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.

Looking back at Marco Polo Project

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. It started as a digital platform for collaborative translation of new Chinese writing, then pivoted towards workshop design, to support people who negotiate hybrid identities across languages and cultures. I handed Marco Polo Project over to a new CEO in 2019, hoping to see the organisation thrive. COVID put a spanner in the wheels.

We speak a lot about learning from failure. Yet in all the forums I have been to, failures are only shared if they can be reframed instantly as ‘actually a success’. I would like to take a different path in those reflections, and explore what we tried to achieve, where we succeeded, and where we didn’t. Where we made errors of judgement, let ourselves be carried away, or underestimated obstacles.

When I started writing this series, Marco Polo Project was on the verge of closing down. An unexpected grant from the City of Melbourne gave us a new lease on life. We were not able to deliver but redirected the funds to our long-term partner transcollaborate.

For now, the organisation is on ice, but not dead yet. I hope, by taking time to reflect on where we struggled and failed, to create conditions where we might eventually return to active life. Or at least, gain a little more clarity on what we’ve been trying to do all this time.

Reflecting on my practice – the limits of social enterprise

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

One of the most important things I learned from my father is that our economic system does not reward work based on social utility.

I’ve been working around social innovation circles for about ten years now. Repeatedly, I have come across a fervent statement that people working on social good have an unhealthy relationship to money, that we must not demonise money, that we must reconcile profit and purpose.

That discourse has always irked me for its short-sightedness.

Even in a narrow for-profit framework, the question is not just how much return you get on your effort, but risk and time-horizon. When you focus on social good, impact is added to the list. And this is where things get confused.

In a Lunchclub conversation last year, I heard from an architect about the second and third order consequences of the Sydney Opera House. Its construction used a range of new technologies, that were trialled then, and gave birth to new industries. Once built, it served as an icon, prompting tourism, and a sense of civic pride. Such positive externalities are retrospectively visible, if not clearly measurable. They benefit the collective – but cannot be directly listed on the developer’s bottom line.

If impact is truly what matters, then economic returns are ill-suited to measure and guide it. And if impact is not what matters, then pretending is hypocrisy. 

Any discourse on balancing income and social good says: favour the venture that will yield a predictable income in the short-term, over the one that might result in large scale impact. It therefore creates a norm that discourages radical risk-taking intended to benefit the collective.

Not to mention, balancing profit and purpose creates a vested interest in the current paradigm. If you rush to monetise your social impact in the current economy, your long-term interests become tied to the present logic. Or as the Gospel says, where your treasure is, there also your heart is.

Is social enterprise, then, nothing but a desperate attempt at saving capitalism? And by promoting it, are we not distracting driven, ambitious, promising young people from more important work – tying them down to the present system, and preventing them from embracing a more radical approach – one that * could * prove much more impactful?

Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #1

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

14 december

Three years ago, I left Hong Kong for Melbourne, at the end of a three-week scholarship in Tianjin that was going to profoundly change my life. In Tianjin, during a night of insomnia, I dreamt of building a website inviting learners to collaborate on the translation of new writing from China. Many details were clear in my mind’s eye – not the design, but the navigation, the shape of the community, who would come, what they would be able to do. I took a notebook in the dark, so that I wouldn’t wake up my roommate, and wrote the details in it.

Three years ago, Marco Polo Project was just a name and an idea. Now it’s my profession.

Why is this the first thing that came to mind when I decided to write this piece? I wasn’t starting with my professional career in mind. It’s 17 days to the end of the year, and I wanted to launch a project: every day, write a short reflexive piece about myself – where I’m going, where I’ve been. I’m hoping to gain some insight and energy from these reflections. I just read through the front pages of my five-year diary. I was full of confidence last year – I had become a social entrepreneur, I was being recognized as an expert on China, I made contacts, I raised three thousand dollars on pozible. I’m objectively further ahead this year – I got thirty eight thousand dollars in grants, I’m organizing an international literature festival and taking a delegation of social entrepreneurs to China – hey, I’m doing well. But, strangely, my confidence is much lower than it was last year.

Last year, I was accepted in established worlds. Last year, in 2012 – that’s almost two years ago now – my contact with the Department of Primary Industries was finishing, and I was over the moon at the prospect of, maybe, working as a communications person for Philip Kingston. I’ve got many contacts with him now – and with other, equally important people – Rick Chen, Liu Yan. If everything else failed, I could probably work for them, and it would be much better. So why am I feeling this way, as if I had wasted my time – why the doubt? Professionally, I am in a better position to get a great job now than I was two years ago.

Or am I? I got older. I’m not in my twenties anymore, and I’m heading towards forty. These two years were a burst of youth – trying things and taking risks – but hey – I can’t start over forever. I’m turning thirty-six – I’m twice eighteen in less than a month. Twice eighteen. That sense of doubt may be the cycle starting again. Twice eighteen, four times nine. Where was I at twenty-seven? I broke up with my five-year partner. At eighteen – I left the town where I grew up. What major change will happen in my thirty sixth year? What stable aspect of my life will shift? These two major changes I could foresee – but I don’t really know which one will come next.

I didn’t use to fear aging. I don’t think I do yet. But I have financial anxieties. What about my retirement? What if I can’t ever have a proper income? What if I am suddenly sick? I’m also worried for my health. My strange toenail fungus. My bizarre dizzy spells of the last week. But then I’ve always had health anxieties, and none of them were ever founded.

I think what I want is to find a road ahead. When I arrived in Australia, almost five years ago, everything was a ‘to do’ – make friends, discover my environment, become proficient in English, find a way to get income. I did all that – so what comes next? The moment I became a citizen, I fled the country for China. But I’m back in a month. What then? What’s my second Australian five-year plan?

 

What projects have I not yet brought to life, that I carried with me, and started:

  • a documentary film about ghosts
  • a photographic journey through suburban church architecture
  • a series of reflexive interviews with sellers of religious object
  • the Lesbian sequel of Honey Pot

What old projects are still in me that I might revive?

  • collective nouns in English and Chinese
  • the copy-shop – memories of Paris in the naughties
  • Saint Just
  • Voyage aux Antipodes et considerations sur la revolution francaise – a French-Australian moralist

What is coming over the horizon, that I didn’t anticipate five years ago

  • African connections
  • Social enterprise and international third sector partnerships
  • China seen by the Chinese – Chinese diversity
  • Chinese mental health and well-being.

The most important, maybe, to acknowledge, is that not everybody carries a list of twelve projects in their head, that they would really like to bring to life. If I’m feeling tired – that may be normal. But I should think of these – I do want to bring as many of them as I can to life – and for that, I need energy, joy – health will help – balance and focus. So no more anxious hesitation! I don’t know what I’ll bring to life in 2014, but something will happen. And if Marco Polo collapses, if other projects collapse – I have more to do.

I’ll be alright – mate.