I come from a family of soloists. So I suppose it’s natural how ingrained it feels for me to put effort into mastering my own craft – once it was the piano, but since then it’s been things like excel modeling, writing powerpoints, analysis…and then on to higher level skills like building effective relationships, strategy, storytelling, fundraising, you name it.

There comes a point, though, when the work we do, in a fundamental way, cannot be done by us alone, when the only way to make the change we seek is with others. Lots of them.

For anyone who cares deeply, like I do, about mastery, this moment requires a whole lot of letting go.

Letting go of the idea that when the chips are down it’s my job to jump in and save the day. Letting go of the simplistic connection between the task and the result. And, perhaps most counterintuitively, letting go of the idea that there’s a most qualified someone to do each something. There might be, but since we are playing a long-term game, the question to ask isn’t “who can do this best today?” but rather “who on the team should take this on so that our ensemble can get the best results in the long run based on everything that lies before us?”

Yes, every cellist needs to play in tune, to be able to read the music and nail the arpeggios. But an orchestra is not just a collection of soloists. And there’s a reason the conductor, who plays no instrument at all, stands at the front of the room.

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The humanity ante

The “ante” in poker is a bet that every player has to make before the hand is played. Before the cards are dealt, each player puts some money on the table – usually a small amount – and this makes it harder to fold one’s cards and walk away. The ante puts everyone a little bit on the hook for each and every hand.

In some games, it’s customary for the ante (called the “blinds”) to rise as time passes. Late in the evening, the blinds get big enough that they change the character of the game: players have to pull out a whole new set of tactics and strategies when the blinds are huge.

A similar dynamic is at play when two people sit down across the table for a first conversation – or for their first important conversation. While the rules of this game aren’t as explicit, there’s an ante that each player puts on the table from the outset. This is an emotional ante, a statement of how human you’re going to be in this conversation and in this relationship. You can see the first glimpse of this ante as the players answer questions like “how are things going?” and “what’s been happening on your end?”  The true question you’re answering is: “how real are you going to be?”

I’ve increasingly found that most people will match the humanity ante I’m willing to put on the table. Hold my cards close and they will too. Be willing to take some risk, to show my own humanity – in the form of being willing to share my challenges or flaws, my dreams or my frustrations – and they will also.

This is basically the opposite of what we’re taught in big institutions. These institutions exert a strong socializing power that slowly and deliberately beats the humanity out of us. The message is: be as un-human as possible, because that’s what it means to be a professional. (This is the same reason the emails from these institutions are so unreadable).

Part of what we have to remember is that to do anything that matters we must dare to do emotional labor. And for us to do that emotional labor together, the first step is that we show up as full human beings.

Ante up.

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Lean Data: Closing the Gap Between Entrepreneurs and their Customers

This post originally appeared on Acumen Ideas, our new channel on Medium.com.  If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of impact measurement, be one of the first to sign up for Acumen’s new Impact Matters e-newsletter that will come out monthly.  You’ll get great content at the cutting edge of impact measurement, and we’ll also make sure let you know when our full piece on Lean Data comes out in Stanford Social Innovation Review this winter.

In 2006, Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun set out to eradicate kerosene as a source of light in the developing world. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, Sam witnessed the damage kerosene could do when an overturned lantern created a fire that nearly killed his neighbor’s son. They also saw what a scourge the dirty fuel was for poor, rural families without access to energy, eating up 15 percent of their spending.

Sam and Ned decided to start d.light design, a social enterprise that would solve this problem once and for all. With funding from Acumen and others, d.light set out to create a business providing low-cost solar lanterns to poor customers. Since then, the company has sold tens of millions of solar-powered lights across more than 40 countries.

So is d.light a success? By one measure, absolutely. They are seeing demand for their product and on track to reach 100 million customers by 2020. That’s nearly 10 percent of the more than 1.3 billion people globally without access to electricity. But for entrepreneurs like Sam and Ned — and all of us at Acumen with a mission to make a real dent in poverty — just reaching a large number of people isn’t good enough.

