Fragmented Operations

This past week has been an eventful one. For the past two months, I have been researching areas of overlap between the ACCESS program’s four core components. My efforts have been principally focused on developing practical recommendations for improving the operation of Civil Society Organizations that have a firm foundation in new and established theoretical models. Specifically, I have been reading scholarly articles about online crowdfunding behavior, business treatises on social media marketing, social psychology studies on volunteerism, as well as assessments of the unique social characteristics of former communist countries. I would like to say the topics overlap nicely, but I would be lying. Most of the business and psychology studies readily available online tend to sample westerners. In contrast, regional experts caution against the feasibility of importing western development models into Central Asia. As a result, if I apply general trends drawn from western research, then I risk underestimating cultural differences that may effectively render a recommendation useless.

Additionally, studies of Georgia specifically tend to correspond with major political events. A great deal of published research corresponds with the 2008 Russian invasion or the Rose Revolution in 2003. As a developing nation, Georgia’s operational environment is constantly changing. In-depth assessments of Georgian culture from six or eleven years ago simply no longer correspond with recent survey data. The information landscape is fragmented. Moreover, many academics are justifiably hesitant to go beyond describing correlations or inferring relationships between complex social ideas. I am reminded of Professor Stern’s comment that correlation is not causation: buying an ashtray does not increase one’s likelihood of acquiring lung cancer (hopefully).

I find myself having to periodically stand up and walk away from my computer for a few minutes. My attempts to understand the nuisances within each field and respect the limits of reasonability tend lead to long-winded sentences (case in point). How many times can one say however and still say something? After writing a couple hundred pages of commentary, I have to force myself to actually say something useful. In the end, the ACCESS program is action oriented and focused on practicality. Last Friday, I distilled my research into a list of specific recommendations and I am hopeful one or two will make their way into the ACCESS year two work plan.

I have recommended a partnership with select Georgian business in developing a Georgian language crowdfunding site that is similar in nature to Kickstarter. Ideally, the site will incorporate fixed, all-or-nothing fundraising deadlines to combat the steady decline in donations that most long term projects tend to experience. While other sites already exist, transaction fees and the lack of Georgian language support will bar a large number of Georgians who don’t speak English and lack reliable income from meaningfully contributing to local projects. Despite economic hardships, most Georgian’s regularly give. The challenge is to run a lean operation where small scale donations can still effectively yield a net benefit.

Because Georgian Non-government Organizations (NGOs) are not widely trusted, the site should also support art projects as a means to attract skeptical sub-groups to the site. Strategic partnerships with national businesses are a must to build legitimacy. Hopefully, NGOs can also partner with influential local celebrities to support their future projects via the platform in exchange for media coverage. In tandem with development, NGOs need to be trained to improve upon their ability to develop persuasive project pitches. Despite being an online tool, crowdfunding success is closely tied with offline factors like geography and interpersonal relationships. At this time, few NGOs can meaningfully rally significant local support for their existing projects. As a result, their projects would be unlikely to gain the initial funding momentum necessary to succeed online.

Fundraising online is problematic as well. Unlike westerners, Georgians favor cash to credit. Many Georgians don’t have bank accounts. Most pay their bills in cash using kiosks that are provided by third party intermediaries. Remote fundraising in Georgia will likely reach a larger audience if the online platform can be integrated with bill pay kiosks. Moreover, more than half of Georgians don’t have access to the internet. Yet, many Georgians have access to affordable cell phone plans. Any national fundraising effort would need to be accessible and marketable offline. Unlike US charities like the Salvation Army that are having to find a way to modernize, Georgian NGOs are having to learn how to go offline and appeal to norms from an era many well-educated, westernized administrators may rather forget.

Without going into too much detail for a blog post, I’ve written and recommended a great deal beyond simply launching a website integrated with bill pay kiosks. There is ample room for the “third sector” to grow in Georgia. But, there are significant trust issues that remain to be resolved. In the end, I am most struck by the Georgian people themselves who always seem ready to help one another. The real challenge for NGOs will be supplanting or meaningfully augmenting traditional forms of community assistance. Governments, borders, economies, and institutions radically change here, but families tend to abide.