This post was originally produced for Forbes.
The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, commonly referred to as J-PAL, is based at MIT and seeks to reduce poverty by providing academic research on interventions by social entrepreneurs and others working in the space.
Quentin Palfrey, the executive director of J-PAL North America, worked for the Obama Administration before taking on the role at J-PAL. He notes that the center receives its funding from MIT and other philanthropic donors. The center has a staff of more than 30 full-time employees. He says, “J-PAL North America does not charge for services or generate sales revenue.”
J-PAL works on global poverty. J-PAL North America focuses on poverty in the United States.
A lawyer by training, Palfrey thinks about the work in terms of policy implications. The lessons from J-PAL may be more relevant to social entrepreneurs who may be betting more than some public funding on their ventures.
“From low-income, first-time mothers in South Carolina; to teenagers living and attending school in the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago; to inmates struggling with substance use disorders in Kentucky, millions of people across the United States live in poverty and face incredible social challenges as a result,” Palfrey says.
The political climate demands evidence-based approaches to social problems, he says. “Increasingly, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels are turning to rigorous evidence on what works and why to create policies designed to combat poverty, improve schools, promote health, and address other social issues.”
J-PAL’s primary tool is the randomized control trial or RCT, Palfrey says. “We catalyze and support randomized evaluations, communicate evidence to help translate research into action, and help policymakers build capacity to create and use rigorous evidence.”
Melissa Kearney, Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and co-chair of the J-PAL State and Local Innovation Initiative, says that the goal is to understand how and why certain interventions are effective. “J-PAL is committed to replication, meaning if a research project demonstrates effectiveness of a particular intervention in one setting, that intervention should be implemented either the same way or with potential tweaks in another setting or with another population,” she says.
“This is a critical aspect to building evidence and to developing an understanding of how and under what circumstances a particular intervention delivers impact,” she adds.
Palfrey sees the pace of the work as its greatest challenge. “Policymakers often make crucial policy decisions based only on anecdote, status quo, or political belief. Replacing this process of creating policy with one based on scientific research can be slow. Moreover, policy priorities and approaches to governance can quickly shift with changes in administrations.”
Contentious politics make the J-PAL’s work more relevant than ever, he notes. “in today’s hyper-partisan political climate, evidence-based policymaking has garnered strong bipartisan support, and the movement for more efficient and effective governance continues to gain momentum.”
Palfrey notes that there are limitations to the center’s work as well. “The randomized controlled trial is an incredibly rigorous and powerful tool for evaluating whether social programs really work, but they are not always appropriate for every setting.”
He identified three specific limitations:
Kearney adds, “Too often the results of an evaluation are interpreted as a ‘verdict’ on an organization or a particular program. Instead, the social entrepreneurship community should recognize that this type of evidence building work is really an iterative process.”
She says sometimes social entrepreneurs just need to try again. “If a research project yields disappointing results about the impact of a particular program, depending on the circumstance, it might make sense to try to make incremental changes to the way that particular program is implemented and evaluate the revised implementation.”
Palfrey believes the work is a part of helping people out of poverty. “By transforming government and building a movement for evidence-based policy, we can help lift millions in the United States out of poverty. Committing to evidence-based policymaking will require innovating at every level of government and challenging the status quo. I’m confident that by doing so we can allocate our resources in a way that maximizes benefits for those who need it most.”
On Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 1:00 Eastern, Palfrey will join me here for a live discussion about J-PAL’s work and how it can be utilized by social entrepreneurs to increase their impact. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
“If you do a gesture for charity, you should always make sure that it’s from not a press spin, but a natural, organic effort,” John Travolta said at the City Summit and Gala organized by social entrepreneur Ryan Long.
Travolta said his interest in philanthropy began with Katrina. “It was organic. It really was. When Haiti happened, when Hurricane Katrina happened, I had a plane. Nobody was helping them. Why wouldn’t you do it?”
He also made the case for transparency in charitable work, “Make clear where the money is going so no one ever questions it. You have to have an integrity because it is a known area that could be suspect. You have to have a lot of integrity about admitting and exposing how this gets displayed or distributed.”
Halle Berry, who delivered the keynote address at the Summit, said, “I’ve been an advocate of philanthropic efforts as long as I can remember—for most of my life.”
Berry offered advice for humanitarians, “My advice: take the media training that your team provides you! I recall so many times I’ve walked away from an interview and said to myself, ‘Now why did I say that?’ So prepare for your opportunities, but if you do that, the press can be a powerful way to share the programs you are passionate about.”
Long has come a long way from his roots to be hobnobbing with the rich and famous.
