Why We Need to Nurture Entrepreneurship in Young Girls

By Sylvia Acevedo

Last month, women on college campuses around the world gathered for Women Entrepreneurship Week, an annual event that brings budding female entrepreneurs together with female startup founders through workshops and panel discussions. Last year, it attracted participants from 76 universities in 15 countries. Programs like these promote and support women’s entrepreneurship—and we need more of them to address the inequality that currently exists—but they don’t reach women early enough.

To affect real change, we need to begin to nurture entrepreneurship in girls when they are in elementary school. We must teach them not only the financial and other skills they will need to succeed, but also to see themselves as entrepreneurs and leaders through hands-on experience and interactions with female role models.

According to the American Express 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, in January 2017, women owned an estimated 11.6 million businesses in the United States, employing nearly 9 million people and generating more than $1.7 trillion in revenues. On the surface, those numbers look encouraging, but they tell only half the story. As of 2017, women owned 39 percent of all privately held US firms, but those businesses contributed only 8 percent of total employment and 4.2 percent of revenues. For women, owning a business often means simply working for herself. Bringing employment and revenue in line with the number of women-owned firms would contribute to women’s individual economic independence, create jobs, and grow the economy.

The Female Entrepreneur Gap

Part of the challenge in closing the gap is that women struggle to raise capital. In 2016, women received $1.46 billion in venture capital, representing only 2 percent of total venture funding. The 2017 Harvard Business School working paper, “Diversity in Innovation,” offers one explanation: homophily, meaning that people tend to live and network in homogenous bubbles. So venture capitalists tend to mentor and give money to entrepreneurs who look like them, and since the majority of entrepreneurs are white men, they receive the bulk of the resources—both human and monetary. Homophily also impacts career choices; if girls don’t know or interact with female entrepreneurs, they are less likely to see themselves as one.

This idea was substantiated by the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Women’s Report, which found that women’s confidence was lower in countries with more developed economies Fewer than 35 percent of women in these economies believe they have the capabilities to start a business based on the opportunities they see. Conversely, more than 67 percent of women in less-developed economies believe the same thing. The authors of the study acknowledged that businesses in developed economies are more complex, but also noted that only 27 percent of American women say they know an entrepreneur personally.

It’s a vicious cycle, and the only way to break it is to get more women, including women of color and diverse heritages, into the entrepreneurial pipeline. In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship programs for women on college campuses. While these efforts are important in working to close the gender gap, the programs may not reach the young women who enter college without an overt interest in entrepreneurship. This matters, because the skills and characteristics that make a good entrepreneur—fortitude, financial literacy, and the ability to set and meet goals, and even take some calculated risks—will serve women well regardless of their chosen field. Moreover, college programs will never reach girls who are not encouraged to pursue higher education. I know this because I was one of those girls.

Building Entrepreneurial Skills

Growing up in New Mexico, no one around me went to college, and I certainly didn’t see female entrepreneurs. My own business education began when I joined Girl Scouts and started selling cookies, and my troop leader told me that I couldn’t leave the site of a sale until I heard no three times. That’s an incredibly empowering message for a young girl, and I applied that rule to all aspects of my life. I often think about all the times I heard no as a girl, and what path I might have taken had I not persevered.

Beyond learning not to take no for an answer and other soft skills—self-confidence, determination, and grit—the program taught me the hard skills fundamental to entrepreneurship, and it was the only financial education I received as a young girl.

Since that time, the Cookie Program has expanded to include an emphasis on teaching five essential entrepreneurial skills: goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. In 2014, we launched Digital Cookie, a platform that allows girls to create their own personalized cookie site. It offers games and quizzes centered on entrepreneurial skills, as well as a place for girls to set their cookie goals, track their progress, manage orders and inventory, learn Internet safety skills, and, of course, sell cookies. Additionally, cookie sellers can now earn badges in creating business plans, customer service, and marketing. They can also earn financial literacy badges in areas such as budgeting, philanthropy, making smart buying decisions, and financial planning. The Cookie Program and financial literacy badges are part of a larger Financial Empowerment Program, which has age-appropriate lessons and activities centered around financial literacy for girls in grades K through 12.

Getting Financial Literacy into Schools

The need for early financial literacy training cannot be overstated. Girls rarely see money being transacted these days, let alone have decision-making power about how it is spent. A report from the Federal Reserve found that the credit scores of students who received personal finance education were 7 to 29 points higher than those of students who weren’t exposed to the same lessons. Three years after exposure, study subjects had larger increases in credit scores and lower rates of delinquency.

Unfortunately, currently only 17 states require high school students to study personal finance, and less than half require them to take an economics course. This gap in financial education in our schools puts all students, but particularly girls, at a disadvantage, and makes entrepreneurship programs aimed at young girls even more vital.

Entrepreneurial Environments That Work for Girls

A number of organizations offer entrepreneurship programs or teaching materials for children and teens. Junior Achievement’s Be Entrepreneurial program and VentureLab each have downloadable curriculums available to educators, for example, and Young Entrepreneurs Academy runs a year-long, after-school program in 168 American communities. But again, while initiatives like these are important and need support, only VentureLab has lessons for students below grade 6, and none of these programs is specifically designed for girls or operates in a single-sex environment.

Research tells us that girls perform better in girl-only environments, so it is imperative that we support smaller organizations and help them develop more entrepreneurship opportunities for young girls. Business leaders can do their part by volunteering with existing girls’ programs or by launching mentoring programs for young girls at their companies. Parents can include their daughters in family decision-making around money, and we can all talk to the girls in our lives about the importance of financial literacy and financial empowerment.

The young girls of today are preparing for careers in industries that have not yet been invented. We need them to have the courage and the confidence—along with the business acumen and technology skills—to create the solutions that are remaking our world. But that’s just one part of the equation; they also need to know how to sell that solution so that it gets adopted.

Girls need to learn both the hard entrepreneurial skills and those softer leadership skills when they are young so that they can practice them through adolescence and into adulthood. We need to teach them early on that when it comes to their dreams and vision, they should never take no for an answer.

