How can I help?

What’s the best simple action you can take to address a particular social problem?

I wish there was somewhere that reviewed attempts to solve social problems, everything from activist campaigns to government programs. You’d go to this site, look up “homelessness” or “education” or “Asian tsunami” or “criminal justice reform” and get a recommendation for the most effective thing you could do right now, and if possible a button to do it or at least sign up to do itThe actions would be intentionally lightweight, like donating $10 or ten minutes of your time or pledging to vote a certain way. Think of a sort of Consumer Reports for social campaigns.

I’ve been calling this hypothetical civic information/action organization “How Can I Help?” because that’s the question it seeks to answer.

This is an ambitious idea, but there are working models to draw from. GiveWell is an organization whose sole purpose is to rate charities. They answer the question, “where should I give my small donation to do the maximum amount of good?” Of course this depends on what “good” means, but GiveWell has been careful in choosing and communicating their values. In fact the organization is a model of thoughtful and transparent research, with one of my very favorite blogs and a top-level “mistakes” section.

I want to expand on this idea. GiveWell makes only two or three recommendations, typically in the area of global health. But there’s also a good argument for taking care of the people and places where we live. What we should care about is a complicated question, and has no objective answer. But if you’re willing to say that something specific should change, then you can start to ask seriously how to get there.

How Can I Help wouldn’t need to dream up new solutions. Lots of organizations are already working on all sorts of problems, bringing forth a flood of reports and campaigns and proposals. But you and I don’t necessarily know about all of the proposals and attempts and actors around any particular issue. The difficult problem from the user’s point of view is not finding information about possible solutions, but selecting between them in an intelligent way. This follows a now-standard online media pattern: the aggregator. It’s the same logic that drives Yelp, Google News, and Rotten Tomatoes.

So: Imagine a site that continually reviewed the huge range of proposals from the huge range of actors who might seek to address any particular social ill, and maintained a few top recommendations for each cause.


Lightweight civic action

I think it’s important that the recommended actions be very lightweight.  I’m inspired in this by two recent posts on civic engagement. Anthea Watson Strong focuses on the personal costs and benefits of any kind of political action. She argues that if we want a lot of people to be involved, we either have to make it very cheap and easy for them to engage or else give them some expectation of a big payoff. Ethan Zuckerman divides civic action along two axes: thin to thick, and symbolic to impactful. In that language, what I’m proposing is in the thin and impactful quadrant.

I’m focussing on “thin” or low cost actions because I feel the opportunities for “thick” engagement are well covered. The whole Internet is just dying to give you information on whatever concerns you, and significant causes often have dozens of organizations who would love you to get involved. And I’ve focussed on “impactful” because, again, the Internet is already really good at symbolic or expressive campaigns like turning your avatar green or sharing a video. Expressing oneself is important, and has consequences — it’s how we learn that we are not alone, and it can focus public attention or create new language (Occupy Wall Street “did” nothing, but now we all know what “the 1%” means.) But if you’re after more concrete results, it’s not enough that your time and money go to a good cause; we need resources flowing to efficient and effective causes. This is especially important if you believe that most efforts to help are ineffective, as I do.

Figuring out where an individual could actually do some good with a small donation of time or money is not easy. It requires asking questions about the effectiveness of many different possible solutions, of course, but you also have to ask who is already working in that space, what they’re doing, and what the bottlenecks are. Raising money won’t help if lack of money isn’t the thing holding back progress.

So the question that this hypothetical organization must answer is “What can anyone do right now that is both easy and plausibly effective?” This is not an easy thing to answer, nor is there a guaranteed solution: for any particular issue there may be no clear way for an individual to contribute without getting deeply involved, and that’s a valuable answer too. And merely knowing the answer isn’t enough: the organization must communicate it, show all of the analysis that led to it, and continually update that analysis as learning happens and as new opportunities arise. Producing good recommendations for civic action is a major ongoing research and communication task.


Don’t be authoritarian

Offering easy, vetted ways to contribute to social change is an ambitious goal. Maybe even an audacious goal.  For a start, it’s not at all obvious what a “social problem” is. And why should anyone believe a self-appointed authority? These issues make me think that How Can I Help needs to be more plural and participatory than the typical media organization.

First of all, social problems don’t define themselves. There isn’t some obvious master list of what’s wrong with a community or a country, and not everyone will agree on whether any particular thing is a problem. In many cases, deciding on the problem is the problem.

Consider someone who comes to How Can I Help and searches for “taxes are too high.” Should they learn the name of the advocacy organization that most effectively lobbies for lower taxes? Or is the problem really something else? Perhaps this person is having money problems, so better wages or cheaper health insurance would be just as good to them. Maybe this person feels that the government is wasting public money, so what they really want is accountability and efficiency. Or maybe they have specific ideas about the scope of government, and the things that should and should not be collectivized. Similarly, do we understand the huge increase in America’s prison population to be about poverty, racist policing practices, or farcical drug laws?

It may not be possible to frame a problem definitively, but it should be possible to figure out what assumptions the answer depends on. In trying to solve any complex problem you’ll need answers to prior questions, many of which cannot be definitely decided. Some prior questions will be empirical questions where the necessary information is just not available, while others will be questions of values where there is no general agreement. Instead of arbitrarily picking one scenario, it should be possible to document how different answers to these unknowns lead to different courses of action.

But who should define these alternate framings, and who gets to influence the final recommendations? You could do How Can I Help as a traditional media organization,  by hiring a small number of smart people to research and write. But involving users in the process has multiple benefits.

First, you might get better answers. Diversity is helpful for finding good solutions and even more important for defining problems. There is emerging evidence that crowds beat experts for political prediction problems — and recommending an effective course of action is most definitely a prediction problem. You’re predicting that the recommended action will have a better effect than all available alternatives.

