to Sudan.

The couple was originally from South Africa and were very gracious hosts to me and my traveling companions. At their house, they were caring for a litter of newborn puppies, one of whom is featured below.

I remember my hosts complaining that NGO workers and other temporary workers in Northern Uganda who adopted stray animals should have the "decency to kill the dogs when they leave." I understood (though didn't totally agree with) the point she was making: That it's "far worse" to give stray dogs a home and a stable food supply only to then abandon that dog months later and force it to return to a life of disease, starvation and suffering.

Then, on January 1st, I was reading an article published in the Globe & Mail by Lisan Jutras (no longer available free online) which spoke about the problem of stray animals in vacation "hot spots" like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Mexico.

As someone whose heart is split evenly between a passion for international development and animals of all kinds, I often feel a tug-of-war between my passion for animals and my passion for people. How (I often think) could I possibly invest resources in a few stray dogs when people in that same community are starving?

I wonder how other people who have almost equal compassion for animals as they do humans resolve or manage this tension?

here is a story about a rescue dog being flown from Iraq to the USA.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 11, 2008

Obama and online fundraising

According to Barack Obama's official website, more than 280,000 people have created accounts on

From those online accounts, 6,500 grassroots volunteer groups have been created and more than 13,000 off-line events have been organized through the site.

Over 370,000 individual online donations have been made, more than half of which are less than $25 donations .

And most interesting to me, personal fundraising pages (individual fundraising pages where you proactively recruit your social network to donate through your personal fundraising page) have raised over $1.5m.

Obama's campaign really emphasizes the "Power of Plenty" and demonstrates the power of grassroots fund-raising.

My critique of the website is that the functionality of the fundraising page is that it provides no opportunity for me to link my blog (the site offers simple hosted-blog functionality) with my fundraising page, which seems to be a big missed opportunity.

Also, there is probably a ton of great social media buried deep within the site but no
way to easily search or browse other great stories of people joining the Hope Revolution.

Labels: , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]