At Acumen, we’ve spent the last 15 years investing in social enterprises that provide critical goods and services to the poor. We invest in these businesses because they are hard-wired to reach large numbers of people: when a social enterprise gets its model right, it will reach more people per dollar funded than traditional aid or philanthropy.

But while it makes us proud to say we’ve helped a million people acquire a reliable solar light or 10,000 women give birth in a high-quality, low-cost hospital, we need more than just big numbers to tell us if we are actually changing people’s lives.

How can we know if we are making a real difference?

Over the last 10 years, impact investing has attracted lots of attention and dollars. Thanks to the success of d.light and other ventures like it, today there are hundreds of impact investors putting their money behind companies that aim to deliver a social and financial return.

Despite this growth, impact investors have done a terrible job of analyzing whether or not these enterprises are creating meaningful social impact.

For example, in June, the Global Impact Investing Network and Cambridge Associates published the Impact Investing Benchmark, the first comprehensive analysis of the performance of impact investors. The report does an outstanding job of analyzing the financial results of impact investing funds, but it says virtually nothing about social performance. That’s a problem.

You’d assume impact investors must be good at measuring social impact. How else could we call ourselves “impact” investors? Not surprisingly, 95 percent of impact investors say they measure impact.  But, if you scratch the surface, you’ll discover their definition of impact is mostly limited to big, flashy numbers: number of farmers using an improved kind of seed, number of kids attending school or, as in the case of d.light, number of lights sold.

This is a start, but it’s not good enough. Typical impact investors may know how many farmers a company has reached, but they don’t have a clue if these farmers are better off. They may know how many kids attend schools, but they can’t tell you if the students are from low-income communities or just transplants from the private school down the street. They may know how many households bought a new solar lantern, but they don’t understand if the children in these homes are still dying from kerosene fires.

There’s a good reason impact investors have been falling short :  the existing tools for measuring social impact are nearly useless to a social entrepreneur.

These tools, mostly inherited from large-scale, international development organizations, are cumbersome, expensive and typically take a matter of months or even years to produce any real data. For a cash-strapped, resource-constrained social entrepreneur trying to build a fledgling business in tough, emerging markets, these tools don’t make sense.

The good news is, we have an opportunity to change this. Unlike five or 10 years ago, the majority of the 2.5 billion people living in poverty now have access to a cellphone and, in another five years, virtually everyone will be reachable by phone or SMS. At Acumen, we’ve developed a new approach to impact measurement that takes advantage of this shift. Our approach is optimized for entrepreneurs building social enterprises in the developing world, and it capitalizes on today’s information revolution to gather data directly from low-income customers. Our goal is to use this infrastructure to understand our social impact and better serve the poor. We call this approach Lean Data.

Unlike traditional impact measurement, Lean Data is designed to quickly and affordably generate quality customer insights that can immediately drive entrepreneurs’ decisions.

It reframes impact measurement as customer feedback by applying Lean Startup experimentation principles to the collection and use of social impact data. While Lean Startup aims to understand product-market fit with questions like “Do you like this product?” and “Will you buy this product?,” Lean Data goes a step further by working to understand how a purchased product is — or is not — changing a customer’s life.

By asking questions via mobile phones and other existing customer touchpoints (such as a salesperson’s visit to a customer’s home or a company’s call center), Lean Data allows enterprises to get social performance data in a matter of weeks and at a fraction of the cost of traditional measurement approaches.

In the last year, Acumen has helped 12 of our companies measure their social performance by surveying more than 5,000 customers across seven countries. Each of these projects took weeks, not months, and cost thousands, not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

Here’s how.

Lean Data leverages technology, so enterprises can communicate directly with their customers. It is now possible to get reliable, meaningful data directly from low-income customers either through calls or SMS messages. For example, we worked with Ziqitza, a healthcare company that provides low-cost emergency services in India to understand what percentage of its customers in Orissa and Punjab live below the local poverty line. Our results showed that 75 percent of customers live on less than $2.50 a day. In another case, we worked with Juhudi Kilimo, a microfinance enterprise servicing smallholder farmers in Kenya, to measure its social performance using a 10-question SMS survey. The survey showed that the loans Juhudi Kilimo provided to purchase dairy cows are helping farmers see an increase in milk yields of 60 percent.

