An interview with Video Volunteers’ Jessica Mayberry: “because it can be replicated, is it no longer an innovation?”
Continuing with the theme of how technology-driven innovation can achieve maximum impact, I asked Jessica Mayberry for her thoughts. She founded Video Volunteers in 2003 after she spent a year as a fellow of the American India Foundation training rural Indian women in filmmaking. Mayberry works closely with co-director Stalin K, Indian documentary filmmaker and community radio activist.
Video Volunteers (VV) trains communities to make documentaries and news reports and then distributes that content – in the villages and slums in solution-centric screenings; to local officials to get them to solve the problem, online on India Unheard where VV releases one new community video plus article per day, and to different NGOs and TV stations. In 2009 Video Volunteers partnered with the Brazilian NGO Casa das Caldeiras to launch 'VCU.br.’ This program selects ten graduates of Brazilian favela media programs and trains them over a course of a year in producing and distributing videos for mainstream TV.
In 2009, Video Volunteers partnered with Global Fund for Children (GFC) in a pilot project called Videoactive Girls. Under the project, which was a learning initiative of The Nike Foundation’s Brain Trust of Practitioners, VV developed a toolkit on how community-based organizations and the adolescent girls they serve can harness, produce and use the power of the visual media to tell their stories.
Video Volunteers’ media has been seen by more than 300,000 people in outdoor screenings in thousands of village and slum screenings and by 100,000s more online. More than 150 disadvantaged people – former diamond polishers, rickshaw drivers and day laborers – are currently working as Community Producers across nearly every Indian state. Most are women, Dalits, Tribals and Muslims, who are members of the most silenced communities in India. They’ve been the recipient of many international awards, including the Ashoka Fellowship, TED Fellowship, Knight News Challenge, Global Social Benefit Incubator, Waldzell Institute of Austria, NYU Stern Social Business Plan Competition, the Tech Museum Award and last month the EdelGive Foundation's Social Innovation Honors 2012 for the empowerment of women.
Because it can be replicated, is it no longer an innovation?
Replication is very hard, and one of the things that have made it hard for us is the disinterest in funders to fund things that are not new. Precisely because it can be replicated and scaled, it is no longer an 'innovation,' and so funders aren't interested.
Video Volunteers started a dozen ‘Community Video Units’ with different NGOs in India, all of whom were in essence replicating our idea. There were numerous more NGOs who wanted to start them also, but by this point, the funding for these projects was essentially saturated and so these other NGOs couldn't get funding to do it.
So we had to switch gears. We thought, okay, if there is no more funding for this kind of project, let’s modify it so we can pitch it again as an innovation - and so we came up with our IndiaUnheard model, where we have about 40 community correspondents working in different districts. It is very like the Community Video Units, but at lower cost and without reliance on NGOs’ success at finding additional funding.
The upside was that this lack of funding forced us to become more cost-effective, and that will in the long run help us scale. I think the whole process of thinking about replicability forces NGOs to think about reducing costs, and that is a good exercise.
Finding the Right Partners
Our goal is to have one community correspondent in each of India’s 645 districts (!) To find people in each of these districts, we seek partners who work in hundreds of districts already, and then will try to do our recruitment through them. The existing networks that have access to poor people in India are government, large Microcredit Institutions, or corporations (like Coca-Cola or Mahindra with scooter/tractor dealers throughout the country). We have reached out to many of these groups and it's challenging because some want money, and others probably find it would take a lot of work to partner with us and think it might not be worth it.
One thing that might make it easier is if there was a network created, or even a Google map project, where NGOs and others could easily say what kinds of communities they can help other organizations access, and what are the terms on which they would do it.
Making Collaboration Work
Once a collaboration is established, sometimes the barrier to make it effective seems so much higher than it should be. People want to collaborate, but they find there are so many more pressing needs that they don't. How many times a month do I meet an organization where we have so much in common but there are so many more important things to do!
I have always thought funders should focus a lot more on funding collaborations and facilitating them. It is in the funder's interest that collaborations happen, because funders, more than others, are interested in scale.
Funders don't often want to fund collaborations because they feel they can get caught in the middle of a failed situation where they can't put the blame on a single party, but that is an old way of looking at things.
There are lots of organizations that do and could work together extremely well. At the moment with a group of like-minded tech orgs, we are trying to find a funder to support us collectively for a project on education and technology. This is a new field -- there are no great models in India of tech and education. The only way innovation will happen is in a collaborative mode.
Skepticism about Scale
I find that those who champion scale are generally funders and ‘outsiders’ who live far away from the problem. People working on the ground are generally much more skeptical of scale. Many of the most effective activists and changemakers in India believe that scale is not a good thing, and for good reason. They’ve seen so many projects lose their way, lose their heart, when they try to scale.
Where’s the greatest payoff?
A third challenge is the development sector's fascination with reliability and scale that focuses on market-driven forces and a ‘business in a box’ approach. While this gets much of the funding, some of the best training-dependent processes -- empowerment, advocacy, community ownership -- don't appear to scale as quickly and require more commitment. But these might have greater pay offs than just the delivery of a service or product in the long run.