Jerry and Monique Sternin are modern-day heroes who should get way more recognition than they do. 

The Sternins (Jerry is now deceased) developed the concept of positive deviance in the early 1990s, when they were both at Tufts, and spent their lives clarifying how people passionate about large-scale, sustainable social change might put it to work.

Practitioners of positive deviance look for existing solutions to massive social problems – solutions that are already in use by people (“positive deviants”) affected by the very problem to be addressed.  Because these solutions have been devised and put to use by ordinary people with access to no special resources, they are demonstrably sustainable.

In this TEDx talk in October 2013, Monique Sternin uttered these thrilling words (in paraphrase):  “Solutions to intractable problems already exist, and they have been devised by the least likely to succeed: ordinary people, without special resources.”

A hallmark of the positive deviance approach is that it is entirely community-driven.  Change agents do not come from outside, on high, to deliver solutions.  PD methodology maximizes both sustainability and human dignity by relying on local knowledge to uncover local solutions.  One of the most compelling articulations of this principle is, “Don’t do anything about me without me.”

As outlined in the Basic Field Guide to the Positive Deviance Approach, PD methodology consists of five basic steps, all carried out and owned by members of the community:

1. Define the problem, current perceived causes, challenges and constraints, common practices, and desired outcomes.

2. Determine the presence of PD individuals or groups.

3. Discover uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies through inquiry and observation.

4. Design activities to allow community members to practice the discovered behaviors.

5. Monitor and evaluate the resulting project or initiative which further fuels change by documenting and sharing improvements as they occur, and help the community discern the effectiveness of the initiative.

The Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI) provides training, technical assistance, meetings, and an on-line community of people implementing the positive deviance approach.  Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tina Rosenberg has written recently about Positive Deviance in the New York Times, providing some well-deserved attention that might help PDI gain traction.

Are you using PDI methodology yourself?  Are you intrigued about how your practice might change if you did?  I am eager to hear your thoughts on the matter!

I’m not politically in synch with Arthur C. Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, but I loved his March 29, 2014, Op-Ed in the New York Times, “Why Fund-Raising Is Fun.”  Brooks draws on social science research like this 2008 article in Science magazine, which argues that we are made happier by giving money and time to others than by spending money on ourselves.  Giving to others raises our well-being in part because it enhances what social psychologist Albert Bandura has termed “self-efficacy,” the belief that our actions can make a desirable difference in the world.  By giving more of ourselves, Brooks posits, we  might even enrich ourselves materially as well as emotionally, since enhanced self-efficacy can lead to more focused and effective actions in other spheres.  Potential donors – ourselves included – possess three assets that are often disconnected:  money, time, and convictions.  By helping  people bring those assets together and contribute to a cherished cause, fund-raisers spur “an alchemy of virtue,” in Brooks’s elegant phrase. 

Does Brooks’s analysis ring true to your own experience as a donor?  Does your development staff find Brooks’s insights inspirational?  I hope you’ll let me know.

If you have been working in the non-profit sector for more than a couple of years, you have probably heard the parable about the starfish on the beach:  A pair of colleagues is walking along a beach that is littered with thousands of stranded starfish, gasping for water.  One of the colleagues is shocked into immobility; the other one, as they stroll, reaches down and picks up one starfish at a time and casts it back into the sea.  “Why are you doing that?” asks the despairing one.  “It doesn’t make any difference in the long run.”  “Well,” says the optimist, reaching for another starfish, “it makes a big difference for this one.” 

This parable is typically told during conference keynotes to boost the spirits of non-profit employees who have peered up over the edge of their trench and taken in the full scope of the problem they’ve chosen to tackle.  “Every little bit helps,” the parable says.  “Every life matters.  It is OK to count your victories in single digits.  Your impact ripples outward.” 

All of these assurances are valid.  But so is the perception that many of the vast social problems identified by non-profits require much more sophisticated solutions than non-profits working in isolation, or even in small collaborative groups, can provide.  Making a durable difference in complex social problems like income and educational inequality, world hunger and thirst, child and spousal maltreatment, and others requires a coordinated systemic approach involving non-profits, governments, businesses, foundations, and the public. 

John Kania and Mark Kramer, co-founders of the non-profit consulting group, FSG, call the result of such collaboration “collective impact.” 

They know, and you know, that such collaboration is extremely difficult to achieve.  (You might well be thinking that just coordinating your internal operations might be a feat beyond your current capacities.  I can help with that.)  But Kania and Kramer observe that complex coordination to achieve collective impact “doesn’t happen often, not because it is impossible, but because it is so rarely attempted.”

Their seminal article on the subject, “Collective Impact,” was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) in Winter 2011.  Among other major points, it lays out the five conditions necessary for the success of collective impact efforts:  a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.

This article is a must-read for leaders in any sector who are driven to effect big change in complex social problems. The initial article leads to several more, including critical work on catalytic philanthropy. 

Another article, “Embracing Emergence:  How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity,” delves further into thinking about how lessons learned in the process of implementation can and should inform ongoing planning and evaluation. 

I am eager to hear your thoughts about FSG’s work on collective impact:  if you have direct experience with collective impact efforts, or are now fired up to explore the possibility, or want to defend the value of tossing starfish one at a time back into the sea, please be in touch.