Trusting in crowds


“Crowdsourcing” pools the strength of the many to perform complex tasks–everything from funding a film to sequencing DNA. At its heart is trust–not a blanket belief in great institutions, but rather the confidence among individuals that each will do the right thing. Its power is being increasingly felt today, even in the world of international development.


“You can’t hold a marketplace [for projects] in the atrium of the World Bank. What if people visiting the bank were to run into all this?” That remark from a managing director of the World Bank in 1999 succinctly captured the concerns that shape the technocrat’s pursuit of international development as a top-down, centralised exercise intermediated through governments. It was also the same conversation that triggered the “Well, why not?” impulse that led me–then an employee at the World Bank–and my co-founder, Dennis Whittle, to start up GlobalGiving.

At the time, it seemed quite radical to simply let as many people as possible come together to support development. But GlobalGiving has been “crowdsourcing world-saving” for over 10 years now. And today we’re not the only ones. We happen to work in international development, but crowdsourcing is happening in many other areas of the public good–from microloans to financing for independent films to DNA sequencing. Crowdsourcing has become the phenomenon it is today because of a combination of changes in technology, behaviour and expectations that have transformed not only how people contribute to the public good, but also who can meaningfully contribute.

One of the first straws in the wind of this transformation was the X Prize, established in 1996 to spur the design and construction of a reusable space vehicle. The X Prize was worth $10 million, but it mobilised an estimated $100 million in aerospace R&D from 26 teams around the world. What is less well known is that the prize was financed by an insurance policy–that is to say, someone somewhere thought a successful outcome was unlikely enough to be worth betting against.

What people had underestimated was the number of teams, and the dedication of each to pursue the venture. This insight was one of the first compelling cases made that there were more resources out there–at the “bottom”, as it were–to be leveraged for ambitiously meaningful goals. That lesson was to prove just as valid for international development.

The years since have seen a steady erosion of the notion that public goods and services are clearly distinguishable from private goods. With this has come the emergence of ideas for giving that don’t meet traditional notions of philanthropy. Take the website Kickstarter, where moviemakers create campaigns to raise funding for a documentary or where campaigns are set up to benefit individuals like Karen Klein, a bus monitor who was filmed being bullied by her students. There is a feeling that documentaries laying bare social injustice need to be made, or that bus monitors need to be consoled, not so much for the public good but to convey a sense that all’s right with the world. Kickstarter started in 2009 and by the following year had received $99 million in pledges for its campaigns. What does this have to do with crowdfunding international development? Simply this: it is now easier to make the case for saying that “world-saving” can start with something as simple as enabling individuals to give real people a helping hand.

Multilateral foreign aid is rooted in a technocratic tradition. By contrast, philanthropy and nonprofit work have grown out of values, passion, even religion. As we sought to widen the circle of people engaged in international development, Dennis and I found ourselves increasingly trying to bridge those two heritages. The tension between the two becomes clearer when we consider what it is that drives people to act–a reasoned cost-benefit analysis or a great photo? As we know from research undertaken by Chip and Dan Heath (authors of Made to Stick), people are rarely motivated by hearing about big problems, but rather by the idea of helping an individual. So, we had to recognise that it is values like loyalty, justice, equity and brotherhood that drive people to act. But we also had to harness these individual motivations into systemic results.



None of this would have been possible without technology. By 2002, technological advances convinced us that we could make the idea of feeding a landmine-sniffing rat in Tanzania just as real to a US donor as contributing to their local library. Although YouTube had still not been invented, it was clear that communicating reality would only become easier, faster, cheaper and richer–that we could show photos, videos and authentic words to prospective donors that conveyed the reality of what their donations could accomplish thousands of miles away. Technology also allows scalability–we work with over 2,000 projects in over 130 countries with a full-time staff just short of 30.

Technology has enabled us to capture feedback from beneficiaries, from stakeholders and from donors incredibly cheaply. That, in turn, has allowed us to develop trust in our vetting, monitoring and training. Social media and social networking sites have only enhanced that basic trust, because not only can donors see how we vet the organisations we work with, but also the projects that their trusted friends are helping. Technology has made possible an incredibly subtle thing–the pooling of tiny increments of individual trust to be added and daisy-chained up into a systemic effect.

‌This level of feedback and monitoring also allows us to bypass a dilemma that I believe continues to bedevil official assistance: namely, the lack of accountability of multilateral aid flows channelled through governments. Funds may be misused or even lost, leaving the communities living in those countries in the lurch. That’s why being free to support those communities directly, picking and choosing the organizations that we could monitor and hold accountable was and continues to be, attractive.

In short, it’s easier now to argue that an individual’s actions really can move the needle on international development. Governments and institutions–whether they are newspapers or professional critics–are needed less and less to validate authenticity, legitimacy or what constitutes the public good. This has clearly allowed more actors–many on the fringes or entirely out of the system 10 years ago–to get involved. Is that a good thing, or a disaster waiting to happen?

A juicy scandal could destroy a lot of the goodwill that has built up around crowdsourcing in the last 10 to 15 years, though of course, the old institutional system was hardly immune to scandals, either. Yet even with the risk of scandals, the fact that so many organisations are engaging in small, distributed, decentralised efforts will surely contribute to systemic resilience and dynamism. It is, after all, the Darwinian model. Nurturing the continuous emergence of diverse efforts, and ensuring that resources flow to the more successful innovations, is the equivalent of running continuous tests and doubling down on the most successful treatments.

To draw an analogy that should be familiar to many, it’s the difference between blanketing the national electorate with one or two expensively produced television advertisements or sending out hundreds of millions of emails weekly and shifting their content constantly as recipients give you feedback by clicking them open, or not. It was a winning strategy for the Obama campaign, clearly. I think it’s also a winning strategy for development.


References and recommended sources

Heath, Chip and Dan Heath (2010), Made to Stick, Random House, New York.

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©André Faber


By Mari Kuraishi, Co-Founder and President, GlobalGiving Foundation


©OECD Yearbook 2013




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