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Wielding Power with Community: Creating Pathways for Change and Transformation

By Linda S. Campbell

For more than 30 years, I have worked with vulnerable communities in the United States, including low-income mothers with children, Black men with HIV/AIDS, and people experiencing hunger in a gentrifying city hailed as a “hot food destination.” I have learned that the fundamental challenge they face is not lack of compassion from society’s elites—though compassion helps—but lack of community power.

I first realized this when I started my career as a public health worker in Detroit. As I knocked on doors and listened to what people told me they wanted and needed, I found that even those in the direst circumstances will craft real solutions that benefit them, their families, and their communities if they have the time, information, and decision-making authority they need to do it.

Yet many communities don’t have the power to act on solutions of their own design. Public officials, grantmakers, and others in power may tap constituents for their “input” at a neighborhood charrette or community meeting, but they often ultimately ignore community ideas and insights. As a result, many communities have plenty of experience with people in power telling them what is really good for them, rather than being able to speak for themselves and act on their own behalf.

Earlier in this series, grantmakers Alison Corwin and Luz Vega-Marquis offered advice on how funders can shift their power to residents and communities. My years of experience working in the extreme and somewhat unusual circumstances of social change in Detroit offer a unique opportunity to reflect on what shifting power means from a community perspective.

Rebuilding community power

After a decade’s absence from Detroit, I returned in 1998 to find an even greater power imbalance than when I left. I knew there had been years of economic disinvestment from the city, accompanied by white flight, but I was not prepared for the level of disdain the state legislature directed at Detroit. The legislature had grown to regard the state’s largest city as a “drain” on its coffers, particularly when it came to investments like school aid and social welfare benefits. I was also shocked by the emerging narrative that Detroiters had lost their capacity to demonstrate voice and power in charting the future of their city. Local powerbrokers across government, philanthropy, and the business community generally accepted this narrative, in spite of the successful efforts of community members to support and maintain important civic, cultural, and local business infrastructure with little or no external investment.

Since then, Detroiters have contended with the largest municipal bankruptcy in the United States, the suspension of elected officials’ power under the rule of emergency management, and the 2007 recession, which hit Detroit harder than most places. Detroiters were under siege and losing power by the day.

My work with neighborhood groups, soup kitchens, food pantries, and social service agencies reminded me of the untapped power of city residents. It informed those of us at the Building Movement Project, which supports nonprofit capacity to build social movements, to join a group of long-time residents and activists in forming the Detroit People’s Platform (DPP) in 2013. DPP is a physical space where Detroiters convene across class lines and neighborhoods. Here, they talk face to face about their rich history as America’s largest majority Black city, identify shared challenges, and organize to create solutions. As such, DPP harnesses the enduring commitment by many Detroiters—particularly long-time African American residents—to reinvigorate democracy by embracing Detroit’s history of movement-building and social justice through collective action today. It offers a way to redefine the role of community in the revitalization of the city. While the state government wields its power, we invest in ours.

Securing community solutions

Residents of Detroit talk about a “tale of two cities”—one where young white professionals find enclaves of housing, good jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, and like-minded colleagues, and another where long-time residents, people of color, seniors, and families living in poverty face the loss of affordable housing, failing schools, water shut-offs, and overall disinvestment from their neighborhoods. Through DPP, residents left out of the revitalization are developing strategies and solutions rooted in principles of racial equity, solidarity, inclusion, and democratic practices. Even against formidable opponents who have far more resources and recognition, they are building power, shaping their own agenda, and calling for more equitable economic development that benefits community—rather than more public investment in private development.

As one example, developers have promised community benefits but consistently failed to deliver, as when Marathon Oil refinery received $175 million tax abatement from the city for its expansion in 2007, vowing it would create jobs for Detroiters. By 2014, it reported having only 30 Detroit residents among its 514 employees. DPP and residents have stepped up to face challenges like these in a number of ways:

  • In 2016, Detroiters went to the polls and passed the first-ever community benefits agreement ordinance in the United States. This mandates that large-scale, publicly subsidized development projects engage with local residents to discuss community concerns and potential benefits. Although limited in scope, the ordinance sets the stage for residents to continue to organize for inclusion in an economic revival that has left many on the sidelines.
  • In the face of continued mass water shutoffs, considered by the United Nations a human rights violation, Detroiters are advocating for an income-based, water affordability plan with local government.
  • In September 2017, following a two-year effort, residents and advocates successfully pushed the city council to establish a Housing Trust Fund to address affordability among low-income residents.

Despite this commitment, many philanthropies that invest in Detroit seem reluctant to build power with community or even wield their power on behalf of community. Rather than engage directly with residents, or get behind and invest in community-led solutions, most foundation staff spend their time at the tables of traditional power with developers and public officials—typically white, elite, and male leadership, who perpetuate the status quo..

As a result, the vision and values that emerge among those in power often lead to winners-and-losers-type situations that increase the threat of gentrification and displacement. This is apparent in strategies that, for example, invest in only select neighborhoods to combat Detroit’s massive population loss and lack of funding for urban infrastructure. By contrast, those who advocate for resident-led community planning embrace the unifying vision that all neighborhoods deserve a future.

Combining grantmaker power with community power

So what gets in the way of foundations investing in strategies to achieve transformational outcomes rooted in community power building?

Frances Kunreuther, co-director of Building Movement Project, recently remarked that change requires both a “push” and a “pathway.” In terms of a push, she says, “Communities need to push funders and others in power to think about the unintended consequences their solutions—often devised without community input—can have on their lives.” The “expert solutions” funders often champion are rooted in race and class bias; they reflect the ingroup norms where the white, elite “experts” derive power from their knowledge. National programs such as Welfare to Work and the War on Drugs were both expert-driven policy solutions that had negative outcomes for Detroit families and other communities of color—leaving them further impoverished due to the erosion of income support, as well as more likely to be incarcerated than given treatment for substance use.

Philanthropy must learn to wield its power by aligning with community concerns and calling for clear commitments to racial and economic justice from elected officials, funders, and investors. Policymakers and those who fund their initiatives must consider community-led alternatives that are grounded in the reality and wisdom of people who live through the challenges of disinvestment, inequities, and injustice every day.

In terms of a pathway, philanthropy needs to find ways to support resident solutions. Specifically, it needs to:

  • Acknowledge, articulate, and amplify the values that community members and philanthropy hold in common.
  • Invest the time and resources for community members to craft viable solutions, and trust in their ability to do so.
  • Be willing to take risks and support new and nontraditional leadership who can drive change.

