Last week the Salzburg Global Seminar organized two back-to-back meetings which brought together passionate enthusiasts in the field of new media for three days, and then traditional funders of media development for another three days. Josh Goldstein of UNICEF Innovation and Erik Hersman of Ushahidi each blogged about the gathering. There has also been a flurry of blogging by Anne Nelson and Susan Moeller on the Strengthening Independent Media blog.

During the first meeting I gave a presentation about my experience funding citizen media projects over the past two and a half years. I have posted the full presentation over at Idea Lab, but a couple excerpts:

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This is the point I want to emphasize today. Citizen media is still a new field and most funders don’t like to invest in a new field until they feel that they have sufficiently researched it. The research is costly. Big-name academics like Henry Jenkins and Jonathan Zittrain and are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with self-evident (though barely comprehensible) conclusions, including that there is an online participation gap and that generative technologies are good.

This money can be and should be invested more effectively.

At Rising Voices the micro-grants we award are so small (between $2,000 – $5,000) that we are able to easily invest in high-risk projects that may seem doomed for failure. One such project was “Think Build Change Salone“, which aimed to develop an internship program to place Sierra Leonean youth (including ex-combatants) at select development NGO’s and then pay them a small stipend to blog about their experiences. It would have been an ambitious project anywhere in the world, but we must remember that at the time of the project Sierra Leone was ranked the least developed country in the world, and is still recovering from a brutal decade-long civil war.

In the end, the project did no pan out. But from a funder’s perspective, Vickie’s fascinating report about what went wrong and what went right during the project is absolutely worth the $2,000 we invested. Rather than funding costly research (almost always by western academics) about the challenges to local development, it is better to invest in high risk, local projects and learn from the challenges they encounter.

(As a brief aside, I’ll mention that three other high-risk projects we have invested in are 1) Ceasefire Liberia, which has trained avid bloggers in Monrovia, 2) Nomad Green, which has established a committed group of environmental citizen journalists in Mongolia, and 3) Drop-In Center, which has helped give voice and credibility to Ukraine’s nascent harm reduction movement. All three should have failed, but succeeded because of the passion of their coordinators and participants.)

9) Have fun

Mikel Maron works on international outreach for OpenStreetMap, an open-source Wikipedia-like version of Google Maps. He organizes events in Palestine, India, Kenya, and elsewhere to show citizens how to use basic GPS devices to build open-licensed maps of their communities. But he calls these events “mapping parties” rather than “workshops” our “capacity building events.” The point is to have a good time, and to develop some valuable information in the process.

I know this sounds like something a young person feels compelled to include in his presentation, but the reality is that the return on investment for fun is extremely high and under-recognized by funders. One of the most difficult activities to fundraise for at Global Voices is our annual summit where our tireless volunteer authors and translators from around the world come together once a year for discussions, strategizing, workshops, and most importantly, to have fun. A couple years ago we asked our volunteer authors what incentivizes them to work so hard on Global Voices without receiving pay. A few of them mentioned the importance of giving greater voice and representation to the citizens of their countries. Others pointed to the benefits of belonging to a global, supportive community which values free speech and tolerance. But just about everyone said they hoped to be invited to the annual Global Voices Summit. If a funder is willing to invest in three days of fun, the return on that investment is a year of valuable content from volunteers based all over the world.

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