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A Better Place: Contemplating systems change in place based work

What does it take to trigger systemic changes that can improve quality of life in a community? One suggestion that emerged from the Better Place convening in San Diego earlier this month was the idea of novelty: we need a novel idea and then opportunities to test it, discover its value, and take it to scale.

But where do novel ideas come from? And how do you know which novel idea is worth trying – will be the right one to solve the problems you’re trying to solve, to get to the outcomes you’re trying to achieve?

Better Place 1

Novel ideas might emerge from listening to and working with communities. Not only can community members describe what does and doesn’t work in their communities, they can help you diagnose the problem in ways that surface new opportunities. But this doesn’t happen from a focus group or a one-time community meeting. It takes sustained, meaningful partnerships to move from hearing about the impact of the system on communities to surfacing novel ways of solving the problems.

Novel ideas might also emerge from outside the community, or from community members who have had experiences in other places. Sometimes community members and systems leaders are all so embedded in the current systems it can be hard to see where change is possible. Having an outside approach, another city’s successes, a new framework brought to the table by a credible participant in the process can trigger a novel idea.

Novel ideas might emerge from failures as well. A systems change attempt that did not get adopted might trigger thinking about what could be adopted. Alternatively, a systems change that was adopted, but did not achieve the desired outcomes, might inspire new thinking about what it will take to get to the outcomes.

These are all things evaluation can help with: creating space to work with, and learn from, communities; bringing in insights from other places; and learning from failure. Evaluation can also be a partner in assessing the potential of a novel idea to solve the problem.

Better Place 2Not every systems change idea is worth adopting; in fact most ideas are probably not worth pursuing. But how can you tell when your novel idea is the right idea – when it can meaningfully improve outcomes for your community in the ways you care about?

  • You can look at the data and make sure that the novel idea directly addresses the things the data tell you are the drivers of the problem. Of course, data can’t tell you the solution that will address those drivers, unless someone is already piloting a similar solution in your community.
  • You can look at what has happened in other communities around the country, looking for similar examples in similar contexts to see how it played out.
  • You can work with community members to vet options and explore scenarios of what will happen if the policy is adopted and how the community will look different.

Or, ideally, you can do all three together, using data and examples from other communities to inform a community dialogue around the options and generate scenarios of what will happen if the policy is adopted. Once again, evaluation can be a powerful partner in all three of these steps to designing the best systemic changes.

Getting to a better place is not something anyone can do alone, but one of my biggest takeaways from the Better Place convening was the many stakeholders who believe in the potential of evaluators to be partners at the table, helping to shape the change by bringing data and evaluation to the table as decision-making tools. Each partner in a systems change effort has to contribute in a meaningful way and evaluators have contributions to make as partners in getting to meaningful changes, not neutral judges of what worked and what didn’t.

Are you an evaluator who is trying to shift from a traditional evaluation role to being a partner at the table? Check out our Developmental Evaluation Toolkit for some tips and processes to make it easier to adopt the new role.

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Scaling Change: Market Forces are Part of the Solution

LeverageI’ve been thinking about this issue of how to scale social innovation a lot lately. When I was at the D.C. Presidio Fellowship week, we talked with the Social Innovation Fund. Their focus is on mobilizing public and private resources to find and grow the best community solutions. They identify evidence-based strategies that can make a difference on issues like economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development and then fund those innovators to do a lot more of the same.  The Fund is a great model for leveraging the private sector with the public sector to scale change. It builds on what the non-profit sector has always done, focusing on services and supports that are working, and adds the actively engagement of the private sector as part of the solution.

I really appreciate their recognition of the important role the private sector. This recognition is growing – there are an increasing number of models for how public/private partnerships can solve some of the most pressing social issues. For example, the Omidyar Network  invests in a combination of for-profit and non-profit ventures that together can help solve complex problems, like government transparency and financial inclusion, throughout the world. One of their approaches is to combine funding with technical support for the early stages of innovative market solutions, helping expand the scale of social entrepreneurships.

For me, one of the more exciting examples of private sector investment in social change and evidence of the tremendous scaling potential of engaging corporations comes from PepsiCo’s recent work with the Clinton Global Initiative.  They took the following inputs:

PepsiCo’s juice products in India + Clinton Global Initiative’s capacity + small cashew farmers living below the poverty line + highly nutritional cashew fruits + modern agricultural techniques

and created:

A value-added supply chain of over 2,000 small farmers (soon to be over 15,000) who previously could only sell the cashew nut, but are now able to efficiently grow and sell the fruit to PepsiCo where it is used to increase the nutritional value of existing juice products.

CashewTalk about a win-win. It made me want to fly to India to try one of the juices!

The takeaway from this great public/private partnership is to remember that the for-profit sector is built around the concept of scaling in a way the public and non-profit sector just isn’t. We need to leverage that! Businesses seek growth – new markets, new customers, new products. That means they have an ever expanding reach and when we can work with businesses to balance profit with social good, what we care about can grow along with their bottom line.

Next time we start a social change strategy, I propose we start asking questions from day one to help us identify the for-profit partners who have a business reason to be part of the change:

  • Who is already making profit related to the issue we care about and how do they make it?
  • What changes to current for-profit models could change outcomes on this social issue?  Who would benefit from thosePPP changes? How small of a change would make a difference?
  • Where is there potential for profit not yet tapped by anyone?

Just like any other type of social change, engaging a for-profit in a market-based solution to the problem may benefit from starting small and piloting the change. But once you can demonstrate the bottom line benefit, both in profit and in social good, just imagine the scaling potential!

Want more resources on scaling?  Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s special supplement on scaling.