There’s a phenomenon in the science world known as multiple independent discovery. It’s where “similar discoveries are made by scientists working independently of each other,” and the Theory of Evolution, the jet engine and the television can be counted among its ranks. Not that any of my work comes close to any of these, it was no surprise when I recently announced my Donors Charter to learn that friends on the other side of the Atlantic were working on something very similar. Or at least that appeared very similar.

Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it? Tweet This Quote

My Donors Charter was borne out of a specific frustration that donors often appear to be funding ICT4D projects they shouldn’t. The result? A sector full of replication, failed pilots, poorly thought-out projects, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration—none of it useful.

The Charter was an effort to encourage both donors and project owners, to ensure they were clear about what they were planning, why they were planning it, and how. The questions didn’t seek to steer them in any specific direction, or encourage them to choose one technology solution or principle over another, but simply to be clearer about the what, why and how of their idea. The questions fell into four categories:

Preliminary questions:

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions:

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions:

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions:

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

None of these questions are difficult, none are particularly technical, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect anyone starting a new project to be able to answer them. These are, in my view, the kinds of questions everyone should be working through because, well, they’re common sense. Anyone who hasn’t thought any of this through really needs to go away and think, plan or research a little more. And if it comes to it, yes—drop their idea.

How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not? Tweet This Quote

There’s a dual benefit to all of this. Firstly, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. Secondly, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought-out and less likely to fail.

Shortly after announcing the Charter last August I was pointed to another site—billed as ‘the same thing’—which had just been launched a few weeks earlier. This site was billed as the “Principles for Digital Development” and it too had a list of things people needed to consider while designing their project. Unlike my Charter, which was scribbled in the back of a notepad during a train journey home, the Principles were the result of an extensive amount of work by a range of ICT4D players and partners including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, UNICEF, The World Bank, SIDA, Omidiyar Foundation, The State Department, WHO, HRP, UNHCR, WFP, UNFPA, UNDP, Global Pulse, UNWomen and OCHA.

After reviewing the Principles (you can download a PDF of them here) I quickly decided that they weren’t the same thing, although they were undoubtedly useful. Despite that, they came up again in a comment posted by Wayan Vota, who pointed people back to the Principles in what became the mother-of-all-discussions on the Charter in my Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article. I decided it might be useful to seek some clarity because I still didn’t agree that they were the same, and asked him:

  1. Who is the principal audience? Is this to remind solutions developers what they should be doing? Or for donors to sense check proposals?
  2. Are they going to be enforced in any way? If not, what’s different about this than all the other sets of ‘best practice’ we’ve seen over the past decade?
  3. Who’s ‘signed up’ to the Principles, and what does ‘signing up’ actually mean?
  4. I’m curious who else was consulted beyond the giants of the development community listed on the site? There seems to be a lack of any grassroots voice, or any of the smaller organisations who probably have a lot to share from their experiences.

Surprisingly I didn’t get a reply, although other friends at USAID did inform me they planned on writing a response to the SSIR piece. So, while I wait to hear their thoughts, here are four of mine on why the Charter and Principles are not the same:

Firstly, in many places the Principles are quite technical, and anyone other than a software developer, design thinker or ICT4D professional may struggle to understand them. For example, “Design solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows and plan for organizational adaptation” isn’t useful if you’re a grassroots innovator trying to fix a local problem. The Charter is deliberately non-technical, aimed at everyone, everywhere.

Secondly, the Charter simply asks questions to help ensure projects consider the wide range of issues they may need to address. The Principles make direct suggestions on how projects should be designed and run.

“Design for scale” should only apply if the project wants scale. What if it doesn’t need to scale? Tweet This Quote

Thirdly, and perhaps more dangerously, the Principles apply a broad-brush approach to ICT4D project development. “Employ this,” “Apply that,” “Demonstrate this” and “Demonstrate that.”

Fourthly, the Principles steer projects in a specific direction with their recommendations, which is again dangerous. For example, “Design for scale” should only apply if the project wants scale. What if it doesn’t need to scale? “Develop software to be open source by default” implies that closed source is less effective. If we look at the evidence, is that really the case?

