Lessons Learned: Rethinking Programs in the Social Sector

Angela is a 2nd year Masters of Public Administration student at NYU's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, specializing in International Development and Policy. Steve Blank's Lean Launchpad course is a 5-day intensive course that allows teams of students gain real world experience in how to turn an idea into a business. 

When I was in middle school, my mother had an entire backyard devoted to gardening. Having read somewhere that plants grew faster and benefited when coffee was added to the soil, I wholeheartedly believed I could not only transform our backyard but also become rich with this new discovery. Secretly, I dissolved caffeine tablets into water and sprinkled it all over our backyard and measured the progress over the following weeks. Despite my avid plans to transform the fertilizing industry at a young age, caffeine actually stunted the growth of all plants. By the third week, the once eclectic collection of bright flowers and plants turned brownish, and they all eventually withered away.

While disheartened about the results, the experience taught me an important lesson. It also happens to be the same lesson in Steve Blank’s 5-Day Lean Launchpad course for aspiring entrepreneurs.

An idea is just an idea, until it is redefined as a series of hypotheses to be tested on the field. You may have a great idea, but not all ideas are businesses.

My teammate and I spent five days with Steve and the incredible teaching staff at the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute going through the customer discovery process to refine our venture idea. The experience taught me a lot about the process and the importance of reengineering your business model canvas with each new insight you hear from your actual customer. Only when you’re knee deep in the trenches of the identified problem can you actually translate your customers’ needs into real value propositions. In retrospect, the lesson learned almost makes me laugh and say, “Well, duh! How did you not realize that before?”

My key takeaway was this: The Lean Launchpad method for startups teaches lessons that translate into creating real impact in the social sector, more specifically designing new intervention programs in the developing world.

For a long time, program managers adopted a methodology with frameworks that provides detailed plans of evaluation metrics along every step towards social good — similarly to a business plan. Then they requested funding with the great assumption that the problem, and proposed solution, would properly mesh to create large-scale sustainable impact. Yet at the end of the day, after spending a lot of cash on these programs, how confident are we that they have moved beyond mere hype and towards a real potential for impact? Creating a successful program is an evolutionary process. It involves iteratively building, testing, and searching for insights to preserve donor cash and eliminate time wasted on offering solutions that our beneficiaries, quite frankly, don’t want.

Lake Turkana, Kenya

A few years ago, a project called "The Lake Turkana Fishing Plant" in Kenya was funded by a Norwegian development agency in an attempt to provide jobs for unemployed Kenyans through the creation of a $22 million fish freezing & processing plant. However, the project proposal was weak: it lacked a clear definition of the problem and metrics to evaluate success, had a too broad of a scope, and demonstrated little understanding of the local communities. The “impact” the project claimed it would achieve were based on numerous predictions made with insufficient data.

Perhaps more unsettling is that this request for funding was approved. Not surprisingly, the project fell short of achieving any one goal because it had failed to ask one critical question: Do Kenyans living in this region even fish? Well, it turns out that they didn't. These particular Kenyans had no history of fishing or even eating fish. Also, the Turkana region particularly faced barriers with reliable electricity. The plant ran on generators for most of the time, creating extremely high costs to operate. The plant quickly shut down.

Of course, this agency advocated for this project: Unemployment is a problem in less developed countries, and we can uncover opportunities with untapped resources in the region - fishing. There was a logic that preceded their proposal. However, the concern is not the logic itself, but the assumption that the logic would hold true at any place and point in time. Of course, this project’s failure isn’t to be condemned and can be used as a fulcrum for learning. But how many times do we need to learn this the hard way? We cannot create high-impact programs based on educated guesses.

What’s alarming is that this case is representative of a broader set of issues prevalent today. Organizations, social entrepreneurs, and even governments, as well-intentioned as they may be, hastily make decisions on where and how to deploy resources based on a series of untested claims they've made about beneficiaries and their environments. Perhaps the wiser action to take before attempting to sell our solution is to understand that not every piece of intervention fits every situation we’ll encounter, nor will it work.

We cannot devise a solution until we have a good grasp of the scope of the problem, the contributing and mitigating factors, and the historical/social context of our beneficiaries; all of which are critical information that will only be revealed when we get off our desks and on our feet. Let us embrace failure and start innovating for a leaner social sector.

Angela currently serves on the team at Clean Water for Everyone, a startup non-profit organization that provides access to sustainable clean water and sanitation for communities around the world.