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Rising Voices, TED, Pop!Tech And The Challenges Of Innovating… Everywhere
Ethan Zuckerman, 10 Mar 09


A journalist recently asked me what had surprised me most about the success of Global Voices. There have been a lot of surprises with this project - the passion with which our volunteer community has embraced the effort, the emergence of translation as central to our mission - but I think Rising Voices may be the biggest surprise to me.

Rising Voices, led by David Sasaki, is an initiative that demonstrates that citizen media is possible in any corner of the globe. David has spent the last two years working with activists and innovators from Medellin to Moscow to Madagascar, providing modest amount of fiscal support and loads of technical support and advice to a wide range of projects. In some cases, Rising Voices has helped small, community-based organizations to have a national or international impact, and to reach the stage where they can seek sustaining funding from other foundations or find business models that allow them to continue their work.

This is a surprise because this is supposed to be one of the hardest things to do in the nonprofit and foundation world. Foundation program officers are taught to make large grants to established organizations, which are likely to meet their reporting and accounting requirements, and to avoid making lots of small grants, which are hard to manage and often take as much supervisory time as the large grants. David's found a way to crowd-source some of the most difficult aspects of this process - much of the support provided to grantees comes from fellow grantees, past participants and aspirants.

Rising Voices is swamped with applications for grants each time a round is opened - this time around, David recruited a volunteer evaluation committee from the Global Voices and Rising Voices communities, and today announced five grants to amazing projects: a blogger camp in Abidjan, a project designed to increase contact between Liberians at home and in the diaspora, an ambitious citizen reporting project in Shenyang, an environmental news initiative in Ulaanbaatar, and a women's empowerment project in Yemen. Statistically speaking, not all these initiatives will succeed. But, statistically speaking, there's a decent chance one will emerge as the next FOKO Blog Club, a group of Malagasy bloggers who've emerged as key voices in online coverage of Madagascar’s political crisis.

Rising Voices isn't the only organization figuring out how to make bets on social media entrepreneurs. Two of the US's leading conferences - TED and Pop!Tech - are expanding their fellowship programs. The fellowships differ somewhat, but both enable innovators from around the world to apply to attend one of these remarkable conferences for free, and to access some of the resources of the communities that center around these conferences. The Pop!Tech fellows program focuses specifically on social entrepreneurs - the program includes an intensive, multi-day coaching session before the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine, as well as opportunities to present projects to the conference audience. I had a chance to help out with the workshops last year and was greatly impressed by the coaching Pop!Tech was providing and the calibre of the projects represented.

TED's program is rooted in the 2007 conference in Arusha, Tanzania, where 100 fellows - mostly African bloggers - played a major role in the life of the event and its digital presence. Dozens of TED fellows participated in the recent Long Beach conference, and TED is inviting fellows to participate in the upcoming TED Global conference in Oxford, England.

In both cases, you can either self-nominate or nominate other remarkable individuals who you think would benefit from such an experience.

I'm excited to see these conferences open up to innovators around the world. But I'm even more excited to see that people are finding creative ways to support and celebrate innovation in every corner of the world and solving one of philanthropy's hardest problems.

This article originally appeared in Ethan Zuckerman's blog, My Heart's in Accra.

Photo credit: flickr/jurvetson, Creative Commons license.

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