By Julian Cottee, Skoll Centre Research & Insights Programme Manager
Our previous blog looked at ‘Six Reasons Why Research Matters for Social Entrepreneurship’, ranging from gaining a deep understanding of problem and solution landscapes, to innovation, and a critical birds-eye view of the sector. The Skoll Centre has since been exploring research for social entrepreneurship through a series of seminars led by impact-focused early career researchers from across Oxford University. Each has discussed their own research experiences and drawn out lessons for better aligning research with the needs of the social innovators.
Evidence and impact
Evidence and impact evaluation are top of the list for many practitioners when asked how research can help their work. Anna Custers, a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, explored this topic in depth through her experiences with a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the impact of poverty reduction measures in the Global South. The RCT methodology, originally designed for evaluating the impact of medical interventions, is now becoming more widely used outside of clinical settings. Social scientists in a range of fields are adopting RCT approaches, and while many policymakers view them as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence of impact, they are not uncontroversial. RCTs are complex, lengthy and expensive to set up, and they can only be used to evaluate a narrow gamut of interventions. Their strength in demonstrating the counterfactual – what happens in groups not receiving the intervention – also raises significant ethical questions. If demonstrating impact through RCTs were to become a routine part of the funding and policymaking landscape for social entrepreneurship, the range of projects would be curtailed, the speed of implementation would be reduced, and additional research funding would be needed. Further discussions revolve around the question of how much evidence is ‘enough’ to demonstrate impact, and to what extent this differs depending on the scale of the initiative being assessed. An expensive RCT might be appropriate for a highly scalable ‘big bet’ intervention that can be widely replicated if impact can be robustly demonstrated, but many, if not most, projects are smaller and more locally specific.
Ideas around the role of research in evidence provision were further developed by Dr Jenny Tran, speaking about a recent Skoll Centre-funded research project that interviewed 31 policymakers, funders and practitioners in the field of social innovation in healthcare in low- and middle- income countries. The interviews probed attitudes and beliefs relating to evidence within these three groups. Among practitioners for instance, responses ranged from seeing research and evidence as an accountability mechanism – “Research is a tool of justice…how are we holding ourselves accountable to our patients?” – to something that just needs to be done to satisfy the expectations of funders – “We do what we have to do”. The funders interviewed also had mixed attitudes towards evidence, with some admitting candidly that gut feeling was as important as data in making funding decisions. Organisations spoke of a lack of time and expertise to collect good data on their impact. One theme that clearly emerged from the interviews was a lack of consensus on how to operationalise a model of data generation and use amongst all three groups that is of an appropriate scale in terms of the time and resources demanded, as well as being robust and rigorous. RCTs were rarely seen to be the answer. Tran’s paper recommends a number of future pathways for improving research in this space, including further elaboration of the concept of ‘lean research’ striking the balance between appropriate scale and rigour; better technical education; and changing the way evidence generation is funded. All of these are ripe for future exploration. In addition, there is little or no attention currently paid to how organisations measure negative impacts, or their incentives for doing so. This too is an area that deserves further study and the development of practical tools for the generation of objective impact measurement.
Two other seminars in the series focused on the role of research not in the generation of evidence, but in others kinds of knowledge creation, through embedded partnerships between academics and practitioners. Kate Roll, Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, spoke on the Oxford-Mars Mutuality in Business project, a large multi-year research project exploring the idea of mutuality as an organising principle for business. The project is unusual in that it is carried out by an academic team in collaboration with the Mars in-house think-tank, Catalyst. The allure of the set-up is clear from the point of view of carrying out research guided by real-world priorities – there is potential for unique access to knowledge, skill and legitimacy on both sides – yet challenges are also many. In particular, spanning the research-practice boundary brings to the fore different perspectives on questions such as:
When is work finished? (medium-rare or well done)
With whom can we meet? (negotiating internal access)
What is a good output? (collaboration, consultancy, opportunism)
Who needs to be involved? (setting boundaries in joint research)
Drawing on the theory of organisational hybridity, Kate explains such collaborations as a case of striving to effectively bring together differing ‘institutional logics’: “as the degree of incompatibility between logics increases, hybrid organisations face heightened challenges” (Pache and Santos 2013). In order to realise the unique opportunities for insight and impact, researchers are obliged to adopt the character of the ‘amphibious academic’. Even if they might be happier in water, like the frog, they too can cope ably on land.
