The Curious Aid Worker: Storytelling with Marc Maxson (Part I)

Marc Maxson is not your usual aid worker.

Yes, he is a returned Peace Corps volunteer, lives in Kenya, works for a Washington D.C.-based non-governmental organization, and is married to someone also employed in aid.

But Marc Maxson also has a PhD in neuroscience.

So what does that enable Marc to do as an aid worker? Marc develops new conceptual approaches to solving “impossible” problems, of which there are many in international development.

For the last three years, Marc has been working with GlobalGiving to help them understand what difference the locally-based projects that their fundraising platform supports (almost 4,500 and counting) make at the community level.

Proving impact from small-scale efforts? Nothing more impossible than that, right?

But that’s where Marc comes in. He leads the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project, which asks people in communities all across East Africa to tell a story about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone or change something in their community.

The number of stories they’ve collected, numbering over 20,000, when stacked, weigh hundreds of pounds and would completely fill Marc’s old VW Golf and then some I imagine.

Marc shares in our conversation about how he is helping GlobalGiving to make meaning from this literal vault of data…


Jennifer: As I’ve been reading your blog, Chewy Chunks, Marc, I have many times found myself nodding and offering a big “Amen” as you share insights from your work with The Storytelling Project. Your findings often echo my knowledge of community change, which comes from my own accumulated experience over the years. What does this say to you about inductive ways of “knowing”?

Marc: Honestly, I had to wiki “inductive” just now to answer. I hadn’t thought about it as a matter of ‘inductive’ versus ‘deductive’ knowledge. Because we live in an age where gathering infinite bits of information is possible, I believe there has to be a point at which we have so much anecdotal information that reliable, quantifiable, reproducible, falsifiable patterns emerge. That’s the kind of knowledge that excites me.

If ‘inductive’ means to generalize from specific examples, you no longer have to make that leap if your body of working knowledge represents thousands of viewpoints.

Jennifer: M&E experts are likely to disparage qualitative data methods, one of the reasons being the inherent bias present during data collection within aid partnerships. How does the Storytelling Project reduce this level of bias?

Marc: I think the ‘experts’ rightly disparage qualitative methods because the samples are usually too small, and the conclusions we draw from them are subjective, interpretive, and non-reproducible. Our storytelling approach tries to solve this problem with massive, continuous story collection through thousands of people, and smart visual tools that help people see patterns and discuss their various interpretations.

We’ve required every organization to send 3-4 reports a year to our 200,000 donors. Last year we compared this information to community stories and found that there is a strong positive self-bias in these reports. Even though GlobalGiving would never punish an organization for a negative report, and since we neither fund nor implement these projects, you’d think there’s no reason for such a strong positive bias. But it’s there. It must be human nature.

We consistently see that those implementing the project are the least reliable storytellers. So we try to get information from people that are as far removed from the project as possible. We worked with our network of 300 NGOs in East Africa to recruit scribes – regular young people – who interview people they know and write the stories down on paper. I often get asked what I mean by “people” – we’re interested in the views of people running the projects and those who directly benefit, but want to look at them alongside stories from everybody else.

Jennifer: In the Storytelling Project, how do you define systemic “impact” and how do you go about measuring it?

Marc: Our definition of success is seeing organizations making decisions that are in part informed by community knowledge. When an organization can describe some action they took that they would have not otherwise taken without feedback in the form of community stories, we know we’re making a difference.

Our thinking about measuring this has evolved. At the moment, we think that these stories will primarily serve our network of partner organizations. Tracking the reaction that organizations have to this information about themselves and the communities where they work (or about some complex social problem to address) will tell us much more about each organization than the stories themselves. It’s a way of quantifying organizational curiosity, and curious organizations are more likely to be innovators, community-focused, and quick learners. But really, it’s just a few individuals within each organization that make the “organization curious,” so I’m already thinking about how we track individual behaviors on a massive scale, so that the best leaders get recognized and rewarded.

