67.1 February 2020

A Values-Driven Approach to Technical Communication

By Josephine Walwema


Purpose: This paper examines the values and expertise associated with a kind of technical and professional communication (TPC) that connects an organization with individuals in the practice of their everyday lives. It is an attempt to engage institutional forms of workplace communication embodied in the values of GiveDirectly (GD) and associated with an emerging model of humanitarian aid.

Method: This study analyzed the content of GD’s website, specifically, its articulated values and how they fit into organizational knowledge and workplace writing. This analysis illuminates the type of communication and informs the nature of expertise made possible by a values approach to technical communication.

Results: TPC can add value to humanitarian organizations by articulating the relationship among technology, the interface, and real (not imagined) user needs in their cultural contexts.

Conclusion: Articulating values can mobilize the technical expertise necessary to revitalize humanitarian aid by placing human beings directly at the center of giving and receiving, thus demonstrating that what people in the Global South, often ranked low on the Human Development Index, need is a values-oriented approach to TPC.

Keywords: Global South, giving directly, humanitarian aid, mobile money, organizational communication

Practitioner’s Takeaway

Technical communicators should develop global competencies grounded in empathy and concern for people’s wellbeing, as it drives expertise and advances localized solutions based on immediate and contingent needs.

Strategic orientation and social mediation skills are capable of revolutionizing humanitarian aid.

Direct giving without conditions, once a radical idea, is surprisingly effective for the flexible spending power it accords recipients, improving people’s quality of life, boosting incomes, and promoting development.

Organizations should continuously evaluate and develop a feedback loop that informs the organization’s actions in real time (or something close to it), as this gives it an opportunity to discard what is not working and to push toward better outcomes.


A 2013 broadcast on This American Life featured an upstart organization known as GiveDirectly (GD) that was experimenting with giving unconditional cash transfers to poor people in western Kenya. That organization’s philosophy and mission piqued my curiosity for several reasons. First, aid agencies are not in the habit of giving out cash. Second, unconditional cash in foreign aid is almost never heard of. Third, GD’s use of mobile money, which puts money directly into the hands of people, meant that the agency interacted directly with its recipients.

I forgot about GD for a while until 2017 when it was once again featured on National Public Radio. GD had not been a flash in the pan after all! Instead, it had scaled its operations from Kenya to Uganda. I began to consider that perhaps this model was a promising approach to aiding the world’s poor because it centered individuals rather than the charity. It gave aid recipients a voice and trusted them to make decisions that they deemed best for their households. As a technical and professional communication scholar, I had several questions: Why would GD flout the “give a man a fish” adage that drives most foreign aid, whose purpose is, presumably, to teach individuals sustainable lifelong habits? How did giving money directly work? What tools, techniques, and communication networks capacitate GD, given the numerous logistics necessary to identify and connect with households? Eventually, I settled on values. Could it be that GD was doing what it was because it was driven by a set of values? If so, what were those values? What would a values-driven approach to technical and professional communication (TPC) look like?

I seized the opportunity to study how TPC works in a non-Western context both as a means to broaden the field’s research horizon, because the world has become a globalized society, and as a way to learn how technology is used in international and cross-cultural contexts. My efforts were aided in part by the 2016 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing conference, which articulated the need for technical communication to investigate issues in the spaces within which TPC is practiced. GD seemed different from the “formalized workplaces” (Walton, 2015, p. 159), the traditional domain of TPC, and thus suitable for this shift.

This study examines GD, a nonprofit that provides unconditional cash transfers to the extremely poor in Kenya and Uganda. The study is situated within humanitarian organizations whose work traverses organizational values, cross-cultural concerns, and humanitarian culture (Walton, Mays, & Haselkorn, 2016) to examine the values and expertise associated with a kind of TPC that connects an organization with individuals in the practice of their everyday lives. It attempts to engage institutional forms of workplace communication embodied in GD’s values and associated with an emerging model of humanitarian aid. Such a relationship is predicated on the articulated values of the organization and its perception of its stakeholders, in this case, donors and recipients. Ideally, an organization’s core values explicitly define goals and align performance with outcomes. GD has eschewed conventional ways of charity and related communication genres in favor of an innovative start-up infrastructure aligned with evolving advances in digital technology and implemented in a bricolage-like manner: viz., “the practice of putting things together that were not strategically intended to go together” (Kimball, 2017, p. 3). In the process, GD has given rise to a communicative genre that is neither internationalization nor localization, but that considers “the differing values of divergent international cultures” (Aguad & Voss, 2016, p. 92) in the formulation of its model. GD’s departure from the norm, particularly giving unconditional cash directly to aid recipients raises the question: How does GD’s articulation of its organizational values correspond to its day-to-day operations?

Since its founding in 2010, GD has operated primarily in the East African nations of Kenya and Uganda (now scaling to Rwanda, Malawi), nations where “colonial emancipations are taking place and where new horizons of life are emerging” (Levander & Mignolo, 2011, p. 5). These countries are characterized as the Global South (GS). Together with its counterpart, the Global North (GN), both concepts connote meanings ranging from geographic to economic by replacing descriptors such as ‘‘first world, developing world” when discussing socio-economic differences between countries that have more wealth and global influence than others. The terms GS and GN are considered more empowering and upwardly mobile in implication (Hollington, Salverda, Schwarz, & Tappe, 2015, par. 6; Longo, 2014). These terms are not geographically absolute because some countries in the GS are more highly developed and wealthy than others in the GN.

This study adopts Levander and Mignolo’s (2011) “nutshell” definition of the GS as “the place of struggles between modernity and modernization … the logic of coloniality and domination … the struggle for independent thought and decolonial freedom” (p. 4), which is in keeping with the locale and populace of this study. Similarly, writing for the United Nations Development Program’s 2013 development report on the GS, Kaul (2013) lists indicators of difficult living conditions such as food, housing, and land in “southern countries, especially the least developed” as being part of the Global South (p. 8).

It is in this locale that GD has chosen to experiment with unconditional cash transfers to poor households by coopting a mobile phone technology, commonly referred to as “mobile money” (Goldstein, 2013) to make cash transfers sizeable enough to cover a household’s annual operating budget. These transfers are meant to allow households to make purchasing and investment decisions that they deem sustainable (Cash Transfers). Through this model, GD articulates, enacts, and creates value for its donors and recipients. Moreover, GD’s commitment to transparency means it publicly shares how much of its budget goes directly to the poor and how much is spent on overhead (What do you get for your dollar?).

This study employs a content analysis of GD’s stated values so as to demonstrate how this form of TPC aligns with those values. It examines GD’s crucial stakeholders, the beneficiaries, and donors. It looks into organizational communication and genre ecologies (Spinuzzi & Zachary, 2000) in an attempt to understand the texts, technology, and other infrastructure that constitute the communicative genres of GD. What emerges is a value system and a kind of expertise that offers a specific understanding to an emerging form of workplace writing. Ultimately, the study aims to show that GD is a study in a values-driven approach to technical communication.


Most of the world’s poor are defined by key indicators of poverty, which include lack of food, shelter, medical care, education, and gainful employment (World Bank Data on Poverty and Inequality, 2016). These are well-defined yet solvable problems—i.e., “tame problems” (Conklin, 2005, pp. 9–10). And yet, aid agencies (humanitarian and developmental) have responded to these problems by confining themselves to treating the symptoms rather than driving to the root causes of poverty—they simply distribute goods and services to the poor leaving the recipients of the aid out of the decision on which goods and services are most vital to them. Since these products and services can be directly purchased by beneficiaries, there is no specific need for aid agencies to deliver them, nor is there value added in doing so. Still, most charities have been reluctant to give money directly to needy people. Martens (2005) attributes this reluctance to their need to “mediate between the diverging preferences of donors and recipients” (p. 655). He offers that if donors’ true objective was to reduce poverty, there would be just one aid agency. This aid agency would simply “transfer financial resources to recipients” or donate “goods, services, and know-how” (p. 660) and leave it up to recipients to decide what they need most and then make the necessary purchases in the competitive open market. That seems to be the lesson GD has drawn from observing aid agencies.