Successful examples of such collaborations are not numerous. They require connections, funding and abundant engagement and amphibious capability from all partners. Alex Fischer and Heloise Greeff, members of the Skoll Centre’s Research for Action Network, spoke about Oxford’s Smart Handpumps project, a long-running collaboration with NGOs and government. While the project began by exploring the causes and impacts of broken water pumps in rural Kenya, it has since transitioned to address how broken pumps can be fixed quickly and cost-effectively. The project is now driving technological and systems innovation to the point that it has led to the creation of a social enterprise that will service the handpumps sustainably into the future using the technical and institutional knowledge generated in earlier phases. Alex and Heloise described a ‘research-action spiral’ in which innovation and research have circled around each other in a productive dance. These impactful outcomes of the project could not have been anticipated at the beginning of the research process – a powerful argument for research led by problems and not just solutions. Often, following intuitions and blind alleys was just as important for the development of the impact of the project as any planned research pathway. This highlights the value of flexible funding and creative leadership in action-research projects. Universities are an important ingredient in this kind of innovation and research, as they provide safe spaces for the exploration of novel ideas that may not otherwise be pursued. The role of PhD students too is of significant value – unlike research assistants or employed post-doc researchers, PhD students follow their own research agendas within the wider project, generating new ideas and possibilities.
University social impact centres like the Skoll Centre are contributing to the growth of social entrepreneurship in a number of important ways, examined in a recent report authored by the Bridgespan Group, with the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Centre. One side of the work of our centres is educational: we raise awareness of social impact with the student body, and equip future professionals and leaders to work in the sector. This work and its future development were explored in an article series curated by the Skoll Centre in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
But besides educating, the other USP of social impact centres is our position at the heart of knowledge-generating research institutions. Bridgespan’s report highlighted two key contributions to come from leveraging our academic connections. First, our ability to convene practitioners and researchers to support learning and innovation; and second, the generation of actionable insights for social entrepreneurs. Two of the report’s key future opportunities for Centres also focused on research: the development of clusters of deep specialist expertise to support the evolution of practice; and the cementing of social impact as a recognised academic field, attracting legitimacy and funding to our efforts in this area.
Academics and social entrepreneurs are not always easy bedfellows. The stereotype is that academics are meticulous, long-term, big-picture thinkers, answering questions driven by curiosity. Entrepreneurs by contrast are risk-takers, impulsive, and focused on specific, immediate needs. There are many exceptions to these rules, but it is also true that academic incentives and the time taken to do in-depth research work make joint working between researchers and practitioners more difficult. And then there is the language of academia, which can be all but indecipherable to non-experts.
It is worthwhile, then, pausing for a moment to consider what there is to be gained by overcoming some of these barriers. We think that the potential is huge for research to further accelerate the impact of social entrepreneurship.
Here are six reasons why we should be doing more to bring these worlds closer together:
Understanding the problem landscape: Research can allow us to gain a deep understanding of the landscape of the challenges we are trying to address – whether the challenge is homelessness in Oxford, or global climate change. Engaging with researchers gives social entrepreneurs the knowledge they need to formulate effective interventions and to think through systemic or unintended impacts.
Understanding the solutions landscape: This is about knowing what has already been tried in tackling the challenges we are addressing: what has worked and what hasn’t. But it is also about the political economy and power dynamics of institutions in the solutions space. Very few ideas are really ‘new’ – building on successes and avoiding past and present failures can be a key to impact.
Ideation and innovation in the impact gap: Researchers are in a brilliant position to be innovators. They can see the landscape of problems and solutions from above and creatively iterate new ideas in the ‘impact gap’. This is not only about innovative products and services, but innovations too in the wider ecosystem of governance, regulation, finance and knowledge.
Assessing the impact of initiatives: Robust and defensible methods are at the core of academic research, allowing the production of credible evaluations of social impact. Such independent assessments are critical for leaders to make evidence-based decisions and can also be a powerful tool in policy advocacy and attracting funding and investment.
Connecting the dots across silos: Researchers are able to spot commonalities and spread ideas across boundaries that might not otherwise be bridged. Through their networks and their public-facing activities, researchers can transport and translate knowledge of successful models across geographies and sectors, or across otherwise poorly connected organisations in the same sector.
