On the reasons change shouldn’t be the goal of changemaking

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Question and answer response to the speaker application for the 2015 Ashoka U Exchange. I may turn this into a proper essay at some point.

Please describe your specific educational model, best practice or innovation that you would you like to present at the Exchange: *

There is a growing movement known as effective altruism, an international community of academics, practitioners, entrepreneurs, and donors who believe that we should approach charity and development efforts with the same rigor and dedication to return on investment that we businesses, schools, and other institutions. These returns aren’t  measured in dollars or test scores but in social returns, improvements in wellbeing per dollar or volunteer hour. This concept of accountability is by no means new to SE, although in the scheme of history, the nonprofit sector is one of the last to adopt the practice. In the recent SSIR talk, Jason Saul spoke about the Impact Genome Project that looks to compare initiatives with a single efficacy metric. Social Impact Bonds have grown rapidly in publicity since their 2010 launch, and donors are clamoring as they never have before to know that their donations are making a difference. My introduction and greatest involvement in the impact measurement realm is through the lense of the aforementioned effective altruism movement, differentiable for its emphasis on individual donors improving the efficacy of their charitable efforts.

How is your model/innovation/best practice distinctive in higher ed and for social entrepreneurship education? *

Change, while an exciting aspect of social entrepreneurship, isn’t and shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of changemaking. We throw around the term “impact” to mean helping more people than would have otherwise been helped, but, as economics dictates, we should maximize the utility produced from our finite resources, in this case not personal consumer utility but the utility of those we are aiming to help.

Effective altruism espouses a unique and somewhat controversial stance of cause ambiguity – that is, not only choosing charities by their effectiveness within their intervention area (e.g. the most cost-effective charity at reducing malaria) or even within causes (e.g. comparing malaria, AIDS, and Ebola in the public health realm), but across all cause types (e.g. comparing charities combating malaria against those combating factory farming), using a common utility metrics such as QALYs/DALYs. My point isn’t by any means to argue that effective altruism is superior to the other impact measurement types, as I myself am unsure which is best in theory or in practice, but rather to make a point that we be more cautious in the use of buzzwords like “impact” and instead take a critical stance to SE and not just strive for some impact but, rather, to maximize it, whether it is measured by IGP’s efficacy metric, public health’s QALY/DALY metric, or something or utility or impact metric entirely.

How is your innovation advancing social innovation campus wide? *

Tulane University where I study is a very service-oriented campus, as it is set in the needs-riddled city of New Orleans. Despite our bent towards doing good, very little of the success of the service we do is measured on anything more than numbers of volunteers who show up to events. It’s understandable; students are notoriously hard to motivate to volunteer, research on impact is confusing and expensive, and discouraging or redirecting nonprofits that sprang up from the Katrina-wrecked city is not only uncomfortable but socially taboo. As a naive student and Los Angeles transplant, brandishing the critical sword of charity effectiveness is not unlike the offensive service projects of Global Northerners imposing their social agendas on impoverished communities in the Global South. But the tenant that impact is fundamentally important I believe holds fast, and I’ve been parading around as such since my arrival on campus last fall. I’m avoiding dictating actions but, rather, hope to implant in people an understanding of and appreciation for the measurement of returns in projects for social good.

And people are listening. Last November I had the chance to speak at our TEDx event to an audience of 1000+ on effective altruism, followed by tete-a-tete promotion at every relevant talk or workshop I could get my hands on. I’ve received expressed interest from startup founders, Tulane researchers, and nonprofit leaders alike, who, like me, think that a city with such a strong pairing of academics and need for service should adopt practices that make use of the two in conjunction with one another. I’m founding a club on campus called New Orleans Effective Altruists with speakers, workshops, debates, and other events in progress, and heed a surprising number of questions from students who are similarly disenchanted with the ineffectual nature of their service efforts and anticipate a shift towards research-backed service tactics to come.

What results have you experienced with this model? *

There’s a classic example in the effective altruism community of how striving for change as a good in and of itself can be harmful. PlayPumps International is a nonprofit that took the world by storm in 2006. They created an innovative pump that draws water out of the ground as children play on an attached merry-go-round, pulling the water up into a large storage tank for future use papered with advertisements that make its maintenance costs self-sustaining. It received the support and endorsement of the World Bank, the Case Foundation, and a slew of celebrities for its sexy, two-goods-in-one design and seeming promise. But by 2009 the PlayPumps initiative lost most of its support and today serves as a sad but useful example of entrepreneurship gone wrong. There are a multitude of problems with the design of the pump, notably that the pump wasn’t nearly as powerful as the hand pumps they often replaced so water shortages were frequent, that the service teams were far away and difficult to reach, and that the billboards received few-to-no willing advertisers in the rural locations where many pumps are located. Sure, some good came of the project – children had play equipment, sometimes the pumps provided more water than they would’ve otherwise had, etc. – but the $14,000 spent on these pumps could have funded the installation of seven traditional hand pumps, provided 3,500 people with bed nets, or medicated 28,000 children against schistosomiasis.

In this case PlayPumps was arguably net bad, but there are many things we do as social entrepreneurs that, while net good, don’t consider the trade-off between the good we are doing with whatever sexy social enterprise we want to do and the additional amount of good we could do by choosing some less attractive but more impactful option. Effective altruists and other people working on impact measurement are coming to find the vast differences in impact between interventions, as great as 100 or 1000 times due to the cause area and intervention type. People like myself who give money and strategize about the places in which we’ll invest our time and efforts have made astounding gains in the quality and quantity of the help we provide simply by orienting of efforts in this way.

What will Exchange attendees learn from your presentation? What will they be able to take back to their campus? *

I’m not saying it’s easy; quantifying returns in hard, particularly when the returns are projections into uncharted territory as is so often the case in SE. But just because it is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary, and people who orient their thinking along these lines are working to develop heuristics and eventually more accurate depictions of what one can expect for their efforts? How can we compare, say, the impact of efforts to combat deforestation against those to outlaw coal-based factories, not only in terms of CO2 emissions or global warming but on human and animal welfare? It’s incredibly tricky and any numbers we come up with are going to be inevitably skewed, but there is a growing cluster of organizations that can help. In the presentation I will share some of the resources I’ve found really useful, where they are headed, and where I think there are gaps or what tasks I think people should tackle.

Ashoka’s motto is that everyone can be a changemaker, but it seems worth noting that not all change is created equal, at that overemphasizing the “change” and under-emphasizing the ultimate impact could be harmful. There are clear ways this can be taken back to campus, such as encouraging students to start or join chapters of clubs whose parent organizations rank well based on impact metrics, or offering student career guidance based on careers that give them the potential to be highly impactful when they graduate. There are also more complex yet equally important takeaways, such as including a section in SISE, IDEV, or other relevant courses discussing ROI in the social sector, or contributing to the growing pool of research on intervention analysis. If they themselves are innovators, it seems worth taking a step back to be critical of their own projects, determining their underlying motivations for doing them and reading up on how similar initiatives have performed in the past. Changemaking isn’t ultimately about making change, but using change as vehicle towards progress for well-being, something I think we should keep at the forefront of our minds when make crucial decisions in how we spend our time, money, and efforts.

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