Thursday, May 29, 2014

Investing for Impact - Start by Building Capacity

Developing relationships is a critical component
in capacity building and poverty alleviation
 This week’s Social Impact Lab created a great deal of spirited discussion prior, during and after our class meeting.  We have been working on this new method of working in the world in a more sustainable, and impacting manner for seven years and our lab group is made up of people who have varying perspectives, experiences and length of time within the think tank – so we are well-rounded and all have opinions. As well, we are willing to listen to what is being said and what is not being said because despite our variation in perspectives, we are all grounded in the vision.

The vision has shifted and changed as we have grown, learned and experienced over the years, adding partnerships, knowledge and resources. This week’s lab class gave us a framework around which to articulate some of the shifts as we shared our ideas, insights, and frustrations with charting all of the impact and outcomes that we have seen and captured. And interestingly enough it was the model case of that brought much of the discussion to a head, and got me to my ah-ha moment.

This reflection is my own, although I have shared it with the group for feedback and clarity, and I think I am onto a critical understanding of how to articulate our greatest struggle – what are we really trying to do – what is our real impact?

It is so easy to start calculating the social impact of our investments in the roads and bridges, schools and books, water delivery systems and health centers and that is exactly what we did not want to do – invest in a top-down, project-driven, imposition of our own strategic priorities. Yet, every time we look at what is happening in the community in which we are actively engaged, we start problem solving about using those successes (outputs) to tell our story.

The leadership of El Corozo prepares for a community meeting
So backing up from the roads and bridges is the real story – how did the community get to the point where THEY were empowered to organize their community; developing their own strategic plans, building capacity to train others, learning about choices and options so that they could identify and select those choices which would most closely align with their vision. And probably most importantly develop enough confidence in their competence that they could collectively as an organized community say no to aid offered which did not fit their strategic plan (despite the good it could provide.)

In a recent response about developing capacity, there was a question related to “people development” and Acumen’s response alluded to people development not being a strategy to alleviate poverty and I had a physical reaction as did several others in the think tank with whom I am working. That response stirred me to finally be able to articulate exactly why capacity development is the most critical component to sustainable poverty alleviation strategies.

Without empowered leadership within the organization, community or group with whom you are trying to alleviate poverty, the projects (regardless of the financial return on investment) will be an imposition of someone else’s strategic priorities. Projects don’t eradicate poverty. In a recent TEDx, TEDxHoracePark, I outlined this very problem and some solutions. You can view my opinions about this by clicking here:  Kathy Stutzman - TEDxHoracePark

 Creating the environment where a community is organized, empowered and has confidence in their own competence – that is capacity building – that creates opportunities for choices and options to be identified and selected – that is where we will see a more efficient and greater return on our investment. That part of social impact investing is critical, expensive and time-consuming and that is what we are working to develop, evaluate and replicate. For purposes of this study, I am going to call this a Tier 1 Impact.

Here is my synopsis of my ah-ha moment from Lab 2 of the +Acumen Course of Investing for Social Impact:

The Assumption:

We (District 5960 Rotarians and friends) will explore and develop a process through which we could engage in creating sustainable choices and options for economic well being in a poverty-stricken community in Nicaragua, with whom we had no prior existing relationship.

The Tier 1 Impact:

Empowered, focused leadership within the community will be active and instrumental in organizing, and directing the community to discover and explore new opportunities and options and work with partners to articulate the community’s choices, not simply accepting someone else’s strategic priorities imposed upon them. (Demonstrated Readiness)

As a Result:

The community will efficiently and sustainably incorporate, and implement appropriate economic initiatives and will actively participate and be vested in the investments chosen. (Higher and more efficient returns on investments)

How we are accomplishing this is another chapter, however, as a demonstration of the impact of building capacity please view this video which was recently produced by our local NGO partners and features the leaders of the community of El Corozo. Capacity Building and Leadership in El Corozo Nicaragua

For more information about the work of our think tank, please feel free to contact me, or any of the members of our group.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Getting Our Arms Around Social Impact Investing


I have been a member of a volunteer Think Tank since 2007 that is wrestling with a lot of complex issues related to exploring new methods of delivering service through Rotary in a meaningful and sustainable manner with the ultimate goal of eradicating poverty. I recently spoke at Kathy Stutzman at TEDxHoracePark about some of my experiences related to our work.

A statement which I wrote at the beginning of my involvement in this was “Think Big, Stay Focused” since we were dreaming of changing/impacting the world. Since then several sayings that have been helpful to me are to remember also include: “You eat an elephant one bite at a time”, and “Pick the low hanging fruit.”

I am currently in the process of writing a “Lessons Learned” book which will describe many of the experiences and lessons that we encountered during this process, and there are many articles and presentations written about the work we are doing that I will reference as we go along.

The purpose of this particular series of articles is to process and interconnect the work of the Think Tank and a class that some of us from the group are taking from Acumen Acumen called “Making Sense of Social Impact: Acumen’s Building Blocks for Impact Analysis.” There are nine of us taking the class as a cohort, each week; we get our lessons and study materials from Acumen, work on our own to prepare for the class doing homework and then we meet weekly for four weeks. At the end of each lab or cohort class, we write a report and submit that report to +Acumen so that we can receive our certificate at the end of the class.

