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Global Voices: Love and money

I’m just back from the Global Voices summit in Santiago, Chile. My headache hasn’t quite receded from the 970ml beers at 777 Alameda, but I had two flights and a long drive home to start processing the lessons of four days spent with dear friends from around the world – who happen to include some of the best minds in participatory media.

A breakout group at the GV summit, at the Santiago Public Library

A breakout group at the GV summit, at the Santiago Public Library

We’ve thrown five summits so far, including our inception meeting at Harvard in 2004, and from each meeting, an informal theme has emerged. For me, the theme of GV Santiago was “love or money?” This isn’t a new question for most nonprofit organizations, or indeed, for anyone involved in citizen media. Money’s generally a lousy reason to start a nonprofit or to write a blog. But the issue is layered and nuanced, as I started to discover through our discussions about what makes Global Voices function.

For the past year, we’ve been considering an interesting problem that confronts media as a whole – the Babel problem. As I’ve written elsewhere, the internet is becoming more multilingual as people, organizations and publications from all over the world come online. If you, like me, are a mostly monolingual English speaker, you can read a smaller percentage of the Internet every day. And if you live in the US, the meltdown of advertising supported journalism means that you’re getting less coverage of international news… which means we might need to find ways to unlock important citizen or professional media coverage in Laotian or Latvian.

GV’s been a pioneer in this space. From early on, we’ve been translating blog posts from over thirty languages into English so they can reach a broader audience. For almost four years, we’ve been offering editions in languages other than English, relying on volunteers to translate articles they’re interested in and want to share with their language communities. The question we’ve been asking this past year: does it make sense to try to use Global Voices to translate other types of content?

There’s a mercenary aspect to this question, of course – if Global Voices could somehow be transformed into a translation services bureau, the resulting revenue could allow us to support more bloggers in disadvantaged communities, document more threats to freedom of speech online… or simply fly our friends to cool corners of the world more often than once every two years. But there’s a mission-driven reason as well – so long as translation is expensive and difficult for media outlets, they’re unlikely to feature views from people who don’t speak English (or whatever language their readers/listeners/viewers speak.)

Marc Herman, who’s been working hard on this issue for GV, provocatively offered this formulation: “How do mainstream media organizations deal with translation? They don’t.” I tweeted this comment and got immediate pushback from my friend Richard Sambrook, formerly director of BBC’s Global News division, who pointed out that BBC is now producing content in many languages and translating between them, incorporating views expressed in many languages. But BBC is the exception, not the rule – language is a barrier for many news outlets and can prevent local views and opinions from coming to light.

Given GV’s mission of amplifying voices that go unheard, it makes sense that we might consider helping media by translating local voices, especially in the context of breaking news. But GV’s also a volunteer driven organization – the vast majority of the people who produce our content aren’t compensated financially (more about this in a moment.) Volunteers aren’t always able to drop everything and translate comments for a breaking news story about an earthquake or a protest – if we wanted to offer this service to news outlets, it might make sense for us to compensate translators for their timely responses.

This idea – as well as the broader idea of offering money to people in the GV community translate content from, say, a Haitian Creole newspaper into English – brings up the apparent paradoxes around love and money that make GV work. It takes thousands of people to produce the content that shows up in a month’s worth of Global Voices, and only a couple dozen are compensated fiscally. We pay our full-time staff – our executive and managing directors, our managing editor, our technology director, our directors of advocacy and of the Rising Voices project – and we pay salaries that are badly below market rates and we don’t provide meaningful benefits. (Everyone is treated as a contractor, rather than as an employee.) Our editors, who are responsible for managing whole regions or languages worth of content (“North Africa and Middle East” is a region for Global Voices, but so is “Francophonia”) are paid $800 a month, with the expectation that they put roughly 20 hours a week into the job… in other words, slightly above the US minimum wage. We pay some of the coordinators of our lingua (translated) sites… but only the ones where we’ve been able to secure funding. The others volunteer… as do all the lingua translators and the authors who write posts about a particular post or issue, who collectively represent about 90% of our community. And we don’t compensate the bloggers, videographers, photographers, etc. whose content we feature on the site. (And no, we don’t pay board members either. :-)

