A couple of years ago, while working for another non-profit at the United Nations, I proposed the creation of a community-based, multi-issue civil society calendar of events at the UN. This evolved into the website NGOevents.org. As of today, the domain name NGOevents.org has officially expired, marking the end of a mostly failed effort to bring web technologies to bear on coordination problems among a large community of non-profit organizations.
Rather than affix blame, I think it’s helpful to revisit what it was about the experiment that didn’t stick, as a way of learning how to use new technologies wisely and effectively for community-based applications.
To understand why this online calendar was created in the first place, you have to know a few things about how UN-affiliated "Non-governmental Organizations" (or "NGOs," what the UN calls non-profits) operate. There are around 4,000 NGOs who are affiliated with United Nations. Several thousand more engage with the UN through its subsidiary organs like UNICEF, the World Health Organization and UNDP in locales around the world. So there is an enormous and diverse community of non-profit groups that in some capacity interact with the UN system.
Just restricting ourselves to the main UN centers in New York, Geneva and Vienna, there are hundreds of events that happen every month that are organized by, or of interest to, the NGO community. These range from high-level UN conferences that invite NGO participation to small, informal strategy meetings held in a cafe.
Keeping track of the multiple strains of activity at the UN, both official and unofficial, is an enormous task that all NGOs have to contend with. Often this is done by focusing on your group’s discrete area of interest (child soldiers, malaria, genetically-modified foods, etc) and hoping that anything really important gets passed on to you from a colleague or friend who works in another field. But the reality is that every day there are missed opportunities for NGOs to keep each other informed, to collaborate and to empower each other because we simply don’t know what anyone else is up to.
At a very basic level, this is a coordination problem that information technology is designed to solve.
The Proposed Solution
In 2005, I was the communications officer for the Conference of NGOs, a large "network of networks" of NGOs who were affiliated with the United Nations. Among my many duties, I managed our internal online calendar and weekly email updates to our constituents. Many groups looked to me for guidance on what was happening at the UN that was relevant to them.
However I was often in the dark about what was going on among the various NGO networks and coalitions active at the UN. I thought, if I don’t know what’s going on, in the relatively privileged position I’m in, how much more confused must be a director of a smaller NGO who isn’t based in New York or Geneva or Vienna? I wondered if there wasn’t a better way to aggregate and disseminate event information.
Out of several discussions I had with my colleagues came the idea for NGOevents.org, a community calendar that everyone could populate with events they are involved in. I worked for a month installing and customzing the Plone open source CMS and a calendar plug-in to get a prototype online by the summer of 2005. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.
I held a couple of meetings with various NGO representatives, presenting the plan and the prototype. After taking their input, re-thinking the taxonomy of issues, and cleaning up the look a bit, we officially launched in June 2005.
A screenshot of NGOevents.org
Even from the beginning, what I anticipated at the time was some significant challenges getting people to use the calendar:
The reality is that a community calendar is one of those tragedies of
the commons — something that everyone would find useful but no one
wants to build and maintain. And since most NGO and UN websites,
including many of the ones that I have worked on, require a staff
person whose job is to keep the site updated, no one has been willing
to allocate the money and staff time necessary to make it happen.
I am hoping that if I build a basic calendar well enough, one that
any group can submit their events to easily, and that a few volunteer
event managers can oversee, it can basically run itself. And with a few
widgets like paid banner ads and some sponsors it can be financially
Many people have said to me that the most important thing is to
control the content on the calendar to make sure the most relevant
events are listed. Frankly I think the main challenge will be getting
NGO organizers to actual submit events using the online form. Most
organizers in my experience just want to send someone an email with a
flyer attached as a Word or PDF file and expect someone else to extract
the information for the web form.
I was unfortunately 100% correct in assessing the key challenge. Even logging in to the site was a significant hurdle for many people. Here’s my account of one woman’s difficulty with using the system that I blogged about in the early stages:
The part that confused her was that the site asked for her "name" and "password" on the log-in page. The page clearly states: "In the future we plan on allowing NGOs to create their own accounts on
this site, but for now please log in as "guest" with password "guest"". And in the "user name" field it says "type ‘guest’."
Nevertheless, she told me that when she saw the field called "name"
she just typed her own name, and then was puzzled that the site
wouldn’t let her in.
I took a deep breath and explained that where it says "user name"
she should type "guest." She noted this down on a piece of paper
The reality is that despite publicizing the NGOevents.org calendar among various NGO constituencies, holding several training sessions, and bringing aboard several "calendar managers," the site never reached a critical mass of viewers or submitters and basically whithered on the vine.
Why NGOevents Wasn’t Sticky
1. The Community Was Not Web2.0 /1.5 Ready
A quick look at some of the websites of most of the NGOs in our networks is a big clue about why the experiment failed. Most NGOs, particularly those in the developing world, are just getting a handle on Web 1.0. Many of them rely heavily on email for most of their online engagement, and think of listservs as state-of-the-art dissemination and coordination tools.
The idea of logging into a shared space for adding to the collective knowledge base is such a foreign concept to most of these groups. While it sounded like a good idea when they heard me talk about it, or read my emails, in reality it didn’t mesh with how they were used to operating.
2. Need Key Partners to Support Launch
While eventually, a system for collaborative knowledge sharing seems like a good idea, initially it’s just one more thing that busy people have to attend to. So building in supportive and influential partners to build interest and excitement about the project would have helped a lot. If we had worked harder to get one of the UN agencies or offices to use the calendar, and point others to the calendar, that would have been a big help. Or have one of the larger UN Commission meetings adopt the calendar as an unofficial way to track NGO activities during the commission.
Without a few respected and recognized partners, people didn’t have any strong reason to treat the calendar seriously.
3. Create External Incentives to Participate
While there were from my perspective intrinsic reasons why people should use a shared calendar system, the reality is that most people did not see it that way. So you have to provide external motivations for why they should use the system. I.e. rewards for people who post the most events, or featured ads on the site for groups that use the system. Some clear benefit that people get out of being an early adopter.
4. Market the Hell Out of It
I think there was probably a lot more we could have done to get the website forefront in people’s brains. Sponsoring banners on prominent NGO websites, producing slick flyers, setting up LCD displays of the calendar in the hallways outside of major UN meetings.
Frankly, though, my suspicion is that even if there was a full-bore partnering, outreach and marketing campaign, NGOevents would still likely fail. At the end of the day, NGOevents.org did not stick because UN NGOs are as a whole staunchly independent, single-minded, incredibly diverse and thus nearly impossible to get to cooperate in any ongoing fashion. By our very definition we are "not governments" and thus resistant to governing type structures.
Still, I feel a bit sad to see it go.