We hold just a few all-Akvo team meetings each year, because we’re scattered across four countries. So they’re kind of special. This time we got together in Holland, at Jan Nieuwenhuizen, “New House Farm”, in the Dutch countryside near Zevenhoven, organised (and stocked with food and drink) by Kathelyne and Luuk.

Top row: Gino, Daniel, Paul, Beth, Thomas, Frodo, Chris, Kathelyne, Peter. Bottom row: Luuk, Mark W. Picture by @charmermark

Of our 12 core staff, seven are software developers and getting them in the room with the partnership and communications team is mind-blowingly useful. We had almost the full development team in Holland, only missing Oliver Galloway-Lunn, our automated testing pro. It was the first time many people in the team had met Jo Pratt, who now works with me on communications in London, and Chris Amsinger, who has been helping the Dutch partnership team. We also`had a visit from Frodo van Oostveen, who will be working to support partner deals this year in The Hague.

I’m going to try to give a flavour of the people there and what we covered, as I saw it happen.

Monday and Tuesday

Akvo team meeting. Nieuwenhuizen, Zevenhoven, Netherlands. Monday 24 January 2011.

Peter van der Linde took everyone through the deals we have in place, and those that could be on their way. Peter has a nose for how the international development field – particularly how government aid spending – is changing. And he’s really good at getting us funded to work in the places we need to be, while keeping us clear of the bureaucracy many of those partners are trying to upturn.

Just under three years into its development, Akvo RSR is set to bring at least €100M of development aid projects online and that’s looking like just the beginning. As we embark on the first months of two new MFS2 consortia, we got to spend time with two people helping lead them, with presentations from Don Offermans of the WASH Alliance and an especially inspiring talk from Stijn van der Krogt of Connect4Change.

Peter took us through some of the wider discussions he’s having, including ways of bringing more of the Dutch government’s water and sanitation aid spend portfolio online at the top level as we help it increase transparency and achieve IATI compliance, potentially helping Cordaid put its projects online, a campaign with Earth Water in China, Taiwan and South Africa and a new pilot project with our early backer the Rabobank. He also took us through his work to forge philanthropic partnerships in the United States, the latest stage of which will be a meeting of minds we’re co-hosting with the Skoll Global Threats fund in mid February in San Francisco. He and Thomas leave for San Francisco on 12th February, so more on that then.

On Monday, Gino Lee took us through options for partner branded websites that are maintained and served from Akvo, but fit the style and look of the partner’s own website. This is something many are looking for. Gino went through a series of mockups based on his vision for how a company could create a philanthropy system that would use Akvo to feature sponsored development projects on its own website, with automated feeds from all field and support partners, via Akvo RSR. He concluded the day by cooking Chicken Marbella.

I did my latest “Charmer Vision” session, which is when I pretend I’m doing a TED Talk. I focused on the pace of technological change and how it is roaring ahead of almost every organisations’ ability to keep up. I described my vision for more discoverable communications – layers of narrative related to organisations, physical places and infrastructure – and I talked about the power of photography, anchored around Susan Sontag’s great book “On Photography” and some of my recent holiday snaps. We need to recognise that what is being documented through Akvo RSR is about real people and real communities and that these images will live on – it’s a big responsibility to handle sensitively.

Luuk Diphoorn took us through his vision for Akvo to establish local operations in East Africa, to provide training and deployment of the system amongst field teams for our MFS2 parters and to help test and establish the Akvo SMS platform. Our MFS2 commitments include spending more time working with local field partners, particularly in Africa, and it’s going to be one of the most exciting aspects of our expansion in the year ahead.


Peter van der Linde of Akvo and Bart Lacroix of the 1%Club, with Mark Westra listening in. Cafe Cobalt, Amsterdam, Netherlands. 26 January 2011.

On Wednesday we spent time in Amsterdam, including a morning with Anna Chojnacka, Bart Lacroix and Mathieu Klinger of the 1%Club. This exciting Amsterdam-based startup, now involved in its own MFS2 consortium, is at the leading edge in bringing a new generation of philanthropic individuals and groups online and there is huge potential for us to work together. We talked about maybe sharing office space in Amsterdam, and sharing a joint software development space or marketplace online. Mathieu joined our development team for the day on Friday, too, which I hear went very well.

Oh, and we visited the Heineken Museum, which was worth it for this photo alone. And then we had a party with friends and colleagues in Amsterdam.


Mark Westra, Gabriel and Thomas peer into the abyss – an antique brewing chamber. Heineken Museum, Amsterdam. 26 January 2011.

Thursday and Friday

Akvodev planning, led by Thomas Bjelkeman. Nieuwenhuizen, Zevenhoven, Netherlands. 27 January 2011.

While the user base and volume of projects is set to explode this year, we’re not planning to hire lots of new staff. As Thomas led us through a discussion on development, support and communications priorities on Thursday, I stressed that a priority must be “to enable self-service on a massive scale”. It’s something that will be really important for Luuk Diphoorn, Kathelyne van den Berg and Mark Westra, who are working day-to-day helping people get projects online, and explaining how to do Akvo RSR updates. Ingrained in most NGO cultures (and indeed GOs!) is the tendency to make things complicated, to extend or avoid decisions. Instead we’re saying you can get on and just share what you do, across all your programmes and see different kind of network efforts, and get a fresh take on how you ensure quality, learn from failure and share successes. But of course we’ve acted rather like speedboats to date, zipping around between these huge tankers. Yet to really change a tanker’s direction you need tugs and we have to find ways to keep things small and simple, yet pull tremendous weight. In reality I think this means putting a lot of effort into explaining our system simply, online, to help people get to grips with it.

Achieving a balance in our product development is one of my concerns – I gave the team a blast of hardcore marketing theory by running through BCG’s product portfolio matrix. We spent an intense Thursday working through the multitude of software development priorities, that encourage people to adopt what we’ve already built while adding new features and helping us extend into new markets.

Watching the way that the development team interacts always fascinates me. Daniel Karlsson, quiet, thoughtful and focused as ever a Swede could be, is a huge fan of lean startup methods and I found in him a quiet ally for avoiding mission statements and staying radical in how we evolve Akvo. Paul Burt, who I hardly ever see even though he lives close by in London, asserted himself as a technology man who knows exactly what is possible and how to make it work, and who charms us all with his understated humour. And then there’s the Californians… the quizzical energy and sheer fun that Beth Whiteside brings (literally) to the party is something I look forward to more and more each time we get together, especially when she hands me her camera and says “take pictures for me, Mark!”. And then there’s Gino Lee, whose powers of observation (and cocktail-making skills) are just a downright class act. The dynamic between Gabriel von Heijne, Akvo’s lead developer, and Thomas Bjelkeman-Petterson as founder and CTO is also amazing. It’s so obvious they enjoy working and programming together, which is what it’s surely all about in the end. Here they are playing late-night Viking geek games.

Normally we argue quite a lot, which of course is a good thing. This time we were quite harmonious – I think we’re realising that the combined talents in the group have led to countless thousands of tiny actions, interventions, judgements and decisions that have brought us to where we are now.

None of us could have built Akvo without the rest. It gives me vertigo to think how far we’ve come, and how far we can go from here.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo and director of communications.

You can see my full set of photos from the week on Flickr by clicking on the collage below.

Edit: Added names to the main picture, so you can see who’s who. /@bjelkeman