GD’s program is founded on the idea that, given the financial means, the poor can improve their welfare. GD came into being by resisting the generic aid model which has failed to live up to the ideal of eliminating poverty, partly because, in that model, aid is always conditional. Such conditional aid, as Riddell (2014) writes, is dependent on “donor’s political interests to influence the decisions of who to give aid to, the amount given and the broad form in which it is given” (p. 27). In this conditional model, aid can be withheld, stopped, or cancelled when donors deem conditions unmet or not adhered to (see Dijkstra, 2002; Swedlund, 2017). Opposition to conditionality gave rise to a “new conditionality” (Dornan, 2017).

Not only has conditionality not reduced poverty rates, it can also be considered a form of hegemony because it imposes rules and conditions that reflect donor priorities with little regard for the recipients’ culture and values. Conditionality demands outcomes that may not be commensurate with the immediate needs of recipients. And it undermines recipients’ sense of agency and renders them bystanders in determining their own economic wellbeing (for more on conditionality, see Crawford, 2007 and Petroia, 2016 on aid in Moldova). But as Drydyk (2013) has argued, the goal of aid should go beyond expanding the agency of the recipient and seek to empower them. For Drydyk, “empowerment can be described metaphorically as becoming better able to shape one’s life for the better” (p. 250), as it develops in individuals the sense of power to act within the context of enmeshed relationships (pp. 254–255).

Another constraint in humanitarian aid is the mismatch between local needs and standard ways of disbursing aid. One factor that might help bridge that gap is knowing the value system of recipients. As Flammia and Voss (2007) have found, working and communicating effectively in foreign cultures requires an awareness and understanding of that culture, which may lead to “respect for local ways of operating” (Walton, Mays, & Haselkorn, 2016, p. 85). That kind of respect manifests in GD’s “bottom-up” form of communication in a regional culture where few opportunities for employment exacerbated by the Internal Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs have spurred people’s engagement in entrepreneurial activities (Dawa & Namatovu, 2015). These individuals’ embrace of entrepreneurial activities can be read as a manifestation of their culturally shared notion of responding to their environment (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998). With no access to the kind of credit made possible by banking institutions, the windfall (cash) afforded by GD fits right within that value system. As Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1998) observe, “culture is the context in which things happen” (p. 8) and, perhaps, GD’s approach is better attuned to the region’s orientation toward certain values.

Being attuned to the people it serves and their needs may factor in GD’s communicative genres that do not replicate longstanding aid practices, but that “change[s] the way the world thinks about charitable giving” (para. 2, Effective Altruism, 2018). GD’s stated aims are to drive down aggregate poverty levels and pave the way for sustained growth. Rather than impose conditions that may constrain a recipient’s long-term economic prospects, GD eases the systemic problems associated with poverty and lack of cash by restoring recipients’ agency in allocating the donated cash as they see fit. This principle is at the core of the charity’s attempts to create coherence between what the donors and the recipients value and, consequently, what they both aspire to achieve. Given its composition in terms of values, processes, and procedures, and their impact on individuals, GD’s actions are a study in the humanistic implications of technical and professional communication (Dragga & Voss, 2003; Dragga & Voss, 2001; Miller, 1979). And in the wake of the global expansion and influence of TPC (Jones, Savage, & Yu, 2014), this work is an opportunity to understand organizations engaged in humanitarian work in the Global South.

The geographically distributed and technologically networked nature of GD also positions it as an important object of study. The organization is composed of “strategic assemblages of people and technologies connected, at least temporarily, by common interests and motivations” (Swarts, 2010, para. 3) in the production of technical communication. Consider that GD proceeds by creating a community of practice that includes donors and recipients assembled through a support system that includes telecommunications, Internet, technology, finance, and people. This system works together to “jointly mediate” (Spinuzzi & Zachry, 2000, p. 9) the organizational mission and values, and to fulfil a particular and recurring social function (Miller, 1984; Bawarshi, 2003; Devitt, 2004). The activities necessary to achieve GD’s mission have, in essence, shaped the organization (Doheny-Farina, 1991).

In the course of mapping out an operational plan, GD has legitimized certain kinds of knowledge over others. For example, because it prioritizes honesty and openness, GD uses objective measures to identify needy households. The supporting ecology of genres deployed through technology is not only ambitious but is critical to the success of its mission. The process is truncated here, but it unfolds in these stages:

  • Census data identifies the poorest per capita district in the country
  • Satellites capture visuals of housing in the designated poorest village
  • Low-income villages from that district are selected
  • The cloud stores the visual data collected via satellite
  • Mechanical Turk decodes visual data using poverty metrics (housing roofs that “lack luminosity”) to catalogue poor households

Following this initial set-up, GD deploys field workers to (selected) poor households using GPS coordinates.

A quick explanation of terms used above: Mechanical Turk is an outsourcing outfit run by Amazon. It typically works this way: organizations post a small, often repetitive task, on MTurk that requires human intelligence. Once posted, online workers (for a small fee) perform this task, which has to be “too difficult or too dependent on human analysis for a computer to do, but too simple for skilled labor” (Hitlin, 2016, para. 18). Luminosity simply refers to the tin (rather than grass) roofs of houses. GD takes lack of tin roofs as a signal of a household that may need help (Mullainathan, 2016).

Selection criteria vary by region—but aggregating housing materials and determining how they correlate with the socio-economic status of households is considered an objective and highly predictive indicator of poverty (Haushofer & Shapiro, 2013). The decoded data and GPS help GD map villages where there is a concentration of houses that lack luminosity and therefore signify a high level of poverty. Randomly selected households in these villages get visited by GD field workers who conduct door-to-door surveys that certify them for poverty indicators. These indicators include “housing materials, assets, vulnerable recipient status” (The Life You Can Save). Potential aid recipients are interviewed and their statements recorded for purposes of documenting their progress through the program. Once they are enrolled into the program, recipients are issued cellphones—the primary means by which the GD transacts cash—and registered with mobile money accounts. Registering accounts in the name of the designated head of household is key for GD’s accountability because it allows them to monitor the cash transactions at transfer and cashing out. Recipients are also informed that they will be receiving $1,000 over several months and that they are free to allocate the money however they need to. Reports show that in 2016, GD transferred $30.3 million to recipients (The Life You Can Save).

While the infrastructure has been simplified here for this analysis, it is in fact a complex network of networks with continual interaction among the various systems comprising data and metadata, human agents, mobile technology devices, and cash. It involves aggregating census and satellite data to determine hierarchies of needs. It uses spatial location and visualization tools, all of which result in a digitally created transmedia and participatory culture in which distinctions between user and developer, and between client and company destabilize traditional theories of transactional communication.

The use of mobile money, which “exists at the intersection of finance and telecommunications” “could transform financial inclusion” (Donovan, 2012, pp.61–62) in a region awash with mobile phones but with limited access to banking. However, financial inclusion; because it takes into account banking services including deposits, transfers, savings, and credit, and insurance (Financial Inclusion); is yet to be attained, given that, so far, mobile money is primarily a cash transfer service. Still, GD’s capitalizing on this existing network of activities and services is fitting with the ethos of making do with what is at hand and echoes Turner and Reinsch’s (2007, p. 47) notion of “presence allocation,” as it involves choosing among several communication technologies to complete each interaction (Mehlenbacher, 2013, p. 191).

The kinds of global competencies exhibited from the operation of GD mark the beginning of another era of TPC. GD’s engagement is driven by empathy and concern for the well-being of other human beings. This implies an even more responsive, context awareness for people and their needs, and has led to an agile form of TPC thinking where priorities, definitions of solutions, and results are dependent upon immediate contingent needs. From satellite data processing to household operations in remote villages, these workspaces are established and technologically developed, but they are also “temporally and spatially distributed” (Mehlenbacher, 2013, p. 188). The charity organization continuously coordinates with field workers to keep donor recipients at the helm of the initiative. And on a GDLive feed, unfiltered and unedited stories of recipients are broadcast. Such stories include names, amount received, and how the money has been spent.

A World Bank report on poverty shows that poor families consistently lack resources to make needed investments in education, food, and health (The nature and evolution of poverty). GD exhibits strategic orientation and social mediation skills designed to yield different results: improved individual and household well-being, increased assets and higher income, improved social relations, enhanced food security and overall human empowerment. By identifying impoverished households and transferring money directly to them, GD ensures that 91 cents of every donated dollar go to recipients as cash. At the same time, it respects those recipients enough to trust them to freely spend the cash as they wish, which they do. Analysis shows that recipients reliably spend donated cash on a hierarchy of needs—food, housing, health care, education, and business investment. GD operates in the kind of environment described by Mehlenbacher (2013) in which “the context demands flexible problem-solving abilities and short-term solutions achieved collaboratively” (p.189).


