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Stanford Social Innovation Review – Frontiers of Social Innovation Forum

Esteban Guerrero
Jun 13 2016

The Stanford Social Innovation Review’s inaugural leadership forum, Frontiers of Social Innovation, took place on May 3-5, 2016.  Leaders from domestic and global NGO’s, foundations, academia, and business convened at Stanford to discuss ways to close the social and economic inequity gap, in addition to or in lieu of current endeavors.

The answer that emerged from most of the presentations and discussions, in sum, seems rather straightforward:  design interventions whose richness can better match the complexity of the problem at hand.  However, translating this overarching strategy into executable plans will be key.  After the thought-provoking three days, the messages from the key speakers can be summed up into a three-step approach:  design the right solutions, invest more, and invest better.

Designing the right solution in each case implies that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for all cases; “no silver bullet,” said Asif Saleh, Senior Director of Strategy at BRAC (one of the world’s largest development NGOs, in operation for over 40 years).  In his experience, the development sector “suffers from oversimplification,” because it seems to want to treat the poor all the same, when they are not. And, perhaps more interestingly, he highlights the fact that middle-income countries have greater poor populations than poor countries.

Coincidentally, Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale University and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action and ImpactMatters, presented evidence that microfinance is one of these square peg solutions that has been tried so hard to put into countless round holes, with mixed and even negative outcomes.  And Zia Khan, VP for Initiative and Strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation, spoke of the importance of adjusting expectations:  we may be able to design the “gold standard” solution, but after vetting with the target community, on-the-ground experts, and others, we may have to accept the “bronze standard” version and implement that.

Angela Glover Blackwell, president and CEO of PolicyLink, then urged society and funders to invest more.  “We’re so worried about keeping our slice of the pie that we forget about investing” in helping everyone grow, so that “all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.”  She went on to argue that, if we are not going to help others for moral reasons, we should do it for selfish reasons:  “Solve the problems of the most vulnerable, and we all benefit,” because once a problem becomes pervasive in society, it will reach higher social strata and it will be much harder to eradicate.

The third step in this overall strategy, invest better, was a message that was reinforced by several speakers who recommended we measure impact, collect evidence for better decision-making, and make NGOs and Foundations accountable.  Dean Karlan simplified this with two questions:  Donors ask themselves, “How do I find nonprofits that use and produce appropriate evidence of impact?” And nonprofits ask themselves, “How can we use evidence to establish impact and guide our decisions?”

Saleh reminded us that neither the public nor the private sector is all good or all bad.  The reality is, we need both.  Government can broker novel alliances, such as those around pay-for-success co-funding schemes.  Policy and partnerships can help create “pathways—steady, one-way to the middle class,” Blackwell said.

The goal of lifting people out of poverty is a noble one.  How we go about it is what makes the difference.  How do we “unwind the system?” The Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker wondered. “You should be asking us why we’re doing so little to improve,” he urged the audience.  Being more deliberate by carefully designing the right solutions for the right circumstances (including the right dose of policy), investing more in those who need it more, and investing better through evidence-based decision-making may be a more effective ways to improve.



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