A critical birds-eye view: Academics are in a privileged position of being able to see glimpses of the ‘big picture’ that most of us are too buried in our day-to-day tasks to spot. They can help us to reflect on the social entrepreneurship model within the wider global picture, to understand trends, and to ask the hard questions about how well we are really serving the beneficiaries we are working for.
Academic researchers working in many of these important roles gathered for breakfast at the Skoll Centre during Skoll World Forum Week 2017 to discuss how we can do more to bring together research and practice. They were joined by social impact practitioners from a wide range of organisations with clear knowledge needs, keen to find new ways of collaborating. We think that university social impact centres can help to realise the benefits of doing so by connecting partners, catalysing new research, and communicating actionable insights. We invite your participation as we explore further in this area – please get in touch with your ideas and comments.
My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.
Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.
So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.
Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.
Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.
The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work. We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.
Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.
As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.
The Skoll Centre held its eighth annual Emerge Conference from 12-13 November – a highlight in our annual social impact calendar. Almost 500 attendees were present, including 65 speakers, and over 20 sessions were held ranging from workshops, to conversations, to speaker hosted lunches, and even an Oxford style debate. Emerge 2016 highlighted critical social and environmental issues, as well as cutting edge solutions. Its aim was simple – to inspire delegates and develop their understanding of global challenges.
With all the joy, inspiration, and excitement of Emerge 2016, there was an element of sadness to this year’s conference. We were missing Emerge’s inspirational founder and late Director of the Skoll Centre, Pamela Hartigan, who passed away this summer. She designed much of the programme for 2016, and it was her wish that Emerge continue to highlight key trends within the social impact space.
“go positively, she believed in you, and people like you. Her spirit lives on in this room and beyond”
It was clear by the number of mentions, by both speakers and delegates, and tributes dotted around the conference, that Pamela touched the lives of so many. The opening plenary speaker, co-author, and friend to Pamela, John Elkington, made reference to the current social-climate, “in these tough times what would Pamela say? She would urge us to continue, to get on with it and make it work”. He closed his opening speech “go positively, she believed in you, and people like you. Her spirit lives on in this room and beyond”.
From left to right: Daniela Papi-Thornton, Ola Suliman, Baljeet Sandhu, Alexander Betts. Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk
And indeed her spirit did live on throughout the weekend’s sessions. Some highlights of the programme included a session on Using Social Impact Media to Alleviate Conflict, which focused on how social impact media can be used to promote peacebuilding in conflict areas around the world; Using the Impact Gaps Canvas, which explored how this model can be used to understand the challenges and the solutions that have sprung up to address it; and One Year On: Revisiting the Refugee Crisis¸ which examined how the issue of forced migration has developed since Emerge 2015. This panel, in particular, was rich with content and well-received, bringing the perspective of migrants, grassroots activists and policy influencers to the table.
The opposition argued that there are issues which are simply too large and complex for private and social sector organisations to tackle alone
Left to right: Hangwi Muambadzi, Liam Black, Colleen Ebbitt, Kieron Boyle, Dr Shelly Batra, Allegra Day, Julian Coyne Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk
This year’s Emerge Debate was held at the Blavatnik School of Government and was aptly titled: “This house believes government involvement constrains social innovation”. Dr Shelly Batra of Operation ASHA brought a touch of wit and charm in her speech for the proposition, jokingly questioning: “apathy, wastefulness and sloth, were these words created keeping govts in mind?” succinctly making her point that “social innovations have been strangled by governments in India”. However, Liam Black of Wavelength, dealt a knock out speech, noting that it’s “fashionable to kick government” and that we seem to take government policies for granted, even those laws that have made our lives safer. The opposition also argued that there are issues (like climate change) which are simply too large and complex for private and social sector organisations to tackle alone, and that policy is a necessity to tackling these effectively. Kieron Boyle, a first-time debater, closed with a strong argument, putting forward that “we need to help government be more socially innovative”. After an audience vote, the motion was rejected – in the eyes of our Emerge delegates; government involvement does not constrain social innovation.