Scholars have held that organizations “present specialized contexts for writing” and research given the rhetorical purposes and contingencies that shape their existence (Harrison, 1987, p. 4). Studying workplace writing away from academic settings according to Doheny-Farina (1986, p. 159) is useful for its ability to (1) provide insight into writing as a social process and (2) inform the teaching of writing. Knowledge emerging from such study, he offers, reveals the “rhetorical demands” faced by new and seasoned TPC writers. Although the complex dynamics of workplace writing indicate a layered approach to “diverse audiences for diverse purposes” (Doheny-Farina, 1986, p. 159), what cannot be revealed is the social environment in which workplace writing takes place. And yet, such writing needs to be understood for what it reveals about the workplace particularly “the interrelationships between organizational processes and composing” (Harrison, 1987, p. 4) and for how it can inform curricula and pedagogical conversations in the academy.

Odell and Goswami (1982) as well as Knoblauch (1990) have shown in their scholarship, that workplace communication reveals socially motivated rhetorical choices: i.e., that the communication (in the workplace) is motivated by the rhetorical situations and by audiences and their needs, as well as by the nature or purpose of that communication. Other findings by Selzer (1983), Odell (1981), and Faigley (1992) speak to the social interactions that characterize these forms of communication where interactions between clients and users through written and even oral texts help shape the nature of workplace communication. Spilka (2009) examined the role of oral communication, which she characterizes as “written forms resembling speech (e.g., electronic mail, written notes, comments)” (p. 45) and found that such oral forms of communication do influence the composition process of writers. Moreover, Harris and Moran (1993) have shown that knowing the rhetorical motivations behind the communication helps shed light on constraints such as audiences and how best to reach them. The communication focus is on the daily interactions that characterize the nature of work and how workers can meet the established goals. These scholars demonstrate that the workplace does reflect a form of TPC born out of shared practices and the pursuit of common goals.

One of the ways scholars have attempted to understand the functions and characteristics of TPC in the workplace has been to study the communication texts written by and about that workplace. These texts offer contextual insight in the TPC of that workplace (Heath & Luff, 2000; Zachry, 2000; McCarthy, Grabill, Hart-Davidson, & McLeod, 2011). The central goal in studying texts is to determine how they, along with other communication related practices, mediate knowledge, values, and action in a variety of social and professional contexts related to that organization (Rude, 2009, p. 178). It is hoped that a picture of the expertise associated with a particular workplace begins to emerge from studying a workplace in its “naturalistic” settings (Spilka, 2009, p. 45; Raven, 1992). Still, as Harrison (1987) has noted, studying organizational writing is challenging, primarily because it traverses both organizational theory and rhetorical contexts (p. 4).

And yet, Miller (1979) noted that much of what we call TPC occurs “in the context of government and industry” (p. 616) and embodies what she calls a “tacit commitment to bureaucratic hierarchies, corporate capitalism, and high technology” (p. 616). But TPC is also global (Batova, 2013), international (Ding & Savage, 2013), intercultural (Thrush, 1997; Flammia & Voss, 2007), culture-centric (St.Amant, 2002; Walwema, 2016; St.Amant & Flammia, 2017), power inscribed (Agboka, 2013; Jones, 2016), and even technology-centric (Sun, 2012; St.Amant & Sapienza, 2011). As Mara and Hawk (2009) noted, these aspects of TPC do not operate in isolation, but rather involve “complex interplays among human intentions, organizational discourses, biological trajectories, and technological possibilities” all of which exert agency (p. 3). Thus, considering TPC outside of conventional bureaucratic hierarchies holds promise. Moreover, in this hyper digital era, high technology is not the exclusive purview of big business. Properly deployed, it can also be a valuable tool applied in seemingly unconventional ventures.

While the value of workplace expertise has been juxtaposed against professional communication in the context of government and industry (Petersen, 2014; Walton, 2015) the work of Kimball (2006) and Spinuzzi (2012) has demonstrated the extent to which TPC takes place outside of institutional and corporate spheres. This turn to the extra-institutional threatens to lead to what Walton (2015) has called the “‘professional’ over ‘workplace’” (p. 161) because it disrupts “dominant notions of both” (p. 161). Walton (2015) points to this gap in the corpus of TPC scholarship as potentially problematic and thus worthy of study. And it is one we can no longer afford to ignore, given the increasing location of knowledge work outside of institutions in local and global sites.

Beyond pedagogical and theoretical approaches to TPC, Jones (2016) has raised the “human-focused” approach in which TPC brings about a difference in the everyday lives of individuals. This approach that Jones (2016) labels “Freriean” holds that human experience and labor are praxis and transformative (p. 345). Thus, knowing this aspect of labor allows TPC to investigate how those within our communities inhabit and interact in certain spaces and how TPC can empower them. Jones does not see this trajectory as a recasting of the field; rather, she points to scholarship that has expanded beyond pedagogy and theory to take up issues of power, ideology, and legitimacy in TPC (for a detailed discussion, see Jones, 2016, pp. 345–346). Such work, Jones argues, helps TPC interrogate the effect of its work and practice in communities.

Moreover, the corpus of TPC work revolves around the human experience as evidenced by research in usability and its centering around human action (Sullivan, 1989). That work led to cognate disciplines such as user experience (Howard, 2009), experience architecture (Potts & Salvo, 2017), and usability (Johnson, 1998), all of which sought to adapt technology to the human endeavor. Perhaps recognizing that TPC cannot always be about pedagogy and theory, Mehlenbacher (2013) recounts the “wicked work” of technical communication wherein there are no easy answers. There are instances where problems are “unstructured, require immediate attention” and do not come with easy solutions (p. 188).

This paper positions GD as a study in workplace TPC not steeped in bureaucratic hierarchies or even in capitalistic frameworks but in an informal extra-institutional workplace in the non-profit sector whose technological infrastructure is both contextually and geographically engineered. It is extra-institutional, because the individuals who work for GD, including its founders, comprise entrepreneurs, consultants, and field workers who are not fulltime staff. Further, the myriad of support systems (mobile money franchises, phone networks, poverty indicators, etc.) that support the organization can be characterized as bricolage—in that GD is making do with what is at hand (Kimball, 2017, pp. 3–4). What GD and its stakeholders are doing is adapting institutional strategies (finance, banking, telecommunication, census data, Mechanical Turk, PayPal, Cryptocurrencies, even tax deductions) to extra-institutional work: their collective goal of giving directly.

The study analyzes the organizational meaning inherent in GD’s activities to unearth the “cognitive systems constituting the culture” (Harrison, 1987, p. 15) and the social process through which GD is constructed. It aims to demonstrate how GD’s values are the foundation for its innovative approach to TPC and to show how those values have powered its operations and led to a pragmatic, outcome-oriented approach—much to the benefit of the population it serves.


This study is located within the framework of organizational communication and its interrelationship with TPC. The study approach draws from Smagorinsky’s (2008) suggestions for qualitative research reporting by first describing the study design followed by details about the research site, data collection, and analysis procedures. It seeks to answer the question: How does GD’s articulation of its organizational values correspond to the day-to-day operations of a values-driven approach to technical and professional communication?

The Data

This study takes as its data GD’s six organizational core values as listed on its website. These values include honesty, ambitious goals, quick and decisive actions, problem resolution, celebrate and reward, and evaluate ideas based on merit. Beneficiaries’ profiles and personal statements found on GDLive real-time updates, anecdotal evidence, and donor statements on the blog are also examined as data that constitute GD’s values and approach to TPC. The analysis focuses on language, key to GD’s organizational communication and specific to GD’s stated values on its website. The values convey GD’s organizational culture where “a set of norms and values are widely shared and strongly held throughout the organization” (O’Reilly & Chatman, 1996, p. 166). These shared set of norms and expectations are manifested in actuating the day-to-day operations of the organization. It is anticipated that they may induce individuals to internalize those norms (Hodgson, 1996). The study was exploratory in its attempt to demonstrate how GD’s values drive its innovative approach to TPC and show how those values have led to a shift in this form of humanitarian aid.

