Book review: Gang Leader for a Day

This review is long overdue as I read Gang Leader for a Day this summer.  I try to read as much as I can, it keeps my thinking about social services fresh and exposes me to new realities and ideas.  Gang Leader for a Day, written by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, highlights the living conditions and gang structure of an African American gang in a housing project in Chicago.  Venkatesh accumulated the information for the book over a multi-year ethnographic study.

The book is a quick, entertaining read, although I was disappointed that Venkatesh, writing for a wider audience, provides little academic analysis. The most useful takeaway from Gang Leader is that the residents of the housing project documented in the study view the gang as a part of the community, and not a solely negative one at that.  The gangs, while clear purveyors of drugs, act as a police presence for a community that has a poor relationship with the formal police force.  The gang also generates a lot of the community’s economic activity and actively donates to political causes and celebrated social service organizations.

In no way does Venkatesh come across as a gang sympathizer.  Rather, he is a realist, arguing that gangs play several roles in the community.  While I would recommend Gang Leader to someone looking for a fairly light read, I’m currently reading another Venkatesh book, Off the Books – the Underground Economy of the Poor which thus far seems to be a better blend of compelling ethnography and substantive analysis.

Merry Christmas, and why I hate charity

I hate charity.  People get the wrong idea about me, that because I’m in the social service sector somehow I like the idea of helping those less fortunate.  I promise, I don’t.

Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people. To some it’s a reminder of how great they have it and that they should be more giving to those who have less.  Those who have more might have volunteered today, given away a turkey to a needy family, and felt great about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to those who step up during the holidays to improve the lives of others, some people don’t care for anyone but themselves (I even dated one of them for a long time). Just because I am grateful to those who give does not mean that I like charity.

In order for there to be a giver, there must be a receiver. For there to be a hero, there must be a victim. Indeed the social service sector is one that exists to help those who are victims of the economy, physical violence, drugs and alcohol, mental illness, etc. I cannot relate to those in my sector who say they love charity.  How can anyone love this? I do what I do because I love people, but I don’t love charity.

So there you have it, I am a dedicated social servant who hates charity. Merry Christmas, here’s looking forward to a  future where your donations won’t be necessary.

Missing the mark: why business-mindedness cannot solve the problems of the non-profit sector

To think of all non-profits as comprising a homogenized “non-profit sector” obscures the realities of running any non-profit organization to the point of irrelevance. The term “non-profit” encompasses several subsectors which face drastically different challenges.

To talk about “business” is equally pointless. We tend to talk about the software industry, or automobile industry. When we talk about “business” in general, all that ties these organizations together is an interest in earning profit, nothing else. Similarly, the non-profit sector is a group of organizations that do not seek profit.

I am in the social service sector, as are most of you reading this post. Our knowledge of the non-profit sector is secondary to our expertise in social services, which is markedly different than the experience and expertise of those who work for museums, for example. In fact, we social service “nonprofits” have more in common with our government social service counterparts than non social service non-profits.

Those who advocate a “business-minded” approach to the problems of the non-profit sector have, so far, missed the mark in their solutions because all those non-profits that make up the “non-profit” sector have less in common with one another than those outside our sector acknowledge.

Wall Street bankers really messed up the U.S. economy. Why aren’t we talking about fixing “businesses”? The reason we aren’t talking about fixing businesses is because “business” is not broken, banking is.

A local florist has little to do with AIG. Treating the two as the same would produce useless advice. Yet it is that un-nuanced, generalized nonsense we are getting from those proponents of so-called “business mindedness.” Not coincidently, those who seek a “cure” to the woes of our sector by-and-large focus on fundraising, an important issue, but not the bottom line of any sub-sector.

In our sector, the bottom line is social outcomes. Alleviating human suffering be it poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, or other serious ailments. It is simply ludicrous reading the answers on high of so called “business experts” on how to fix our sector, when, in fact, they know nothing about social services.

No one has asked me how to solve the American banking crisis. No one should. My answers would suck. My answers would suck because expertise matters. Having core competence in whatever issues an organization addresses, profit-seeking or not, is critical to success. My guess is any business minded person would be able to tell you that, were they talking about business.