Lean Data puts the customer first, not the investor. As an investor in social enterprises, Acumen needs impact data to manage its own performance. But we believe social enterprises should first and foremost be accountable “downward” to their customers before worrying about “upward” accountability to their funders. Social enterprises set out to solve meaningful problems for their customers, and they should only systematically collect impact data if that information helps them understand how their products or services are making a difference in their customers’ lives. The information should also be shared “upward” with funders, but that cannot be the primary reason for collecting data.

Lean Data gets underneath not just the “what” but also the “why” of product-market fit. Lean Startup principles focus on product-market fit: is there a demand for a new product in a given customer set? How satisfied are customers with the new product? Social enterprises can take this a step further, asking not just whether there is product-market fit, but why that fit exists. This is the first step towards understanding impact. When we discover why products are purchased, how well or often they are being used, and which problems they solve or fail to solve — like improved productivity, increases in household savings or fewer sick days — we empower customers to articulate what impact means to them. This kind of insight is invaluable to entrepreneurs looking to drive lifetime value, customer loyalty and social impact.

We’ve been developing Lean Data for a little more than a year and, while it is still in its early days, we see huge promise.

If we can give more entrepreneurs like Sam and Ned the right tools to understand their social impact and hear from their customers, they will, for the first time, have actionable data that can tell them, in real time, how to improve their products and create meaningful change.

The truth of this work is that the big, glossy numbers allow us to sing our own praises and raise more money, but they do little to help us improve the lives of the people we aim to serve. It’s time to dig deeper, to use technology to talk directly to our customers, so that our work can realize its full potential.

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Halfway to the Wall

Last week I gave my middle-school-aged son my old iPhone 5s (his first cell phone) and got a new iPhone 6s. The new phone is sleeker, sexier, more fun to hold and interact with, and the battery lasts all day long.

Fundamentally, though, it’s no better than my iPhone 5s.  There’s nothing important that I can do now that I couldn’t do before, and all of the improvements are at best pleasing refinements on something that already worked really well.

Reflecting on that, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve ever made a $750 purchase so blithely (paying $34/month takes the sting out), nor can I think of a time that I’ve spent this much on a product that I enjoyed so much and that delivers so little additional value.

Thinking about this, I began to reflect on how quickly the iPhone has run out of runway. Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007. This means that it’s taken eight years to go from revolution to marginal improvement in the most revolutionary product to hit the world since the TV. Eight years.

The iPhone is one of a zillion products that’s running out of space to get any better. Our razor blades can have only so many blades, our TVs only so many pixels, our knives can’t get any sharper, and we can’t execute stock trades any faster.

It’s true that there are some places where we are leveraging the power of global capitalism in ways that will drive global change for everyone – and not just for the richest billion or two. The iPhone revolution will reach the poorer parts of the developing world in the next five year – another 2.5 billion will have smartphones by 2020 – and that could be transformative. Tesla’s investment in batteries has the potential to transform how power is being delivered to the three billion people who don’t have access to reliable electricity.

But we’re not eight years away from solving the vaccine cold chain problem. Or from figuring out how to educate the next billion kids who live nowhere near a qualified teacher. Or from reversing global warming. By 2023, the new Global Goals notwithstanding, we won’t feel ho-hum about yet another primary care hospital chain that can deliver quality care at 1/100th of what it costs today; we won’t feel that the market is saturated with drought-resistant seeds that ensure that a billion smallholder farming families don’t go hungry; and we won’t be saying that we don’t need new ideas for making slums into dignified, safe place to live, because they’ve become so dignified and safe.

Part of the reason this won’t happen is because some of these problems are fundamentally more complex than the purely technical challenge of building a better battery or, even, revolutionizing mobile computing. But it increasingly feels to me that our real limitation comes from funneling the vast majority of the world’s time, talent and resources into solving problems that, increasingly, don’t matter all that much for improving human well-being.