Data Collection

Site: GD’s website, specifically the section dedicated to the company’s values

GD’s stated values were examined through retaining key words to describe a single value (e.g., honesty, decisiveness, transparency). Investigating the organizational knowledge of GD and how its articulated values correspond to its day-to-day operations was based on GD’s promise to “set the benchmark for philanthropic efficiency around the world” (Benchmark Efficiency, 2018, para. 1). This analysis was supplemented by (sample) recipient personal stories, their profile pages, along with donor stories and reports from independent analysts of GD, most notably, GiveWell.

Donor stories

This study includes a randomly selected set of donor statements (n=6) analyzed for their explanation of support for GD. Evidence from donors was constructed from their self-explanations.

Recipient profiles

The study examined a random selection of recipient profiles, male and female, designated as heads of households for purposes of contact with GD (n=35). The profiles and self-narratives represent points in the lives of individuals on the GD cash transfer trajectory. They describe participants’ hardships, aspirations, cash receipt and expenditure history, and their relationship with GD. The profiles are a snapshot that include names (first name only to protect individuals’ privacy), answers to GD interview questions (see Table 1 under Recipient Profiles below), photos, and cash transfer history. This data is posted on GDLive which “participants opt in to” and their stories only published after GD secures informed consent (see “How participants opt in to GDLive”). Securing informed consent by GD of its recipients is premised on the “idea of respect” for recipients whose personal information is securely guarded.

External evaluation of GD

The study also examined external reports evaluating GD including GiveWell; Haushofer and Shapiro (2013), who carried out randomized controlled trials (RCT); and Stanford Social Review. This analysis begins with an overview of GD’s homepage to contextualize the research site.


GiveDirectly Homepage

GD is a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Privacy Policy organization that is in the business of giving money “directly to people living in extreme poverty” (GiveDirectly). Its mission is to “reshape international giving.” The mission, along with GD’s major backers, GiveWell and Google.org, and “rigorous evidence” is posted prominently on the homepage banner. The banner also features the image of a youthful person, presumably a beneficiary of the organization, against the background of a lush green forested area characteristic flora of this part of the world (Figure 1).

Below the major banner is a two-column section. The left displays “Real-time, unfiltered updates” along with a brief description of the purpose of that section and an invitation to “Meet GiveDirectly Recipients.” To the right is a list of recipients in a scrolling column of names, pictures, personal statements, and currency of post. At the time of this analysis, these messages were two days old.

GDLive NewsFeed

This tab is where all recipients’ profiles and stories are recorded and retrieved. Clicking on the picture in the real-time updates list brings you to a detailed recipient profile and a bio of some sort. It includes information specific to that recipient’s relationship with GD and is a factual mix of record of enrollment, payments received, time and amount of transfer, and personal disclosure of aspirations and the nature of cash expenditures. All enrollees profiled do so with informed consent (“How participants opt in to GDLive”). Because the profiles meet the characteristics of a GD recipient, selecting a handful of these profiles is representative of GD’s recipients. Figure 2 is a screenshot of a recipient profile on the live feed.

The second half of the website is sectioned into tabs detailing GD’s charity model, which it describes as “innovative.” There are eight tabs, each devoted to a particular function.

Under the tab Benchmark Efficiency, GD boasts of “setting the benchmark for philanthropic efficiency around the world” by linking to information that proves this claim. One of those proofs is factual information related to the cash transfers: $0.91 of every donated dollar goes to the recipient. The tab Incredible Support lists GD’s source of donations and links to more information on finances including IRS forms, Annual Report, and Financial Statements from 2010 to 2016 (at the time of this analysis). The tab Effective Altruism describes the meticulousness with which GD approaches its work including “constant experimentation and analytical rigor to understand the most impactful ways to achieve positive outcomes” (GiveDirectly). The tab Basic Income Project is accompanied by a picture of a man tending to some chickens, a description of the philosophy behind basic income, and an appeal for donations. The tab Evidence of Impact lists figures and numbers related to the breakdown of the basic $1,000 earmarked for each recipient and ensuing expenditures broken down in assets, nutrition, and earnings. The tab Direct Impact at Scale charts the growth of the charity since its inception 5 years ago. Finally, the tab From the Blog is dedicated to blogging about the charity by donors, researchers, and others. At the bottom of the site are the charity’s address (located in New York), along with contact information (email and phone numbers) for GD’s operations in all three countries, the US, Kenya, and Uganda.

Recipient Profiles

A typical profile of a GD recipient looks much like that of a social media profile page with a picture of the head of household (the contact individual for GD) in the foreground and one of the entire family, home, or landscape as a cover photo (Figure 3).

Profile information, freely available on GD’s website with informed consent by participants, is generated from recipients’ unedited answers to standard questions asked of all enrollees. Table 1 shows a sample of questions posed by GD to recipients at set times in the program. Their answers tell their stories.




These stories are a representative sample of GD recipients, male and female heads of households located in both Kenya and Uganda. As you can see from the time stamps, the interview questions and answers represent the three levels of participation with GD: initial enrolment and transfer, second transfer, and third transfer. At the initial stage, recipients express aspirations and recount troubles. Then, once the GD cash transfers start coming in, they state accomplishments made possible by the unconditional aid. That shift signals a change for the better. As Yu (2016) has found, interpretive approaches to understanding culture can be found through narratives and the stories that people tell about themselves. If GD’s practice of “constant experimentation” (GD Values) proves effective, these recipient narratives must find their way into GD’s various forums for its outreach. Humanizing the outreach could be one of the most effective ways to increase donor participation.

Donor Statements

A webpage titled “Why I give directly” is dedicated to donors blogging about their support for GD. This page places the work of GD within the “broader movement toward cash transfers” (GD blog) and donors’ quest for successful non-profits through which they can channel their donations. Analyzing donor statements reveals something akin to what Spinuzzi (2003, p. 4) characterized as users rescuing themselves—in this case, by being liberated from a conventional paradigm of conditional aid and being encouraged to act as their own agents. In the ensuing discussions, this paper examines six donor statements such as this one on the donors’ blog (Figure 4).

Evidence from Research

GD carries out randomized control trials (RCTs) to measure the impact of its work, address policy questions, and to refine its process. Additionally, third-party research from GiveWell and scholars such as Hausfer and Shapiro (2013), particularly. GiveWell’s assessment of the impact of cash transfers on impoverished households has boosted the work of GD (see Top Charities, 2017).


The “Values” page is listed under the “Join Us” page, itself accessible on the “About Us” page. There, on a page by itself, is a list of GD’s six core organizational values (Figure 5). This study interprets the values as principles emerging from the content available on GD’s website at the time of this analysis.

Given that GD is a charity organization, it is tempting to examine it through the relatively stable and easily identifiable features of charity organizations’ structure, tone, and style (as they relate to humanitarian concerns meant to elicit an emotional response). But we have already established that GD breaks with that conventional tradition. Moreover, articulating the exact genre that characterizes GD calls for labeling it not as a discourse community (of charity organizations) but as a “community of practice” (Luzón, 2005). This is because GD is indeed a community whose identity is wrapped up within the values that helped establish and now drive and maintain its practice (see Doheny-Farina,1991).

As a socially constituted entity, GD exists as an artifact under which lies a system of genres and subgenres. Swales (1990) might refer to them as “hierarchies, chains, sets, and networks” (pp. 12–25) and as an assemblage of genres (Spinuzzi, 2004). This analysis focuses on the social practices of genre that best characterize the quasi-organizational platform upon which GD’s infrastructure is constructed to meet its rhetorical purpose (Yates, 1989). This platform enables donors to give directly to recipients, who, in turn, share how the cash has helped meet their aspirations. As an ongoing self-assessment for all involved, that is itself a statement of value.

The values are assessed in the order in which they are listed.


“We strive to be honest with each other, and an open book to the world” (“GiveDirectly Values”)

For honesty, GD keeps itself accountable, its donors informed, and recipient needs abreast by carrying out and publishing results from rigorous experimental audits. These audits are carried out by third-party researchers to measure the impacts of cash transfers on recipient households by looking at “outcomes including assets, earnings, food security, mental health, and domestic violence, after on average four months” (see Haushofer & Shapiro, 2016, p. 1986). The third-party researchers examine the “macroeconomic and long-term impacts of the transfers on inflation, business activity, job creation, and public finance” (p. 187). Finally, they assess the impact of different cash transfer designs, including giving recipients control over timing and giving them information on the performance of investments made by past recipients (Mani, Mullainathan, Niehaus, & Shah, 2014). This particular focus aims to revise transfer timeliness and frequency of transfers based on past outcomes and recipients’ feedback.