The City Gala was first held in 2015 and this year expanded to include a full-day Summit. The 2017 event was held on February 11 and 12. This year Berry and Travolta delivered speeches. Quincy Jones was presented with an award. John Paul Dejoria, founder of Paul Mitchell and number 214 on the Forbes 400 list, also presented.
Long chose two charities as the primary beneficiaries of the Gala, “We are tremendously honored to present the 2017 program in support of the International Arts & Philanthropy Foundation (IAP), which provides funding in support of arts, education, early childhood development, as well as the Breed Life program which supports and facilitates the gift of life through live organ donation.”
Jeff Timmons of the Grammy-nominated pop group 98 Degrees served as the emcee for the Gala.
City Gala is registered with the State of California Attorney General’s Registry of charitable trusts as a Commercial Fundraiser. Long says, “The entire mission and vision of the City Gala program is to bring business and entertainment heroes together united by their passion for overcoming hard obstacles and for supporting startup and not yet well-known philanthropic causes.”
The event included “a red carpet, silent auction, and a day-long set of presentations and panels by business luminaries from organizations such as NASA, Google, Virgin Galactic and many others,” Long says.
Long says the event was a big success, selling out and raising “hundreds of thousands” for charity. This despite the fact that the scheduled headline celebrity canceled in December due to a conflict, requiring Long and his team to scramble.
For 2018, the Grammys will be moving to New York City so the City Gala will move to Oscar weekend.
On Thursday, March 2, 2017 at noon Eastern, Long and Timmons will join me here for a live discussion about the event, its challenges and impact. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
Update March 9, 2017: After posting the article and conducting the interview posted above, a reader wrote to Forbes suggesting that Long donates only 5 percent of revenue collected at his events to charity and that he “pays off celebs and the ones that participate have no idea what they are walking in to.” The reader directed us to Rip Off Report where a variety of related accusations were made. In a rebuttal, Long acknowledged that as of February 2015, he was behind on his taxes and had filed for bankruptcy in 2010 as a result of the 2008 recession. He also acknowledged several arrests and criminal convictions. He also defended the legitimacy and success of past events, saying that $350,000 was donated to charity after the 2014 event.
In an email response, Long noted that his accuser is known to him. With respect to the money for charity, he says, “I lost money personally/professionally again this year… but managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the charitable organizations. After years of trying/failing/trying failing, I have evolved and know that it’s simply a matter of time before visions/reality becomes true.”
Dale Godboldo, founder of International Arts and Philanthropy, said by email in response to an inquiry, “IAPF/Breed Life did receive funds from the event and according to our agreements.”
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
This is the first in a series of articles about impact measurement for social entrepreneurs.
There are two keys to becoming a good social entrepreneur. Intentionality, that is intending to have a positive social impact rather than merely delivering one incidentally, is how you become a social entrepreneur. Accountability, measuring the impact, is how you become an effective one.
Measurement, however, is not straightforward for most social entrepreneurs. To help guide startup social entrepreneurs on the measurement of impact, I’ve reached out to some of the leading practitioners and experts in the impact arena to comment.
“It may not be as difficult as it seems, at least for now,” says Stephanie Gripne, Founder and Director, Impact Finance Center & CO Impact Days and Initiative. “The majority of individuals and families [investing in social entrepreneurs] can still be satisfied with basic impact premises and themes, much as they’re satisfied with generalized results from gifts to charities. For now, the democratization of impact investing is being led by values and principles more than measurable outcomes.”
“Even many institutional investors and advanced investors,” she continues, “are satisfied with ‘outputs – acres conserved, ex-offenders employed, fair-trade products sourced, etc. – as long as the units counted seem reasonable. A smaller percentage (but perhaps a more vocal and well-publicized percentage) are seeking real ‘outcomes’ – the types of harder, longer-term measures that drive Social Impact Bonds for example.”
Cathy Clark, Director, CASE i3 at Duke, highlights the importance of defining a “theory of change.” She says, “This is basically an ‘if-then’ statement that relates their activities to the change they seek. Every social entrepreneur needs to make this argument about their impact. Using that theory, they can they start to recognize assumptions in the theory and track measures that help test how well things are actually occurring.”
Cecile Blilious, Founder, Managing Partner, Impact First Investments, echoes Clark. “Entrepreneurs should be able to describe their theory of change and work towards creating a social impact plan in parallel with their business plan.”
Similarly, Uma Sekar, Impact & ESG Manager, Capria Ventures, suggests starting with an impact thesis. “Entrepreneurs should start with an impact thesis or strategy, set goals that are achievable and align their core metrics. Some of the common metrics are lives impacted, job creation and geographic coverage. The more specific they are about the populations they are addressing–base of the pyramid, low income, minorities, women, refugees, etc.–the better. If it is an environment focused company – energy conservation, carbon footprint are common measures.
Lisa Curtis, founder & CEO, Kuli Kuli, suggests identifying a short list of key measures. “Social entrepreneurs should understand how their high-level vision translates down into 3-5 key metrics that are quantifiable. They should be able to articulate what success in 10 years would look like in terms of those metrics, whether it’s the number of trees planted, livelihoods created or investment made.”
Focus on measuring the one thing you’re looking to do, says Nell Derick, Founder and CEO, Inspiring Capital. “A simple, customized, quantitative standard related to their self-proclaimed target impact. For example, we’ve been measuring our professionals’ and clients’ reaction to the question, ‘Do you better understand how to use your or your employees’ business skills (e.g. finance, strategy, marketing and operations) to advance social good?’ since our first programs in 2014. It’s not part of a public index or measure, but it tells US if we’re doing what we set out to do, and the very design (and ongoing choosing) of that question forces us to clarify the one thing we’re looking to do in the world.”
Laurie Lane-Zucker, Founder & CEO, Impact Entrepreneur Center for Social and Environmental Innovation, suggests putting impact measures into a broader context. He says, “Global sustainability context is also important in this discussion of impact measures. Grounding social entrepreneurship in widely accepted contextual touchstones such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals helps: a) provide sustainability context for impact investors keen on seeing “the big picture,” b) facilitates comparisons between different investment opportunities addressing the same sector (i.e. water, climate, poverty, food), and c) helps ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] reports using (hopefully) similar impact measurements be more comparable and transparently answerable to macro social and environmental needs.”
Matthew Weatherley-White, Co-Founder, Managing Director, The CAPROCK Group, cautions that no single set of metrics will work for all social ventures. “We believe that there are no universal impact key performance indicators. Instead, social entrepreneurs should be prepared to measure, on day one, whatever impact metrics are endogenous to the operations or mission of their enterprise. Far too often, social entrepreneurs believe that tracking and reporting on a host of socially-aware metrics will make their business ‘more’ impactful… when, in fact, doing so may be (at best) a distraction to operating the business or (at worst) a distorting force, putting at risk the survival of the enterprise. Seen through this lens, impact measurement can be interpreted as answering the question of ‘materiality’: what impact measures are critical to the survival of the enterprise. That set of measures should be what the entrepreneur strives to report the day the doors open.
Gary White, CEO & Co-founder, Water.org, also emphasizes the unique measurement challenges each social venture will face. “For enterprises like Water.org and WaterEquity, we are very much focused on delivering impact in the form of number of people reached with water and sanitation improvements. For our WaterEquity initiative, we also look at IRIS metrics and commit to reporting within that framework.”
Matthew Davis, CEO, RENEW, an impact investing firm focusing on Ethiopia, notes that for some ventures impact measure is relatively simple. “In the part of the world where I invest (Africa), where job creation is desperately needed and starting and growing a business is very challenging, the best impact is a healthy growing business that is managed by ethical leaders. Therefore, growth and good governance must be a priority from day one.”
Peter Fusaro, Chairman, Global Change Associates, agrees. “Hopefully, they should be focused on the ESG metrics of environmental benefits, job creation and be ethical vis a vis transparency.”
Bobby Turner, CEO, Turner Impact Capital, also recommends ESG metrics. “At Turner Impact Capital, our reports provide financial, social and environmental metrics for our investors to track. By doing so, one can then see the correlation and interdependency between profits and purpose, i.e. a reduction in carbon footprint leading to lower utility costs or a reduction in crime translating into lower insurance costs and thus higher profit margins.”
Daniel Jean Louis, CEO, Bridge Capital, operating in Haiti, suggest even more basic measures, starting with “customer and employee satisfaction” because they are “much easier to track.”
Balance qualitative measures with quantitative measures, suggests Topher Wilkins, CEO and founder, Opportunity Collaboration and Conveners.org, respectively. “In general, it’s best to be able to justify both quantitative and qualitative impact, i.e. data-driven metrics (how many more children are now attending school, what percentage of women are now surviving childbirth, what’s the increase in average household income, etc.) alongside stories or testimonials from beneficiaries, e.g. ‘before X organization came to my village, it was very difficult to feed my entire family, but now I can provide at least two meals a day and no one is hungry anymore.’”
Expanding on this idea, Lisa Hagerman, Director of Programs, DBL Partners, says, impact measures should include narratives and quantitative measures about the programs and practices related to the target impact. These should include “narratives across: public policy, environmental stewardship, workforce development, community engagement, and, quantitative metrics across: job creation, quality of jobs & benefits offered (including wealth creating programs such as Employee Stock Ownership Plans), environmental metrics, supply chain accountability, among others.