What I wonder most of all is whether there is a shift coming – and, if so, when.

By 2030 will we have a collective awakening that causes us to say “wow, we really can’t create more value with the next best app, but getting another billion people safe, clean, affordable power [or whatever else is truly needed] is an opportunity worth a trillion dollars of investment?”

If not by 2030, what about 2050? 2070 anyone?

At some point, do we hit an inflection point where we say, “all of these toys are great, but we’re through putting all of our energy into getting halfway to the wall?”

And, if we’ll arrive at that inflection point someday, the next question to ask is: what will it take to make that day come sooner?

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It’s all personal

You can read every webpage about every foundation’s strategy.

You can scour CSR reports to see about a company’s social priorities.

You can analyze an individual’s past giving and the boards they serve on to understand their philanthropic priorities.

That all will help, but don’t be fool yourself.

Philanthropy is and always will be personal, deeply personal. There’s no such thing as the best place to give a donation, and there is no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer.

This is why all the best philanthropists have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, and, and and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping score, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO, not by a long shot).

Posted in philanthropy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Here’s what you’ve been able to do

The Citibike app has a nice new feature, a pull-down menu that shows information on your latest ride and on your cumulative rides.*

It’s pretty cool to see that I’ve done 613 rides for 113 hours, covering nearly 700 miles. I never would have known that, and this helps me see the impact of Citibike on my life and my health in a new way.Citibike_IMG_4550So often when we engage with donors it’s about the next thing they could do if they give again. Most organizations miss opportunities to thank and honor people, and more still forget to make it easy for people to see the cumulative effect of their giving – what it all adds up to.

“Here is how much you have given, and here is what has been possible because of that.”

When we share that cumulative effect with others, we empower them to see how important they have been. And they’ll be much less willing to let go of that feeling, of their connection to your organization, once they understand what it all adds up to.


*P.S. Dear Citibike, the distances calculated seem about 30% less than the figures from Google maps.  That 1.7 mile ride (above) is apparently 2.4 miles long.  Just goes to show, once you start sharing this kind of data, people care about it a lot.

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The $30 million question

I’ve just heard a story of a major nonprofit organization that receives tens of millions of dollars annually from a single donor – around half of its operating budget – but is laying off staff because they don’t have enough unrestricted operating cash.

Again, Dan Pallotta’s awesome TED talk notwithstanding, we find ourselves having the same conversation, one that boils down to: is it a wasteful to pay nonprofit professionals to do their jobs well?

I wonder if it is we in the nonprofit space who need more guts when we take on this question. Maybe it’s time to say something along the lines of, “if you want your money to go directly into the hands of very poor people who need it, you should do just that and give to Give Directly.” GiveDirectly is optimized for this, they are efficient and transparent in their operations, they rigorously study their results, and they’ve shown the effectiveness of direct cash transfers for creating both short- and long-term improvements in people’s lives. It’s a completely legitimate way to help others, and it’s a great benchmark against which to measure our work.

“Or,” we should have the courage to continue, “you can have the point of view that the programmatic work that we’re doing is better than giving cash.” “Better” can be because it does different things (fights corruption); “better” can be because the impact of giving a dollar is more than $1 (investing in a scalable social business); “better” can be because of long-term return on investing that’s higher than the social return on giving cash (supporting a child’s education).

“But,” we should be sure to say, “if you believe that the IT that we do matters, if you believe that there is something real that we are bringing to the table that goes above and beyond your money ending up in the hands of someone who will benefit from it, then you’re saying that our judgment, our relationships, our expertise, our capacity for oversight, and our ability to create leverage for each dollar you give is real. This means that you trust this judgement and our expertise. So please give in a way that respects that judgment and expertise, or don’t give at all.”

Our homework is to really look in the mirror and evaluate why what we’re doing is, in fact, better than the money going directly to our beneficiaries. And, once we’ve sorted that out, we must have the courage to make that case and the willingness to look someone in the eye and say, “if you don’t believe this, then you shouldn’t give to us in the first place.”

Posted in fundraising | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment