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

For the last three years, Marc Maxson has been working with GlobalGiving to help them understand what difference the 4,500 locally-based projects that their fundraising platform supports make at the community level. He leads the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project, which asks people in communities all across Kenya and Uganda 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 now numbers over 20,000.

Below I share more from our conversation (see part 1 here) about how Marc, a PhD in neuroscience, is helping GlobalGiving to make meaning from this data…


Jennifer: In your blog, Chewy Chunks, you’ve written about a concept termed “social prosperity”? What is this and why is it important to international development at the community level?

Marc Maxson of GlobalGiving’s Storytelling Project talking to a group of girls during a project visit in Kenya last year. You can read about one of Marc’s favorite GlobalGiving programs, the “Mrembo Project” in Majengo, Kenya at:

Marc: Social prosperity is the idea that people prosper through their interdependence on friends, family, and neighbors. In my travels, I’ve met many inspiring people who built an organization from just an idea into a life-changing adventure. And what they all have in common is that somebody else was their mentor, inspiration, vision-seeder before they started. Enouce Ndeche of VAP met someone while volunteering for Special Olympics that planted the idea that he could teach youth about HIV through sports. Now he’s doing that for hundreds of kids, and extended this idea to teach kids that the seeds of political corruption, like HIV, start with personal life choices. There’s a kid who builds windmills out of trash and powers his village, a woman in Marsabit (Fatuma of HODI) who gives girls reasons to not get married at age 12, and an Indian teen who built a 1 watt FM radio station out of household junk. All of these visionaries are to some extent reflections of others who inspired and challenged them.

This is the whole enchilada, folks. Everything about international development boils down to people and the other people around them. Systems make us better people, or break us down. If you want prosperity, a community will only prosper together.

Jennifer: In your work, you’ve been able to analyze what you call “NGOish” words, or the development lexicon used by organization staff and volunteers and how it differs from the story lexicon used by community members. What are the implications of this, of which development practitioners should be aware?

Marc: This began because certain phrases that roll off our tongue have no real-world correlate in storytelling. The concept itself is slippery, constantly morphing, like a virus. For example, many stories are about “Human rights” or “Empowerment,” and yet these words never appear. It means we need new methods to define these lofty ideas in tangible terms chosen by the community, so that the quantitative guys can do their job.

People (mostly “experts” educated by other “experts”) write long, detailed reports for themselves. But comparing two bodies of text reveals that NGOs and community members speak two different languages, quantitatively. A friend calls me a “word cruncher” because these differences are determined algorithmically, not subjectively.

The implications of this are:

  1. Experts don’t really understand the local context of complex social problems, at least not in the same terms that local people do.
  2. Jargon is supposed to clear up confusion, but it can obfuscate a real lack of knowledge. Lumping 20 kinds of psychological violence into “human rights” might help raise general awareness, but won’t provide insights if there are 20 root causes for these different problems.
  3. Local leaders are excluded from the funding world until they learn to speak NGO.

Some fun, scathing, and quantifiable things this allows you to do:

  • Exclude all jargon from all the language of big reports, and see what they actually say.
  • Lexicons can be used to measure similarities and differences between groups.
  • I use the lexicons to cluster stories into similar groups.

Jennifer: What would you say to development practitioners whose experience demonstrates to them that most grassroots organizations are incapacitated at best, and corrupt at worst?

Marc: Yes, there’s a lot of that. But I would say that if that is your general impression, then you’ve been walking around slums with a big dollar sign bull’s eye on your back. Or you’ve been driving a white SUV through a village to get the “authentic” feel of some project. If you pulled a Costanza and did the exact opposite, and tried to live at the level of the community with no power to fund anything at all, the true community leaders – both capable of greatness and simultaneously denied the opportunity to prove it – would start to appear. Earnest people often get drowned out by an army of opportunistic self-interested pseudo-implementers out there.

However, there are 4 million community-based organizations in the world. These feed the lion’s share of the world’s hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the orphans. Their collective impact is much greater than any organization with a logo. Likewise, individual cash donations to organizations dwarf “official development assistance” from big countries and mega charities. Still more mind-boggling is that the global “remittance economy” dwarfs all private giving. We are insignificant. If the World Bank wanted to be significant, they would (a) facilitate cheap money transfers to/from the world’s poor and (b) ask the donor to give 5% to a local charity of their choice in lieu of the fee. That would generate $25 billion for those 4 million CBOs right there, ~$6,250 for each one, tripling the budgets of these on average. And it would save the world’s poorest another $50 billion that currently ends up in the global banking system.

Jennifer: USAID has recently been engaged in a process to determine how it can better channel its resources to/through local organizations. When it comes to advising larger donors, do you have any insights about how they can begin to adjust their procedures to differentiate the effective local groups from the opportunistic or “capacitated” [e.g. professionalized, capital-city based] ones?

Marc: I like the philosophy that UN Global Pulse is adopting about “data exhaust.” The information already exists, but we’ve underutilized technology to organize it and make it work for us. However it is still just in the concept phase. I do think the Storytelling Project will provide a pretty good picture of which organizations are worthy of more funding. But if that was all that these stories were used for, it would quickly be overrun by manipulators. Instead, I’m keen to see a sort of digital direct democracy emerge where millions of community members each get asked “Would you rather us give a dollar to org A or org B?” In the aggregate, more money gets to the right place this way, and it takes the funding out of the hands of people who often succumb to political pressures to make “non-evidence-based” decisions.

Jennifer: As the Storytelling Project continues to describe the work of local leaders and organizations on the ground, do you think is it what most people would recognize as “development”? Why or why not?

Marc: No, I guess I’m hoping this will look more like democracy. Half the stories are not about NGOs. That’s significant. It means we’ve been talking to ourselves for too long and not listening.


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:


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  1. Tanya Cothran

    I love the idea of facilitating cheap money transfers! Spirit in Action gives very small grants to CBOs and it is often discouraging how much gets taken out by the bank both to send and receive the money.

    Also, on our recent trip to Kenya I really enjoyed meeting with the groups we had not funded before. I was really just interested in how they worked their projects and what decisions the group had made about how to run their micro-savings group.

  2. Douglas Otieno

    Yes Marc,
    This is commendable work,your findings reflect areal picture of what is happening within our communities.I love to be part of this,Hope you will give me more details on how to go about it. i love it!
    Thanks a lot

  3. I have loved this interview series! Thank you both for the insight on storytelling, the interplay between qualitative and quantitative factors, and the distinction between development and story lexicons. Fascinating and beautiful.

  4. Pingback: Storytelling through staring | Stories of Conflict and Love

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