When residents come together and do the hard work of identifying the source of problems they face and offering solutions, they are giving a gift to funders. And when grantmakers recognize this gift, they can align their priorities around solutions that show measurable results. Building, sharing, and wielding power with those most affected by problems is not only rewarding, but also a sure way to confirm that every-day people can drive a vibrant democracy that works for all.

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An Operating Model to Make Social Innovation Stick

By Ann Mei Chang

Innovation is as essential to social purpose as it is to business profits. But too many organizations embrace the latest fad—whether it be a contest, crowdsourcing tool, or technology platform—while their long-standing operating norms remain unchanged. Not surprisingly, the disruptive potential of these approaches drives an initial surge of excitement, followed by people gradually drifting back into business as usual. I’ve seen this story play out year after year at nonprofits, social enterprises, B Corporations, institutional donors, philanthropists, and impact investors. But, it doesn’t have to.

The field of social innovation has undergone a quantum leap in sophistication with the relatively recent adoption of modern innovation tools such as human-centered design, behavioral science, scaling innovation, lean experimentation, and lean data. However, the resulting whole has often been less than the sum of its parts. Many practitioners are still unclear how this growing jumble of techniques fits together or with existing systems. Worse, piecemeal adoption can fill in a few missing gaps, while simultaneously ignoring other elements equally essential to success. Sometimes it feels a bit like a game of whack-a-mole.

Over the past year as part of the research for my new book, Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good, I interviewed leaders of more than 200 mission-driven organizations across a wide spectrum of geographies, sectors, structures, sizes, and roles to learn what factors had led to outsized results and what factors had led to stagnation or sometimes even failure. What I found was that while each organization had employed its own unique mix of methodologies, the most successful shared an integrated approach to innovation that was built into its DNA.

Without the right direction, incentives, and success criteria, the most sophisticated tools can only go so far. Promising ideas are birthed, only to hit a wall later due to other priorities, lack of funding, or fundamental flaws in design. Innovation can’t simply be bolted onto traditional systems and structures. Instead, it must be built into the very foundation of an organization.

What we need is a radical overhaul of the underlying operating model for our institutions that includes three basic elements: audacious goals, organizational agility, and markers of progress. While they may sound simple, each is crucial and frequently neglected.

  1. Goal. A measurable, audacious goal based on what is required for lasting change, rather than what is incrementally possible within existing constraints. What does success look like?
  2. Agility. The systems, muscles, and culture to quickly learn and adapt in search of the best solution. How can we accelerate our learning?
  3. Markers. Meaningful measures of performance along with clear success criteria. Are we reducing risk and maximizing value, growth, and impact?

These three building blocks combine to form the foundation upon which social innovation can thrive. They help inject a new mindset that in turn drives priorities and decision-making. To achieve substantial impact, innovation cannot be relegated to the early discovery stage, but rather must become an integral part of an organization’s work throughout the full lifecycle of development and deployment. Providers and funders alike must work in concert to establish a new framework for accountability.

Today, the dominant model of engagement—firmly entrenched in both organizational cultures and grant structures—involves extensive upfront planning followed by faithful implementation. This is a system optimized to deliver predictable results. It is well suited for problems that are understood and solved, where the key challenge lies in effective execution. Think utility company.

In contrast, most of the social sector engages at points of market and government failure, faces high degrees of uncertainty, and grapples with interventions that are far from sufficient. We need better solutions that will reach farther and go deeper. This calls for adaptability, not predictability. As a gross understatement, our current operating model is not fit for purpose.

To provide a framework for organizational change, let’s explore each of the three elements in depth:

1. Goal: Establish an Audacious Goal

Discussion of innovation inevitably turns to the appetite for risk and the tolerance for failure. Equally important is the role of aspiration and the drive for success that comes from having a clear and audacious goal. Among the greatest examples was US President John Kennedy’s simple and compelling 1961 call to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade that energized a nation. On the other hand, mission-driven organizations tend to adopt goals that are vague, incremental, or both. In the absence of a tangible target that requires us to stretch, risk aversion and inertia quickly set in. People need a reason to take risks. If they can even come close to the target with business as usual, why take the chance to delve into the unknown?

When I was executive director of the Global Development Lab at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), I discovered that the goal of our innovation programs—including Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) and our family of Grand Challenges for Development—had been loosely defined as “identify breakthrough innovations.” The lack of specificity had the presumed upside of making it unlikely we’d ever be perceived as failing. But it provided little guidance on whether what we were doing was working.

With a bit of a push and a lot of soul searching, the team at the lab agreed on a more concrete goal: to identify ten breakthrough innovations in five years that each improved the lives of at least one million people, demonstrated evidence of substantial impact, and had a financially sustainable path forward. The implications were apparent. While the lab had sourced many promising early stage innovations, few had yet successfully scaled. It became clear that we needed to double down on the most promising innovations in our portfolio and help them to reach the next stages of growth.

A goal is the quantifiable grand vision of the change you seek to make in the world, ideally shaped by the size and scope of the need that exists. If a problem plagues tens or hundreds of millions of people, reaching a few thousand will barely make a dent. To put things in perspective, ask yourself, Are you trying to empty the ocean with a spoon or a bathtub with a bucket?

Unfortunately, social and environmental interventions are often planned within tight constraints—of existing budget, limited staff, or the time horizon and dollar amount of a grant. This leads to modest, incremental progress at best. What if, instead, we determined the size of the need, searched for a viable solution, and then found a way to bring together the resources that would be required?

Too often, we embark on the innovation journey without a concrete grasp of our destination. Whether you are using human-centered design, behavioral science, lean experimentation, or some other approach, knowing how far you’ll need to stretch to move the needle will shape the questions you ask and the options you explore. Here’s what this might look like:

Recognize the Need | Four years ago Ben Mangan, the co-founder and former CEO of EARN, wrote about his realization that EARN’s “impact was out of whack with the size of the American economic security problem.” Although EARN’s 7,000 goal-based savings accounts placed it near the top of the micro-savings sector, it was barely making a dent in the 50 to 70 million Americans that could stand to benefit. At an awards dinner in 2012, Mangan stunned the audience by announcing an audacious goal to help one million people save a total of $1 billion by 2022. The clarity of his vision made the need for a lighter weight self-service model obvious. Since this pivot, EARN was able to serve 85,000 new users in the first year of its new SaverLife technology platform, more than ten times as many as during its first 15 years combined.

