Changing the Climate by Leaving “Climate Change” Behind

By Robert Russell Sassor & Beth Strachan

Many movements struggle to let go of the revered stories they use time and again to win supporters, but change often requires a new narrative. In 2012, for example, the US marriage equality movement replaced its long-used “basic human rights” messaging with messaging focused on love and family. Doing so allowed the movement to overcome setbacks and dramatically shift norms, behaviors, and expectations through savvy campaign strategies. Since then, public support for marriage equality has been climbing steadily, from 37 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2017. And since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality, it is now the law of the land.

Changing hearts and minds, building public will, and thereby influencing political will and judicial engagement on any issue requires that advocates first connect with people through language and stories rooted in values we authentically share. Yet by and large, climate change advocacy has continued to focus on the imperative of a stable climate and trends in rising temperatures (often accompanied by ice cap and polar bear imagery). The movement typically relays that we are in crisis mode, and must act immediately to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. But while all these arguments are true, they have largely failed to inspire individual action or widespread change in the United States.

Some leaders and groups are beginning to evolve climate change’s traditional narratives to, for example, encompass health impacts (“climate change is impacting our health”), but new messaging still often hinges on changing people’s attitudes toward climate change itself. It still seeks to build public will in support of the issue as a precursor to driving policy and action to tackle it—and it isn’t working. Surveys show that even though more and more Americans understand climate change is real, is human caused, and directly affects communities, the issue remains a low priority for taking action. More than a decade of investment in advocacy and marketing to raise the alarm on climate change—during both progressive and conservative ascendance—has not yet galvanized political or public will in the United States. In fact, the issue remains a political third rail even for people who believe we need to act now.

It’s worth asking then: Is there a fatal flaw in the discourse around climate change? Is it time to let go of the climate change “sacred cow” and create a narrative centered on common values? We believe the answer to both questions is yes, and a natural place to start is by focusing on the health benefits of clean air, water, and land.

Change Is in the Air

The health impacts of climate change are clear and evident; poor air and water quality, natural disasters, extreme heat, and wildfire make us more vulnerable to illness, disease, and death. In 2009, The Lancet medical journal declared climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” and in November, it released a report on how climate change is “shaping the health of nations for centuries to come.” These findings are underscored in a domestic context by the 2018 US National Climate Assessment, which notes the interconnected impacts climate change presents for the US economy, natural resources, and our health. The American Public Health Association is meanwhile prioritizing the issue on behalf of the nation’s public health field, and recently announced the launch of a new Center for Climate, Health and Equity.

Within the health field, the medical literature and galvanizing work of the World Health Organization and others are contributing to a particular emphasis on clean air. At last year’s Global Climate and Health Forum, for example, “air pollution” was the term on everybody’s lips, including Howard Frumkin’s of the the Wellcome Trust, who said: “Five years ago at a meeting on climate and health, we would have heard much less talk about air pollution … Air pollution has emerged as an incredibly powerful issue to advance our discussion of climate change.” He and others have noted that air pollution is salient for policymakers and people, because it is happening now, the pollution is tangible, and its impacts on human health are direct and recognizable.

Air pollution is also salient for health professionals. Independent medical literature underscores the urgency for action, which may be fueling the field’s newfound focus. A 2013 MIT study (using 2005 data) attributed 200,000 premature deaths in the United States per year to poor air quality. Studies are also uncovering other harmful impacts, such as chronic bronchitis and asthma, cardiovascular diseases, systemic inflammation, impaired cognitive development and memory function, and kidney damage, as well as gastrointestinal, liver, lung, and renal cancers. (See a World Health Organization compendium here.) These conditions may also drive absenteeism in schools and workplaces, exacerbate health care needs and costs, and impinge on our well-being and resilience as individuals, communities, and nations. The impacts are far worse for those who live near sources of air pollution, which are disproportionately near communities already facing disparities. Consequently, the World Health Organization is unifying the field—and its policy and behavior change prowess globally and domestically—to tackle the health inequities air pollution poses.

This focus on air quality is one health-focused example that could serve as a compelling impetus for tackling climate change without necessarily referencing “climate” terms. An air quality narrative could, for example, entail calls to action that help end new fossil fuel projects and shift economies away from coal, oil, and natural gas. Domestically, strategies and messaging designed to prompt policies and action for cleaner air could help: safeguard comprehensive regulations in the Clean Air Act and standards for minimizing particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter; commit the nation to 100 percent clean and renewable energy for all; and create opportunity and political capital to advance a new clean power plan, restore emissions standards, and drive other high-impact policies that seem impossible today but could have public will behind them in two years.

