In this episode of the Do Good Better Podcast I talk about my new role in Myanmar (Burma), and share a conversation with Michael Lenczner of PoweredbyData on how nonprofit organizations can be thinking strategically about data at a sector level.
(While based in Myanmar, I am posting both personal travel experiences like this one, as well as non-profit sector-specific posts about my work doing civil society mapping. If you get my blog via email and don’t want to see the personal travel posts or only want to see the travel posts, be sure to update which emails you receive via the link at the bottom of your email).
Here’s a highlight reel featuring 7 things that have filled my first month.
Going to work
I work at Local Resource Centre, generally M-F 9-5. To use North American terminology, LRC does training for local nonprofit organizations and does policy advocacy on behalf of the nonprofit sector to the Myanmar government.
My time here is focussed on figuring out what nonprofit organizations are up to in one of the southern states (Mon state) – who’s doing what, what their training needs are, what government policies help/hinder their work. If time allows I may do more states. In future posts I’ll share some of the practice behind my work (called civil society mapping). While I’m based in Yangon right now, I’ll be moving to Mawlamyine (the capital of Mon) in a few weeks.
Most of my days involve sitting at a desk and reading or writing. A few meetings here and there (e.g. the launch of the EU-funded international aid database, based on open data, very cool!, some UNDP meetings this week). It’ll get more interactive with local organizations once I’m moved.
There are about 15 people in my office, some of whom are often away facilitating training. Lunches = sharesies! I take the public bus to and from work most days – it costs 10-20c each way, and usually about 45 total including a bit of walking.
Two hospital visits
The first was after not feeling well for a week (I’ll spare you the finer details); the doctor diagnosed giardia, which spell check oddly wants to change to Guardia. The treatment for giardia has not been a treat, and I’m still waiting to see if it sorts my health out.
The second visit was after falling down a few stairs in my house. Slippers be slippery, plus it was the morning after taking my giardia medication and I wasn’t feeling great. Blood pressure at the hospital was 87/59. I took a gash out of my arm, and while I didn’t get stitches, I’ve got the special sticky tape to keep the rip together. I’m not supposed to get it wet for 5 days and I have no idea how I’m going to pull that off with the humidity, multiple showers a day, and the rainy season. That and not bend it. I have to get a colleague to put my hair in a ponytail. It’s a challenge.
And now I have a cold, so basically this last week has sucked a lot.
The weather is consistent here, I’ll give it that. Days are 31 (feels like 38 with humidity), nights get down to 25 outside. I dread the sun, when it gets both hot and humid. I love a dreary day here. I carry an umbrella at all times as is the custom—perfect for sun or rain.
I’m not a huge fan of air-conditioning, but we have been suggested to use it a little bit each day to keep the mould away. I usually put the aircon around 27 to cool down my body and my room before I go to bed.
Rainy season is almost over, then it will be hot and drier for a month or two, and then it’ll be —YAY— cold season, where it gets a bit hotter during the day, but cools down a lot at night. Can’t wait!!
Taking Myanmar classes
I’m taking language classes every Saturday and Sunday, and am totally enjoying it, especially learning to read the letters. So far I know about 8 consonants and 3 vowel tones that sound pretty much identical, which means I know about nothing.
Going to Super Win beer station
This is the Friday night haunt for Ken (my fellow Cuso International volunteer, and roomate) and me. Mugs of draft Myanmar beer are 700 Kyat (pronounced “jat”, about 70c) and you can get almost any type of vegetable/tofu/meat BBQed. Last Friday I invited folks+friends from my language class, including Ivan from Belarus and Erika from New York, and we had a good crowd of 8 in all, coming volunteers, teachers, and telecom consultants from a total of 5 countries.
This what I collect when I travel (other than art) – salon experiences! This cut is possibly my favourite cut ever—in Canada or otherwise—and it cost me 1000 Kyat (about $1). She cut it dry and then blow dried it with cold air. Not sure how that works, but I was pleased with the results. Pity it’s so sticky here and have my hair up all the time.
Digging into Myanmar life
So far I’ve been to a wedding, had lots of mohinga (a noodle soup staple), and done a lot of walking around, exploring markets and side streets and more. I’ve got to experience the horrid traffic, watch the smart phone connected young folk in their K-pop attire, and shower with a bucket of water and a cup (about 20 cups without washing my hair) when the water or power is out.
A few more photos from my first month:
And finally, a bit on the dichotomy on wealth/poverty. These last two are directly across the street from one another.
I’m heading to Myanmar (Burma) for six months. Literally on my way now (writing this from the Vancouver airport).
Out of the blue you say? Yeah, for me too. There was less than 4 weeks between accepting the offer from Cuso International and leaving the country. In the middle I’ve rented my condo, got vaccinations and the variety of health/police checks, got my foster cat adopted, spent 5 days in training in Ottawa with Cuso, visited family, and wrapped up a few non-travel things. It’s been a whirlwind.
What am I doing in Myanmar?
Doing what I do in Canada, but in a new context. While I don’t know the specifics, my volunteer role title is “Stakeholder Mapping Consultant”. I’ll be working with Local Resource Centre,a central umbrella/capacity building/hub organization to the nonprofit sector—aka civil society in Myanmar—in their new Mawlamyine office.
I’ll be researching what is going on in civil society in Mon state, the “landscape” – who’s doing what, with who, for who, to what ends, with what resources, with what skills, and with what challenges. And going from there. Or so I understand at the moment. It’s possible that my work may change once I’m there, but I’m sure it will stay in the general realm of “nonprofit sector capacity building.”
I’ll blend my skills for listening, asking good questions, facilitating, researching, and strategizing, to learn about civil society in Mon state and give that learning back to the sector.
Want to contribute to Cuso International’s work (and get good vibes and a tax receipt)? I’m trying to raise $500 before my birthday on September 9th. Donate here!
What will I continue while away?
I’ll continue my outreach re: a data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector. It can take time for money and other assets to come together, so I’ll stay in touch with a variety of stakeholders and collaborators.
My research agenda aka manifesto—emergent trends that I feel the nonprofit sector needs to act on. I want to increase my focus on these areas in a research and strategy capacity upon my return, so I’ll continue to network with allies and share my thinking as time allows (like I am doing with the data strategy). I’ll share this research agenda in a future post.
Staying connected. Depending on internet access, I’d like to have at least one Skype chat a week with an interesting person in order to stay connected, stay inspired, and stay informed.
What am I putting on hold?
I’m not taking on any new contracts while I’m away, but am happy to have exploratory conversations about future contracts. I’ll be back in Canada for the end of the fiscal year for Canadian government and many other clients, so I’ll be ready to jump into contract work and consulting upon my return.
Do Good Better Podcast. I hope to release the remaining interviews I’ve already conducted, but unless it fits with my work objectives in Myanmar, I won’t be spending time on it while away.
Wish me luck and health! Stay in touch—it’s a connected world, even in Myanmar.
PS. Will you donate to Cuso? It’ll take you about 5 minutes online, and you will get my gratitude and a charitable tax receipt (or my non-Canadian friends, you’ll get just get my gratitude)!
At the end of July, I convened a group of nonprofit sector leaders and influencers to talk about the potential for a data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector.
tl;dr version: There was a lot of interest, but consensus that more “meat on the bone” is needed in order for organizations to know where this could go and where they could fit in. A backbone organization and some initial financial investment are needed to take this first (and future) steps. Join the email list to be a part of future developments.
Why a data strategy?
The nonprofit sector often struggles to gather and analyze the necessary information necessary to make optimal decisions.
Answering important questions like “Who’s working in this area? Who’s serving population X? Who else could we collaborate with? Who else is funding this work? Who has had success solving Y? What is the baseline data on issue Z?” requires a lot of tedious research, knowledge that’s not written down, or access to costly databases AND results in too many Excel spreadsheets that aren’t shared.