Have a North Star | Early on, MyAgro established a target “to increase the income of a million smallholder farmers by $1.50 per day by 2025.” This North Star drives the team to continually seek ways to simplify their model and cut costs, as it’s clear that financial sustainability will be the only way they can possibly reach this degree of scale. MyAgro’s research and development team constantly tests new ideas, typically starting with three stores and 30 farmers. These experiments have helped them identify numerous improvements to their model such as halving the recommended dose of fertilizer because it saved farmers money while having no discernible impact on yields, encouraging farmers to develop good saving habits because it increased how much farmers put away, and partnering with existing savings groups to lower MyAgro’s operating costs.

Set the Bar | Donors and government funders play an important role in determining the benchmarks for success. For example, after recognizing that their public school system was failing, the Ministry of Education launched the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) to identify operators who could deliver superior academic results within the constraints of the government budget. In the first year, contracts were awarded to eight nonprofit and for-profit entities for a total of 93 public schools. A rigorous third-party evaluation found that, on average, PSL students learned 60 percent more than students in government schools. If results endure and costs decline with economies of scale, the program has the potential to be expanded nationally.

2. Agility: Accelerate Your Learning

With an audacious goal in hand, many organizations then attempt to create a well-honed strategy that can be followed to achieve the goal. But, as the military has well understood, no battle plan ever survives first contact. Rather than assembling the foremost experts and attempting to come up with the perfect plan, the ability to quickly learn and adapt is far more likely to lead to an effective solution. This means finding ways to iterate on a solution in the space of days or weeks, not months or years.

As perhaps the planet’s most prominent hotbed of innovation, Silicon Valley gave birth to the lean startup model, which stresses the importance of accelerating the pace of learning through build-measure-learn feedback loops. To do so, it introduced tools for rapid experimentation using techniques such as minimum viable products, A/B tests, actionable metrics, and innovation accounting. By applying the rigor of the scientific method to systematically validate the riskiest assumptions behind a product or service, you can detect problems early, quickly explore potential enhancements, and eliminate wasted effort.

In contrast, the traditional model for learning in the social sector can resemble that of the now largely defunct encyclopedia. A program is evaluated, a randomized control trial (RCT) run or a research report is compiled—then put on the shelf in hopes someone will make good use of it later. If the intent of learning is to drive innovation and impact, then any data, information, or research collected should be:

  • Actionable. Only take the time and energy to gather data where a concrete action or decision will be taken based on the result.
  • Meaningful. Focus on improvements in performance rather than the scope of activity. Consider, for example, the adoption rate, unit costs, or degree of behavior change versus the number of people reached or dollars raised.
  • Fast. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. If obtaining a comprehensive evaluation will be a lengthy process, look for early indicators of progress.

Real-Time Feedback | The American Refugee Committee (ARC) in collaboration with IDEO.org created a real-time feedback system, Kuja Kuja, that has been deployed in refugee camps in across Africa to track customer satisfaction with water distribution, health care and other services. Refugees employed by ARC stand at service locations with mobile enabled tablets and ask two simple questions—are you satisfied with the service and do you have an idea to make us better. The system has enabled ARC to quickly uncover issues ranging from inconveniently placed water taps to water access points being coopted by local thugs, and take immediate action.

Results that Matter | Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator is committed to tackling the youth unemployment crisis in South Africa by matching disadvantaged youth who have never held a formal job with employers seeking qualified talent. While many workforce development organizations are satisfied with celebrating the number of people trained or placed, Harambee takes things a step further. What matters to both workers and employers is success and retention in jobs over time. Thus, Harambee follows up with their job seekers via text messages every four months for two years to keep tabs on critical outcomes such as retention rates and promotions. When it became clear that high transport costs were a major factor in attrition, Harambee increased their emphasis on proximity when making candidate placements.

Trust and Reward | Funders can support and encourage agility by moving away from detailed plans that are tracked through cumbersome reporting to agreements on clear goals along with incentives for progress. The Global Innovation Fund and USAID’s DIV both employ a tiered funding model, adapted from the world of venture capital. Small, early stage grants allow for risk-taking, while minimizing financial downside. And, rather than micromanaging activities, demonstrated traction is rewarded through larger, follow-on rounds of funding. Such funding structures relieve both parties from the unproductive, and sometimes adversarial, tedium of compliance and allow for flexibility, risk-taking, and pivots.

3. Markers: Assess Your Value, Growth, and Impact

If your goal is the destination, and your agility enables you to accelerate, break, and steer, what remains are your markers of progress—the directions, signposts, and landmarks that will help you navigate your way there. For successful social innovation, we need to pay attention to and optimize across three dimensions: value, growth, and impact. While the ever-expanding array of innovation tools tend to be based on the same underlying best practices, they each tend to emphasize some a subset of the three.

When we go too far in optimizing for the requirements of any one dimension before addressing the others, we can commit to and over-invest in a design that will eventually fall short. The long trail of failed social innovations that litter the landscape inevitably fell prey to neglecting at least one of these three dimensions. Some emphasized human-centered design and were highly responsive to customer needs, but became too expensive or complex to scale. Others prioritized business models to drive growth, but sacrificed more meaningful impact. Still others focused on rigorous evaluation of impact, but left the intended beneficiaries unenthusiastic.

Because modifications to improve one dimension may cause ripple effects that influence the dynamics for the others, it’s important to focus attention on the riskiest assumptions and promising opportunities across value, growth, and impact from the start. As we begin to eliminate the greatest points of uncertainty, we can gain the confidence to make more substantial investments and expand our audience.

Value | If people wholeheartedly want, embrace, and demand what we have to offer, we are far more likely to make a difference. Thankfully, we have come a long way since the days where well-meaning interventions would frequently be foisted on target populations without their input or buy-in. The growing popularity of human-centered design means that most organizations now engage their beneficiaries to some extent in the design of products and services. These efforts should be encouraged, sped up, aligned towards clearly defined success criteria, and sustained over the full lifecycle.

When organizations don’t consider the perceived value by beneficiaries the results can be disappointing. Take, for example, the case of the clinical trials for Tenofovir, a vaginal gel to prevent HIV transmission. Though the substance was determined to be safe and effective in a highly controlled environment, a multi-million dollar phase-three clinical trial in South Africa showed no statistically significant difference between the placebo group and the treatment group. The reason? Women didn’t use the gel consistently, both before and after every sexual encounter, because they found it impractical in their cultural context. Earlier attention to the client experience could have led to a redesign or at least a less expensive lesson.

In contrast, when Off Grid Electric in Tanzania first considered selling home solar systems using a mobile money-based lease-to-own business model, it wasn’t sure whether customers would be willing to pay small amounts for electricity on an ongoing basis. So, its first small pilot consisted of a Maasai tribesman walking from village to village to collect money in person each week. While this was certainly not a scalable model, Off Grid was able to validate user acceptance before making the bigger investment required to build and manufacture an automated system for collecting payments and metering service.

The Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen for Good initiative seeks to build high-quality feedback loops between nonprofits and their clients. Their small grants and technical assistance help client-facing nonprofits implement a five-question survey based on the Net Promoter System to ensure the perspective of their customers is heard on an ongoing basis. Through their Listen for Good surveys, Nurse-Family Partnership, a nonprofit that supports first-time mothers, heard that their clients wanted more flexibility in scheduling appointments. As a result, they fast-tracked a tele-health pilot as a backup option when busy schedules or weather prevented in-person home visits.

Growth | We need to stop thinking about scale as an absolute number to be attained, but rather the slope of the curve, or acceleration, of growth over time. In the former case, the easy temptation is to seek out donor funds that will drive the next quantum of expansion through brute force, only to see growth stagnate as the limits of philanthropic dollars are exhausted. In the latter case, we instead seek out sustainable models that will continue to drive adoption, build momentum, and eventually lead to the exponential growth required to reach a substantial portion of the need. This typically requires some form of business model, adoption by governments, replication through multiple entities, or policy change.

For all the talk of scaling social innovations, scale still tends to be an afterthought—something to consider after a solution has been successfully piloted. Yet, unleashing an engine for growth can have significant implications that affect the core design of an intervention. If it is market-driven, price sensitivity may require a pared down product or service. If it is through replication, an intervention may need to be simplified to ensure it can be deployed with high fidelity at arms-length. And, if it is government-funded, political, budget, or infrastructure realities may constrain the acceptable footprint. By taking your endgame into account from the start, the engine for growth can be built into the core of a design rather than retrofitted after the fact.

A shocking reminder of the social sector’s tendency to pilot new solutions without sufficient consideration of the long-term implications was the moratorium on mobile health pilots declared by the government of Uganda in 2012. This country had been inundated by dozens upon dozens of organizations implementing programs that were duplicative, lacked a viable path to scale, and didn’t interoperate with either the government health care system or each other. Supporting these scatter-shot efforts became a burden rather than a benefit to the health ministry. And, it wasn’t just Uganda. In 2013, a World Bank study uncovered almost 500 disparate mobile health programs around the world.

An example of a health initiative that created a sustainable and scalable model is Aravind Eye Hospitals, which was founded in 1976 with a mission to “eliminate needless blindness.” At the time, an estimated 10 million people were blind in India, the vast majority of them from cataracts that could be cured through surgery. After failing in its attempts to raise sufficient philanthropic dollars to build a hospital and provide free care, Aravind decided to cross-subsidize their services for those who couldn’t pay with the earned income from those who could. This model motivated Aravind to dramatically reduce costs and improve efficiency. All patients receive the same high-quality care from the same doctors, with the main difference being the quality of accommodations. Today, Aravind has become the largest provider of eye care services in the world, performing an estimated 300,000 cataract eye surgeries in 2017, two-thirds of which were either free or highly subsidized.

Given the limitations of charitable funding, donors hold a part of the responsibility for transitioning grantees onto a sustainable path for growth. For those with earned income business models, blended finance—a complementary mix of philanthropic and investment capital—can provide the necessary bridge out of donor dependence. While many social enterprises are already financed through custom funding stacks that include grants, debt, and equity, more systemic mechanisms are needed to facilitate broader adoption. One promising initiative is Convergence, established in 2016 as a global network for blended finance that both designs and brokers deals. Convergence believes that by leveraging public and philanthropic funding, as much as ten times more private investment dollars can be unlocked.

Impact | The ultimate goal of social innovation is to deliver social impact that persists, to the maximum degree possible. Yet, measuring impact is generally far tougher and far slower than measuring something like e-commerce purchases. As a result, on one extreme some practitioners forgo rigorous measurement and focus instead on counting the numbers of people reached, while on the opposite extreme others slow down their feedback cycle to incorporate time-consuming and expensive RCTs. Fortunately, alternatives exist. Acumen’s Lean Data initiative and IDinsight have been among the leaders who are filling the need for timely, actionable impact data.

Beyond the question of pure impact, we must also consider cost-effectiveness. It’s not enough to make a difference. We should also consider the value for money relative to the alternatives. For example, I once heard of a program that had raised the incomes of poor farmers by a total of $1 million. Not bad? It seemed far less impressive when I learned that $10 million had been spent in doing so.

When impact isn’t understood, a compelling intervention may cause attention and resources to be diverted from more effective solutions. The widespread replication of microcredit as a financially sustainable way to lift millions out of poverty is one well-documented example. By 2007, the global microcredit industry grew to almost 25,000 institutions serving more than 100 million borrowers⁠. Yet, more than three decades after the birth of the modern movement in Bangladesh during the 1980s, a number of RCTs reported a “lack of evidence of transformative effects on the average borrower.” Even worse, some poor households became mired in debt, unable to keep up with high interest payments.

One area where impact can take a notoriously long time to materialize is education. Summit Public Schools’ goal of having 100 percent of its participants attend and graduate from college can’t be fully confirmed for a decade. Yet, it recognized the need for a faster feedback cycle. Thus, Summit focused on embedding a culture and process for iterative learning using a technology platform, mentor meetings, and teacher feedback to garner immediate insight into student progress. With this data, it was able to run rapid-cycle prototypes, on a weekly basis, to shape its transformative approach to personalized learning. Modifications ranged from small tweaks in curriculum to a complete reconfiguration of the school day. The Summit Public School model has now been adopted in more than 300 public schools across the United States.

To align the interests of funders and providers around creating the most cost-effective impact, the ideal scenario would be to pay for outcomes. However, this can be impractical, given the cost, time, and difficulty involved in discretely measuring many desirable outcomes—as evidenced by the still limited number of social impact bonds. Yet, smaller steps can play dividends. In their work with King County, Washington to improve timely access to outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment, Third Sector Capital Partners established performance benchmarks, then amended the existing provider contracts to offer a 2 percent bonus for meeting targets. In addition, by 2020, a greater portion of payments will be linked to outcomes, raising the bar on what it will take to stay competitive.

Fall in Love with the Problem, Not Your Solution

If you are true to your goal, remain agile, and stay focused on meaningful markers of progress, you may find yourself facing some tough choices. The solution you initially envisioned may simply not work, or be the best option. That disruptive technology you’ve committed to deploying might not be appropriate. The opportunity to raise more money, gain more glory, or expand the footprint of your organization may not exist. Are you prepared to do what it takes to solve the problem? All the theory on innovation is only as good as the willingness to act on it.

Most people don’t realize that one of the most successful social enterprises, d.light, didn’t start out selling solar lanterns. While it has been unwavering in its goal to provide the 1.6 billion people who live without electricity access to affordable light, its first design, the Forever-Bright, was a low-cost LED light run off batteries that could be recharged by a diesel generator. This worked well in its initial markets of Myanmar and Cambodia, where children would shuttle lead acid batteries every few days to generators to be recharged. But as d.light expanded into India it discovered that generators weren’t as readily available. This caused it to pivot to a new approach—solar—and it never looked back. D.light has now sold close to 20 million solar light and power products in 62 countries.

When we hear the word innovation, we inevitably imagine the process of birthing a breakthrough idea no one has thought of before. This is based on a widely held misconception of the term. New ideas are a dime a dozen. In fact, most of the good ideas we need probably already exist. The tough part is refining and deploying an invention to make a meaningful difference in the world.

Evidence Action, has taken this to heart and works to build scalable programs based on research studies that have already demonstrated successful results. One such endeavor is their Deworm the World Initiative that aims to reach the more than 800 million children who are at risk of parasitic worm infections that can negatively impact their health, ability to learn, and future productivity. Building on existing data, Evidence Action works with policymakers to design and implement effective deworming programs at a state and national level. Through their support of India’s National Deworming Day alone, the program treated approximately 260 million children in 2017.

It’s time to shift our attention from the adoption of new innovation methods to the institutionalization of an operating model where innovation can thrive. This requires audacious goals that will force us out of our comfort zones, an emphasis on agility over planning, and a laser focus on the markers that indicate strong performance. With these foundational elements in place, the growing choice of tools, techniques, and experts will become ever more powerful and essential. Without them, our efforts will be stymied as we find ourselves continually swimming upstream.

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How—and—Why to Listen Until Someone Feels Heard

By Dr. Adrienne Boissy

Interrupting is a powerful urge. We want to quickly find out what we need to know and are eager to steer conversations in that direction. While this isn’t necessarily bad, most of us want people to listen to us when the tables turn. When that doesn’t happen, human nature leads us to stop talking altogether or to crank up the volume.

As a neurologist and chief experience officer at Cleveland Clinic, one of the most powerful things you can do for people is to ask about insights and feelings, reflect what you hear back to them, and then do something about it. This not only makes an impact in one-on-one conversations, but can also improve program and process design. I call this concept “empathy operationalized.” Although I view this issue through a healthcare lens, the reflections are universal. Ultimately, soliciting and applying someone’s feedback is fundamental to making that person feel seen and valued.

Training for empathy

Many people who choose careers in medicine or at nonprofits are intrinsically motivated to serve others. And yet most of us haven’t received any training to hone our ability to empathize; we just do our best. If we expect every healthcare professional to empathize with every patient, we must provide training. Working in hospitals is tremendously stressful: Doctors-in-training have to learn to work on a team, document their actions extensively, take on sleep-depriving schedules, and begin to take responsibility for the health of their patients. They may see death for the first time. They must learn to stand in the midst of suffering, field questions they don’t know the answers to, and parse medical jargon. As they become more senior, they may travel back and forth from outpatient to inpatient settings. They may miss their kid’s soccer game to comfort a patient who is contemplating their own mortality. Amidst all of this, studies show that physician empathy levels decline throughout training, and rise again only later in a doctor’s career.

In 2011, I helped design a communication training program for all Cleveland Clinic physicians that included approaches to listening to and building empathy for our patients. We thought we would just teach some skills, but we soon realized we also needed to listen to the physicians themselves. Many were grappling with challenging conversations and feeling isolated by their unacknowledged struggle. We quickly changed the curriculum to allow physicians time to share their stories. Tales tumbled out—stories of abuse and loss, of witnessing humanity at its best and worst. Creating this space made room for their pain; it helped the healers heal.

Adopt reflective listening techniques

But empathy requires more than just listening and moving on. Listeners have to communicate—through words or actions—a deep understanding of what someone is going through. This is called reflective listening, and it’s the difference between these two conversations between friends:

  • Conversation One
    Laura: “Hey, great to see you. How are things?”
    Doug: “Oh hi. Good to see you. Things are ok—I haven’t really been sleeping very well.”
    Laura: “Yeah, I’m pretty worn out from working two jobs. How’s that new puppy you rescued?”
  • Conversation Two
    Laura: “Oh hi. Good to see you. Things are ok—I haven’t really been sleeping very well.”
    Doug: “You sound exhausted. Tell me what’s going on?”
    Laura: “Thanks for asking. My mom just passed away.”

In the first example, Laura could leave the conversation not even knowing Doug’s mother has died, and he also made the fatigue about him. In the second example, Doug reflects back the emotion he is hearing when he says, “You sound exhausted.” Naming the emotion serves to check that he heard the feeling correctly. He then follows with an encouraging statement, so that Laura feels comfortable enough to share what’s really going on.

Reflective listeners hear and then articulate the emotion or message back to the speaker. If the message is emotional, the reflection is a statement of empathy. If the message is information, then the listener states facts or data. When this happens, people feel heard and understood. A relationship begins.

Medical researchers Mary Catherine Beach and Thomas Inui describe relationship-centered care as having four features:

  1. Both patient and medic share a common goal, ideally the patient’s health.
  2. They both value each other’s expertise in reaching that goal. The patient has expertise in their disease; doctors have expertise in the science and medicine.
  3. As patient and clinician listen to each other, their relationship influences both sides. They call this reciprocal influence. In other words, the patient might actually tell the doctor he isn’t taking his medicine. The doctor might stay late to give him a call.
  4. The relationship is therapeutic on both sides, but it’s not friendship.

Human beings behave differently when they are in relationships, and we can be intentional about building relationships through reflective listening.

The cases for empathy

Being empathic is self-perpetuating. In healthcare, reflective listening and empathy can lead to behavior change, fewer malpractice claims, and less burnout–that feeling you get when your emotional bucket is empty and it’s hard to keep going.

University of Chicago researcher Nicholas Christakis studied the power of social contagion—one person influencing another to adopt a behavior like smoking or eating habits leading to obesity. He found that social contagion also applies to empathy. If I’m empathic to you, you’ll be empathic to the next person, and they to the next.

Fascinatingly, listening and empathy may be doctors’ greatest tools in reducing financial, physical, and emotional harm. If you look at why people file malpractice claims, the number-one cause isn’t inappropriate medical management, but a lack of human connection. Such shortcomings translate into millions of dollars in claims. In recordings of doctor-patient interactions that did not result in malpractice claims, the physicians use humor, let the patient talk, and explain what will happen during the visit.

Empathy and effective communication also increase physician retention, leading to additional economic benefit. We studied 1,500 physicians who participated in our communications courses as well as their patients, and found we had both enhanced their patients’ experiences and reduced physician burnout. At Cleveland Clinic, burned-out physicians are twice as likely to leave as those who remain engaged and satisfied, and it takes significant time, energy, and dollars to replace them.

Even in human-centered fields like medicine, social services, and development work, we often think that skills like reflective listening and empathy are soft, fluffy, and optional. The truth is, they are the only skills that can make another human feel cared for and connected—they just take some intentional practice.

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Three Ways Businesses Can Improve Their Women’s Economic Empowerment Programs

By Linda Midgley & Marissa Wesely

Many companies are spending millions of dollars to address issues of women’s economic empowerment across their value chains. These include efforts like Coca Cola’s 5by20 program seeking to economically empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020, and Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. program, providing life skills training to women workers in its factories. These companies and a growing number of others increasingly view advancing gender equality as the right thing to do, particularly in light of the momentum for business to contribute to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But the deepening understanding of the strong business reasons for economically empowering women is equally, if not more, important. As Unilever CEO Paul Polman has stated: “When we empower women, society and the economy benefit, grow and thrive. … And it makes enormous economic sense too, with an overwhelming number of studies showing time and time again that gender equality is good for talent development, culture, innovation, leadership and performance.”

Yet even in this context, few companies appear to be designing their women’s economic empowerment programs for lasting impact—or measuring or reporting on that impact. Indeed, an October 2014 report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Dalberg, and Witter Ventures, found that only three of the 31 corporate-funded programs studied provided empirical evaluations with quantitative metrics beyond program size and scope. Without knowing if programs result in women gaining not only new skills and resources, but also control over those resources and the power to make economic decisions, companies cannot assess whether the intended economic empowerment will endure for women or for business.

So how can companies design and measure effective women’s economic empowerment programs? We believe these three elements are essential:

  • Employ women-centered design. Having the women affected at the heart of the design process will produce programs that address the critical building blocks for economically empowering women in a given context. Such programs are more likely to have impact on the business
  • Build in measurement tools from the start to assess a program’s impact on women and on business
  • Align social impact goals and reporting with existing measurement frameworks like the GRI Standards and the SDGs. Such alignment allows companies to replicate successful programs in similar contexts and bring them to scale

1. Contextualized women-centered design

Women’s economic empowerment requires interventions that are customized to each setting. What makes sense to empower factory workers in Bangladesh may not meet the needs of smallholder farmers in Kenya. To design context-specific programs, companies must work to identify the barriers preventing women from realizing their full economic potential: Are they constrained by lack of education or skills? Are they limited by violence in their homes or their workplaces, by laws, customs, or safely issues that limit their mobility, or by taking on a disproportionate share of unpaid household or care obligations? Do social norms limit their decision-making power in households and communities?

Designing effective programs in highly local contexts requires gathering input from the women that a company is trying to empower. Local women’s organizations are an oft-overlooked resource in gathering this critical context. Without this input, companies often default to solutions that are easily accessible and simple to scale—programs to train or mentor women, or to provide resources to build or advance in a business. While these interventions may be helpful, without a deeper understanding of the local gender context, they may not lead to the desired long-term impact for women or for business. For example, a recent study of gender in rural Africa covering 2,000 households in six countries found that land ownership alone—often a key focus of public and private women’s economic empowerment programs in farming communities—did not lead to stronger bargaining power or higher incomes for women. “[P]olicymakers … should adopt a multifaceted approach that includes aspects beyond agriculture,” the author noted. “These include issues of sexual and reproductive rights, for instance, and freeing women from the heavy and time-consuming drudgery of domestic work in poor, rural settings. … Women’s lack of empowerment is also related to their limited mobility, which makes it harder for them to reach markets.”

The ICRW report mentioned above described eight building blocks for sustainable women’s economic empowerment. We have adapted these as follows:

Some companies leading the way on women’s economic empowerment issues have developed an appreciation of the need to address multiple building blocks to achieve lasting impact. Among those are some cocoa companies participating in Cocoa Action, a voluntary, industry-wide strategy that engages the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana and other key stakeholders.

