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Diversion: the shirt meeting and lessons we can learn from it

by Michael Keizer on May 1, 2010

'T Shirts', courtesy of Billy Alexander.

This morning’s round table teleconference on the 1 million shirts episode was an interesting experience: I don’t think a start-up charity initiative has ever been able to draw on such a wide array of aid expertise in one public venue (but I would be very happy to stand corrected on that). Some thoughts and impressions.

One million shirts as a confusing meme

I don’t think a charity has ever been propelled into meme status in such a short time frame. The problem with this is that there are actually five memes but that they all use “1 million shirts” as their catch phrase:

  1. The project and the organisation itself as a concept.
  2. The project (and similar projects) as a great idea on how to do good.
  3. The project (and similar projects) as a horrible idea that will not help and perhaps even harm the people it purports to help.
  4. The project as a good example on how to harness social media for a cause.
  5. The (possible) change in attitude and practice by the project and its founder in the face of the attention in the (social) media as an example of how scrutiny of aid might change for the good.

This confusion is one of the reasons why I have tried to avoid the hash tag #1millionshirts on Twitter. It seems to have seeped through into the meeting as well: from my perspective as an observer, it looked as if the participants came in with different ideas on which of these memes the convo would address. This has led to some cross-purpose dialogue, which in turn ate up a lot of the (very short) time that we had.

The beginnings of a conversation?

The main organiser, Katrin Verclas, told me in a tweet that “… the point of the call was really to have the beginnings of a CONVERSATION as opposed to twitter and blog shouts”. This was my expectation, too. However, conversations had already started before, and turned out to have advanced much further than I expected. In fact, they had outstripped anything that was going on during the call itself, superseding much of the discussion that occurred.

Does that make the meeting itself superfluous? I don’t think so. First of all, I have a strong suspicion that the then upcoming meeting catalysed at least one of the conversations, if not more; it put pressure on what otherwise could have been a very long and drawn-out process that might not have led to the same results. Secondly, I think it has been a great success as an experiment, giving us much to think about on how these convos can really help and how they can be done to best result.

So what has changed?

I don’t think the discussions during the call made much of a difference. As far as I could see, none of the positions grew any closer; any rapprochement had occurred before. Jason Sadler showed again his mastery of the media by getting Teddy Ruge and Marieme Jamme on board beforehand, but whether that will lead to real change remains to be seen. Judging from post-convo tweets and blog posts, both participants and audience mostly walked away with the same opinions they originally brought in.

My main worry, however, doesn’t deal with the participants or the audience: it concerns the two charities that originally advised Jason, H.E.L.P. International and WaterIsLife.com. They have a lot to answer for but did not participate. I am not aware whether or not they were in the audience, but if they were they did not identify themselves. My question is: did they and similar charities learn from this? What will be the reaction next time somebody knocks on a charity’s door with a well-intentioned but badly conceived idea? Has anything changed for them?

And for our next trick…

I think the round table was a great initiative, and I am truly grateful to the people who made it work. It has been an unprecedented event in the history of international aid (at least, as far as I know) and has given us much input for future similar events.

There are a couple of lessons for future, similar convos that I think we can take away from this meeting:

  • Plan more time. One hour is really too short to start a meaningful conversation on issues as complex as these. Of course, we have to deal (as almost always) with limited resources. Within those limitations, I think it is better to have just a few longer meetings than many short ones.
  • Be clear and extremely specific about the subject and goal of the meeting: not “1 million shirts”, but e.g. “how can 1millionshirts.org use collected t-shirts more effectively”, or “how can we avoid that future well-meaning entrepreneurs make the same mistakes as 1 million shirts did”. This will at least partly avoid the confusion that I mentioned above.
  • Taking into account the subject and goal, decide who will be participants. Although I like the ‘unconference’ idea of wide participation, I think this does not work as well for a teleconference as for a physical meetup. Participants should be limited in number and selected for their role (e.g. Jason), specific expertise (e.g. Teddy), or both (e.g. TFtH). That does not mean that the audience should not have any input; but this should be moderated input via the … well, who else but the moderator; in fact, it would be a good idea to have a two-headed moderation team, so one person can concentrate on the discussion between the participants while the other can deal with the audience. Twitter seems to work well for this, but basically anything that can work as a back channel is fine.
  • Set a clear, specific agenda and stick to it. Make sure that all participants agree with the agenda (another reason why a limited number of known participants is important). When Katrin originally sent me the agenda, I thought it was fairly specific and clear (and I would assume she did as well). However, less than five minutes into the meeting it turned out that point 2 of the agenda (“Overview of 1 Million Shirts (Jason)/Goals and plan”) would not be covered at all because it had been superseded by events.
  • Moderate extremely strictly. Even in longer calls, time is precious and is easily wasted. Set strict time slots for each introductory presentation, impose time limits for questions and answers, don’t allow people to talk when not called upon by the moderator, ensure that people stick to the agenda contents and answer the questions asked instead of going on tangents, and ruthlessly mute anybody who does not play by the rules. Nobody will like you for it, but then, a moderator’s task is not to be liked.
  • Coverage of the meeting should go through several channels and be as ‘live’ as possible. I think the live tweeting by Linda Raftree and parallel use of an Etherpad was very helpful for audience engagement (especially those who did not have access to live audio), and something similar should be planned for future convos.

Other thoughts?

This has been an interesting and possibly revolutionary event. I have jotted down some of my thoughts, but I am sure that many of you will have very different or additional ideas. Please fire away in the comments!

More reading

The audio of the meeting can be downloaded from Katrin’s blog, Things I like (which, BTW, is a title I like); there is a transcript on Unicef’s Etherpad, and you can find live tweets in Linda Raftree’s twitter stream. A tweet archive with all tweets marked #1millionshirts can be found at Twapperkeeper. Rachel in Goma comes up with the first original idea after the convo of how Jason could do an incredible amount of good. Saundra Schimmelpfennig wonders whether there will ever be an end to well-intended but ill-informed ventures like this (my take: no, but that doesn’t mean we should give up the fight). Danielle at Ecoblips muses on some of the more negative lessons from the convo; Linda responds with the positive.

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