Promising Early Evidence

This approach is already showing promise as a mechanism for motivating action in a clean energy context. While clean energy messaging has historically focused on climate change (“the Earth is warming, we need to do something about it, and clean energy can help”), Sierra Club’s US-based Ready for 100 Campaign instead focused on how air pollution from fossil fuels is putting our health at risk, and how clean and renewable energy will improve our health, leave a better world for our children, and save lives.

The campaign drew on a proprietary national survey conducted in 2015, which indicated that Americans’ values for health and quality of life, particularly for future generations, motivate support for clean energy. Respondents generally ranked protecting air and water quality as higher priorities than fighting climate change, and health-based messages about reducing pollution tested best as reasons to support clean energy goals. The Sierra Club research illuminated an opportunity to engage new clean energy champions (beyond those activated in a “climate change” context) through messages linked directly to their values, particularly through values related to their health.

In just two years, the campaign has already inspired 100 cities, along with 10 counties and two states (Hawaii and California) to pledge to shift to 100 percent clean and renewable energy.

Opportunities to Pursue

Given this, is it time for climate change advocates to develop a shared narrative that better taps people’s values and elevates our health, and in a way that will work across fields? How can we more fully connect health to other values, like economic security, economic development, social justice, environment and sustainability, energy independence, jobs creation, and just transitions for those whose livelihoods rely on the fossil fuel industry?

As we work to answer these questions, let us look to how we can promote more-robust collaboration, reduce duplication of effort, and reinforce central concepts; share resources (through pooling funding, resources, and tools), and mobilize and coordinate across fields and movements; and reimagine community engagement by leading with curiosity, and inviting people to talk about these issues in the context of their experiences and those of their loved ones. Together, we can inspire the policies and actions we seek.

If those of us who work to mitigate climate change unite to make health a national priority—bypassing the climate change third rail—it will be an instructive model for broader shifts in narrative and action, and a potentially formidable force for positive change in our communities.

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Solving Unusual Social Problems

If you’re at all involved in the social entrepreneurship world, there are several major topics you will have heard about. World hunger, clean water, preventable disease treatment, environmental care, social equality, and the like are huge problems that social enterprises are working to tackle. And the work happening in those realms is amazing, but what about the smaller problems?

As a changemaker, you may look around and wonder what problems most people don’t see. Maybe you want to go in a different direction with your efforts. If so, read on to learn about some unusual social problems changemakers are working to tackle.

Fair Trade Electronics

As changemakers, we tend to think more about where our products came from than most people do. Were our clothes made in some sweat shop in Indonesia, or were they made by fair trade artisans? But one industry we tend to forget about when we’re thinking about fair trade is electronics.

Because electronics are so expensive, it can be easy to assume that all the manufacturers are paid fairly for their work. But in 2012, a study actually showed that electronics manufacturers have the worst working conditions, on average.

So what are social entrepreneurs doing about it? Mostly, they’re starting their own electronics manufacturing companies where they can ensure their workers are paid fairly and treated well. You could also start a website that sells fair-trade electronics at near-wholesale prices, then using the profit you do make to raise awareness about this issue.

Supermarket Waste

If you’re like us, every time you clean out the fridge, you find some old bell pepper lurking in a drawer that you meant to use and never did. You have to throw it away, which is a waste of food and money. But it turns out grocery store shoppers aren’t the only people with this problem.

Grocery stores wind up having to throw away a lot of food, too. Like us, they’re estimating what they’re going to need and when it’s going to make it off the shelves. With products like produce that don’t have a long shelf life, they can wind up throwing out a lot of food.

Social entrepreneurs are tackling both the problem of supermarket waste and that of hunger all in one fell swoop. Instead of having to throw the food away, the stores can donate it to “secondhand” grocery stores (meaning they can write it off on their taxes as a donation). The social enterprise can then sell the food at a lower cost so that underprivileged communities can afford more fresh produce, and they can use the profits to feed the hungry.

Bad Tourism

When you went on that vacation to the French countryside a few years back, we’re willing to bet you didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the social impact of your tourism. After all, it’s supposed to be a vacation, right? But tourism done this way can have a huge impact on communities without benefitting them much at all.