This value is borne out by evidence from research about GD. GiveWell, a nonprofit dedicated to “finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give” has boosted the work of GD, which it lists as its top recommended charity (Our Criteria for top Charities, n.d., para. 1). GiveWell’s rigorous review process involved:

  • Regular (~3-6 times per year) conversations with GD staff
  • Reviewing documents GD sent in response
    to queries
  • Visiting GD’s operations in Kenya and Uganda
  • Meeting with beneficiaries of GD’s work
  • Speaking with local GD field staff
  • Observing a cash out day (a cash out day is when a mobile money agent makes a scheduled visit to a village that has received transfers by phone from GD) (Givewell, November 2016).

At Google’s annual giving week, GD was chosen among many charities as a recipient signaling confidence in its cash transfer operations (GiveDirectly featured in Google San Francisco’s Giving Week 2015). Additionally, personal stories from randomly selected recipients on GDLive Newsfeed support these claims. And, as Frank (2002) noted, candid first-person stories express “authenticity of self” (p. 101). A random selection of a few stories from the continuous live feed are cited here. They include the first name and age of the recipient.

Joice (55): “I spent most of my last transfer to plaster my house as a memorial of Give Directly in future and also to staying in a nice house. The remaining balance l spent to buy one bag of maize for my consumption.”

George (43): “I hope to build a better house, pay school fees, pay my wife’s dowry so she can come back to me as she left me because I had not paid her dowry, and to start a small business for my wife.” George spent his initial payment of $99 on food and school supplies, his second payment of $491 on enlarging his house. And, presumably, he had also paid dowry because in the third year, he is “living peacefully” with his wife. The third payment of $495 (reported 2 days ago) was spent on house furniture, food, school expenses, and a domestic animal.

Teresa (29) spent the first transfer of $99 on furniture and food. A year later, having spent her second payment of $493 on a motorcycle, she describes it as having made the “biggest difference in my life” as a source of income. By the third payment, she looks like she has some disposable cash because she “can meet part of my family’s daily needs” with her husband providing the rest from income generated by the motorcycle.

We see in these stories people recounting past challenges and sharing their ongoing attempts at formulating solutions, local and contingent, to their problems with the aid of GD. An element we see here is illuminating the humanity of both the donors and recipients by letting them tell their stories in their own words (Dragga & Voss, 2003). By humanizing the people at the center of aid (giving and receiving) while maintaining technical accuracy, their model ceases to rely entirely on the statistical language with which aid recipients are often discussed (and, in the process, dehumanized).

Ambitious Goals

“We strive to promote a new approach to philanthropy that uses constant experimentation and analytical rigor to understand the most impactful ways to achieve positive outcomes. We hope to set new benchmarks for impact and change the way the world thinks about charitable giving” (“GiveDirectly Values”).

This ambitious goal to upend traditional forms of philanthropy by underscoring direct benefits from donor to beneficiary is the raison d’être for GD. This value can be understood through GD’s constitution around social action and purpose. Its inception is in direct response to the exigence of failed models of charity organizations, owing, perhaps, to their own set of values. As a community of practice, GD is responsive to its audience’s exigencies and sensitive to its constraints. Benckiser Stiftung Zukunft, a German philanthropist, deems GD’s ambitious goals credible. Driven by a desire to “improve the future of aid” by funding projects whose effectiveness was proven by “reliable evidence,” the philanthropy moved to support GD (Shaw, 2015) by giving directly, visiting the GD site in Uganda, and commissioning a randomized control trial to gather evidence.

Because GD sees itself as responding to humans’ needs on the basis of human values, it is worthwhile to consider who GD counts as its audience, the givers and beneficiaries, and how its activities correspondingly incorporate particular strategies and approaches geared toward achieving its goals.

To that end, the agency’s GDLive Newsfeed tallies recipients’ stories, which it updates all day, every day complete with pictures, names, and cash received and spent. All personal statements used in this analysis are located at https://live.givedirectly.org/. For example, in answer to the question “How is your life different than it would have been if you never received the transfer?” these four recipients state:

Peter (21): “Give Directly has abled me to get a garden that am going to cultivate and bicycle which has eased transportation for myself. This transfer has brought a great difference in my life because I didn’t have a place to cultivate a garden and transportation was also costly, I couldn’t have got all these items without Give Directly’s transfer.”

Stella (28): “My life is different with this transfer in that I have been in position to complete my house that had stayed for long without completion because of lack of money. My family income has also been boosted because of this music system and Television that people come to watch and pay money. I am expecting an increase in my harvest this season because of the additional gardens I hired.”

Michael (39): “The difference in my life is that I am happy that my children are studying and I can afford food for my life. Had I not received this money I would still be in jail because of numerous debts that I had accumulated.”

Christine (38): “My life is different in that I am happier and I own property that I never had in the past. I imagine the hard life I would have had if I had not received the cash transfer, I would not be able to afford food and school fees. Life would have been really miserable.”

These texts serve as “electronically mediated discourse” (Berkenkotter, 2001, p. 330). Moreover, as “inscriptions [they] provide a way to fix, record, and dominate phenomena by capturing representations … within particular activities to meet recurrent needs” (Spinuzzi, 2008, p. 146). In them, we see recipients’ agency prioritized and their future economic aspirations clearly delineated. They also serve as measures of recipient satisfaction and, for donors, an honest assessment of the impact of their cash. It motivates donors by bringing them close to the recipients of their donations. This level of ambition in humanitarian aid is achieved through a robust use of the technology of user feedback to co-construct an authentic audience and create a new form of engagement directly between donors and recipients.

In addition, the GDLive Newsfeed generates timestamps documenting the date, time, amounts of donations and expenditures, as well as the identities of the recipients, all of which are important to demonstrate the integrity of the program and earn the trust of the stakeholders. Such information personalizes the charitable donation process by letting donors see the faces of the beneficiaries and witness directly the positive impact the money has had in their lives.

Roseline (30): “My self-esteem has increased since I repaired my house. I will no longer feel ashamed when my relatives visit because my whole life is improved; this the biggest difference in my daily life.”

Featuring these stories affirms the lives and worth of these individuals implying that their lives are worth living, itself, a value. This is, of course, a radical departure from the pathos-based pleas for donations associated with giving to the needy who are often portrayed as lacking in their own agency and therefore reliant on potential donors to make decisions regarding what aid to give and under what conditions. For example, meet Emma. He enrolled 6 hours ago (at the time of this analysis).

Emma (26) says, “My biggest hardship is lack of money to construct a permanent iron roofed house. The current grass thatched house that I am using leaks whenever it heavily rains.” For Emma, receiving this money means “starting up a happy family. This money will enable me to get dowry for marrying a spouse.” At the time he said this, Emma had not yet had any cash transfers. His hope is based entirely on the trust he has established with GD to fulfil its promise.

Here is an individual on track to receiving a cash transfer without conditions. Conditionality uses aid as a bait and switch to reward and sanction those on the receiving end leaving them with little ownership (see, e.g., Molenaers, Faust, & Dellepiane, 2015). GD’s giving model, on the other hand, highlights specific effects of unconditional cash transfers by placing potential donors into positions that encourage them to give directly with the understanding that different people have different needs.

Rather than create a relationship with its beneficiaries based on satisfying certain conditions, GD aligns with recipients’ priorities by interacting with an immediate audience. One reason this strategy is effective is that the audience of the Global South is immediate and present. It cannot be “defined, classified, predicted, and packaged” (Tebeaux, 1991, p. 22) as is often the case in the West. In this sense, GD exhibits organizational values that are steeped in culturally appropriate power structures. Moreover, the communication genres it has constituted are a model of cross-cultural communication (Jones, Savage, & Yu, 2014). When field workers speak directly to targeted households, they activate community conversations that allow individuals to voice their aspirations and celebrate their successes. For example, consider 80-year-old Meris, who enrolled 6 months ago. In answer to the question about her biggest hardship, she said, “The biggest challenge I always face is sicking.” A widow, Meris is sickly and lacks money to seek medical care. Consequently, the happiest time of her day is waking up “not sick.” GD has created room for Meris to voice her concerns.

