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Lean Impact: How to scale social innovation for good

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Nikhil Dugal, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum workshop ‘Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good’.

Ann Mei Chang is the author of the upcoming book, Lean Impact, on how modern approaches to innovation can drive massively greater social impact and scale.

She is the former Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID. Prior to her pivot to the public sector, Ann Mei had over twenty years of experience at leading Silicon Valley companies including Google, Apple, Intuit, and some startups.

At the Skoll World Forum, she led a workshop titled Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good where participants were introduced to the lean methodology to help develop more scalable solutions for social innovation. Participants were asked to arrive with a social challenge or a solution where they’d like to see growth.

Session for Lean Impact - Workshop cabaret tables at the Skoll World Forum

The workshop started with her posing an intriguing question. There has been slow but steady progress in multiple focus areas in the development sector such as sanitation and health, but shouldn’t we be shooting for progress at the same rate as disruptive technologies such as mobile phones? Their adoption has skyrocketed over the past two decades unlike any other technology deployed in the social sector.

Edison once stated, ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration’. A lot of time when we think about innovation, we focus on the one percent inspiration, but success is about making that idea practical and applying it to achieve true impact at scale in the world.

The lean startup movement has done a good job capturing the fundamental strategies for scaling up in the startup sector but the movement mostly addresses businesses in the private sector. Lean impact aims to help fill in the gaps for applying the lean methodology in the social sector.

Ann started the session with three principles to follow in order to achieve lean impact: Think big, start small and relentlessly seek impact.

  • Think Big: Think about the problems that you want to solve, instead of thinking about problems you can currently address based on your resources. For example, Astro Teller from Google X stated that we should be clear whether our aim is to make a 10% or a 10x improvement. Sometimes 10x could actually be easier because fewer people have tried it.
  • Start small: Key to innovation is about how fast you’re able to iterate your solution. That’s why you should start small. It’s easier to test something out with 10 people rather than 1000 people.
  • Relentlessly seek impact: You need to love your problem not your solution, and relentlessly seek impact in your interventions.

Further, she stated that social innovation lies at the intersection of three pillars: growth, value and impact.

Ben diagram of Social Innovation. Value/Growth/Impact

1) Value

The value in the social sector comes from two customers, your funders and your end users.

You need to understand what your end users need, and not move forward with assumptions. Are you delivering something people want or come back for? How do you make something people desire and demand?

A prime example for testing customer value is PATH water filters. They tried two versions when they were going to market, one was the simplest and cheapest version, and one was a nicer model that cost twice as much. Three times as many people bought the nicer version because they didn’t want something that looked like a trashcan sitting in their living room! You want to create real world conditions to see how people will respond in the real world because observed data is more valuable than self reported data.

Meanwhile, funders are looking to minimize risk rather than enhancing learning. Funders need to look at starting small, taking more risk and placing lots to bets. Based on traction, funding can be scaled up over time.

2) Growth

Do you have an engine for growth that doesn’t just grow linearly but accelerates over time? Many organizations focus on scaling their work in the short term instead of the long term. In the social sector, we often see growth curves like the inverse hockey stick. An organization can scale quickly but then when they reach 100,000 or 1 million people, there are just not enough donor dollars to continue scaling up and stagnation occurs.

A typical grant program can cause organizations to scale up too fast instead of iterating, starting small and testing solutions before scaling them up. We need to also validate drivers that can accelerate growth in the long run.

3) Impact

It is also possible for an organization to scale up too fast, and focus on vanity metrics such as the number of people they reach or total funding mobilized. This leads to scale with unclear impact. Instead, innovation (outcome) metrics should be drivers for how your intervention works, such as adoption rates or percentage of users working or studying longer. How can we test early on to see if the intervention solves the problem we are addressing? There are several linkages between an intervention and the resulting impact that need to be confirmed before scaling up.

Organizations like ID insight are introducing cheaper and faster tools to evaluate impact, lightweight proxies that can tell if the intervention is working before investing in expensive evaluations like RCTs.