As I was writing my report I realized that many of the concepts and thoughts I was reflecting on and writing about relate directly to the work that I am doing in my professional life and so will post my reports and thoughts about Social Impact here. Enjoy, ask questions, and send feedback. I invite vibrant discussion!

Making Sense of Social Impact Report from Lab 1

Our group is a volunteer, committed, think tank that has been working on new models of delivering service through Rotary in a meaningful and sustainable manner following emerging concepts and ideas resulting from the introduction of “The End of Poverty, the UN Millennium Project and then subsequent study, activities and research.

We know very clearly what we do not want, after seeing years of our strategic priorities imposed upon others, “doing” project to others, and not engaging the community on which we were focusing in the planning, implementation and evaluation. We have seen millions of dollars thrown at projects that made us feel good when we created them, but ultimately, were not grounded in true sustainability. What we don’t want is often used as a baseline to describe what we are doing although we have created a vision and goals; they are ever evolving as we learn more and engage new partnerships complete with new sets of lessons learned.

1.       One of the first lessons learned is to develop a common set of definitions to describe our visions, dreams and ideas and that is one of the goals for this class: our group will work to develop some common definitions to better describe the breadth, depth and focus of the work in which we are engaged and the concepts we will define include:

·         Capacity Building
·         Sustainable

And then – what are we evaluating (evaluation measures) when looking at:

·         Breadth of Impact;
·         Scope of Impact and
·         Focus of Impact

Several aha’s from the class this week included:

2.       Each “partner/group” needs to come to the table with their own set of goals and visions and then work together to explore and define the intersection of those visions on which they will move forward together. Developing a common set of goals where within the intersection does not mean letting go of each individual set of goals, but enhances and strengthens the partners’ goals.

3.       Each individual brings to the table their own perspective and frame about how we are measuring success and all are important and need to be acknowledged and captured; understanding that some successes support the individual partners’ goals and some demonstrate successes of the intersection.

4.       Capacity building is the foundation of sustainability. We need to get very clear about the components of capacity building that are driving the sustainability of the project because both concepts are often mis-represented and mis-used.

5.       Several of the key components of capacity building include:

·         Being detached to outcome;
·         Supporting resources, tools and skill development for empowerment of the focus community;
·         Patience to give time and opportunities for the focus community to learn, develop and practice new skills for empowerment and sustainability;
·         Creating choices and opportunities in a manner that supports dignity, and does not undermine established empowerment;
·         Developing relationships by being present;
·         Coming to agreement as a group about timelines and evaluation measures;
·         Delivering, engaging in and creating resources, skills and tools that can be left behind and continue after the interventionists are gone.

6.       This is complex and difficult work and there are no easy fixes; even listing the components implies simplicity, which would not be accurate – each component is a study within itself.

7.       We are on the right track, there are huge successes and extremely important lessons learned that we have captured, now the task is sifting through the seven years of work and sharing the stories in ways that are meaningful, replicable and sustainable.

8.       There is much left to be done. Just because we are seven years down the road and have achieved a high level of success, this is our time to continue to press forward and this class provides a great foundation to do just that.

As a group we came to consensus about tabling what to “name” ourselves. The initiative with which we have been engaged needs a more clear identity and it is hoped that through the course of this study we will be able to determine a name that best describes our work.

No big conclusion here, lots of work left to be done and yet, there are many committed, talented people prepared and ready to do so – can’t wait for next week.

Useful Group Exercise

After our lab class watched the video of Sasha Dichter about Acumen’s investment model, our group was asked to share a little about what social impact meant to us and when we had experienced/learned about it. We are a diverse group with a broad perspective of life and educational experiences and although we are all focused on the topic that drew us together, we each described our first experiences of observing social impact. Interestingly, our perspectives covered the gamut of the 3 parts of social impact; breadth, depth and focus.

From storytelling, school-based learning and the beginning stages of volunteer engagement – all of us shared what social impact meant to us and how we learned about it. I can’t wait to plot each of the experiences and stories into a chart of the 3 parts and start looking at that (I am a visual learner).

For organizations and groups that are beginning to talk about social impact; the lives reached, jobs created, the impact on the lives being served, and increases in well-being – a great “get-to-know-you” exercise is to watch the Acumen video , reflect and then share your experiences. This exercise helped me understand the framework from which each participant drew upon. Of course, the best thing you could do is to register for the class the next time it is offered, but until then – enjoy the lessons learned of those of us who are currently participating.

For me this contributed to the greatest ah-ha moment: an understanding about why it is so hard to capture the impact in one or two sentences – there are so many measures (successes) within each of the components of social impact, that coming to a common understanding and definition of the components of the framework and then charting those successes within the framework – will create a broader impact understanding; first among our group, and then the greater community.

Respectfully submitted – Kathy Stutzman, M.A., M.A.