Participation is also important for scaling. If this model of reviewing and recommending actions works, people might want not want to wait for paid staff to get around to their issue. Maybe the process that generates this type of knowledge could be made self-serve, something that a group could apply. I’ve written before on the need to leverage participation in journalism if we want a lot of journalism to be done, which means it’s not only an egalitarian concern but a business model issue. Unfortunately, participatory journalism has proved difficult to systematize.

But the best reason for participation is that it’s not enough to produce good answers. People have to trust that they are good. How Can I Help must generate not only knowledge but legitimacy, and there is no better legitimacy than the sense of ownership. There are places on the internet where the user community feels like it’s theirs, where the administrators tread lightly and take fairness seriously. We all know when someone is playing dictator; it’s important to get the platform’s embedded constitutional principles right.

There is a balance to be found here. GiveWell is a mostly closed institution and doesn’t have to suffer trolls, but it is vulnerable to the charge that it’s just a bunch of technocrats telling us what’s best. Reddit is a mostly open model with millions of users who love and defend the space they have created, but it doesn’t generally produce sophisticated research. There is a huge unexplored space of design variations between open and closed.


Connecting information to action

Like many people, I got into journalism because I wanted to make a difference in the world. It’s clearly important to have accurate, timely reports of what’s happening, but modern hopes for journalism go well beyond mere information. When we talk about trying to measure the effects of journalism or concepts like solution journalism, we’re talking about making change in society. But journalism isn’t really set up to do this. There is a huge taboo against becoming too specific or effective, lest a news organization be seen as “activist” or “taking sides.” (I’m not necessarily saying this is wrong, just that it structurally precludes certain things.)

Other endeavors are unabashedly all about change: activist and advocacy organizations, charities and philanthropies, the NGO and development worlds — not to mention government social programs. Many of these organizations also produce information. But they go beyond mere information because they try to get people to do some specific thing, whether that’s “sign a petition” or “donate money” or “show up and help us dig trenches.” Action is powerful. But these these sorts of organizations might not be the most trustworthy sources of information, because they’ve already committed to a solution. There’s a basic conflict of interest here. You know they’re trying to sell you something.

So journalists are charged with producing accurate information yet they are reluctant to recommend specific actions. Meanwhile, activists and advocates are all about action but the information they produce may not be trustworthy. There is a huge disconnect here! How do we connect trustworthy information to informed action?

The core concept of How Can I Help —  an independent review of everyone who claims to be working on a problem and the effectiveness of their proposed solutions — is one possible response to this dilemma. I don’t know if it counts as journalism or advocacy or what, but I don’t particularly care (see also Adrian Holovaty’s classic answer to “is data journalism?”)

Now that I’ve started thinking of the interplay between information and action, many other problems with journalism seem clearer. I’ve always been frustrated at the way investigative journalists choose which stories to cover. News organizations tend to put resources into issues that are both little known and highly offensive. A journalist who goes deeply into climate change is not producing “news” because everybody already knows about the problem, while a great story that moves no one gets no attention, has no effect, and silently disappears. This model is broken. The dual frame of “our job is to bring new information to light” plus “it is someone else’s responsibility to decide what to do” prevents journalism from directly addressing the most obvious, pressing, ongoing issues.

Without information we cannot know what to do. Without action we do nothing. I am interested in connecting the two, and I think it may take new kinds of organizations to do that.


9 thoughts on “How can I help?”

  1. Hi, Jonathan. I came to this article via Nieman Lab, and I wanted to make sure you knew about GivingCity Austin.

    I created it in 2007 and it’s been a mostly on-the-side project while I’ve worked full time in communications, sometimes at nonprofits. It’s founded on the belief that there is not enough instruction, education or inspiration out there for people who want to do good in their community.

    You can see a story about GivingCity in The Chronicle of Philanthropy here:

    Our driving mission is to give people something to do about the issues they care about — actionable content. It’s always baffled me that we have reams of copy devoted to entrepreneurship, self-help, being a homemaker, owning a boat, etc… but nothing about “how to be a philanthropist”. It’s frustrating to me that there’s a growing amount of copy devoted to “how to be a social entrepreneur”, because that’s just borrowing from business publications.

    But being a philanthropist – or even a casual giver or volunteer – is so much more complicated. It’s also very personal. And the nonprofit sector is complicated and, to make it worse, terrible at communicating and sharing its message. There’s a lot to say beyond 99% of the reporting done about the sector, and I want GivingCity to fill in those gaps.

    GivingCity has done what any other local, niche magazine does: It’s convened a community. We are the “service journalism” of doing good in Austin. Readers reach out to me all the time asking for advice on how to get on a nonprofit board; businesses contact me for guidance on how to select a nonprofit they could raise money for; even moms reach out to me looking for help getting Christmas presents for their children. And I’ve introduced a lot of people and organizations to each other who would have otherwise trudged along in their silos.

    Unfortunately, with a full-time job an two kids — and no personal wealth to speak of (!) — keeping GivingCity growing has been tough.

    A few months ago, I quit working full time to direct my attention to GivingCity, mostly because people demanded it. Because we’ve published more than 600 posts and 13 print and online magazines since 2007, we can rank pretty high locally for people searching for ways to “get involved” and “give back” and “do something” in our community. And they definitely have a sense of entitlement about the what we publish and when.

    So now that I’m devoting myself to this project full time, I’ve become a nonprofit director myself. (GivingCity is a nonprofit now.) It’s been fascinating. It’s changed my career and changed my life. And I’m very proud that it’s helped a lot of people and organizations.

    Here’s to taking it to the next level. Please take a look at our site. Of course, I welcome any inquiries or feedback. Thank you.

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