It’s worth doing some additional reading on the topic, but in essence it boils down to this: when we visit a community, it’s easy to accidentally offend the residents. We all love a good museum, but sometimes those museums can turn local artefacts into nothing more than commodities for the tourists. And while tourists do spend money that goes into the economy, oftentimes it doesn’t go through ethical channels that get that money back to the people there.

There are several social enterprises endeavoring to change the way we visit the rest of the world. These groups work closely with the locals in a given area (often having several different destinations that they cover) to make sure travelers know the right ways to behave and spend their money to help the community. This also means the tourists get a more genuine cultural experience from the place they’re visiting.

Micro-Giving

A lot of people think that when you donate to charity, you have to donate hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time in order for it to make a difference. It’s also easy to assume that charitable giving comes only (or at least mainly) from individuals. But micro-giving, especially from businesses can make an enormous impact.

There are a lot of ways that people can donate money to charities by doing things they’re already in the habit of – opening tabs in a browser, for example. You can also ask businesses to make micro-donations from their profits, things that will cost them pennies per sale. For example, ask a baker to donate the monetary equivalent of a handful of flour for every loaf of bread that they sell.

Textbook Availability

If you are or were a college student, you have definitely spent some time in your career cringing at textbook prices. Textbooks are notoriously expensive, and they are one of the products that you can’t get a cheaper alternative for. So what happens if you’re an underprivileged student trying to get your books without going broke?

That’s just the issue that a number of social enterprises are working to solve. As a college student, you may also have found that you wound up with books you didn’t want at the end of the semester. Several changemaking initiatives are working to round up those books and either sell them at discounted prices to underprivileged students or donate them to students in developing countries.

Solve the Unusual Social Problems

As changemakers, our job is to look around at the world, see the problems others don’t, and find ways to address them. While there is no doubt that those working on tackling climate change are doing amazing work, there’s also great change happening in more unknown areas. We hope you’ve gotten some ideas and inspiration from this list.

If you’re looking for ways to solve the unusual social problems, or any social problem, check out the rest of our site at the Sullivan Foundation. We work to provide training and resources for budding changemakers. Learn about how you can join one of our Ignite Retreats for a weekend of igniting change.

Funding Innovations That Break the Mold

By Lateefah Simon & Timothy Silard

Patrisse Cullors is creating a network of rapid responders, as an alternative to police, to support victims and survivors of state violence and mass criminalization. Raj Jayadev is helping individuals who face incarceration, their families, and their communities play an active role in their defense. Nicole Pittman is taking on the practice of placing children on sex offender registries.

These leaders are finding new ways to break down barriers to opportunity and justice at a time when people of color, immigrants, and other communities face a resurgent wave of hostility and violence, both in the United States and elsewhere. In this moment, we need more leaders who are not satisfied with anything less than obliterating the systems of oppression that harm communities of color and working people, and who are deeply embedded in the communities they serve. But to make headway against these challenges, these leaders need those of us in philanthropy to step up and completely rethink our approach to investing in social change.

What does it take for philanthropy to effectively support emerging leaders and their risky ideas? Our experience with the Leading Edge Fund—a three-year fellowship launched by the Rosenberg Foundation and the Hellman Foundation in 2016 to support cutting-edge, social change ideas—has underlined the importance of four funding practices. While these practices aren’t particularly new, we believe our experiences over the past three years can offer some fresh examples of and new perspectives on how to apply them.

Give Leaders Space and Opportunity to Think—and Act—Big

Nonprofit and movement leaders are chronically overworked. The constant stress related to fundraising, and managing and growing organizations—all while advancing movements and organizing communities to push back against injustice—leaves little time or space for deep thinking about how to fundamentally change the odds for and with disenfranchised people.

The Leading Edge Fund is a state-based fellowship that provides unrestricted support to organizers and activists to help nurture their long-term vision for change. The fund supports fellows to think (and act) big by providing general support funds to use as they wish in their efforts to change our communities. Our hope is that the availability of flexible, unrestricted support will allow fellows the space to reflect and focus their energy and creativity on pursuing their boldest ideas. As one example, building on her strong history of advocacy and activism, including as a founder of #BlackLivesMatter, Cullors has used fellowship funds to support the development of community-based, rapid-response “justice teams” to combat police violence and to write her New York Times best-selling memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist.