There is currently no organization responsible for developing a plan for nonprofit and social impact data in British Columbia, and different pieces of the puzzle (e.g. data re: fundraising, governmental relations, operations, volunteering, policy advocacy, grant-making) are held by a variety of actors.
New open data policies and practices at the municipal, provincial and federal level represent tremendous opportunities, as do new powerful and inexpensive online tools for analysis and collaboration. By creating a collaborative and coordinated data strategy we can help different stakeholders in the nonprofit sector: grassroots organizations, large agencies, volunteers, policy makers, institutional funders and donors.
The timing was a perfect storm (a good one). I had met Michael Lenczner from PoweredbyData earlier this year and knew his work with the Ontario Nonprofit Network on this topic in that province. Michael and I chatted about collaborating on similar work in BC. Michael was planning a trip to BC. We were able to confirm a few key individuals to a specific date. And so invites went out. The rest was a question mark.
There are no natural provincial network/umbrella organizations for which a data strategy is a mission fit. We don’t have the equivalent to the Ontario Nonprofit network. I was convening as an independent consultant interested in emerging trends and issues facing the nonprofit sector. I see strategic use of data and technology as a key pillar of a healthy future nonprofit sector. So I, along with Michael, acted as convenor of nonprofit leadership in BC.
We had participation from Vancouver Foundation, United Way Lower Mainland, Vancity, bc211, Vantage Point, SFU, UBC, BoardVoice, Open Data BC, open data and social innovation leaders with the BC government, and more! I was thrilled with the RSVPs considering it was middle summer. This participant list is obviously not exhaustive of nonprofit sector leadership. It was very Vancouver-centric. But it’s a starting point.
You can see the meeting slides here (not much context if you weren’t there, but you can still check it out) and read summaries of the meeting here (my summary, PDF) and here (summary by participant Michael Davis of BoardVoice). The general consensus was one of interest a feeling that more“meat on the bone” is needed in order for organizations to know where this could go and where they could fit in. A backbone organization and some initial financial investment are needed to take this first (and future) steps.
I look forward to seeing where this goes. As I emphasized at the meeting, as an independent actor I don’t have the positional/organizational authority to strategize on behalf of the nonprofit sector. Sector leadership needs to buy in and own in order for this to move forward at all. BUT I would love to play a role in bridging the BC context with strategic data thinking, and to collaborate with the thought leadership that Michael Lenczner and PoweredbyData brings to this topic.
Does data interest you? Join the email list to be a part of future development. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to chat or are interested in investing in this process.
When others remark positively on your leadership characteristics, how do you respond?
If you’re like me, not well.
A colleague/friend/mentor recently told me that he sees me as someone who has a strong vision for the future for the nonprofit sector, and that I do work with others who also want to get there. I’m out in front. I’m a sector thought leader.
I did not accept the compliments of ‘visionary’ and ‘futurist’ gracefully. He told me that while I might not see myself as a sector leader, I should not get in the way of others who see me in that light. He thought that I picture my circle of influence as much smaller than it is and could be.
Something for me to chew on. I don’t question my ability, but as an independent actor outside of the nonprofit sector institutional framework, I do question my influence at a high level sometimes. It’s not that I’m not interested in influence at a high level, but it’s not the first lens that I see my work through.
I’m a bit of a “keep your head down and work hard in service of clients and educating others” kind of person. Framing my work in a different, more expansive, light, is not something that comes instinctively. This obviously relates back to my interest in quiet changemakers–those who do great work and have great influence irrespective of the spotlight.
A better, alternative, response my colleague’s comments might have been
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say that.
Simply. Acknowledge. The gift.
How do you respond to professional compliments?
When others around you speak of your personal or organizational influence, does it match how you see yourself?
What’s the story others tell about you? What’s the story you tell about you? What’s the story you want others to tell about you? And are you reaching high enough?