The business case for empowering more women involved in cocoa production is quite clear; companies participating in Cocoa Action recognize the need to build stronger farming communities for a more stable and sustainable supply chain, and recognize the importance of truly empowering women farmers in this process. The Mars Chocolate Women’s Empowerment Plan and Cargill’s work on women’s empowerment as part of Cargill’s Cocoa Promise are two examples. To increase the number of women attending farmer training schools from the 5 percent reported in a 2016 study, Cargill is looking closely at issues like:

  • Whether taking women’s household responsibilities into account when selecting the location and timing of trainings can make a difference
  • Building women-only classes where women feel safe to speak up and lead
  • Presenting materials that show women in leadership roles as role models

Unilever is also working to engage women in farmer field schools by supporting one supplier’s development of a mobile education platform for Indian gherkin farmers. The flexibility of the platform addresses issues presented by more traditional farmer trainings. It includes a digital textbook on tablets, and videos made locally by field officers. The videos star local farmers and many of them feature women as decisionmakers, leaders, and teachers on their farms. The use of videos also enables flexible viewing hours and helps break down literacy barriers. Early results of the pilot showed a 300 percent increase in reach, with women outnumbering men at training sessions.

Of course, building block design principles hold true in sectors and settings outside agriculture. Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. program—one of the longest-running and successful life-skills programs for female factory workers—was built with a holistic approach. The curriculum addresses areas including reproductive health, legal literacy, and gender roles, as well as more commonly taught life skills like communication and problem solving.

2. Measure impact on women and business

Creating a measurement framework that can track successes and failures and allow for replication and adaptation is equally important. While contextualized design is the best way to ensure that impact for women and business is transformative and not fleeting, this approach is typically more time-consuming than program development approaches that do not take local issues into account. In order to achieve scale using this approach, companies will need to identify the most successful women’s economic empowerment programs and implement them broadly in similar contexts. Figuring out which programs are the most successful is not easy, as companies must measure both the social and business impact.

On the social side, many corporate women’s economic empowerment programs began in philanthropic contexts, with little understanding of social impact measurement beyond counting the number of women “touched” by a program or increases in a woman’s income. For many of these programs, little consideration was given to measuring indicators of lasting impact, like changes over time in women’s and men’s knowledge, attitudes, behavior, and social status.

In the farmer field school example, the company might want to measure factors like whether female participants felt they had greater decision-making authority in the household and whether household tasks were shared more equally, in addition to changes in the number of women attending farmer field schools. Other measures of more lasting change might be whether women reported not just increased income but also control over that income. Measurement of impact over time might even extend to whether women had greater confidence in participating in—and willingness to lead—co-operatives or other community initiatives. Another Cocoa Action member, Mondelez, considered a number of these factors in a report on its experience building women’s leadership within cocoa farming in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Designing women’s economic empowerment programs with business impact in mind is even more rare. Few programs even take into account how social impact can play a role in creating value for the business. Bringing women’s economic empowerment programs out of the sphere of pure philanthropy means recognizing the integral links between business and social value and working across a company to ensure that business and social metrics are linked.

Cocoa Action developed a framework for the companies in its network that links and measures business and social impact. The framework has dual long-term goals of “increased yields” and “thriving communities,” with the latter including increased opportunity, capability, and women’s influence as one targeted outcome intended to also have a positive effect on productivity and yields. By linking business and social impact, and developing meaningful metrics for both, it’s more likely that successful programs will become embedded in a business and shared publicly, increasing opportunities for replication and scaling.

3. Report on impact in a way that businesses recognize

The final element to enable companies to identify and replicate successful women’s economic empowerment programs, is to measure and report on impact—both internally and externally—in a way which businesses recognize. This allows key decision makers inside the business to make better decisions about which programs to replicate. In addition, public reporting on program impact will enable others to identify successful programs for replication in their companies.

There are several ways to report impact for the business world. First, qualitative description of a program’s successes and learnings should be backed up by quantitative impact data. This requires a baseline measurement at the start of the project and continued tracking over time to see whether the effects are lasting. Corporate decision makers rely on data, and program sustainability and replication will likely depend on the quality of this data. This will likely include appropriate gender disaggregated data.

While any metric should fit the program context and be based on a thorough understanding of the building blocks of women’s economic empowerment, there are also significant advantages in terms of efficiency and internal acceptance to aligning with existing reporting frameworks like the GRI standards or SASB, both of which are used for business sustainability reporting.

Aligning impact measurement and reporting with the SDGs is even more important. The SDGs apply to all countries, all sectors, and all actors in society. They provide a common language for reporting on the world’s sustainable development challenges and for bringing actors together along the value chain.

Aligning reporting with the SDGs instantly makes the program’s contribution to women’s economic empowerment clear. For instance, should the Cargill’s farmer field schools result in promotion of shared responsibility within the household, that would advance one of the stated targets of SDG 5: Gender Equality, on recognizing the value of unpaid care work. If more women were participating as leaders in cocoa cooperatives after going through the farmer field school program, it would be advancing another target of SDG 5: ensuring women’s full and effective participation and opportunities for leadership. This in turn would have a positive effect on various targets under SDG 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth, through improving productivity and yields.

It might seem as though there is a contradiction between metrics that offer specific, contextual insight, and aligning with existing frameworks which by their nature are more general. In practice, it’s about finding a balance between the two; maximizing insight into contextual nuance for deeper impact, while sharing that impact broadly using more widely recognized indicators for sustainability and scaling.

Impact metrics that are more recognizable for stakeholders within the company are easier to interpret in the business context, leading to a better understanding of program value and better decision making. Impact metrics that are more recognizable for external stakeholders, like investors, can give them a better understanding of the long-term impact and value the company is creating, making investment more likely. Finally, aligning with existing metrics can also lead to process efficiency gains and reduce the administrative burden of data collection and reporting.

Creating lasting impact, at scale

Today, leading companies increasingly see opportunities to economically empower women across their value chain to create lasting change for women, their communities, and the world. Yet it still is often hard for companies to know where to start. First steps may simply involve doing an assessment and analysis to understand where in the value chain women are critical to the business, or putting a gender lens on existing programs for employees or suppliers to see if the programs are equally effective for women and men. Once companies see where increased focus on women’s economic empowerment can have real business impact, working closely with the women targeted to co-design programs will ensure that they are designed for transformative social impact from the start. And by taking time at the outset to incorporate broadly used metrics to measure social and business impact, companies will be able to share successes and failures more effectively, fostering replication of the most impactful models and expanding benefits for all.

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