We do compensate people in other ways. Authors and translators who are especially productive get invited to our biannual summits, and we pay for travel, hotels and a modest stipend for meals. This isn’t cheap – given the global distribution of our community, we’re not talking about bus tickets, but airfare from, say, Antananarivo to Santiago. Being featured on Global Voices can be a big boost for someone’s journalistic career, and we know of many people in our community who’ve leveraged experience with Global Voices into a paying job.

But most of the compensation is in love, not money. People work on Global Voices because it’s a chance to represent their community to the wider world, to show people the fascinating conversations taking place in their local blogospheres. They translate to preserve their language, to ensure that there’s content online in languages like Malagasy or Aymara, to share their work with friends and neighbors who don’t read English. They do it because they’ve fallen in love with the mission, or the people behind the project, or the joy of doing something more meaningful than what they do every day at work. (I heard a wonderful story from a GV editor who stayed at a miserable job longer than she should because it gave her a fast internet connection and a good opportunity to translate content for GV on company time.)

Given our surplus of love and surfeit of money, you’d think we might move towards a system where we ask people to do more for free and less for pay. But certain things are hard to buy without money. By paying a talented tech director, we make it possible for him to pay the rent without taking on other consulting gigs which would prevent him from answering our desparate phonecalls at 2am when the site goes down. And being able to spend money means we’re able to get contributions from parts of the world where there’s less of a culture of volunteering… or less ability for people to volunteer. GV based entirely on money would be untenable – it would cost millions a year, and be impossible to sustain. But GV based entirely on love would likely be unsustainable in its own ways – it would end up overly reliant on and representative of those who are lucky enough to not worry about money.

That’s the backdrop against which these conversations about money play out. I’d been interested in the idea of GV launching a translation service because I thought it would provide opportunities for our talented and undercompensated translators to make money using their skills. Several translators pushed back against the idea – they translate for GV because they’re fascinated by the content, because they enjoy choosing what they work on, because they’re able to take the time to do a careful, thorough, loving job. Adding money to that equation could – would? – break what works.

What happens when money comes into other corners of the GV world? Bernardo Parrella, editor of Global Voices in Italiano, has negotiated a deal where La Stampa, Turin’s largest newspaper, features Global Voices in Italian and pays a significant sum to GV to support reporting and translation. I was thrilled to hear about this deal. We’ve been fighting an uphill battle for over five years to get mainstream publications to feature our work – having a respected paper compensate us for our work as well as featuring it seemed like a huge step in the right direction.

Other members of the community disagreed. By offering our content to newspapers, aren’t we just letting papers lay off more staff who’d be dedicated towards international coverage? Is it fair for a organization that runs on money to rely on content produced by an organization that runs mostly on love?

Excellent questions. GV chose the most liberal of Creative Commons licenses – attribution (or BY) – because we wanted other media outlets to have as few barriers to entry as possible if they wanted to use our content. Rebecca and I were working on GV in part because we worried that international media coverage in American news outlets was poor and getting worse – we knew it was a struggle to get any (non-crisis) developing world stories into the media and didn’t want to put a payment barrier in front of La Stampa or anyone else who wanted to feature content from Madagascar or Morocco.

Was that the right decision? I don’t know. The closer I look at Global Voices through the lens of love and money, the more I realize I don’t know. It’s disconcerting, like looking at the insides of a piece of technology – the engine compartment of my truck, the innards of my laptop – that I rely on but don’t completely understand. I don’t get how the pieces all operate, so I’m reluctant to tinker with any of them. Instead, I close the lid and hope that everything keeps functioning smoothly.

If you want your truck to crank out more horsepower or to run on biodiesel, you’ve got to understand how the engine works, not just shut the hood and ignore it. There are aspects of GV that I wish ran better – I wish we were better at covering some parts of the world, better at having our content featured in mainstream publications, better at providing opportunities for the people whose love keeps our community going.