GD emphasizes positive self-interest for givers and beneficiaries alike. It communicates the message that identifying and responding to people’s needs is in everyone’s interest. Further, it emphasizes how resource sharing goes a long way to alleviate the suffering of others and promotes a common humanity. Consider Mika Marcondes de Freitas, a GD donor who has committed to donating “10% of my gross earnings to them, as well as promote them in social media and real life,” because GD aligns with his vision for “a world where everybody has the autonomy to decide their own fate… . giving cash directly to the poor and letting them judge for themselves, within their context, what to do with it to improve their own lives might be a great way to realize that vision” (de Freitas, 2017, para. 3). De Freitas’ statement supports the idea that genuine charitable acts benefit not just recipients, but also givers (Park, et al., 2017). And that realization promotes corporate philanthropy, which is how GD gets its funding.

Quick and Decisive Actions

GD “values quick and decisive actions over getting bogged down in emails and meetings” (“GiveDirectly Values”). This value can be observed in GD’s articulation of its foremost value of giving directly. The invitation to Give Now is prominently displayed on its site. Alongside it is an invitation to Meet GiveDirectly Recipients where “real-time, unfiltered updates” from recipients are posted. In openly displaying both its values and its methodology, GD demonstrates how maximizing efficiencies can lead to maximum impact from the giver’s donation. There are no email exchanges and meetings to share updates of the work accomplished by GD; rather, the agenda is articulated openly and its results broadcast directly.

Zev Minsky-Primus (13) became a donor because GD “argued that poor people know their own needs better than anyone else. That means that someone should be able to satisfy more of their needs if you give them $1,000 to spend how they choose, than they would if you bought them something (like livestock, a roof, or healthcare) that’s worth $1,000” (2016, para. 2). For example, Benjamin enrolled 5 months ago and got an initial cash transfer of $470. Benjamin’s biggest hardship was lack of money to “cater for my personal needs like soap, medical care, housing, and clothing.” He hopes to construct an “iron roofed house” and “expand agriculture production,” both of which he envisions will improve his standard of living. Since receiving the money, Benjamin has “been able to solve many problems” and spend $300 to purchase his “own plot of land.” Zev Minsky-Primus was also moved because “the thing about GiveDirectly, is that they are great at getting data. They are constantly trying to refine their approach with information, and make sure almost all of their data is easily findable by the public” (para. 4). This constant refining is supported by GiveWell’s study, whose earlier reservations concerning GD’s targeted enrollment criteria and how it impacts villages had been addressed. The 2017 report noted that GD was “able to detect and respond to these cases” and has now switched from “targeted enrollment” to enrolling all the households in selected villages (give-directly#Does_it_work).

Similarly persuaded, Williams and Kubzansky (2017) write that Omidyar Network invested in GD because “their researchers have run randomized controlled trials and published peer-reviewed studies, demonstrating that simply giving people money works” (para. 12). Omidyar envisions that GD will “be able to produce insights on how people behave when they have confidence in long-term, ‘no-strings-attached’ income and they “hope that with this opportunity, they will be empowered to find ways to best improve their own lives and livelihoods” (para. 4).

Of note is GD’s prioritizing of communication over maintaining hierarchies, an act that Sproull and Kiesler (1991) found effective in creating social presence which aids in conveying and maintaining organizational identity (p. 252). Emerging knowledge is prized for the interaction it facilitates among stakeholders. Analyzing GD’s use of modern technological tools and communication sheds light on prioritizing a people-centered communication. Take the tool Give Now, which emphasizes the similarities among the values of the agency, potential donors, and potential beneficiaries by stating its mission: “Send money directly to people living in extreme poverty. We aim to reshape international giving. We’re backed by GiveWell, Google, and, most importantly, rigorous evidence” that the money is being spent wisely (Give Now, n.d., para. 1). This act of transparency manifests GD’s values and its ongoing and continuous interaction not just with its donors but with its recipients as well, particularly given the method by which the stories are collected. As indicated earlier, stories are collected by field officers upon recipients’ enrollment, receipt of cash transfers, and cash expenditures. These (recorded) stories are published (with informed consent) unedited on GDLive Newsfeed to let the GD community see first-hand how their giving is helping to alleviate extreme poverty. The live feed adds immediacy via real-time updates.

Further, the website features key elements that allows donors to give directly, keeps site visitors apprised on the latest events within the organization, describes the mission, and invites participation. GiveWell found “GiveDirectly to be an exceptionally strong and effective organization” (“GiveDirectly,” 2017, para. 4) that performs highly in terms of self-evaluation, track record, communication, and transparency.

Problem Resolution

Technical and professional communication “encompasses a set of activities that people do to discover, shape, and transmit information” (Markel & Selber, 2018, p. 3). With its focus on purpose and audience, GD engages activities that revolve around changing attitudes and motivating a donor audience to take direct action for what it considers a worthy cause. A sample of donor statements attest to this goal of problem resolution.

Jennifer Rubenstein, a donor, supports GD because it “best addresses the most severe problem with the fewest negative effects” (Rubenstein, 2017, para. 3). Rubenstein bases her decision on answers to questions such as how does donating to each of these causes function? Whom does it benefit, and how? What values does it enact or promote? What relationships or connections does it strengthen? She considers her donations to GD “as coming out of my budget for effectively addressing serious suffering and injustice” (Rubenstein, para. 7). Brittany Erikson of the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation found cash transfers “an intervention that quickly stood out as a great option to not only fulfill our giving requirements, but to do so in a way we felt was responsible, impactful and even inspiring” because they are “the most well-studied ways to help the most vulnerable.” Their own values, “include placing a premium on evidence, efficiency, and respect for participants,” which they saw embodied in the work of GD and so earned their donation (Erikson, 2016, para. 4).

And they make it easy for donors, too, using financial insider language on stocks, locking in tax benefits, and advising against other forms of transaction such as “brokerage transfers” as being inefficient. The invitation to donate is based on direct, simple language (Figure 6).

This focus on cash as the benchmark reflects insider knowledge of finance that may serve to boost the confidence of donors.

Celebrate and Reward

A benevolent international development organization, GD leverages technology to mass mobilize resources toward a singular cause: improving the life quality of the world’s poorest. From credit/debit cards to PayPal, GD also solicits cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Etherum to fund its operations. This is a recognition that technology can be used for good.

GD does not operate by executing an existing business model. Instead, it created one by translating its vision and values into a testable model of humanitarian aid which it maintains through audits to keep what works and discard what does not. As a result, it has managed to scale up from Kenya to Uganda and lived up to what Mehlenbacher (2013) described as an environment in which “the context demands flexible problem-solving abilities for collaboratively achieved short-term solutions” (p. 189). Thus, GD is in a constant state of reassessment and correction, based directly on observations of the actual environment.

GD’s technologies and systems serve as both its vision and its documentation. From GD’s vision, “to reshape international giving, making direct transfers to the poor the benchmark against which other, more expensive approaches are evaluated,” to its operating model of “manag[ing] transfers end-to-end using electronic monitoring and payment technology” to its performance evaluation by “delivering a great experience to our recipients” (“GiveDirectly”, n.d., para. 4) are all facets of the operation are strategically bound up in the organization’s values. GD recognizes the less predictable and less stable market in which it operates requires high innovation. Making use of mobile money infrastructure, for example, has its inherent benefits. For one, the widespread use of mobile money has already altered the landscape of informal trade and people’s relationship with their communities, as shown by their use of this new “currency” to transact goods and services. Second, the low transaction costs associated with mobile money directly translate into more money in people’s pockets not retained by transaction handlers in the form of fees and deductions.

GD has set up analytics to measure its goals, which are of course driven by its value of eliminating poverty to promote maximum wellbeing in people’s lives. Despite its non-profit status, GD still invests in creating a quality user experience for recipients by quantifying key indicators and making these transparent both to donors and to the larger public (including potential donors). It presents itself as an open book, ready for inspection. Success for GD is measured in benefits to the target populace. Data show that beneficiaries typically prioritize fund allocation to food, education, health, and wealth—in that order (“GiveWell”). Personal statements bore this out:

Alice (54): “I used a portion of the transfer to cement both walls and floor of house. I bought and fixed doors and windows because my former door was just a piece of iron sheet. I also paid my son’s high school fees.”

Kipkorir (32): “I am planning to keep poultry so that I can have reliable income which I can spend to buy food for my family. I believe when I have chicken I will have eggs for sale and some as food.”

Dorca (66): “The biggest difference in my daily life is that I have peace in my life cause now that my farm is weeded and my farm is now doing well. I know I will get a good harvest.”

