Josh Cleveland

SOCAP 10: “It Takes a Village”

Stepping out of the investment world and into conversations with practitioners of social enterprise at SoCap is a bit like leaving the library and entering the lab.

This is the first of two posts focused on the perspective from the field as presented at SoCap10. The first panel, titled “It Takes a Village” focused on building lasting, on-the-ground relationships. The second targets design ideas to take an organization to scale. What both represent is the perspective at SoCap from the organizations on the ground, that is, getting it done in the trenches of market-based development.

Community-Centered Development

Steve Lee from AIDG is right: “we really have no idea how to do this stuff (international development).” To figure out how to solve problems in developing communities, organizations need to successfully engage those communities. So how do you constructively engage villages to create lasting structures that support economic and social development?

One answer: give individuals the power to change their communities themselves. Panelist Uma Viswanathan works for an arm of International Association for Human Values on the Nouvelle Vie Haiti Youth Corps project and focuses on training programs teaching community members basic skills for community development such as project management, youth leadership skills, and agriculture. Once the organization has trained a group of leaders in a community, they take a step back. Further tools that they provide to the community are based directly off of the needs that those leaders identify for their community. In this way, the organization builds the feedback loop necessary to ensure that everything they do directly meets the needs of the community while avoiding focus on “perceived needs.”

This addresses what Jocelyn Wyatt terms “user-centered design” in the panel on “Designing for Scale.” Uma’s group has trained over 350 people in Haiti in the past five years, with 80 of those individuals now ready for second-round training, in which they will learn more about how to develop local social enterprises.

Janell Kapoor of Kleiwerks takes a similar approach of helping villagers achieve the goals that their community has identified. Their innovative model works with community leaders in 30 different countries to build community-based buildings, such as schools, orphanages, and town halls all from locally available materials. They always work by invitation – only when a community requests their assistance.

As Steve Lee described, AIDG (the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group) was founded on the idea that the best solutions come from the ground up. AIDG develops sustainable solutions that can help improve people’s access to basic services such as energy, clean water, sanitation, and safe housing. Through some impressive groundwork, AIDG established appropriate technology R&D facilities in Haiti and Guatemala that provide a space for collaboration between international talent and local technicians. AIDG also provides business incubation support to local entrepreneurs that have good ideas capable of making positive community impacts.

The fourth panelist, Doug Hammond of Alive Communities, goes even a step further. His whole organization is based on using ancient wisdom from communities to help communities discover new ways of solving problems.

Tim Chambers of Oxfam seconded a lot of these ideas and emphasized the need to focus on creating a system of “co-investors” as part of deep engagement with communities. The co-investor concept entails involving governments, communities, buyers, impact investors and on-the-ground workers, all in the design and implementation of the market access programs the organization implements. Hearing about this system from such a large-organization reminded the audience that this deep engagement were talking about is not in conflict with but actually a part of scale.

These were refreshing perspectives amidst the broader conversation in San Francisco that so often feels like “what we can do to help them.

The Next Step: Collaboration

All the organizations on the panel, with the exception of Alive Communities, currently work on the rebuilding of Haiti. With similar approaches and well-aligned goals, how can these organizations, investors, communities and others in this space productively work together? The panel suggested that organizations seek to create clarity around who does what when and where, seek funding that supports collaborative relationships, and be flexible to changing the partners involved and their respective roles. These were all good ideas for getting started with collaboration, but there is a lot more to be figured out here. The intricacies of strong partnerships are complex and take time to structure.

The panel encouraged us to take a step back from the investor focus of SoCap and think about how that work can feed into spurring more on-the-ground innovation like the above organizations pursue.