Decision vs. knowledge focused evaluation

Ann went on to explain that there are four proto-typical business models in the social sector:

  • Market-driven: These rely on market forces for traction, and are the easiest to scale. For example, Off-grid Solar uses a pay-as-you-go business model using mobile money over time instead of customers facing a large upfront cost.
  • Cross-subsidy model: This involves cross-subsidizing an impact generating non-profit service with a for-profit or revenue generating activity. A leading example is Arvind eye care that has each wealthy patient pay for up to 3-4 people. Facilities are different but everyone gets the same quality healthcare.
  • Replication: Microfinance was pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh by Mohammed Yunis. This model has now been replicated and spread around the world to reach over 200 million people.
  • Government spending: This is a often the most appropriate/likely path to scale for basic services such as health and education, where the government is usually the biggest provider and potential partner.

Workshop Exercises

The session also included a workshop to help participants work on their ideas.

The first included defining a goal and a problem. To identify a goal we can start by asking, ‘How will the world be different in 10+ years if you succeed?’. A problem is what is preventing the goal from being reached today. These problems are due to some root causes. If we identify those, it can help frame the solutions to address them.

The second exercise was to generate lots of solutions to pick one for testing. Attendees were asked to be creative and think outside the box, keeping in mind that high risk leads to high reward. Participants must start with a blank slate in order to do so. Then, one idea must be selected from this list and the attendee must identify their assumptions behind it and how the solution will play out.

The third exercise was about asking who will pay for the product/service at scale and who will implement the solution at scale.

To learn more about Lean Impact and Ann’s upcoming book, visit leanstartup.co/social-good


Proximate Philanthropy

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Kim Scriven, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, covers the Skoll World Forum session on ‘Proximate Philanthropy: Exploring Power and Privilege in the Funding Landscape’

The focus of this year’s forum is the Power of Proximity, and this was the starting point for a panel that cut to the heart of one of the central relationships in social entrepreneurship: that between those who seek to drive change in the world and those with the means to fund and support such action.

Kicking off the panel, moderator Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute brought the assembled audience back to the inspiring words of Bryan Stevenson in Tuesday’s opening plenary, arguing that ‘Proximate Philanthropy’ was essential for enabling the “bold, inconvenient and uncomfortable acts” that our moment requires. Achieving such bold action will entail that discomfort and inconvenience be shared by funders, not just felt by social entrepreneurs on the frontlines of social change.

But what exactly does proximity mean in the relationship between funders and social entrepreneurs? Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, highlighted efforts to foster interactions that strengthen a grantee’s ability to achieve their outcomes. These efforts are built around five core practices, starting from the internal culture of the funder, using this to actively research and pursue opportunities and provide unrestricted, multiyear funding, backed by tailored additional support. Underpinning this is the need for accountability and active communication between funder and grantee.

Vu Le of NonprofitAF.com was more prosaic: sometimes proximity is simple and physical – about donors being prepared to leave their comfortable offices and meet people working where the problems are. Parminder Vir argued forcefully that proximity is not simply about attitude or place, it is about the authenticity that comes from being born out of the world in which a funder focuses its action – with an appreciation of context, place, and history. As CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, for Vir this means being based in Lagos, Nigeria, and working with an awareness of the ongoing impact of colonialism on the country, the continent, and its people.

And this cuts to the heart of the whole debate – in the room and beyond – that philanthropy and efforts to foster social change are inescapably embedded in systems of power and politics. In the case of funders, this inherently means that they have the greater power and agency in their relationships with grantees and recipients. These power imbalances are heightened when they reflect broader social inequalities and injustices – be they about race, sex or history.

At times the conversation focused on familiar ground in debates about how best to fund social action. Is the broad approach of the Tony Elumelu Foundation – generating tens of thousands of applications from as far and wide as possible – more equitable than a more targeted and active sourcing approach pursued by the Peery Foundation? Should funders seek short but tailored applications, or just accept a standard pitch?

The answers to such questions will always be context specific and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to proximate philanthropy. More importantly, to get too focused on these details risks missing the broader point – that funders need not just to be aware of their position of power and privilege, but continually seek to recognise and address the implications.

And this brings us back to the discomfort and inconvenience that we will need to confront. Vu Le decried the fact that “the way we treat non-profits is the same as the way we treat poor people in society’ too often lacking the trust and empathy needed to build meaningful and sustainable relationships that can lead to impact. This is perhaps the crux of the proximity challenge in philanthropy, bridging inequalities in power and resource by taking the time and inconvenience to foster relationship built on mutual respect and understanding.