One of the biggest problems, as I’ve seen it over the past few years, is the increasing institutionalisation of international development. Tweet This Quote

If the Principles are aimed at the very organisations that take part in their development—many of them the heavyweights of the ICT4D world—then that’s fine. They’ll have the knowledge, money and resources to make sense of them and deploy them in their work, and it sounds like many of them now do. That’s great news if it works for them.

I believe now, more than ever, that we need to be more inclusive in our work Tweet This Quote

But for the people and projects I’ve spent the best part of my 20+ year career working with—largely grassroots non-profits, and local social actors and innovators—they’re not much use at all. Even if they could unpick some of the development speak, they’d struggle to act on many of them. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve seen it over the past few years, is the increasing institutionalisation of international development. In 2015 it’s going to get worse, not better.

I believe now, more than ever, that we need to be more inclusive in our work, and although the Donors Charter—unlike the Principles—has very little chance of being adopted by donors anywhere, it is at least aimed at the ‘everyday innovators’ who will—quite rightly in my view—end up being the future of the technology-for-development sector.

About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.

  • Katie Larson

    “One size does not fit all”. This is what i perceived the theme of the article to be. Projects and donors must utilize all resources available to them and detemine which development plan will work best in organizing and communicating their missions and goals.

  • pcutinelli

    I believe that this idea of multiple discoveries comes from a bigger idea of new innovation and advancement in the times rather than the people. When we develop and have the advantages to create, such as better economic stance and less turmoil, the people have more time to think of new ways of doing things and create unbelievable things.

  • Mallory Benham

    I am big planner and I really value companies that have master plans as well as the minor plans that help them move on smaller scale. This includes planning for what best fits your company for the goals you have in mind. The most important part of this plan that Banks notes is to reevaluate the impact your company has had on society.

  • Erin Todd

    I agree. I think it is not only wise to have plans both big and small but also ones that will push you forward; ones that will change the circle of influence that you reach. Impact doesn’t mean you have to change the world… something as small as planning a better dental policy in a company can benefit its’ employees is an impact.

  • malopez93

    I think it is very valuable to have options when it comes to anything in life. Having choices brings a lot of things to the table. It causes people to always give their best when selling a product. It makes people be more transparent on how and why we should use their product. It also keeps pricing competitive for the customer. I agree that one size doesn’t fit all and that people should be given options. I also agree that before you do anything, start a business, fund a business, or look for funding, you should do a ton of research. When you think you have researched enough you should continue to look for more information. It is always nice to get a second opinion or look for other options when it comes to anything especially starting your own business, or funding someones business.

  • JuanFonseca1995

    When starting any project or business, there will always be many risk factors and you must keep your intuition intact when deciding how you will invest your time. With limited resources, you must learn to assertively allocate your resources to funds where you will get the most bang for your buck. It means that you should invest your time on a project that will have an immediate impact, a project that can change the world in an innovative and inspiring way. Every entrepreneur should aspire to make an ever-lasting contribution to mankind. You must plan, organize, and coordinate effectively amongst your teammates so communication and consistency must be upheld throughout the group project. When we collaborate collectively to achieve a common goal, its amazing what can happen. You have a brain, so why not think big!

  • kgallaher

    I think one of the most essential characteristics of entrepreneurs is creativity. We all have limitations, limited resources, etc., but it is how we discover ways to utilize those resources that is most important. Those who have truly changed the world have done so by stepping outside of the everyday norms and striving towards the future.

  • Jenny Lynn Shaver

    I love the questions this article lays out and can be applied to more than just funding a venture. They are simple yet very probing questions and as you said “Anyone who hasn’t thought any of this through really needs to go away and think, plan or research a little more. And if it comes to it, yes—drop their idea.”

  • Halea McAteer

    There were a lot of things in this read that stuck out to me, but one that especially resonated was the preliminary questions and specifically number one. “Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?” I think it is common for people to set out on these ‘do good’ missions and as a result have the opposite affect, they don’t end up actually helping the problem. A big part of this could be not answering these sort of questions from the on set. Do you really understand the problem? What does this group, individual, etc., actually need and why are you the one fixing it? I think if these sort of questions are answered from the beginning, the actual needs of people will be met far more effectively.

