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.

A lot of what you do as a nonprofit leader (let’s face it – most of what you do) is highly complex and labor-intensive.  But here’s a great opportunity to do good in your sleep:  divest your organization’s assets from fossil-fuel interests, and invest them in green energy development.  Those leading this effort compare it – accurately, I think – to the high-impact campaign 30 years ago to divest in companies that helped sustain apartheid in South Africa.

This terrific article in the Huffington Post by Divest-Invest leaders Ellen Dorsey and Richard Mott, of the Wallace Global Fund, provides an excellent overview of the initiative’s brief history (begun in 2011 by university students disillusioned by governmental inaction, then given a big boost by environmentalist Bill McKibben), and addressing a few of the common anti-divestment arguments.

A few sentences that jump out at me: 

“No mission-driven or cause-based organization should hold positions in industries that pose a direct threat to its mission or to the public good.”

And –

“The claim that prudent financial management somehow trumps impact on mission is not just wrong on the facts, it stands the notion of fiduciary duty on its head, putting profit over values.”

But, the authors point out, you need not sacrifice performance to go green:  “The best analyses we have seen, in backcast studies by Impax, Aperio Group, and Boston Common Asset Management, all show essentially zero risk in being out of the top 200 fossil fuel companies.”

Indeed, there is a widespread belief (reportedly a hot topic of discussion at Davos last week) that fossil fuels are overvalued, so staying in fossil fuels might represent a significant risk.   

Governments are clearly not going to provide the trillion or so dollars annually required to transform global green energy options anytime soon.  But philanthropies, non-profits, and others, concertedly shifting assets away from fossil fuels and into green energy initiatives could have a huge impact – comparable, perhaps, to helping end apartheid.

I hope you’ll read Dorsey and Mott’s article, continue on to the Divest-Invest website, and give some serious thought to your organization’s portfolio.  Although these authors are addressing leaders of foundations with hundreds of millions of dollars under management – far, far more than most of us non-profit leaders – every little bit helps.  As you know, the ocean is just a zillion drops of water. 

I hope you’ll let me know what you think and do in response to this exciting call to action.

It can be tough for leaders of smaller organizations and initiatives to find exactly the right resources at the right time.  You don’t want to waste time developing and launching programs without a good chance of success, but finding reliable data about best practices can be difficult.  MDRC is an essential source of usable research if your area is any of these:

·         P-12 education.
·         higher education.
·         youth who have disconnected from the educational system.
·         low-income families.
·         families or individuals struggling with income insecurity.
·         ill health and disabilities that isolate people.

MDRC (originally Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, but now simply MDRC) was founded in 1974 by the Ford Foundation and several federal agencies.  In the last 40 years it has built to 250 employees in New York and Oakland, California, in partnership with several foundations, universities, and federal agencies.  MDRC’s tagline is “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy,” and there is no better source of high-quality research on the issues listed above. 

If you’re launching, assessing, or tweaking an initiative in any of these areas, I encourage you to explore MDRC’s large library of free publications to see if they can offer knowledge valuable for you. I hope you'll let me know if you find resources you can use.
A recent article in The Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) could spark a healthy revolution if enough people put its principles into practice.  “Social Innovation from the Inside Out,” by long-time social change practitioners Warren Nilsson and Tana Paddock, takes on the thorny question of what makes some organizations better than others at social innovation. 

Although many scholars and practitioners focus on expanding networks to maximize leverage, Paddock and Nilsson focus on internal dynamics – “inscaping,” they call it, with a nod to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.  By “inscaping,” they mean paying close attention to intra-personal and interpersonal experience within the organization. 

The authors write, “When we’re trying to wrestle with the large and complex issues ‘out there,’ why would it help to dwell on the relatively small issues “in here”? Part of the answer may be that, in the end, there is no ‘out there.’ The cultural, economic, technological, and moral complexities that social innovators confront don’t respect organizational boundaries.   . . .  They are in the room.”

This simple observation is brilliant.  Clearly, there’s no escaping the personal at work; but how many organizations actively consider, respect, and incorporate the personal experience of their members? 

Paddock and Nilsson distinguish between work inscaping, which involves frankly exploring the personal experience of day-to-day work, and life inscaping, which involves sharing aspects of life outside of work.  They note that some organizations are very good at one or the other (many are good at neither), but that the transformative organization is good at both. 

Obviously, being good at either or both of these forms of inscaping might require considerable organizational change.  Happily, Paddock and Nilsson offer some very concrete strategies for beginning that change.  These include “role hacking” (switching roles for a day or two), encouraging divergent opinion and thought, personalizing feedback, and eliciting personal responses when planning or evaluating programs– not just emotions, but insights, doubts, and hunches.

Two important points of clarification:  “inscaping” is not group therapy, and it’s not a management-driven, top-down exercise.  It must be organization-wide to be effective.

What do you think?  Can you see your organization embarking on a process to enhance work and life inscaping?  How would you start? 

I’d love to discuss it with you.  Be in touch!

I found this thought-provoking article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR):  “The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector.”  The authors, Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone, talk with many non-profit leaders who are leery about branding (Are most?  Are you?), and find in the leaders’ reservations four important points of pride:  in mission, participatory planning, organizational values, and supportive partnerships. 

Homing in on these distinctive sources of pride, Kylander and Stone develop a concept of brand tailored to the nonprofit sector.  Their acronym, IDEA, stands for brand integrity, brand democracy, brand ethics, and brand affinity.  In short, in the authors’ words:

Brand integrity means that the organization’s internal identity is aligned with its external image and that both are aligned with the mission. 

Brand democracy means that the organization trusts its members, staff, participants, and volunteers to communicate their own understanding of the organization’s core identity.

Brand ethics means that the brand itself and the way it is deployed reflect the core values of the organization.

Brand affinity means that the brand is a good team player, working well alongside other brands, sharing space and credit generously, and promoting collective over individual interests. 

Kylander and Stone, faculty at Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, use major global nonprofits like Amnesty International, the American Red Cross, and the World Wildlife Fund as examples in their discussion.  Chances are excellent (in fact, I’d bet the house) that you are not a leader in a multi-national nonprofit.   More likely, you’re leading one of the hundreds of thousands of small- to mid-sized nonprofits that make up the vast bulk of the sector.  But Kylander and Stone’s insights apply to your organization as well. 

What do you think about branding?  Is your brand robust?  Does it meet IDEA criteria?  Let me know what you’re thinking!