Give Leaders Time to Try and Fail

In any endeavor, it can take years to turn promising ideas into reality, and that’s especially true for social movements. Take, for example, the movement to make marriage equality a reality in the land, and the ongoing fight for civil rights. Bold and transformative change is possible only through sustained, long-term, patient, and coordinated advances; there may not be a straight path to change, and the work may occur in fits and starts. But scarce resources often force nonprofits and activists to focus on the short term. The impulse can be to play it safe and stick to tried-and-true approaches that will appeal to philanthropic supporters, even if those approaches are not delivering the systemic change that will unlock real progress.

To get rid of restrictions and requirements that often stifle long-term thinking and groundbreaking ideas, we let go of the need to have measured outcomes. Instead, we decided to invest in the leaders and support their development for the long haul. We also connect fellows with experts and partners that can help them identify areas of growth as well as the type of supports they need. For example, Raja Jorjani, who is working to ensure that immigrants impacted by the criminal justice system have legal representation, was able to meet with Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and learn even more about the transformative power of litigation for social change.

We also let go of funding practices intended to “manage” grantees’ work. For example, the fund does not require detailed proposals or budgets with annual deliverables, quantified outcomes, and frequent reporting. Our expectation is not that fellows will accomplish their goals in one year or three years—or even 10 years. Rather than giving us ongoing grantee reports, fellows share their failures and successes with their cohort and with us during regular retreats, and submit annual updates about their efforts. Since we are focused on the leaders, rather than the success of their idea, accepting the risk that some of their ideas may fall short even as others take hold and flourish is baked into the design.

Support the Leader, Not Just the Organization

Leadership awards are typically tied to the work people are doing within a specific organization, and grants are awarded for project-based goals or for organizational support. Even in leadership development, the trend is to support not only leaders, but also their senior team, the board, or organizational systems.

By contrast, our fund is agnostic when it comes to affiliation. Fellows can be leaders or founders of staffed nonprofit organizations, solo operators with nonprofit status, employees of public systems or legal aid organizations, or individual activists. Instead, we focus on the strength of their potential and their ideas.

For example, Jayadev founded Silicon Valley De-Bug to mobilize communities in Silicon Valley around social justice issues, including workers’ rights and criminal justice reform. Today, the platform is a vehicle for community organizing to impact the outcome of cases and transform the court system. However, Meredith Desautels’ fellowship—and effort to end the incarceration of children—isn’t tied to her work with any one organization, and Jorjani is working within a government institution as a public defender.

Remember That Movements Thrive on Connections

Social justice work can be isolating. Its fierce urgency and the daily grind can be all-encompassing. And fundraising pressures can make organizations feel more like competitors than allies, which puts the success of our collective movements at stake.

Part of our work, therefore, is to help foster a network of activists who can support each other to advance equity and social justice. Toward this end, we convene retreats where fellows share ideas, get hands-on training to build their capacity, and grow and strengthen their personal relationships. Training has included how to make a case of support for funders and wellness for social justice leaders.

Fellows also have had the opportunity to collaborate on issues and projects during retreats. Raha Jorjani and Raj Jayadev, for example, collaborated on a symposium that focused on prosecutor accountability. Patrisse Cullors and Morning Star Gali organized a convening for leaders from Movement for Black Lives and Native organizers. We also make the retreats family friendly; fellows can bring their children to mealtime and retreat activities.

In other efforts to spur cross-fertilization and relationship building, we encourage fellows to use their grant funds to support networking with other fellows, whether through site visits to their communities or shared learning opportunities. As one example, Nicole Pittman visited Silicon Valley DeBug to learn how to integrate participatory defense in her work. From the beginning of this work, participants told us they wanted a “relational vs. transactional” experience—and we’ve tried to deliver.

All too often, nonprofit and community leaders feel bound and beholden to philanthropy, responding to our often-difficult requirements, and tailoring their ideas and proposals to what they think we want to fund. Working with these inspiring fellows has reminded us that the best role philanthropy can play in advancing social justice is to flip the power equation and work in service to those who are making a difference on the frontlines.

Listen to these grassroots leaders, invest in their great ideas, help them grow their networks—and then get out of the way. That’s what we’re trying to do, and we hope it is a promising formula for building and growing stronger social movements. Now more than ever, we need to give movement leaders the resources, flexibility, and connections they need to bring their vision for justice to life.