Crisis Cafe – Performance by Oxford Imps Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk
To wind down the first day, delegates and speakers alike headed to Crisis Café for dinner, networking, and Emerge Spotlight entertainment. This year’s Emerge Spotlight was super-charged! Post-supper energy from the Oxford Imps, an improv troop, had the crowd roaring with laughter at their spontaneous scenes. The Imps were followed by impromptu performances from Emerge delegates themselves, and Oxford MBA graduate, Denise Hearn, closed the night with an intimate set of rock and country covers.
The sun was finally shining on Sunday morning, and as in years past, the second day of Emerge opened with the Mustard Seed Pitch Competition. Eight social start-ups pitched to win investment from Tribe Impact Capital. There was stiff competition, but ultimately diabetes prevention start-up Our Path came out on top, and were offered a £5000 prize, which is convertible to equity by Tribe Impact Capital if they raise further funding. Our Emerge delegates gave the audience choice award to BubbleNutWash, who produce and sell fairly traded, environmentally friendly soap nuts. Both companies will have the opportunity to meet mentors and investors from Mustard Seed’s network in a greenhouse day in London.
Pail Lindley, Founder of Ella’s Kitchen Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk
The Sunday keynote was delivered by entrepreneur Paul Lindley, founder of Ella’s Kitchen and Paddy’s Bathroom. Paul, proudly wearing his B-Corp UK t-shirt, talked about values and people in business. Ella’s Kitchen currently turns over €100M a year, and he put that success down to four key factors:
Values based business
An awesome team
Actively finding ways to deepen consumer’s trust
Paul is an advocate for business as a force for good, and he believes profit making businesses can change the world. We should also mention that Paul should probably win the award for most endearing and creative PowerPoint; he engaged the audience through his entire 90 slide presentation, and had them laughing at video clips from his playful campaigns. His speech affirmed that we all, as individuals, have the power to make small changes each and every day in the way we choose to consume. #Bethechange!
The final keynote was delivered by founder of MyBnk, Lily Lapenna. MyBnk is a financial education initiative designed to equip young people with the knowledge they need to be in control of their money. Lily took us through her impact journey, and where she is headed next. Her charismatic approach had the audience shouting out their very own tagline after she disclosed her own as “Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, I don’t want to run away from you, I don’t want to move to Canada. I want to coach you!”
Lily Lapenna – Founder and Chair of MyBnk Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk
Work for an organisation where there are people who will mentor you and where they take staff learning opportunities seriously.
Find problems to care about. You won’t find your calling by looking for “solutions” – first you need to find a problem you really care about, and as you begin to understand it, you will start to gain the perspective from which solutions can emerge.
Connect and network! Don’t just walk out of here asking for help from someone – instead offer your help TO someone. Connect them with someone you know who might help them get them on their impact journey, share resources, or give other support! (Check out our Collaboration Clothesline for connections)
Gain skills! Ask yourself “What can I learn from those around me, from my bosses, from our organisational systems?” Even if you don’t think your current job is high impact, there are certainly things you can learn!
Join us at Emerge next year!
And with that, it was all over; inspiration, challenge, and rejuvenation to last until Emerge 2017.
Amy Orben is a social media psychologist, interdisciplinary thinker and 2016-17 Leading for Impact Fellow. As a DPhil (PhD) Student in Experimental Psychology, she currently researches how social media is changing human sociality and friendship formation. The Leading for Impact programme was an opportunity for her to step out of the ‘comfort zone’, and into the ‘stretch zone’. She shares her story of the experience.
Nine months ago, knowledge and action were two separate concepts in my mind. For years, the pursuit of knowledge motivated me during countless hours in libraries; propelled me to memorise facts for exams and start a DPhil; inspired me to keep up with recent research developments and slowly foster my own opinions.
In an attempt not to look foolish, students often avoid committing to action altogether
An intense focus on knowledge is not uncommon for university life outside of business schools. The rigorous pursuit of knowledge fuels many discoveries. It is, however, often linked with an educational emphasis on being ‘right’ that endows students with a fear of action. This promotes views that having your own opinion ousted as ‘wrong’ or ‘unknowledgeable’ is worse than voicing no opinion at all. In an attempt not to look foolish, students therefore often avoid committing to action altogether.
However, avoiding foolishness is just one part of the equation. As the theologian Al-Ghazali once said, “Knowledge without action is wastefulness and action without knowledge is foolishness”. We need to balance knowledge and action.