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News that Serves

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Kevin Warner, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA, at Saïd Business School, covers the Skoll World Forum session ‘News That Serves’.

There are many unknowns in the future of news media.

Who will do the reporting? Who is going to pay for it? How will consumers engage?

What we do know: Media reporting will be decentralized. It will be lean. And it will be interactive.

Wednesday’s Skoll World Forum panel discussion, News that Serves, painted a bleak picture in the broad landscape of international media, highlighting the Orwellian monospeak scandal of Sinclair Media, the “fake news and hate speech fuelling a genocide in Burma”, and the startling statistic that only 13% of people have unfettered access to a fair and open news. With the decline of democracy, warned moderator Pam Mitchell, “the first thing that goes is a free media”.

While decidedly grim, the visiting panel presented promising solutions for an industry that has struggled to evolve in the digital age.

Mainstream media was slow to adopt social media, but the new medium has increasingly afforded unprecedented news access to underserved peoples and given reporting opportunities to populations without the pedigree of elite western journalism schools.

Where some international news conglomerates have lost their reputation for integrity, independent media organizations have flourished through a focus on authenticity. According to Cristi Hegranes, Founder and Executive Director of Global Press Institute, the purpose of “journalism at its core, is to serve the truth”, and the diversification of global reporting is bringing authenticity back to the news.

For NPR executive editor, Edith Chapin, “public media doesn’t have enough resources to squander”. Efficiency will be achieved through better coordination of regional member stations to reduce redundancy of reporting and avoid the “six-year-olds at the soccer game” style of every reporter chasing the same story.

Laura Flanders’ experience as an independent journalist is that, “media at the margins exists today” and is uniquely situated to serve the public interest. Minority networks are working efficiently and independently through proximity to their customers. This proximity allows for news coverage that engages with community and delivers independent media that consumers trust.

While there is cause for concern in this era of fake news and the decline of mainstream investigative journalism, the panel showed an undoubted optimism for what the future holds for news media. It is clear that through innovation and evolution, news will continue to find ways to best serve the public good.

Becoming Big Bettable

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Louis Slade, MPhil in Development Studies at the Department of International Development, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Becoming Big Bettable’.

Image of the screen slide in the session

The description for William Foster and Sridhar Prasad’s session on “Becoming Big Bettable” is perhaps a little misleading. They suggest that their “interactive workshop will share emerging research and help you refine a core investment thesis to increase your organization’s odds of being viewed by donors as big-bettable.” The session, however, led by these two experts from The Bridgespan Group, was less to do with the strategies a social impact organization can use to convince a foundation to provide them with a gift greater than $10 million, and more to do with defining the characteristics of an organization that will have a high social impact. In this sense their argument for how to become “big bettable” is all about designing an organization that effectively addresses the root cause of a problem in a measurable and enduring way.

Foster and Prasad define a “big bet” as a significant philanthropic donation with the ability to catalyse meaningful change for organizations and social movements. While annually gifts of $10 million from philanthropies can reach a total of $8 billion, only 20% of this money goes to organizations working to achieve social change—such as ending malaria or childhood obesity—and 80% is given to established socially valuable institutions such as hospitals, universities, and art galleries. Oddly though, most of these philanthropies publicly state that they would prefer to be spending their money on activities that are making a significant difference in people’s lives, as opposed to simply sustaining the institutions that already exist. There is thus an aspiration gap between where philanthropies would like to spend their money and where they are actually spending their money.

Bridgespan, whose stated mission is to “build a better world by strengthening the ability of mission-driven organizations and philanthropists to achieve breakthrough results in addressing society’s most important challenges and opportunities,” has thus dedicated the last few years to understanding what leads philanthropists/philanthropic organisations to make a big bet in organizations pursuing social change.

Foster and Prasad’s answer, however, has nothing to do with pushing these philanthropies to take on more risk by giving to social impact organizations. Rather, their strategy is all about helping social impact organizations become more effective and, therefore, more deserving of receiving a significant gift. In this sense, Prasad explained that Bridgespan “helps people do good things better.”