  • rschneider2800

    I really like in this article how he laid out the very basic questions. I also think this helps people who want to invest but worry about those organizations that haven’t really thought about these basic questions. I didn’t understand the break in the middle about the difference between his and the other website since I think it’s good to look at multiple sources, but I enjoyed this article and the issues it raised.

  • John Mulhern

    I think this article is very interesting in that it asks entrepenuers very basic, yet fundamentally important questions that all businesses need to ask themselves. This article pushes them to think more critically and allows them to really test themselves and their business to achieve more than they thought was possible.

  • kbell003

    I really liked the way that they laid out the questions that each innovator needs to think of. I was recently talking with a donor to many start ups and the process that he goes through when determining what to invest in and what to avoid. The process seemed very similar to the questions that he asked but when he asks them, they are much more harsh. When he talks to inventors it is amazing how hard he is on them and how much he questions every part of his design. I think that Ken did a good job of summing up all of these questions in a very easy to follow format.

  • storres001

    I think it is cool how he made it how everyone could understand the basics of what goes into being a donor. I’m not sure if the large digression about the Principles was needed but over all good article highlighting the real questions donors should ask and companies should answer.

  • Arnthor Kristinsson

    What stood out for me in the article were the questions and how useful they can be. The questions really help and force people to think more critically, along with opening up for creativity.

  • aburns002

    I think many people are content with throwing money at a problem. People need to know where their money is going, and not only that, but what actions are taken with the donated money. I’m not saying that donating money is bad thing, but at least be fully informed on what the donation is doing.

  • kt_ford

    I agree with you. I think he did a good job of laying out the questions that everyone needs to think of. I think it is really important to know what it means and what goes into being a donor. People need to know the right questions to ask and what they are actually doing.

  • kschwein

    You never really realize how important these types of things are until they are brought up to you in these articles. These questions are the foundations of how businesses should be going about their routines. This article provides a good understanding of the basic fundamentals of critical questions.

  • Gaby Perez

    I agree with you. I think that this article touches on some issues we have been talking in class about. Like knowing what products and inventions work in certain communities and which don’t. This is a great tool to decipher what the best solutions at out there.

  • karnold001

    I think that this idea is important because if these basic questions cannot be answered then a group should not be asking for donations. This is especially important when it comes to the donators’ perspective because they will be able to know exactly what their donation is doing and how their money will be used.

  • Matthew Montoya

    I think the concept of truly understanding the problem(s) you are trying to solve and the resources already present in regards to said problem(s) is essential. I made a comment on another post similar to this in saying that I believe we have an intense desire (whether it be influenced by culture or somewhat innate) to want to own our ideas and have them be the ones that solve the problem. This can be viewed as a selfish desire, or simply that we are passionate about the problems we set out to solve and having ownership of those ideas motivates us and inspires us to fight on. In this case, I think it is important to first have a solid foundation of understanding, and be willing to accept that the same passion we feel towards problems and causes is most likely shared by others, and that together there is a potential for selfless innovation and problem solving. Being a leader in solving a problem does not always mean being the one to manage the entire process, rather being a leader means making the best with the resources available and a selfless desire to reach your goal! I really like this idea, but I understand why it is difficult to implement initially!

  • zoeantonow

    I agree with this, and I feel like it’s important to really do your research and ask every possible question you can think of before launch. So then why not utilize both websites? Having said that, I do like the style of the questions asked in Donor’s Charter since it uses more “normal,” everyday language so that anyone could benefit, not just the business savvy, and could even apply them to other goals or plans in life.

  • dannyjoseph14

    Good advice, although it may seem like common sense, we see many projects try to reinvent the wheel. I think these questions must be answered in order to create a efficient and effective plan. I also believe that transparency plays a major role in legitimizing a project and assuring/reassuring donors that it is well thought out and implemented.