Understanding how to tune the engine of any organization that works on both love and money – and what organization doesn’t? – requires some deep understanding that I don’t yet have. I know it when I see it working: TED’s amazing translation project, producing 7,000 talks translated by 4,000 volunteers, including 70 languages – required a huge investment of money to build a technology infrastructure that now runs primarily on love. Wikipedia has used love to build the world’s largest encyclopedia… but has discovered that love alone doesn’t produce sufficient content in some of the world’s neediest corners. Now it’s trying to use the money that love has attracted to build out some of the smaller Wikipedias to serve huge populations of poor people.

Is there an organizational physics of love and money that could be discovered and documented? Can we experiment, sliding balls down inclined ramps until we understand the basic laws that let an organization succeed or fail? Or are love and money quantum effects, where experimentation and observation are bound to change the underlying phenomena?

So much I don’t understand. And so I close the lid and pray it just keeps working.

17 thoughts on “Global Voices: Love and money”

  1. bernardo.parrella

    i think it is and will always be a struggle to find the right balance between love & money, not just within GV or similar organizational structure, but just in the everyday life; and so, while it’s fair thanks ethan, great insight!

    yes, sometime to just “close the lid and pray” it’s normal and successful – but i feel this approach cannot work forever and at times is not enough…

    since at the summit we often referred to GV as a grand-child or a growing kid, i’d push this analogy: being a parent myself (unlike most GVers ;), i know for a fact that love and money must go together to provide for my daughter in any sense, one cannot exists without the other, otherwise sooner or later there’ll be catastrophic consequences for my family — so in order to ensure her full growth as a person, there must be this fluid balance of love & money (and other things of course)

    and in the same fashion i believe that we as GVers should avoid to put ourselves in a little corner and being afraid to have to deal with money, MSM and big names; this is not a love vs. money situation, we can have them both, here & now – if we work all together to strike the necessary balance

    similarly to my parenting example, i think such integration would actually mean a healthy and adult growth for my daughter AND for each and all GVers, and will reaffirm GV as a different kind of organization in today’s cultural, media, and human landscapes worldwide – avoiding possible crisis or even an implosion…

    maybe we don’t need a so deep understanding of every single mechanism in the engine, neither we should just pray….there are other options, and we as GVers should not be afraid to tweak and experiment in a grown-up way with new challenges and opportunities

  2. Dear Ethan,
    Thank you for addressing these issues! From my perspective, it is important that we now have a thorough internal discussion about these and similar issues, but first of all I believe it fundamental that we first go over, disseminate and analyze the documentation of the summit, or else I fear that any discussion will be to no avail. Adding to your perspective, my superficial reflection is that very much of this is due to the iron law of organization. As I perceive it, GV has constant expansion over the last years, but there has been little time for consolidation, restating or reviewing the principles, tasks, and focus of our community. So, in my humble opinion, the focus for any discussion should originate from the mission and subsequent organization of our common efforts to uphold Global Voices as the great community it has been over the last few years. If we do so successfully, I believe the money and love equation may become secondary, by focusing and restating the core mission of GV, without necessarily curtailing the multiplicity of views and perspectives that likewise constitutes the motivation and direction of our common efforts.



  3. Hi Ethan,

    I think the balance between love and money, or should I say the conflict between them, is the point of it all. It is one of the fundamental lessons we learn, not about the organisation, but ourselves. I think the question is, why do I do what I do at GV? Why does everyone else? The point of it all is for each of us to face the dillemma as individuals and decide for ourselves why we are doing it.

    And, from what I can see, most of the people I have met in Chile have already made that decision, and that is why GV works and continues to work the way it does. It fuels something far greater than our collective individual ego’s. A theologian will call it “God’s Work”… and I can’t find a better explanation myself, although I would say it is only a piece of “God’s Work”.