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How to Give Adolescent Girls Voice, Choice, and Control

By Miriam Temin, Sajeda Amin, Thoai D. Ngo, & Stephanie Psaki

The majority of adolescent girls—girls aged 10 to 19—live in low- and middle-income countries, and are well poised to build the capabilities they need to fulfill their potential, and to contribute to the health and well-being of their families and communities. Empowering them represents an unprecedented opportunity for progress: When we keep adolescent girls healthy, safe, and in school, and give them skills and a say in their own lives, they have a path to healthy, productive adulthood. They are better able to gain knowledge, are less likely to become pregnant, and have more earning power. Society as a whole also benefits: Greater opportunity for young women to join the workforce can help close the workforce gender gap and boost national gross domestic products.

Based on evidence showing that investing in girls yields substantial returns, including reductions in early pregnancy and increased earning power, more and more donors, policymakers, and nonprofits are focusing on girls. Since 2015, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), for example, has invested more than $750 million in HIV prevention for girls and young women in 15 countries through the DREAMS Initiative. And at the 2017 Family Planning 2020 Summit, most of the 42 countries that committed to empowering women and girls with family planning made adolescents a focus of their plans.

However, many organizations that deliver services to adolescent girls lack systematic guidance for programming. In particular, while many recognize the multi-faceted nature of the risks that girls face, few agree on the most effective ways to implement intersectoral approaches that address them. Some combine cash transfers with girls’ clubs, or school-based sexual education with youth-friendly health services, to pursue the same goals. But these efforts aren’t necessarily evidence-based, nor are they standardized to reflect what works. Policymakers and nonprofits need a practical, multi-sectoral framework to prioritize approaches to empowering girls and maximize the impact of their investments.

A New Framework for Empowerment

Based on our experience at the Population Council, which conducts research and develops solutions to health and development issues, and the evolving body of evidence on what works to improve girls’ lives, we developed a theory of change for empowerment programming for adolescent girls. This theory of change provides a practical framework for designing and implementing programs that center around girls’ diverse needs (such as saving money and preventing unintended pregnancy) and address multiple determinants of risk (such as social isolation or school drop-out). In doing so, these programs empower girls to make decisions and positively affect outcomes of importance to themselves, their families, and their communities. With its emphasis on inclusive intersectoral approaches, the framework also has relevance for adolescent boys and other demographics who may be disempowered because of social status, ethnicity, or disability.

The framework contains seven core programmatic components and four delivery approaches that can help programs reach the right girls with the right content at the right time. It recognizes that girls cannot create transformational social change on their own. Indeed, factors such as gender-equitable policies, poverty reduction, education reforms, and other systemic changes influence girls’ transitions to adulthood, and can enable, amplify, or hinder the effects of empowerment programming. The framework takes account of this by reflecting a socio-ecological perspective, situating girl-centered programs within families, communities, and countries.

Programs that aim to empower adolescent girls should incorporate key components and delivery approaches to build assets that drive gender equity.

Seven Components of Community-Based Empowerment Programming

1. Girls’ groups. Programs should bring peers and mentors together in girl-only groups stratified by age, schooling, and/or marital status to build supportive relationships. For benefits beyond social capital, programs also need to build girls’ knowledge, skills, and self-efficacy, and link them to essential services and social institutions.

2. Safe Space. Girls’ group meetings should take place in existing venues, such as community centers or classrooms after hours, that are private and safe so that girls feel comfortable participating and communicating about sensitive topics.

3. Mentors. Ideally, mentors are young women from the local community who have navigated challenges like the ones program participants are experiencing. Mentor roles should include delivering core content, serving as role models, and providing practical assistance in emergencies.

4. Content on gender and power. Most girls’ empowerment programs include life-skills training centered on sexual and reproductive health; to be most effective, content must explicitly address gender norms and power dynamics in sexual relationships.

5. Economic empowerment. Programs also need to address the influence of economic factors on girls’ participation and impact. Economically empowering girls directly (such as through cash transfers) or indirectly (such as through financial literacy training) can reduce parental opposition and counteract the opportunity cost of participation.

6. Referral networks. Mentors should also be part of an active referral network, referring girls to outside services and resources like clinics and banks as needed. Programs can also help by providing an escort or helping defray transport or service costs.

