Philanthropist Kevin Starr demands great ideas, scalability, and eight word mission statements. It's all part of a Design for Impact approach.
It’s not enough to mean well. In fact, it’s not enough to do well anymore. Now, if you want philanthropic dollars and praise from the social enterprise world, you have to do well and you have to prove it too … with data. Or better yet infographics and maybe a PopTech talk.
Kevin Starr operates the Mulago Foundation like a philanthropic social venture fund trying to find the best profit opportunities, but instead of return on investment, he’s hunting for return on impact, “proven impact.” He’s ruthless about proof because that’s central to his impressively elegant Design for Impact approach.
We received a lot of feedback—and some fervent debate in the comments section—when we posted Starr's speech on development failures. To build on that, here's a look at how Starr views success.
Design for Impact“We don’t invest in anyone who isn’t at least trying to measure their own impact,” he tells GOOD flatly. “We’d be flying blind. They’re flying blind ... For us to invest in somebody who isn’t measuring impact would be like investing in a company that doesn’t have an accounting department.”
Despite offering that finance analogy, Starr proudly admits that he has “not a shred” of business background. He comes to philanthropy through medicine and refugee work. It was his initial accounting inexperience (or rather impatience for it) that helped shape Design for Impact thinking. He needed to see the results of his funding very clearly and very explicitly, not shrouded in buzzword-laden reports filled with fancy calculations. “We needed to think about it a little more simply that the usual inputs, outputs, outcomes, and impact things because we never could figure out what fit where exactly."
It is not enough, by this philosophy, to simply “raise awareness” or “increase empowerment” for example. It’s not even good enough to report on number of schools built. Those are intermediate steps toward end goals of reducing HIV infections or increasing the number of girls in school, or better yet, increasing the literacy rate among girls. Only the final impact counts, the rest is input, or behavior, or activity, or something else plenty worthwhile, but not good enough on its own.
Wild4Life is a two-year-old nonprofit showing some impressive, and scalable, promise at increasing HIV testing and treatment in rural Africa. They do it in part with Mulago funds. “We’ve developed a case management system. So once you are in the system we track you for the rest of your life,” explains Kel Sheppey founder and managing director of Wild4Life.
Research showed that offering free testing wasn’t a sufficient means of increase rates of HIV screening or follow up care. Wild4Life’s innovation was to harness the group dynamic to partner with trusted local organizations, then test whole groups together. Sounds simple right? Well, it actually works. The strategy evolved out of monitoring and data—a crafted response to measured results. As for inputs versus impact, the group doesn’t just measure number of people tested, but, when possible, the CD4 cell count of people in their system, the frequency of subsequent doctor’s visits, and more. All sorts of things that reveal if Wild4Life is actually reducing HIV rates and improving health, rather than just noting the number of tests given, or awareness-raising meetings held.
Sheppey says, “In some cases we even pay doctors to do the intervention [as we do] in Zimbabwe, where the state salaries are virtually nothing. So we actually pay doctors to keep them in those areas to service the local communities” … so long as they provide Wild4Life with data.
The Eight Word Mission Statement
To measure well, you need to be precise in what you are looking for. And if you want money from the Mulago Foundation, your mission statement has to be so precise it can’t be more than eight words. That’s a rule.
Examples: “Save coral reefs in the South Pacific,” or “prevent HIV infection in Brazil.” In an early planning document Starr wrote, “If we can’t we can’t get to this kind of concise statement, we don’t go any further—either because they don’t really know what they’re trying to do or because we simply wouldn’t be able to know if they’re doing it.”
Knowing is the key. It’s all focused on causing intentional action toward a clearly defined result as laid out in that flow chart above. “We actually want people to build metrics into their operations,” Starr says. The best organizations do that naturally like Wild4Life has, he says. “If you don’t start with impact and move back up design, you probably won’t get to impact."
He calls it back-engineering from impact and explains the concept like he explains everything else, as if it’s the most obvious idea in the world, but for some reason we just didn't see it until now. “So figure out what impact you want to have. Go through all the behaviors you’re going to have to change to make it happen. See if your big idea actually deals with all those behaviors that need to change. Modify your big idea. Modify your model to make sure you are actually picking up all those behaviors and that they are going to happen and going to last."
Scalability is a Must
That all sounds a bit too simple, but the organizations Mulago has funded are an impressive bunch meeting the measured impact challenge: KickStart, Samasource, and Bridge International Academies are just part of Mulago’s Scalable Solutions Portfolio. Potential for scale is another requirement. If the idea doesn't have the potential for massive reach, it's not worth investing in. And scale needs a funding model beyond philanthropy. It can include philanthropy, but it can't only be donations.
Starr highlights Proximity Designs in Myanmar as a success headed toward scalabilty. It’s a first world style design shop making products for the rural poor—like a $25 irrigation pump—based on feedback at the village level. Their slogan is “treat the poor as customers.”
“They have performance metrics at every step,” Starr says. “The people who are out in the field get bonuses at the individual, team and organization level ... They have dashboard metrics so everyone knows what is expected and what their goals are.” And all the feedback from sales and customer comments informs the next round of product design, just like a standard business, except it’s operating in Myanmar.
“They are not for-profit. Because you have to subsidize the design of products the market has failed to deliver.” Starr adds, “And often you have to subsidize the initial distribution and marketing until you get a market going. And in places like Mynamar where markets are utterly dysfunctional, you may never get that. We’re fine with that. That’s what philanthropy is for.” Starr is willing to risk funding such an unlikely outfit because they’re showing him results along the way, and, more importantly, using the results in management decisions.
Integrating Impact into the DNA
Integrating impact into the architecture of an organization so thoroughly that all decisions are evaluated in terms of final results—not intention, not intermediate goals, not a do-no-harm principle—introduces an element of danger many NGOs might not be accustomed to. In short, failure becomes possible.
Starr also defines mission in the reverse. It’s a way of knowing that “if we didn’t accomplish this thing, we’ve failed.”
And he’s fluent in failures by organizations that, he says, didn’t follow this kind of impact-integrating logic. Watch his PopTech talk on How Not to Save the World for a few choice data-driven arguments against the LifeStraw and One Laptop Per Child.
“You shouldn’t scale anything that doesn’t have impact. And we should just shut those [projects] down. Stop! Stop growing,” he says. “Stop raising money until you sort that out.”
For a response from LifeStraw, and Starr's response to that, see the comments section to our previous post on Starr.