Edwin (30): “The biggest difference in my daily life since I started receiving the money from GiveDirectly in that I’m able to provide for my family without any challenges because I used part of the money to repair the motorcycle which is my major source of income.”

Benson (45): “I currently have no new goal apart from the ones I had earlier. These were get my family a medical coverage. This way we secure our health and expand my farming activities to have food security.”

The authentic nature in which these stories are published tells of individuals who can speak for themselves and who have as much value as those giving of their cash. When we read these stories, we picture real flesh-and-blood people located in a place and time. We see them navigating the contours of their lives, perhaps a little differently from us, but similarly nonetheless. We get to discover what matters to them and how their lives might be made better. We begin to value them and affirm the choices they are making to meet their specific needs. In short, we relate to them as fellow human beings.

Still, Starr, and Hattendorf (2014) are skeptical of this approach. While they agree that “poor people are poor because they don’t have money” (para. 1), they think “unconditional cash transfers should be judged primarily by how much money recipients are making a few years out from the windfall” (para. 1). Although their research finds evidence that recipients are happier and less stressed, they remain skeptical that GD’s model is both cost-effective and will have lasting benefits in terms of health, education, and income benefits. They also characterize direct cash transfers as “the cheekiness of simply handing out cash” (para. 2).

Starr and Hattendorf’s (2014) findings should be weighed against those reported by the Innovation for Poverty Action (“IPA” n.d.) and that of Haushofer and Shapiro (2016), which looked into the impact of unconditional cash transfers in Kenya and found that GD’s cash transfers led to “significant and economically meaningful impacts of cash transfers across the majority of outcomes measured by our indices, including assets, consumption, food security, revenue from self-employment, and psychological wellbeing” (p. 18). Table 2 summarizes the findings of GiveWell into fund allocation by beneficiaries of GD.

Further, independent sources have found that giving directly boosts household incomes, which in turn leads to reduced stress levels as people climb out of poverty. Moreover, putting the donated money to good use not only lifts individual household income, it also builds the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) as well (Haushofer & Shapiro, 2016).

GD positions itself as a “local” enterprise. However, the better descriptor is that it is a “temporally and spatially distributed” workplace (Mehlenbacher, 2013, p. 188). With its infrastructure and data sources rooted in the nations in which it operates, GD is a benevolent, non-profit citizen. As such, its identity is at once local and global: local because its operations are so, but global because it acts as an instrument that harnesses global resources to benefit both donor and recipient. In so doing, the moral imperative it wields speaks well of its donors and of humanity in general. It sheds the remnants of arrogant “noblesse oblige” in favor of an enlightened and egalitarian ethos with an increased sense of perceived fairness. It thus forges a cross-cultural alliance in which foreign intervention and genuine fulfillment of societal humanitarian obligations become one.

Ongoing innovative work at GD focuses on meeting evolving user needs as efficiently as possible. GDLive broadcasts testimonials of beneficiaries to inspire donations, but the open forum also attests to the value GD places in giving voices to all its stakeholders. Such close interaction favors and anticipates positive trends and frames the enabling tactical activities within the overarching strategic goal objectives of the initiative—alleviating severe poverty at its source. These voices can be interpreted alongside the values of the organization, its technologies, and its resources.

Evaluate Ideas Based on Their Merit

GD has taken advantage of an existing industry for the largely “unbanked” population in the region. This industry is built upon “mobile money,” which simply means money that can be accessed and used via mobile phone (Maurer, 2012). First, it is no secret that money occupies a central place in the modern world. As a medium of economic exchange, it is the means by which individuals live. Thus, the social and symbolic significance of having money at one’s disposal is at once liberating and enabling. Second, individuals in this part of the world operate primarily in a cash economy with no access to credit in the form of loans, credit cards, and debit cards, etc. It has been reported that, as of 2014, “66% of sub-Saharan Africans did not have a bank account” (Africa: The Unbanked Continent, 2017, para. 4). As if that were not bad enough, the few banks that exist operate largely in the traditional way they always have, sidelining those who have no bank accounts. This is problematic because most small and medium business entrepreneurs—“90% in Uganda”—fall in this category (Africa: The Unbanked Continent, 2017, para. 5). This category of entrepreneurs has been critical to economic and financial activity in that part of the world. It is therefore noteworthy that GD bypassed banking institutions and went directly to the technology that individuals use the most in that part of the world, mobile money. Through mobile money, recipients can register and have their particulars verified by GD before the transfers can occur (Hausfer & Shapiro, 2015; FAQ, GD). When withdrawing funds, recipients must present ID along with their mobile phone number and a user-specified PIN number to an agent.

Regarding mobile money, Omidyar Network, a GiveDirectly donor organization, sees in cash transfers the ability to alleviate poverty and empower people by moving toward a “more inclusive financial system” (Williams & Kubzansky, 2017, 2017, para. 2). Omidyar also sees in cash transfer programs the potential to address “rising income volatility, lack of secure benefits, social instability, and the changing nature of work” (Williams & Kubzansky, 2017, para. 2).

Mobile money has made receiving money in an instant that much easier! A byproduct of mobile phone providers in the region, mobile money allows a customer to use his or her mobile phone to move money directly to another mobile phone user. Notable providers include Safaricom in Kenya, whose system is known as M-Pesa (M: Mobile); Pesa, cash (in Swahili); and Mobile Telephone Network (MTN) in Uganda. Once a customer has an account with one of these providers, he or she can transact cash at respective dealers and a “network of retail agents as cash in/cash out points” (Maurer, 2012, p. 589). Mobile money allows individuals to transact everything one would do with a banking service. It uses text messages and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), also known as Quick Codes, a protocol used by Global System for Mobile (GSM) cellular telephones to communicate with the mobile network operator’s computers without the need for smartphones, which are still out of reach for a large populace in this part of the world (Donovan, 2012).

The praxis of this infrastructure is that it taps into an existing communications network that already connects millions of customers, more of whom have cellphones than have bank accounts. GD recognizes that its recipients operate primarily in a cash economy, which in itself limits their ability to maintain savings, take out loans, and otherwise engage in banking transactions to pursue economic opportunities. Within the GD cash-transfer configuration, cellphones function as mobile banks. With them, users can pay cash to service providers in exchange for mobile credit; they can send and receive money; they can pay utilities and make purchases; they can build up savings; and, in short, they can become active participants in the economy in ways they previously could not. Mobile money is a surprisingly effective blend of low tech and high tech that provides low-cost services yet with secure operations that have made remitting cash very feasible (for further discussion on mobile money, see Maurer, 2012; Jenkins, 2008; Hughes & Lonie, 2007). Thus, mobile money facilitates such services as peer-to-peer transfers, which makes it an excellent resource for GD’s model.

As Banks (2012) of National Geographic writes, the network is composed of small-scale retailers registered as agents, who pay out to and receive cash from customers in exchange for loading virtual credit onto their phone using a system of codes. International development projects such as GD represent networked communication at its best. Their open and participatory nature means learning new ways of connecting and collaborating with aid recipients and directly engaging in the practices of their everyday lives. GD recognized this promising new approach as a way to tap into rather than invent a new way of doing business. In this configuration, mobile money belongs to that network of communicative genres both “human and nonhuman” through which predictable relations can be facilitated (Spinuzzi, 2008, p. 48).

GD’s own self-evaluation record and “strong commitment to rigorous analysis of its work” shows that GD “has successfully accomplished its goal of transferring cash to extremely low-income people at a fairly low expense ratio” (GiveDirectly, 2017, para.33) Moreover, because that process has been refined over the years, GD has demonstrated “a commitment to continuous improvement” (para. 33). In terms of communication, a GiveWell study found not only that GD is fully transparent in addressing key questions and concerns, but that it “appears to value transparency as much as any organization we’ve encountered” (“GiveWell,” 2017, para. 50).

Haushofer and Shapiro’s (2013) research assessed the impact of transfer size on households and found improvements across the board in home improvements, female empowerment, and general wellbeing in the villages where households are located. However, Mogensen (2014) is skeptical about the “size of these benefits” (para. 11) compared to charities that invest directly in health indices like deworming. Mogensen considers deworming a greater payoff than direct cash transfer because a worm-free life bodes better for future productivity than does a short-term infusion of cash. This criticism does not impugn GD’s motive; rather, it reflects a simple matter of priorities as to where aid should be given to provide maximum benefit to the recipients. Additional criticism pertains to the size and structure of cash transfer and whether or not they are well-thought out. That remains to be determined, however. It is outside the scope of this study.