Bridgespan’s main achievement in this field has, therefore, been identifying the three weaknesses that many social enterprises face when it comes to how they go about addressing problems.

The first is defining their “point of arrival.” Many social entrepreneurs can speak passionately at length about the importance of addressing a particular problem but fail to clearly identify what they actually hope to change and what they genuinely believe they can achieve. It is one thing to make the case that child mortality needs to be reduced, it is another to explicitly identify how many lives an organization expects to save with its proposed intervention and how long that solution will last. Social entrepreneurs, therefore, need be able to identify a specific goal and secure an enduring impact.

The second weakness is outlining a credible path to reach the point of arrival. A social entrepreneur might have designed an incredible tool to improve education outcomes for poor children in rural areas but unless they have a believable method for distributing that tool to thousands of schools, ensuring it is used appropriately, and measuring the outcomes, they are unlikely to have a significant impact. 

The third weakness is identifying why philanthropy is the missing ingredient. A social enterprise needs to have a serious understanding of what they can do with a cash-injection of more than $10 million dollars that will contribute to enduring change.

What emerged from this session was a realization that if an organization is going to “become big bettable” it is not about nailing the pitch, building the right networks, or being lucky (although all those things are important), it is about creating an enduring solution to a problem.

Further Reading:

SSIR: Making Big Bets for Social Change

Forbes: Big Bet Philanthropy’s Most Promising Social Change Gifts Last Year

Experiments in Empathy

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, Shruthi Vijayakumar, covers the Skoll World Forum session ‘Creative Tensions: Proximity and Power’.

We live in a world that is increasingly fractured and divided. The rise of populism has seen ‘othering’ and fear damage our social fabric and it has never been more important to have empathy for one another. It’s from understanding each other that we can begin to create a path forward together.

Early Tuesday morning 40 odd delegates had a powerful experience of just this, at a workshop titled ‘Creative Tensions’ led by the team at IDEO. In their own words, Creative Tensions is a format for collective conversation, expressed in movement, wherein participants reveal where they stand on an issue by where they stand in the room. The session left us appreciative of each other’s different perspectives, questioning some of our own views and just a little more empathetic and aware.

The facilitators posed a series of prompts, of seemingly opposing ideas, and we were asked to take a stance and share why we stood where we stood. Some of the prompts are as follows:

“Power is taken” <> “Power is given”

“We are the people we serve”  <>  “We are serving others”

“Money enables”  <>  “Money complicates”

“Failure is essential”  <>  “Failure is not an option”

With words and context open to our own interpretation, there was a wide variety of stances on each issue, and what began to unfold as we explained the positions we took was fascinating. Take the second prompt above. “We are the people we serve” vs “We are serving others”.  One participant who stood on the far left shared that “We have to be the people we serve. By serving ‘others’ are we not creating more otherness?” From the other end of the room someone responded “We can’t be the people we serve. We have to acknowledge that there are some differences and distinctions between us. Some of us are more privileged.” Closer to the middle, but still on the left, a young student shared “We benefit from serving others, we feel good, so in effect we are serving ourselves”. And so the conversation continued.

One of the most beautiful things to witness was seeing people hear each other’s perspectives, question their own views, and physically move along the continuum to show how their perspective had changed. None of our positions were static and as the conversation progressed we shifted where we stood in the room – a sign of not just hearing, but far deeper listening and suspended judgement.

So what can we learn from this process?

The issue often lies in how we define terms. Each of us has our own interpretation of many of these concepts such as power, service, and failure. In sharing what these words mean to us and how we interpret these issues, much shared understanding can be created. Take the prompt “Failure is essential” vs “Failure is not an option”. Whilst one person saw failure as the only path to success and to be embraced in tackling wicked problems such as climate change, another person stood on the other end of the room saying “failure in addressing climate change is not an option, we have to get there”. Through dialogue we discovered that despite positions appearing different on the surface due to our interpretations of these terms, we shared a much deeper and common vision.  Be it around a board room, a team meeting, engaging with customers, beneficiaries or funders, it can be powerful to take a moment to understand where someone comes from and to see how the language we use might mean something different to them.