7. Community engagement: Program staff, parents, and community members should come together to build knowledge and shift attitudes, thus contributing to an enabling environment where gender norms don’t inhibit girls’ participation or limit program impact. For instance, facilitated conversations can foster discussion between parents and other influential community members on themes related to girls’ group activities.

Four Program Delivery Approaches

Empowerment programs need to include not only the right elements—the “what” as described above—but also the right approach to implementation—the “how.” The way an organization implements the seven components can make or break a program.

1. Intentional design and targeting. Community-based programs can help reach marginalized adolescents, such as girls who are married, out-of-school, or living with disabilities. Many of these girls miss out on programming delivered through common channels like clinics and schools, yet face the highest risk. Organizations must gather detailed local information about adolescents’ diverse circumstances to determine where, and with whom, they should work. In Ethiopia, the Population Council used a community-level, child well-being assessment tool called the Child Census to identify areas with the most out-of-school and/or married girls. It then used the results to inform decisions about which kebeles (public administrations) were likely to benefit most from the expansion of Berhane Hewan (Light for Eve), a child-marriage prevention program.

2. Frequent meetings in segments. Another strong delivery approach is to set up meetings between groups of girls who share distinct characteristics, such as age or marital status, at least once a week for a year or longer. Girls who participate regularly have more program exposure and derive more benefits. In urban Ethiopia, for example, Biruh Tesfa (Bright Future) aims to reduce the social isolation of extremely disadvantaged, out-of-school girls. Trained mentors go house to house, inviting excluded segments of eligible girls—including domestic workers, girls living with disabilities, and rural-to-urban migrants—to regular meetings in safe locations donated by local kebeles. Girls meet as often as five times per week at times that vary to accommodate their work schedules.

3. Learner-centered, interactive pedagogy. Training approaches should be interactive, participatory, and learner-centered. Mentors can emphasize skill-based learning and critical thinking using materials adapted for individual girl segments. In Bangladesh, Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills, Income, and Knowledge for Adolescents (BALIKA) aimed to delay marriage among girls aged 12 to 18 in areas with the highest child marriage rates. It used three skills-building approaches to empower girls: 1) educational support; 2) training on life skills and gender rights with the It’s All One Curriculum to deliver unified education on sexuality, gender, HIV, and human rights; and 3) training on skills for modern livelihoods.

4. Continuous support for mentors: Program success depends on mentor performance. Adequate training, supportive supervision, and opportunities for mentors to interact all enhance mentor effectiveness and retention. It’s important that programs offer them compensation similar to comparable local jobs. In rural Guatemala, Abriendo Oportunidades (Opening Opportunities) works with rural indigenous girls to reduce their disadvantage and improve their lives. Girls meet weekly with female mentors aged 18 to 25 who run and facilitate the program. These mentors enable culturally sensitive discussions of issues and become positive role models. Mentors also participate in quarterly “training spaces” to learn new content, improve their skills, and learn from each other. Site coordinators provide weekly mentor support, monitor their performance, and provide constructive feedback.

What Delivery Looks Like in Practice

The overall design of Biruh Tesfa, described above, illustrates the combined potential of these four delivery approaches. Working through local female mentors, the program uses interactive techniques to build basic literacy skills, as well as to provide information and services to reduce sexual exploitation, abuse, and HIV risk. Mentors also provide girls with vouchers and referrals for free health and HIV services, often accompanying girls who are scared to go alone. Between 2006 and 2016, more than 75,000 out-of-school girls in the poorest areas of 18 cities participated in the program. An evaluation found positive effects that included strong social support, HIV knowledge, and desire for HIV testing, as well as literacy and numeracy for girls who had never had formal schooling.

BALIKA uses a similar delivery model. Girls meet weekly with mentors in safe, girl-only locations called BALIKA Centers, typically located in schools, to develop friendships, learn new technologies, borrow books, and acquire life skills. In the initial phase—which is currently expanding—more 9,000 girls in 72 communities participated over 18 months. Teachers and mentors recruited girls, liaised with families and communities, ran center activities, and engaged with community support groups. A randomized controlled trial evaluation found that BALIKA reduced the likelihood of child marriage by up to one-third, laying the foundation for better health, educational, economic, and social outcomes. These results show that it is possible to reduce the prevalence of child marriage in a relatively short time, which BALIKA did by working with communities to implement holistic, skills-building programs for girls that elevated their status.

