Power to the Bottom

Monday, September 8, 2008

By Lily Huang

In Tajikistan, Georgetown graduate student Dan Zuckerman is the face of Kiva, a San Francisco-based microlending organization operating in a region that currently hums with nearly 3,000 Kiva-sponsored entrepreneurs. Zuckerman has to get to know them and act as their bridge to their remote lenders by sharing their stories, both with the people providing loans and with the local microcredit institution, MLF MicroInvest, which is Kiva’s partner. In all of Tajikistan, he works alone. How does Zuckerman, 25, manage to cover all this ground without support staff and with a supervisor 11,000 kilometers away? Between field visits, he logs on to the Kiva Fellows wiki page, which allows him to tap into ideas about best practices from the experiences of Jara Small in Tanzania, Javed Rezayee in Afghanistan, Cynthia McMurry in Bolivia and the rest of the 100 Kiva Fellows dispersed among 45 countries. The wiki not only makes Zuckerman and his colleagues more effective, it also, as Kiva president Premal Shah puts it, gives them the ability to “co-create Kiva.”

The rapidly expanding field of social enterprise has found a soulmate in Web 2.0. The Kiva Fellows’ online workbook is an ongoing, communal work-in-progress, which is exactly what Kiva itself is. Running on a platform like Pbwiki, an online wiki-provider who offered Kiva its services for free, it demonstrates the new nature of social enterprise, in which change and growth start from the ground?a level heretofore known as “the bottom.” A wiki is not a message board: content isn’t simply added, it is edited, so only the most updated information remains on the page. The edit trail is still accessible but separate?no need for scrolling through lengthy back-and-forths before finding what you need.

Wiki technology is one part of the Web 2.0 boon to social enterprise, which, after two decades of importing ideas and practices from business, is now forging on across new terrain. The goal of business is “to capture a market,” says Bill Drayton, founder and chairman of Ashoka, the oldest funding and support organization for social enterpreneurs. “A social entrepreneur’s goal is to change the world. So it’s inherently an open architecture.” Now into that openness walks?a wiki. A platform for collaborative content, negotiable by everyone involved, gives rise to a community that largely regulates itself. Kiva grew so quickly, Shah says, “we couldn’t scale fast enough until we created the Fellows program. The next question became, how do you keep these people in sync?” A single staff member manages the entire Fellows program, but once in the field, the Fellows learn by and large from one another, not headquarters. “The quality of what’s on the wiki is much higher,” adds Shah, “because it’s coming from people in the field.”

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Source: Newsweek (link opens in a new window)