Still, the merit of trusting individuals to allocate money according to their needs is borne out in research by Milner, Nielson, and Findley (2016). Their study on foreign aid and government programs in Uganda found that “subjective well-being is now a major element of development policy” (p. 221) and that “human flourishing” is an important component of well-being. These stories from GDLive Feed support that notion. In answer to the invitation to Describe the biggest difference in your daily life since you started receiving payments from GiveDirectly, these recipients responded as follows:

Dorina (59): “The biggest difference in my daily life is the pride I have found in using fertilizer like my fellow farmers in the village, something that I never expected in life.”

Ouma (21): The biggest difference in my daily life since I started receiving this transfer is that my business is doing well due to the value of stock I have now.

Florence (55): “The biggest difference in my daily life since I started receiving this transfer is that I have been able to use solar lamp in my house because the accrued debts are paid already.”

Prtronala (70): “The biggest difference in my daily life is that I have a phone. This I never had before.”

Janeth (25): “The biggest difference in my daily
life since I started receiving the transfer is that we have enough and better diet meals in my family. The transfer has given me hope of good things in my family.

Joseph (36): “The biggest difference in my daily life since I started receiving payments is that I am less stressed because I can be able to buy certain items with ease. When I don’t have money, I can easily borrow knowing that I will be able to pay at the end of the month when I receive my transfer.”

Jane (77): “The biggest difference in my life is happiness. I am always happy since I never lack food to eat anymore like I used to before.”

These stories place GD’s recipient in the center of aid where donors’ preferences do not override recipients’ priorities. Indeed, donor Beverly Archer writes that while “the notion of giving direct aid has remained elusive, GD makes sense because the recipient gets the cash without any controlling, paternalistic strings attached. They get the gift they want. And so, finally, do I” (Archer, 2016, para. 4). Archer’s statement encapsulates the benefits of giving directly that Weidel (2016) has written about.


This study examined the organizational values enacted and promoted by GD and how they are reflected in its technical and professional communication practices. Rather than take the values at face value, the study analyzed other data to determine the extent to which the six organizational core values drive GD’s operations.

To investigate these values, the study began by conceptualizing the problem that GD set out to address, which is to eradicate poverty through direct humanitarian aid. According to this study’s reading, GD found that conventional methods of giving aid (1) rely on an infrastructure that does not prioritize the relationship between donors and recipients, (2) focus on alleviating symptoms of poverty rather than attacking root causes, and (3) fail to empower recipients by denying their agency in determining their future. GD resolved that conventional humanitarian approaches were inefficient, partly because they are not aligned with the values of donor agencies. GD has taken on this issue from conception to resolution by conceiving its operations around its values of giving directly to needy people and trusting them to make choices that meet their present and long-term needs. GD has (1) constructed an infrastructure that placed donors and recipients in each other’s field of vision thus eliminating the middleman, overhead, and other bottlenecks and (2) prioritized recipients by giving them cash directly and trusting them to make sound spending decisions.

No comparisons were made between GD and similarly structured aid agencies because they were beyond the scope of this exploratory study. However, there was discussion on other aid models that contrasted with GD’s approach; that discussion was necessary to gain perspective on GD’s departure from the norm.

By and large, this study highlights GD’s values as they are constituted and operationalized. Pending further research, criticism of GD’s direct cash model as short sighted and lacking in longevity stands. However, GD’s focus on objective indicators of poverty and its empowerment of aid recipients by making them unconditional agents in using that aid also stands, based on extensive research over decades. So, too, does GD’s focus on continuous process improvement in its operations and delivery of aid. GD’s innovative paradigm shift of unconditional aid is a resourceful and promising approach to bringing some good cheer into ordinary people’s lives as their unfiltered stories attest. For GD, cash is only a “mediating artifact” (Spinuzzi, 2003, p. 48) in the quest to provide a universal basic income to individuals so they can mitigate against poverty and bring stability where it is lacking in meeting the contingent and local demands of their lives.

Implications For TPC

The salient nature of GD’s articulated values on its website is demonstrative of what we know about rhetoric and TPC. When organizational values are adopted as important components in strategic planning, they drive the intent and direction of the organization, shape its priorities and actions, and drive innovation and creativity. TPC can add value by defining the relationship between technology, the interface, and real user needs. Through its tacit knowledge and technical expertise, a values-driven approach has the potential to revolutionize humanitarian aid by placing humans at the center of aid, demonstrating that what the Global South needs is a socially oriented approach to TPC.

There are lessons embedded in considering TPC at the intersection of power, culture, economics, and political systems (Longo, 2014), and non-governmental entities (Dura et al., 2013). In the field of international humanitarian aid, examining not just the donors who hold the legitimacy and the power but the recipients is an act of restorative balance akin to caregiving (Koerber, 2006). Far from marginalizing recipients (Rose, 2016, pp. 428–430), the ubiquity of digital technologies in people’s daily lives opens up access and increases public engagement.

This model invites us to contrast the standard of passive donor funding versus active giving that conveys agency as well as aid. First, it involves the invisible world of mass participation, which de Certeau (1984) argues is always in existence, albeit surreptitiously, in the tactical realm. Second, it uses mass access to cheap and easy technology, like the sim card, to accomplish its task. Mobile money, which has achieved a critical mass in Kenya and Uganda (Muwanguzi & Musambira, 2009), results in a reduction in transaction costs, which in turn translate directly into improved livelihood.

Conceiving communicative genres as an intersection among developmental economists, technical documentation teams and their partners in engineering, support, user experience, marketing, translation, change management, and so on speaks to the changing roles of technical communicators as well as the tools and methodologies that support new ways of working and innovation. This transdisciplinary partnership echoes Spinuzzi and Zachry’s (2000) framework of genre ecologies, for it manifests the ways in which expertise is coordinated to achieve organizational goals. This framework offers relative stability because its operations are contingent upon immediate audience needs and the ability of GD to satisfy those needs directly and efficiently. In contrast to traditional humanitarian systems’ strategy of catering to donor preferences, this people-centered approach signifies a paradigm shift demonstrating a whole new dimension that enhances, marshals, and interconnects previous methods and frameworks for aiding the needy. GD adapts to the people it serves and helps them meet the challenges their environment imposes on them. At the heart of its approach is an art of making do that involves cooperation as much as competition. This close cooperation and trust offers a seat at the table for the non-powerful. GD has designed a structure that supports the needs of its stakeholders on both ends of the spectrum (see Rose, 2016).

The activities within this network necessitate ongoing sensitivity to sociotechnical mediation. There are numerous technologies, countless audiences, and a participatory TPC culture reflecting an ecology of genres within a simultaneously international and local operation. There is distributed expertise, which activity theorists call “polycontextuality” Spinuzzi (2008, p. 13), where there are no clear-cut roles of subject matter experts and technical writers so that the nature of knowledge in these emerging TPC situations is variegated.

This analysis depicts how acknowledging the existing cultural differences between the Global South (specifically, Uganda and Kenya) and the West, and how grappling with those differences in less stereotypical, simplistic, and reductionist ways is beneficial. Therefore, it is imperative that we aim to teach those differences without otherizing communities and making them appear less than ideal. Aguad and Voss (2017) have argued that the key to ethical technical communication across cultures is to apply the appropriate cultural “filters” through the lens of objective non-biased value analysis. Increased sensitivity to the importance of considering divergent value systems, in turn, might usher in an era of a healthy response for difference in which global audiences can now cease to be imagined or constructed from heuristics and analyses. Instead, lifting a lid off these audiences and allowing them to define themselves in a co-construction of audience leads to better understanding and a socially oriented approach to TPC.

This model is not internationalization—because that connotes exporting the traditional U.S. foreign-aid model. It is also not localization, because of the process nature of the transaction. Instead, it offers us a glimpse into an increased interdependence and integration of professional communication process across national and global cultures where information is exchanged openly and rapidly—in this case, for the enlightened and empowered self-betterment of the most impoverished people in the reaches of the Global South.


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About the Author

Josephine Walwema is an associate professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University. She teaches courses in technical and professional communication. Her research in professional communication has been published in Technical Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, and Connexions. She is available at jwalwema@gmail.com.

Manuscript received 22 January 2018, revised 9 April 2018; accepted 1 August 2018.