Building Girls’ Protective Assets

Programs that deliver all seven components using the delivery approaches above work to build girls’ protective assets. We define assets as the store of value—the human stock—that girls can use assets to reduce risk and expand opportunity. For example, self-esteem can help them excel in school or at a job interview, while financial assets can protect them from risky sexual relationships. Rather than approaching girls through a single sector, an asset-building approach considers the whole girl.

Protective assets include social assets like trusted relationships with peers and adults, and health and human assets such as access to health services. Examples of cognitive assets include literacy, problem solving, and critical consciousness. Economic assets include financial literacy and budgeting skills, while things like leadership skills, negotiation skills, and identity cards are civic and political assets.

The thinking is that when girls gain assets, they are empowered as individuals and as groups, which they express by exercising voice, choice, and control. Girls use their voice—their say in decision-making in households, politics, business, and other realms—through participation, leadership, and collective action. Choice means they have the option to stay in school or join the labor force, and can decide whether, when, and with whom to have sex or to marry. And control means they have power over their bodies and mobility, income, and other resources. It also means having equitable legal rights and access to justice, as well as freedom from discriminatory social norms.

As girls exercise voice, choice, or control, they may start to disrupt social norms. Within supportive families, communities, and policy environments, this can improve girls’ health, education, and livelihoods. And if many girls in a given community participate in empowerment programs, this may create a “tipping point” that fosters new norms about girls’ value that endure. Ultimately, these shifts will substantially improve girls’ well-being and life chances, and promote gender equity.

We need intersectional approaches to reduce the wide-ranging risks that millions of adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries face. We hope that this practical, multisectoral framework will help donors, governments, and nonprofits empower girls, harness the potential of the largest-ever generation of adolescents, and promote gender equity.

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Philanthropic Leadership Means Following the Frontlines

By Alison Corwin

When we talk about “building the capacity” of frontline and grassroots leaders who are changing structures, policies, and systems, what does that really mean for funders? Many funders use antiquated and static systems of inquiry to identify and make judgements about which groups are well-equipped to achieve social change. The truth is that philanthropy holds a disproportionate amount of power; it serves as a gatekeeper for the resources that belong to our communities. And while the folks most impacted by any given issue—particularly frontline communities of color—hold the solutions and are in the best position to implement equitable systems change, our field continues to struggle with identifying and funding existing capacity on the ground.

An evolved approach is not only necessary, but also possible. As Ayanna Pressley, who beat a 10-term Congressman in her primary race in Massachusetts, said on her campaign trail: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

A funder’s role, then, is to build our own individual and institutional skills to receive and incorporate the insight these leaders and communities provide. We must listen to them, follow them, and respond in ways that help us model the systems change—the new rules, norms, and equitable power structures—they are creating.

It begins with community

For me, a big part of doing this is building a community of folks to talk to, and learn with and from, in a space that encourages vulnerability and welcomes curiosity. For example, I participated in a year-long collective-learning program for funders housed at the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG)—an organization that has centered its mission on power and racial justice for nearly 40 years. Called Project Phoenix, the program fostered a community of funders eager to work together at the intersection of democracy, the economy, and the environment, and enabled us to grow together and deepen relationships. Those experiences continue to heavily influence my view of what is possible through collective learning and action. In spaces like these and in the communities where we work, partners can cultivate trust over time by working together, making promises to one another, and addressing broken promises when they happen. In doing so, we remain accountable, transparent, and open to change and self-reflection.

Learning environments help those of us with white privilege and philanthropic institutional privilege ground ourselves and our work in community and, in many cases, re-educate ourselves about history. My formal education about the history and systems of the United States was in part an intentional miseducation to perpetuate the dominant white power structure. An evolved approach means recognizing that history is storytelling. We must seek out and listen to a wide range of stories, especially from communities of color, if we are to more fully understand how our current, racially unjust system in the United States came about, what has reinforced it, and what we can do to change it.

The real face of leadership

Funders do not always see that the lived experience of many powerful frontline and grassroots leaders is what makes them experts. Their expertise might not fit neatly into a box that funders can check off, and they may not agree with funders’ ideas or strategies. But it is not their role to agree with us or fit into philanthropy’s predetermined and often structurally racist criteria; it is our responsibility to see them, listen to them, and follow their lead. Building relationships and trust with these leaders means spending time with folks in communities—where they live, play, pray, congregate, eat, organize, dream, and work together.

