Marco Polo Project – a moral beacon

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

It’s a vivid memory. I’m wearing a light blue shirt, and I’m walking back to my desk from the photocopy room, with a bunch of papers in my hands, and a cup of tea. I still work for the Victorian State government at this stage, part-time in the policy and strategy group. But this is no longer the core of my professional identity. The words keep echoing inside my head. ‘I founded a charity, I founded a charity’. And I smile, proud, amused at my own pride, before settling back in my cubicle.

Marco Polo Project was a crazy dream, yet I seemed to pull it off. I gathered volunteers, developers, authors, translators, and a touch of funding, or at least freebies – and not all of it purely through madness and French charm. The thing was completely not sustainable, of course, but I had faith we would make it work. The vision was good, it was on trend, it served a purpose. ‘How do you make money then?’ asked an old white man once at a Chinese education conference. I gave him the cold treatment. ‘If we do something useful, surely we can figure it out. If we don’t do anything useful, why should we make money?’ That man didn’t like me very much. I was probably just a little too frontal when challenging his assumptions about value.

I had a more complex relationship with the social enterprise set. Received wisdom in those circles is that an organization which wants to ‘do good’ in the world should aim to generate its own revenue, rather than rely on government grants or donations. There is a pragmatic element to that encouragement. Grant allocation mechanisms are opaque and change regularly. Build relationships with your end users, if you want cost-effective, long-term funding reliability. Why not? I’ve always intuited, however, a more sinister moral element, which I never aligned with. That one should ultimately work with the system, that an organization needs money, and therefore, that we must focus on things that do good and (reliably) make money (within the system as it is), leaving the rest aside. I may be too Catholic to believe in capitalism, or simply too radical: I preferred hacking the system.

I set up Marco Polo Project as a charity for strategic reasons. If we believe (as I do) that our financial reward system is entirely detached from morality – that there is no clear overlap between what we’re willing to pay for and what society needs, and so that the most useful work is probably the one that is hardest to monetise, precisely because it is unlikely to be done by anyone looking for money as a reward – then, better take profit out of the equation altogether. If the true deep goal is social good, or education, or anything other than profit, then money should be a matter of indifference, by design. For otherwise, how can we deal with perverse incentives? If we get paid when people face a problem, will we create the conditions that get us out of the help mindset? If we make money by selling classes or courses, will we develop maximally cost-effective learning models, and drive those inside institutions? No, anything other than a charity comes with levels of cognitive dissonance too dangerous for my own risk appetite.  

Now, there is two types of charity work, as I see it. The first is remedial. People and social systems are imperfect, accidents happen, and when people fall through the cracks, we shouldn’t leave them to suffer and die. It’s extremely respectable, and not my vocation. The second is about building public goods, improving society as a whole, and reducing the chances of anyone falling through the cracks to begin with. This is where I have chosen to focus my energy.

But wait, is this not the role of government? Well, government has two limitations. The first is accountability. Governments live on public trust (as do schools and universities). When failure is a dangerous option, innovation is hard. A charity like ours offers a safe space for experimentation. More fundamentally, government bodies are accountable to their constituents. Yet today’s major problems are multilateral. Including everything to do with cultural shifts, hybrid communities and language education. Also, everything involving the Internet. Without adequate structures to fund globally distributed public goods – whether quality public education in digital formats, or open-source models for cost-effective community building – charities have a role to play.  

Then, there is the challenge of adequately measuring outcomes and impact. Public money calls for visible markers of success. Understandably, for public trust is at stake. And those visible markers of success need to be somewhat simple and relatable. Yet if the goal is to design a good facilitation model, bums-on-seats is certainly not the right success criterion, nor is the results of a random happy sheet survey. The pressure to succeed along inadequate dimensions limits the freedom to experiment. Not to mention, how do you properly measure long-term social health, or educational impact, as part of a short-term project? Short of a full-on latitudinal study, it’s all storytelling, intuition, and a leap of faith.

Hence, hacking the system. Certainly, this approach did not lead us to sustainability. But it was never the goal. Was it a wise approach? Well, let’s put it this way. Is there another organisation, born around the same time as Marco Polo Project, with a similar ambition, who took a different approach, and did better? I’m not seeing anyone, and we’re still alive, only just. So maybe, just maybe, we’ve been doing something right.