Secondly, our ability to see possibility depends on the quality of our listening. If we can suspend our judgements, and be truly curious about what another has to say, only then will our own perception be enhanced and our views evolve, as was seen with people moving positions as the conversation unfolded. Deep listening is essential for us to see new paths and possibilities to achieve our desired future. This requires each of to be present, open minded and truly value and listen to one another.

Choosing Inclusion over Exclusion for Refugees and Migrants

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Emilie McDonnell, MPhil in Law at the Faculty of Law, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Refugees and Migrants: Economic and Social Integration’.

In today’s increasingly harsh and divisive political climate, refugees and migrants are often portrayed by politicians as well as policy makers and sometimes even human rights advocates as a ‘burden’ for host states. This is accompanied by a reluctance to receive refugees and asylum seekers, with destination states in the Global North actively seeking to prevent such individuals from reaching their territory through visa regimes, carrier sanctions, offshore detention and pushbacks and pullbacks at sea and on land.

But what if the narrative moved away from this? What if refugees and migrants were viewed as being of great value to host states and their communities by providing cultural and social diversity, creating new jobs and businesses, and bringing a much-needed economic boost? Surely this would improve both the lives of refugees and migrants as well as the host communities themselves?

These questions were canvassed in yesterday’s panel discussion on Refugees and Migrants: Economic and Social Integration. The panel ‘walked the walk’ on the idea of inclusion, featuring two inspiring young leaders who are also refugees: Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee, and Salim Salamah, a Syrian Palestinian refugee, who are both Founding Members of the Network for Refugee Voices.

Susan Myers, Senior Vice President of the United Nations Foundation opened the panel, highlighting its focus on ‘personal experiences, local solutions and more effective policy making’, which in doing so, ‘will make a strong business case that migrants are to be invested in and partnered with’ and outline a model that ‘starts with the power of proximity that brings people together’.

Effective Social and Economic Integration

The presence of refugees and other migrants can be a win for host communities as well as the individuals themselves. Panellist Robert Annibale, Global Director of Inclusive Finance Citigroup Inc, encouraged us not to think of refugees as merely destitute, but as educated and skilled individuals full of potential.

Uganda is often cited as the role-model for refugee integration through an approach that upholds basic rights, including the right to work, to attend school and move freely within the country. Refugees are also given land for resettlement and cultivation and can participate in training on running a small business. As Kelly T Clements, Timothy Shoffner and Leah Zamore highlight, ‘Uganda has chosen inclusion over marginalisation’, which fosters self-reliance and resilience and empowers refugees to benefit their communities. The Ugandan approach also challenges the popular assumption that the presence of refugees takes jobs away from locals. A Refugee Studies Centre report referenced by panellist Premal Shah, Co-Founder and President of Kiva, shows that 40% of refugees who were employers created and provided work for Ugandan nationals. Another recent study reported the positive effects that refugee presence (albeit in camps) has on host community nutritional status in Turkana County, Kenya as a product of greater economic opportunities, including trade networks and increased access to food and goods.

States in the Global North, whose policies are instead designed to prevent refugees and migrants from ever reaching their territory, would be wise to consider such approaches and collaborate with schemes such as the Self-Reliance Initiative aimed at promoting opportunities for refugees to become self-reliant and achieve a better quality of life.

The ‘Good’ or ‘Deserving’ Refugee

Developing policies that exemplify the win-win situation for host communities is of course something to be embraced and a pragmatic necessity, being a key way to convince states to take in more refugees.

But we cannot focus solely on the economic dimension; we must also look at the issue from a political dimension that addresses the root causes of refugee crises, as expressed by both Premal Shah and Salim Salamah. Further, we must be careful not to view refugee protection as linked to a person’s ability to contribute to their place of refuge. Pursuant to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who:

‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion,             nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail herself of the protection of that country’.

It is on this basis that a person is declared a refugee. In relation to the ‘good’ refugee narrative, Sana Mustafa stated that ‘we need to humanise and not idealise refugees. Refugees are just another population full of all different kinds of people’. Whatever the approach taken, it must respect the dignity and voices of refugees, for there can be ‘Nothing about us, without us’.

In conclusion, shifting the narrative could go a long way in ensuring refugees and asylum seekers are not only afforded protection, but then welcomed and provided with the opportunity to be an empowered member of their new community.