Tell me about your background?
I'm Japanese, grew up in Italy, Japan, and Germany, came here to the US for college and never left. Trained to be a Sovietologist, but the Soviet Union fell apart when I was in the middle of grad school and I went to work for the World Bank as a Russia country officer instead. Had a whale of a time hanging out with all my Russian friends who ended up in positions like legal advisor to the President, Minister of Economy, Deputy Minister of Finance, etc. Then a stint leading corporate strategy and innovaiton for the World Bank, which gave me and my co-founder some ideas about what was missing in the picture of international development. Bill Easterly explains this better than I can in his latest book, White Man's Burden. Left the World Bank in late 2000 to launch GlobalGiving, although it didn't really get going until 2002(timing wasn't great for startup ventures).
How did you come up with the idea of GlobalGiving?
We started an event (which is still supported by the World Bank) that solicited the best ideas to fight poverty from all over the world with the promise that we would fund the best ideas. The number of people who came forward, with minimal outreach (and all done electronically in 1999) was phenomenal, AND they were so passionate. After working in regular "operations" at the World Bank where my biggest fear was that our counterparts didn't feel as passionate about the projects as we did (not surprising, since in most contexts we did most of the work, so we were most invested), the passion and commitment of the people who came together for the Development Marketplace was a real wake-up call. GlobalGiving is a decentralized, electronic, 24/7 version of the physical event.
How did you develop it?
A couple of wrong turns initially. Having started in 2000, we almost signed a venture deal that would have given us significant funding, but probably required us to spend the money in certain ways which would have probably forced us to declare bankruptcy pretty quickly. But we also went ahead and built version 1.0 of the site which was so dynamic and open that it was before its time. We had to scrap it and start all over in 2003 with a completely new information architecture. How did you get funding? We got funding through some major foundations--the foundations associated with the founders of eBay, Hewlett, Kellogg, Mott, as well as companies like Hewlett-Packard and Visa International.
What was most challenging about the idea from vision to reality?
Getting the funding to start it and keep it going. Both my co founder and I didn't take salaries for the first 2 years, and we put in quite a bit of cash ourselves--and it was still hard. It would have been pretty much impossible if I had been living from paycheck to paycheck--which is sort of why we created GlobalGiving in the first place. We want to make sure that people who have good ideas for helping their community can find the means to make them happen.
What most surprised you?
So few people could tell us definitively "Do this, don't do that." Maybe we weren't in a mood to listen to a lot of advice (since there was a good possibility that if we asked people what they really thought, they would have told us we were crazy and we should go back to work for the World Bank), but I felt like we made a lot of stuff up as we went along, and made a healthy number of mistakes along the way.
Why you decided to start blogging?
Odd you should ask me that--it had nothing to do with the work I do now, or really even a desire to communicate with people in particular (I know some people keep blogs to let their friends know what's going on in their lives). I really was motivated to say something about Larry Summers resigning as president of Harvard. I felt strongly that he had started to make some long-overdue changes at Harvard and felt that his being blamed for the saga described in the Institutional Investor article was unfair. And I just felt like I needed to go on the record about that view. Then over time it became a good place for me to muse about things I'd read, or strategic choices I was making at work, and it struck me as being a reasonable thing to do for GlobalGiving, to make it more transparent to the outside world.
What advice would you give to nonprofits about blogging?
Do it only if you like putting down your thoughts and feelings (if you like journaling), or you really like communicating with people. Either reason is a good intrinsic reason, but I think if you do it because everyone else is doing it, or because your communications staff feel you need to do it for the company, I think the tension of doing it in spite of yourself will come through and be self-defeating.
You wrote this fabulous blog post about the Russian saying for "It's a small world" and how we initially connected. Has this happened to the you before?
Yes, it has happened to me before. Somehow our worlds are oddly narrow--last week I went to a conference on applying private sector approaches to international develpoment and ran into someone who could have crossed paths with me in Russia (completely unrelated to the development work I was engaged in at the time). I've also come across project leaders who turn out to be related to friends who nonetheless didn't hear about GlobalGiving through our friends. I think this happens because we still are a pretty small group of people engaged in supporting grassroots efforts at development--I guess we'll know we've succeeded when this doesn't happen any more!