Last autumn Lucy Hooberman replied to a challenge put by Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED conferences. Chris pledged 1000 USD towards the most original commitment on Pledgebank, an original website that helps organize groups of people around conditional pledges ("I will commit to do this if..."; Howard Rheingold calls it "a great example of a technology of cooperation"). Lucy pledged to
mentor a minimum of two people in the developing world in the area of my skills base and expertise, for free, for a minimum of six months (in my free time), in person or via email/skype; the mentoring connections will be established by a website and database that I am willing to take responsibility for creating - but only if 250 other people will mentor a minimum of two people in their skills.
That came at the end of a year that saw massive attention focused on poverty: the G8 summit, debt relief, the Live8 concerts, Darfur, Bono's lobbying, heightened media coverage. 2005 also, as Lucy says, "gave us stark messages about global fragility": the tsunami, the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the droughts , the melting glaciers and icecaps. Many people wanted to make their expertise, capacity and money available, so Lucy's pledge got traction: 350 people signed up by the January deadline to join her, offering a very broad set of skills - people who want to make a difference through a personal contribution, TEDsters and not, from all over the world, see their locations on this Frappr map - and several more joined afterwards, and enquiries are still coming in.
Lucy - by day she has a job in new media innovation at the BBC in London - hosted a gathering at the TED conference in Monterey in February, and many ideas were offered on issues such as how to select the mentors and the mentees (and offer both sides a safe environment in which to interact), what should be the practical and legal frameworks of the initiative, how to organize and distribute the work, starting small vs starting big, and so on. Ory Okolloh made quite an impression, and gave many people an additional injection of motivation, when she stood up and said "if I'm here it's only thanks to my mentor" and told her story of getting from Kenya into a top US university and being now back in Africa with a degree, a vision, tools (she blogs here) and the intention to change things.
With a small group of "core pledgers", Lucy has since used the 1000 USD to get the project started under the name Mentoring Worldwide, set up a blog to track its development, started defining the contours of the initiative and the mechanisms to make it work. "We want to do what we can from where we are, wherever we are: it is a personal and ethical response to living in an interdependent world; we want to build mentoring partnerships as individuals with individuals and institutions in the developing world", she wrote.
"Mentoring partnerships" is the operational word here, and collaboration technology is the vehicle: this is a project that will (and can only) run on a peer-to-peer foundation, using cheap or free Internet tools (email, Skype, blogs, wikis). I had lunch with Lucy recently in London to discuss future steps, and she displayed a healthy dose of realism: "I don't believe that this will be a truly cooperative venture", she said gently - meaning that most people are very busy and only pledged to mentor, not to work on setting up the organisation and mechanism". While some will carry a bigger share of the project, at least in this initial phase, and others naturally and for understandable reasons (overcommitment) may fall off at the edges over time, Lucy has also received a different set of offers of support: a techie living in Northern Thailand, for example, did not pledge to mentor but offered a room in his house and access to a connected computer for local people to use if they were going to have mentors. This shows how multi-layered this project can become.
In a recent post Lucy added: "we are thinking big, but want to start small to test out a number of assumptions about what we can deliver, and what the expectation of our mentees might be". If Mentoring Worldwide gets going with even only a fraction of those 350, with a narrow target to start, with a clear and transparent process, it may become a testbed not only for sharing knowledge, but also for exploring how to share knowledge, how new tech is (or is not) really helping new kind of collaborative organization to start and function, how an unstructured group of well-intentioned people can (or can't) make something happen globally without getting lost in heavy structures.