    We all just need to continue to strive and fulfil the aim of the decision we’ve all made when joining the front line of GV :)



  4. Why should love and money be two opposite things. May be they both are one thing, motives. It’s motives that makes us do what we do in GV. Some people’s motive is the ego-factor, some others do it because they love being a part of an organization like that, and others find it the best way to boost the image and the voices of their country, etc.
    Each one has his own motive, or set of motives, and as Bernard said, they aren’t mutually exclusive.
    In fact, I believe we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the love-money binary, and try to find out and tackle other motives different people might have. As you said, some people find it a good way to boost their journalism career, and others find it a good way to make themselves more popular in their local blogosphere, etc.

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  7. I personally don’t see GV work so much as “volunteering” but more as a kind of activism (in the broadest sense of the word). A group of people who sometimes just can’t help doing things that “need” doing, and they make it easier and more fun for each other to do them. Tarek and Muhammad are right that everyone has their own reasons, but I think many of us are all drawn to GV because we understand the power of the platform/community. Plus GV is a willing and instant captivated audience, and we enjoy being a part of something that is bigger than ourselves and our own projects. How thrilling to play even a small part in different citizen media “uprisings” around the world, and what a big support when we ourselves are in the heart of a storm somewhere no one usually talks about.

    Not to belittle love – but I think there’s a broader spectrum of emotions at play. There’s passion, there’s outrage, there’s hope for change, there’s curiosity, and excitement. There’s sadness, solidarity, amazement, and ambition – and for many of us also deep fascination about what is possible on the web.
    It’s a kind of global sub-culture, but I also find it entirely economical in the sense that you usually get much more out of it than you put in – even if it can’t be quantified in dollars or pesos.

    I’m one of the people who gets paid to work for GV, but I see my role as more of a facilitator for the volunteering. The more I work, the easier and more rewarding (I hope) it makes it for others to volunteer – for instance through media or editorial partnerships that can be benefit all of our collective work AND sometimes also the issues we write/translate about. We can add money at different times or in different parts to improve quality or participation on certain issues (like adding grease to different parts of a machine), but the goal for me is to keep helping volunteer participation in GV be a rewarding and useful activity.

    I think some companies or organizations think of volunteers as people who do something “for” them out of charity. This relationship is mostly inverted at GV. Our organization exists for the volunteers to do their thing. And that is what produces the magic that makes us worth funding, and reading, and being a part of. As an organization, we help provide leadership and structure, but the goal is to strengthen and promote what the community thinks needs doing.

    Thankfully a little money goes a long way at GV (with the notable and expensive exception of buying plane tickets!). I’ve always found it touching that during our few donation drives – GV volunteers themselves have often been among the most generous. When we have been able to offer pay for commissioned writing or mentoring, there has always been strong support for a significant portion of the funds to go to GV as a whole. For me, this is evidence of the inverted relationship I am talking about. Our part of the bargain is to work hard to succeed at what people signed up to help accomplish. Perhaps the machine analogy in Ethan’s post isn’t the most helpful. I’d lean more towards Bernardo’s family example and ask “What does it take for love to flourish?”. You’d usually need a house and basic necessities, and also lots of mutual, respect, understanding, communication and shared aspirations.

  8. bernardo.parrella

    here is a somewhat critical but insightful post covering the two official days of the summit:


    i believe we addressed some of those criticism in the internal sessions, but in any case it’s worth to open up even more the discussion – here, there & elsewhere

    as for the “family” analogy, i strongly believe that in its 5 years GV was able to set up a nice, large house, basic necessities, and those shared values; in order to flourish even more, now that love needs to be tested in the real world, our GV-family-community is strong enough to venture out in the “wild” world and try out some of its best visions, even if this means sometime to compromise, to deal with money matters and similar mundane issues

    in that perspective, i believe that the final remark of that engagemedia.org article is absolutely right: in order to grow, GV needs to partner with “old media”, to join local on-field projects, to be part of “offline” changes — no need to be afraid or timid anymore…

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