Jennifer: Like me, you also interact with many grassroots organizations who have to exhibit a “funders be damned” attitude and carry on without external funding. In your opinion, why do local leaders do this?

Marc: These people are invested in the project. It isn’t a job; it is a cause. And often they believe that their project will have a greater impact than whatever some funder wants done. It happens at the local level, with VAP in Kenya when a head teacher writes her cell phone number on the board for girls to call 24-7, or with More Than Me in Liberia, whose founder travels the world from couch to couch like a vagabond raising money to keep girls in school. It also happened at my organization, when Mari and Dennis had the vision to start up GlobalGiving.

Jennifer: In my experience, the smaller the organization, the easier it sometimes is to determine the level community ownership of its programs, as key personal relationships hold leaders downwardly accountable. Unfortunately, this is often counter-intuitive to much of the unexamined thinking and practices in the development sector. Are you finding similar results in the Storytelling Project?

Marc: Can’t say yet. We’re just starting to build dynamic feedback loops. I’ve met with plenty of organizations to demo various visualization tools, like SenseMaker® from Cognitive Edge. But there’s a learning curve with these tools. I’m eager to see what happens when we start giving people the ability to query stories and information via SMS. But that’s just starting.

If you think that community awareness of projects is a proxy for community ownership, check out my recent blog post of computer-generated “community NGO maps” for various cities in Kenya and Uganda. It’s clear that some projects and organizations are talked about more than others, but half the stories of community change are not about NGOs at all, but individuals. It’s time NGOs realized they’re not the center of the community, and figured out how to work with the individuals who are.

Jennifer: You’ve written that GlobalGiving’s online fundraising platform for local organizations is a test of whether they understand how to build community trust. How can more donors include this skill as the core of “capacity building”?

Marc: Study game theory. This is the decade of the game. Last decade Facebook and sites like that enabled social interactions to be global, dynamic, and quantifiable. Now they’ve enabled us to promote behaviors that make our partners better leaders.

What we do is really simple. We train people on how to fundraise online (which they all want to do well), then we test them in an Open Challenge (this is our 19th cycle?). People either pass or fail. Successes become permanent partners and failures repeat the training. I’d encourage other organizations to actually test those they train and reward/punish more. There has to be something at stake.


–See Part II of my conversation with Marc here.–

To learn more about Marc’s work, you can follow his blog, Chewy Chunks, or reach him at: You can also browse, filter, and probe the over 20,000 stories of GlobalGiving’s Storytelling Project collected from Kenya and Uganda at:

To check out GlobalGiving’s latest open challenge leader board, see:


Related Posts

A “what if…?” moment

Would YOU fund this organization?

161 Indicators, and then what?

Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid

Why Organizations Matter


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  2. Its worth pointing out that Global Giving are using Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker® under license for this capture (its a lot more than a visualisation tool). Marc is doing some interesting work with text analysis on top of that using some base level tools. I suspect that a sentiment analysis tool set would produce comparable and interesting results in combination with the more abductive (yes that is in wikipedia too) approach that is enabled by the signification of meaning that takes place at the point of collection and is part of the analysis tools within SenseMaker®.

    Personally I still think the words of a story are only a part of the meaning. With the collection process the story teller interprets their story into a framework thus increasing objectivity and creating quantitative data. We frequently find that the meaning and the words don’t appear to match up. on first analysis, people say things like “They have not interpreted their stories properly” which of course means they understand their content in a different way from you. There is a lot of cultural meaning behind words and its easy to filter even names through a specific perspective or belief system. The goal of all this is to empower the owner of the story not the interpreter or aid worker to determine what the story means.

    There are a dozen or so SenseMaker® development projects at the moment, and another may link with GG in partnership for capture in Africa. So overall there are some interesting prospects here. For those interested Irene (who with myself was on the first GG project and who is leading most of the current ones) is the guest blogger on the CE site at the moment. A position Marc has also occupied in the recent past.

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