Certain parts of higher education promote this balance. For example, medicine, nursing, engineering and law students study to put their knowledge into practice after graduation. Recently, research councils have been demanding that universities ensure their research has more real-life ‘impact’. Yet, there are still aspects of university study and research that encourage students and academics to refrain from action or opinion, to ensure they are not seen as unknowledgeable. This is harmful because most of our pressing global problems are too complex to fully comprehend; yet these problems require creative minds and urgent innovative action. Combating students’ fear of action in situations where they possess ample knowledge should therefore be ingrained into education as fundamentally as learning, essay writing and memorisation.
I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment
I started to think about my own knowledge-action balance during the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme, a programme admitting ten Oxford graduate students and ten MBAs interested in social impact and entrepreneurship. During this time-intensive leadership development programme, I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment. I realised that I had been previously putting too much emphasis on knowledge while neglecting action, however, I did not know how to tackle this imbalance.
Again the Skoll Centre provided me with the opportunities I was searching for. Recently, three Leading for Impact Scholars – Shea, Vira and I – volunteered at the Oxford-based charity Aspire. The Skoll Centre facilitated a three-day project where we completed research to support one of Aspire’s new business proposals. In the next year, Aspire wants to set up a social enterprise recruitment service linking people who have experienced hardship (ranging from addiction to homelessness) with employers looking for motivated employees. With current UK funding for community support and charities decreasing drastically, Aspire plans to develop this idea into a commercially viable business with a deep-rooted social motivation. We used our research skills to compile comprehensive documents about various aspects of their business plan, which can now be used to pitch the proposal to Social Finance initiatives.
Looking back, the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme did not only teach me the importance of a knowledge-action balance, but also gave me valuable opportunities to both ‘learn’ and ‘do’. For me, Leading for Impact was not just a few weeks of leadership training and volunteering: it was the start of my journey to balance knowledge and action in my life.
Anisha Gururaj is studying an MRes in the Medical Sciences Division, at the University of Oxford. In June 2016, she and her teammate, Ashley Pople, DPhil in Economics at University of Oxford, won our inaugural Oxford Global Challenge competition. Their topic? Maternal Depression. Anisha describes her account of the competition, how she found her topic and the benefits of undertaking the Challenge.
There are few opportunities where the incentives to be most effective and also do the right thing are aligned. The Global Challenge is one of these initiatives, because it provides the chance—the imperative, really—to delve into the contextual landscape of a problem and the existing solutions as we know them.
I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.
As it happens, this is the reason I came to Oxford. As an undergrad engineering student, I loved the idea of designing technological solutions to solving problems in global health. But after working on a few projects and actually engaging in fieldwork for low-cost diagnostic devices, I felt that I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.
The Global Challenge emphasises that an important part of the design research phase for any solution needs to be deep engagement with structural context, often best understood and communicated through visualisations. Why is this important?
First, it enables a very deliberate and specific problem definition process. My teammate Ashley and I spent quite a bit of time upfront exploring larger themes we wanted to focus on, like global health, gender discrimination, and building awareness around mental health, to get a feel for what the broader health landscape looks like. Focusing on the intersections between fields is particularly promising because global issues don’t usually fall within the lines of academic divisions and asking interdisciplinary questions is often not done well. Through intentional scoping, we identified our topic as maternal mental health in specific cultural contexts, India and South Africa, because it was truly a confluence of so many of the fields mentioned above and which was rendered invisible by very specific social factors in both of these countries.
ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.
Second, the format of the Challenge forces us to question our own underlying assumptions, which is why earlier stage ideas are more conducive to this kind of exploration. As an engineer, I brought a particular bias into my research, just as Ashley did as an economist. For example, I was particularly intrigued by mobile solutions for diagnosing depression, but ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.
Finally, the Challenge provides a platform to be more innovative about how we research. Academic journals and the results of randomized controlled trials are important. But the most rewarding part of this whole experience for both of us was interviewing a large range of experts around the world, from academics to leaders of nonprofits, to clinicians in both countries, to pregnant mothers right here in Oxford. This allowed us to tap into experiential information that we could not have uncovered otherwise.
Of course, the research and design of visual ecosystem maps is just the beginning—they provide a comprehensive framework with which to engage with solving the problem. But too often we jump into solution-building before taking the time to “apprentice with the problem,” resulting in costly assumptions. Our world of limited resources and increasing need deserves better.