The story of FORGE

About two weeks ago, something fascinating happened. Kjerstin Erickson, the director of FORGE, a small NGO that works with refugees in Zambia, posted on her blog at Social Edge. She said that FORGE was in major financial trouble and might have to shut down. The story has unfolded from there. A major philanthropy blogger wrote about FORGE on his blog, lauding their transparency. Consultants have been stepping up to help FORGE find a way to carry on. It’s become an opportunity to have some fascinating conversations about transparency, accountability, and what makes an NGO “deserve” to exist.

For something of such interest, this is getting no attention on Twitter; there is also surprisingly little attention from the web at large. I think this is because FORGE’s web presence is limited to the FORGE site and the Social Edge blog maintained by Kjerstin. Both of these are a good start but to create buzz you need to be all over the place. FORGE does not seem to have buzz.

FORGE needs a Twitter account immediately, as well as a friend feed account, and a Flickr pool. I know they have a very small staff, but they could work with a consultant to get the ball rolling (yes, I have contacted Kjerstin and offered to donate my services on this), and even some of the ongoing stuff could be done by a committed and well-informed volunteer. Their fundraising model – many small donations – is well suited to microblogging. So is their commitment to transparency. I’d love to see Kjerstin with a Twitter account, as well as someone in the field. Epic Change‘s use of social media would be a great model for FORGE.

Where is their board in all this? Sara Hall from New Philanthropy Advisors makes this point well. Why doesn’t their board care enough to give? And if they cannot give, why are they not out foraging for donations? FORGE can’t really overhaul their board now, but your board is not just a source of guidance or a required technicality. They should stand ready to open their pockets, call their friends, and do media on your behalf. The Nonprofiteer has some great writing on what your board should be doing for your non-profit.

Another thing: I hate to say this, but I don’t like the FORGE website. I think the writing is jargon-heavy, and obscures the power of their model and their message. I also think that the color and design is unwelcoming. In general, it feels very academic to me. It feels like something I am supposed to read about, not something I am supposed to be involved in.

Finally, I think FORGE is choosing the wrong selling points. Their main website page says “With FORGE, you can help end the cycle of war and poverty in Africa.” That doesn’t make them stand out from the scores of other organizations that work in Africa. They also emphasize that FORGE lets you choose how to support and change lives – again, that’s not very different from what everyone else is saying right now, especially Kiva. It’s all just more of the same. I also suspect that use of the catch-all “Africa,” instead of naming countries, may be off-putting to some people.

What is exciting about FORGE is that it is refugee-driven. Refugees themselves identify their needs, request funding, and implement their projects. FORGE just provides money and gives them tools and support as needed.

FORGE has the community drive and focus of a local NGO, paired with the accountability and transparency of an international organization. That’s exciting. That’s where they should shine their spotlight.