3 Ways to Increase Impact in the Social Sector

Written by Misti Yang, Contributor for Lean Startup Co.

If Lean Startup methodologies can transform both scrappy startups and established enterprise companies, can they also make the world a better place? Ann Mei Chang, executive director of Lean Impact, Amy Ahearn, innovation manager of Acumen, and Shalu Umapathy, managing director and location lead of IDEO.org, think so, but they realize that the social sector has unique considerations.

“Whenever you are rolling out terms like experimentation in the context of these interventions that are really determining people’s quality of life, you want to be mindful that this is not just AB testing a homepage for some kind of novel product that comes out of Silicon Valley. If it’s the difference between whether or not a kid gets a high-quality education or not, you need to be a little bit more careful about the ethics of an experiment and what you’re designing for,” Amy warns.

To better understand how to overcome these and other challenges, we recently did a webcast with Amy, Ann Mei, and Shalu. Here are three tips drawn from their insights on how to use Lean and Design Thinking to create the change you want to see.  

1. Talk to the People You Want to Help

The heart of Lean Startup methodologies is a customer-centered focus, and when you are working in the social sector, your “customers” are typically the people you are trying to help. The quickest way to make a true difference for them is to go out and talk to them. “I think many programs in the past, addressing especially low-income populations, kind of said, ‘This is the answer. Do this.’ But imagine if that user then had a choice to say, ‘This is my suite of options. I have the agency to make that decision to improve my own life,’” Shalu says.  

Shalu believes that human-centered design is fundamental to creating empowering and effective solutions. “It’s about really unique ways of teasing out the difference between what people say and do and what they think and feel,” she shares. For example, when tasked with developing a program to provide access to contraceptives to young women in Kenya, her team started by creating a pop-up nail salon and inviting the women to come in and get their nails painted. The team used that time to “ask them questions about their personal lives and their boyfriends and what did they know about contraception.”

If you want to access feedback on a larger scale, Amy recommends using surveys administered through text messages, toll-free numbers where people can leave feedback, or proactive phone banks that call out to customers. She has had success conducting surveys “even in places like rural Ethiopia or Bangladesh or the Philippines where we might think it can be hard to get to those end users who are in more remote locations or village settings.”

Amy has been working to gather customer feedback for a water company in Pakistan. “We found in many cases that these are the first times that some of these customers have been asked directly for feedback on the products and services that they use. And so even if it’s via a mobile phone or an interactive voice response survey, the survey response rates are way higher than you might see in the U.S., just because being given the dignity of being asked for their perspectives on a consumer good is such a novel thing,” Amy says.

2. Measure What You Can

Just because you don’t have the money or time to develop a SMS survey that you send out to thousands of end-users doesn’t prevent you from collecting valuable feedback. “You could just step out of your office and go talk to somebody and just ask them a few questions about their experience with your product and what could you do better,” Shalu suggests.

New Story Charity, a nonprofit that builds homes in Haiti, got started by administering a 10-question survey face-to-face with people in Haiti. Drawing from this experience, Amy recommends “paring down to what are those 10 essential questions and 10 essential insights you need from your customers and always using it in the service of decision-making, not just reporting back to a funder who’s sitting millions of miles away.”

If possible, Amy also tracks what she calls the customer effort score: “Basically, it asks, ‘Did you encounter any challenges or issues while trying to use this product or service, were they resolved, and how easily did the company make it to resolve these issues or this issue?’” This is especially effective when you are introducing new technology into communities.  

3. Know the Big Picture, but Plan for the Small Wins

Solving poverty, stopping environmental degradation, improving education—these are all hard problems that take a long time to solve, so it can be difficult to determine when you’re making a difference and even harder to prove it. Amy’s advice for overcoming this challenge: “Look at the entire social system you’re trying to affect, and really develop a near star, which is kind of your short-term goals, and then a north star to orient your entire approach.” Once you know the smaller points you need to impact, then you can collect data on those points.

For example, when working with a clean water business in Kenya, Shalu’s team realized that if they could not effectively deliver the water, nothing else would matter, so their first goal was finding the best delivery method. They asked: Should it be door-to-door sales? Should it be a guy with a trolley who delivers it to doorsteps? Or should it be a kiosk in town? To determine the best solution, they ran prototypes for two weeks, and she recounts that “after two weeks of running those prototypes we were able to see quantitatively which one was more successful in terms of attracting more customers and what was the quality of the feedback that we heard from those people.”

Sometimes your first challenge may be convincing your team to work with Lean Startup or Design Thinking methodologies. To overcome objections, Amy recommends finding a free course or workshop for your team to take together. You can visit plusacumen.org or designkit.org for free and low-cost resources. And, Shalu advises, “If you feel like you don’t have the control to actually create a movement within your organization, then think about what is it that is under your control, and how do you rally people around yourself so that you can come up with one case of using Lean, or human-centered design, and how that actually shifted the outcome of something.” As with social change work, the small successes can have a big impact, so start where you can, talk to those you want to help, and measure as you go.   

To learn more about implementing Lean Startup methodologies in the social sector, join us at Lean Startup Week where Ann Mei, Amy, and Shalu will all be speaking. On November 2, Ann Mei will give a keynote talk, and Shalu will lead a panel discussion on innovation, impact, and design thinking for social good. On November 3, Amy will lead a panel discussion on using Lean data to assess social impact, and Ann Mei will lead a mini-workshop on Lean impact, overcoming barriers through Lean for social good.


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