  • sadeakindele

    I agree, while this may seem so simple, it can help reduce wasting time/money so they can move ahead with tackling the problem they are seeking to remedy.

  • mpierson19

    I agree as well as when you have a set amount of questions to answer, many people don’t get so side tracked and over think everything and get the job done in a timely manner.

  • CCzuchra

    This is a great idea and helps to make sure different solutions are being pursued. I think it’s difficult for a lot of creators and innovators to buy-in to something like this because of the stigma around intellectual property. But, the value in this can help to make sure you IP is actually significant enough to be yours.

  • 204Ted

    I think that Ken’s solution, scribbled in a notepad, is a lot more usable when it comes to everyday people looking for funding. A big thing I see moving on in this century is that everything will become more and more simplified. With further access to resources the more they are digitized, people will have easier access to do more of what they are passionate about. With developments like this, it helps put us in the right direction towards making that happen.

  • James Sullivan

    These are the basic questions that should be answered, if a facility is asking for donation. These are simple questions to answer and if they cannot, than we shouldn’t be making donations. Yet again, it is easy for people to say one thing but do the complete opposite. I guess I am trying to say is words are only words, but pictures and evidence that making a donation makes a difference than that changes the game completely.

  • jsims001

    I strongly agree that we ought to force implementers to consider important issues before reaching out for support, not only to be profitable and satisfy donors, but also to make the difference they intend to make given the resources available to them. I agree that this type of implementation will help the “donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought-out and less likely to fail.” Weighing the importance of issues and picking the ones that will have the most impact is also crucial to using donors contributions effectively.

  • Will Carter

    Man, those are just good solid questions for pretty much any endeavor, if you abstract the ideas behind them. For instance, “do you understand the problem” and “why are you the one fixing it” are so crucial to always ask yourself. In other words, do you actually know what you’re getting into?

  • Lindsey Kessler

    I was able to read this blog and abstract the ideas behind these questions for my my art projects, especially for a collaborative installation I’m working on now. I agree that these are good solid questions for any endeavor.

  • Carter

    I strongly agree to what Will Carter stated. It’s invaluable to incorporate this
    simple questions, to ground yourself, as you use critical thinking skills to
    navigate through your endeavors. Will be incorporating these into future
    ventures.

  • mleano

    Sounds like a very good general guide for just about any project. Also, independent discovery can have its advantages and disadvantages. It’s nice to have a little competition because different ideas can be used to solve the same problem but also, with the internet, collaboration can help start the discussion to foster ideas and discuss any similar difficulties.

  • Jcwilson480

    Looks a like a few really good pointers to take before taking on a project. A list of things to work by and keep you focused

  • glmcguir

    What a goldmine of information for any aspiring entrepreneur! I will definitely be archiving these questions as they will help me in my future endeavor when I start my software engineering firm.

  • chadvallen

    When I was reading this article, I immediately thought, as well, that people are content with throwing money at a problem in order to fix it. Money can be a powerful object, but without critical thinking and a logical plan, money is useless and just becomes a huge waste. I like where your mind is, great thinking outside the box.

  • conner_faulkner

    This is a great article showing what needs to be asked in a technological job… or any job for that matter. These questions can be manipulated for any use.

  • Alex Marski

    I can’t really relate to this article due to the fact that I’m not very technological aware with jobs. Although I don’t care for the technology aspect for projects I feel like some of these steps can help with other things rather than projects for technology. Anyone have any ideas on how these steps can be uses in a business setting?

  • Marcy Glad

    I agree. I think these are great, workable steps for laying the groundwork and working through most pursuits. Encouragement to stop, think things through, considering what has been done, and what could legitimately be done could save a great deal of heartache both professionally and personally.

  • joconne4

    I would think that with such ideas, one would want to have an answer for absolutely any question about what they are doing. To be able to break down and explain every detail is the sign of a well thought out and confident plan.

  • JeremyWahl

    good article. the questions can be related to just about anything. sometimes you have to stop and take a breath. i know from past experiences that taking a step back and taking a breath to clear your mind before doing something