Faced with a Wicked Social Problem? Speed Up Your Learning Cycle
Today’s guest blog comes from Michael Gale (AmeriCorps Member with Heads Up, 2003-2004) who currently serves as the Senior Program Manager at GlobalGiving. This blog is the fourth in our International Careers Series sponsored by IPSL that profiles leading alumni of AmeriCorps working in international and intercultural careers.
My AmeriCorps service ended over a decade ago, but sometimes I feel like I’m back in my classroom of 4th graders at Birney Elementary in Southeast Washington. Anyone who has ever taught can tell you that educating requires flexibility, quick thinking, and a willingness to learn from your mistakes. Really, these are attributes that would serve you well in any field, but too often, they are missing in the field of international development.
International development nonprofits, at their best, are learning organizations. We raise money, carry out programming, evaluate how we did, hopefully make some decision on how to do a little (or a lot) better next time, and we start the cycle over again. The problem is, this cycle – from program design to program evaluation – usually takes at least a year, and in many cases much longer. Nonprofits are tackling wicked problems, problems that are particularly difficult or impossible to address because of their complex origins and range of factors producing them. These problems include entrenched poverty, structural inequality, and environmental destruction. We are hesitant to promise, especially to funders, that we’ll be able to make progress quickly on such challenges. So we promise an evaluation after three years, or we offer surface level report-backs on successful aspects of our work. This wouldn’t cut it in the classroom. In many ways, the education of a child is the wickedest of problems, yet good teachers still find ways to test new approaches, analyze the results, and adjust their lesson plans and teaching styles to continually search for the best way to reach the diverse learning needs of the kids in their classes.
The problem with slow learning cycles is just that – we learn slowly – much slower than the problems that we are trying to solve are changing. By the time we have finished conducting and analyzing our double-blind-five-year-longitudinal-study, the original influencing factors have changed hundreds of times. It is possible that program outcomes would be greatly improved if we could speed up the learning cycle, or the time it takes to recognize if a particular aspect of our program is working or not, and make a change if necessary. In start-up culture, this is called pivoting, and nonprofits are, on the whole, very slow to pivot.
Earlier this year, I joined the team at GlobalGiving, a global crowdfunding platform for nonprofits. One of our core values is Listen, Act, Learn, Repeat. It’s a mantra that encourages us to hypothesize, experiment, learn from our successes (or failures), and repeat the whole process, in all aspects of our work. As a technology platform, it makes sense that we would implement this methodology when we are building out new features on our site, but we’ve found that it works equally well when designing new training programs for our nonprofit partners, entering into new partnerships, or engaging in other programmatic work. Here is how it works:
- Listen – Listen to community and beneficiary feedback. For a nonprofit, these can be experts in your field, your beneficiary or program participants, and your donors. The more frequently you listen, the sooner you can course-correct when needed.
- Act – Use minimum viable products (MVPs) to quickly test new programs and strategies before you invest larger amounts of resources. Design your actions to allow for the maximum amount of learning.
- Learn – Analyze your results, celebrate successes, and own up to failures (and talk about them!).
- Repeat – Start the cycle over.
Whether teaching a classroom of 4th graders or running an international development nonprofit, I believe that by listening, acting, and learning, we can discover more quickly what works for the community we serve and avoid wasteful use of our limited time and resources. If we can incorporate these four steps into our work, we’ll improve our odds of tackling the wicked problems we face.