Based on many conversations with field leaders about what it takes to recognize and resource frontline strength and leadership—again, particularly among leaders of color—here are some specific recommendations:

  • Be responsive to the way people and movements organize themselves. Social justice movements are highly informed and have their own analysis about how best to advance power, justice, and solutions. Funders shouldn’t be prescriptive about their own theory of change or outcomes. The Chorus Foundation, for example, uses grantee-led processes to make local funding decisions that support organizations working toward a just transition; shifting from old, extractive economies to regenerative, democratic alternatives that benefit frontline communities.
  • Support organizational capacity, as well as the capacity of individuals, networks, and coalitions. Not all impactful work happens inside a nonprofit structure, and it often requires that funders support an ecosystem of collaborative work. The Solutions Project’s Fighter Fund, for example, provides rapid-response grantmaking to support pivotal frontline leaders, not just organizations.
  • Make space for divergence and debate in movements, rather than force consensus and uniformity. Movements are not a monolith; movement leaders will not always agree on solutions, in part because they bring different experiences and histories to their work. The Advancing Equity and Opportunity (AEO) Collaborative creates space by bringing together leaders with a diversity of perspectives, across 13 states in the southeast, to advance environmental solutions rooted in equity.
  • Ask your partners what they need to be healthy and present in their work. Many frontline leaders are working tirelessly and on thin budgets. Cover the cost of childcare, eldercare, or other priorities when asking partners to travel or spend time away from their daily lives and community. The Andrus Family Fund, for example, helps strengthen grantee partners’ ability to serve system-impacted young people by providing flexible support that includes leadership development.

  • Provide long-term, flexible (general operating) resources at a level that allows leaders to dream, build, implement, and realize the change they seek. Restrictive funding keeps folks having to defend their communities daily, leaving little room for them to do systems-level work. More funders need to provide long-term resources that complement immediate and responsive support such as rapid-response funding.

Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective, a national organization building Indigenous power, declared to a room of funders recently, “Philanthropy has historically invested in frontline, grassroots, and Indigenous leadership just enough for us to fail.” In other words, many funders expect transformative results from frontline leadership on a shoestring budget. They invest in frontline leadership work just enough to say they support it, but often not at the same level they fund white-led organizations or initiatives. I have heard others express this sentiment many times over—including at the Solidarity to Solutions Week, a frontline response to the Global Climate Action Summit, organized collectively by hundreds of It Takes Roots members and its directors Angela Adrar (Climate Justice Alliance), Cindy Wiesner (Grassroots Global Justice Alliance), Dawn Phillips (Right to the City Alliance), and Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network).

Grounded in race

Even if we implement these practices, we will ultimately fail to create real systems change unless we center and pursue racial justice and equity, both in our organizations’ internal operations, and in our external grantmaking and investment strategies.

Race is the predominant determinant of quality of life in the United States, and we know communities of color face disproportionate injustice. Racial justice—the systemic, fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all—cannot be a separate goal or outcome; it must be the central objective of our collective work. We grantmakers must not only be allies, but also join our partners’ struggle on the frontlines, and recognize that the same communities bearing injustice are the heart and soul of our social movements.

What if our philanthropic practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion were the entry point for moving along a continuum toward justice and power?

Learning takes place in communities

I did not come to these ideas on my own. I certainly did not enter philanthropy six years ago understanding how to support capacity or power building. Resources such as NCRP’s Power Moves toolkit and the Funders For Justice’s Divest/Invest’s From Criminalization to Thriving Communities toolkit have been helpful guides along my learning journey. So has participating in communities of practice like NFG and others where I can be vulnerable and curious. I would not know how to, nor would I have the resolve or energy to do this work in isolation.

Together, by learning from and growing with these various philanthropic and frontline communities, we funders can shift the culture of philanthropy so that we are part of—rather than in control of—social movements and systems-change work.

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How to Be a Changemaker During Winter Break

Finals are almost over, and winter break is in sight! With the end of the fall semester approaching fast, you’re probably headed home for the holidays and a lot of well-earned rest. But after you’ve slept for a solid week and spent some quality veg time, what are you planning to do with the rest of your holiday break?

The winter break is a great time to focus on making a positive change in the world; whether it be by volunteering during your free time or taking steps towards establishing your social enterprise, the break offers some great opportunities for changemaking. Read on to find some ideas on how to be a changemaker during winter break.

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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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