Originally posted on

The Extraordinaries’ response

Yesterday I wrote a blog post critiquing The Extraordinaries, a micro-volunteering mobile application.  That post was picked up by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and has sparked a conversation on this blog, the Chronicle’s site, and Twitter, with people both agreeing and disagreeing with my position.  The CEO of the Extraordinaries, Jacob Colker, wrote the following response in the comments section of my original post.  In fairness to The Extraordinaries, I wanted to bring their response front and center on my own blog.

Thanks everyone for taking time out of your day to offer a critique of our work. We welcome and appreciate the input and feedback.

There are a few points we would like to make.

(1) The field of crowdsourcing is still in its infancy and so is our company. We’re just getting started.

(2) We’re already providing value to organizations via image tagging — the first of many tasks to be offered on our platform. For museums, cataloging images is a real need. It costs money to hire curators. Brooklyn museum helped to pioneer this space a few years ago (…), the Steve Project took it one step further with their project (, and even Google has taken advantage of image tagging in their own form ( For organizations, making thousands of images searchable provides a tangible benefit to staff, the public, and more. But there exists no system to facilitate image tagging for organizations that don’t have a software development budget, until The Extraordinaries.

But image tagging does much more than deliver an archived photo database. Image tagging (and other tasks in our system) strengthen relationships with supporters.. Keeping even the most devoted supporters engaged is a touch point that organizations work hard to achieve through email blasts, Facebook messages, tweets, and maybe even direct mail.With our platform, supporters do actual work for something they are passionate about, and feel closer to the organization’s mission in the process. For some organizations (like museums and libraries), it’s one of the first opportunities to *get information back* from patrons… please read the Steve Project research for how much value this channel creates.

(3) We’re just beginning to explore possibilities that others have proven in the marketplace.

For science, NASA used an early form of micro-volunteering in 2000 with the Clickworkers program (, Galaxy Zoo took that process one step further (, and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology has had several amazing advancements for bird research using this method (….).

For graphics, iStockPhoto ( and has saved nonprofit organizations tens of thousands of dollars in design costs.

The list goes on. In summary, we’re not the first to prove that crowdsourcing works, nor the last. But we’re the first to make it easily available to organizations.

(4) This is not a replacement for traditional volunteering, it’s another way to give back, and we’re already proving it. For example, each year about 1.1 million people in the United States have heart attacks, and almost half of them die (…). An organization called First Aid Corps came to The Extraordinaries and built a mission that asks people to help build a mapped database of public heart defibrillators (shock pads). With our system, people can snap a photo of a defibrillator in an airport, government building, or other public place, record the GPS location of the device, and beam it to the map. So far, with only a limited number of users, we’ve had over two-dozen defibrillators submitted through our system. See for yourself (…) scroll down to where it says, “mapped a defibrillator” in one of the lines and click the orange arrow.

(5) What we’re replacing here is actually idle entertainment. We spent nine-billion hours in 2003 playing solitaire (…), 1800 hours watching television in 2008 (…) and 74% of Americans *did not* volunteer in 2008 ( The Extraordinaries is working to make it meaningful, for someone to do actual work for an organization, cause, or community they care about, in a few minutes of spare time. See for yourself: And for a great read on how our so-called “cognitive surplus” can be applied to good causes, see Clay Shirky’s piece:…

(6) True, one in five children in the United States *does* lives in poverty. What can you do about that with your mobile phone? At the moment, you can help Christel House deliver messages of encouragement to underprivileged students. That’s a start.

Down the road:

— You might be able review and critique the resume of a parent of one of those kids looking to find a job, while you’re waiting for a latte in Starbucks.
— You might be able to help map food resources using your camera and GPS and ensure that assets reach their destinations, on your way home from work.
— You might be able to help a distributed phone-banking service make a few phone calls to identify kids in need, while on your lunch break.
— You might be able translate brochures into other languages from organizations looking to service those impoverished communities.

The possibilities are endless if you can dream them. And, The Extraordinaries is nearly finished with the first iteration of our platform that will enable you to start making some of those dreams a reality. Come see how:

Thanks for taking time to read our response.


Jacob Colker
Co-Founder and CEO
The Extraordinaries