Some investors do have more specific guidelines. Joel Solomon, Chair, Renewal Funds, says, “We are a B Corp Fund. We strongly encourage, but don’t require, portfolio companies to become B Corp. We use the B Corp questionnaire as part of our due diligence before final investment. We prioritize B Corp companies for our intake process.”
Impact takes time so reporting on impact will improve over time, says, Laura Callanan, Founding Partner, Upstart Co-Lab. “If this is a new enterprise, there will be a trajectory to actually deliver impact just like there will be a trajectory to deliver financial return. Impact investors need to think like investors first and foremost and recognize it takes time to build a business and see results, all kinds of results.”
Lauryn Agnew, President, Seal Cove Financial and Founder, Bay Area Impact Investing Initiative, agrees. “We also need to measure both outputs and outcomes, which can take decades. Biotech investments seek the outcome that lives are saved over decades.”
Ultimately, measurement isn’t a panacea. Morgan Simon, Managing Director, Pi Investments, says, “At Pi Investments, we try to focus on impact management above and beyond measurement–ensuring both fund managers and entrepreneurs have a clear vision of how they will enhance the impact of their work over time.”
Lane-Zucker, emphasizes the organization of the enterprise to minimize measurement challenges. “The more that entrepreneurs can bake double and triple bottom line values into their DNA (mission, legal structure, reporting, etc.) from the earliest stages of their project, the easier it will be to locate appropriate measures as the business begins to take shape and mature.”
“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to purse them.” – Walt Disney
Martin Luther King. Steve Jobs. Oprah Winfrey. Howard Schultz. Sallie Krawcheck. Elon Musk. Walt Disney. Donald Trump. The list is endless. They all agree. It’s vital to dream big.
Dreaming big is a broadly championed theme. And, it should be.
Dreaming big can fill us with hope and purpose. It can inspire us to innovate and grow. It can get us to focus and pay attention to detail. It can motivate us to delay gratification and emphasize the long run. It can help us to persevere and overcome obstacles. It can teach us to be resourceful and resilient. It can build our imagination and compassion muscles. It can help us to achieve and lead rewarding lives.
Those potential payoffs make it important for everyone to dream big. That includes kids. We want kids to aim high. We want them to develop the confidence and courage to give their best. In giving their best, there is an excellent chance kids will not only learn about themselves but will also discover their capacity to contribute to others.
I agree wholeheartedly with former E-Bay executive and author Maynard Webb. He counseled in the Wall Street Journal, we should teach kids to dream big. For me, it is an essential part of how I want to leave my mark on the world.
My interest in dreaming big started as a child when my father would say to me, “Sam, it takes just as much time to think big as it does small. So, why don’t you think and dream big?” Later, I would discover others advocated the same, like former Eastman Kodak Chief Marketing Officer Jeffrey Hayzlett who wrote the book, Think Big, Act Bigger. The Rewards of Being Relentless.
I wanted to communicate a similar sentiment to children. In 2003, I authored the storybook, Sammy (Rabbit’s) Big Dream! It was during that period my understanding and appreciation for the magical powers of dreaming big began to deepen.
My mission then and now is to make it easy to teach and talk to kids about great money habits. Personal finance can be a dull, daunting and difficult subject to address. What I discovered is talking to kids about their dreams made it easier to converse with them about money. It also appeared the two topics had a strong and synergistic fit. Poor money habits can destroy lives and be lethal to dreams.Conversely, the quest to make a dream come true can shape behavior. It can be a determining motivator in delaying gratification, an often elusive but essential skill to saving, investing, asset-building or any successful endeavor.
Over a decade later the storybook has evolved into a vision and curriculum, Sammy Rabbit’s Dream Big Financial Education Program. The vision is comprised of five initiatives: (1) The Dream Big Reading and Resource Initiative; (2) The Dream Big Tour and Dream Big Do It Yourself Experiences; (3) The Global Dream Big Network (4) The Dream Big Club; and (5) Global Dream Big Day.
Our aim is to reach kids early with stories, songs, activities, games, experiences and questions that will have them living more purpose filled lives.
As philanthropist and master motivator Anthony Robbins shares, questions are the answers. We want to ask kids and adults, what is your big dream? Do you have a written plan to make your big dream come true? Does your plan include developing great money habits?
We also want to share with children their lives and dreams are worth investing their time, minds, and abilities into. They can make big dreams come true. We think now is a Sammyriffic time to join them in doing it!
About Sam X Renick:
Sam X Renick is the driving force behind Sammy Rabbit, Sammy’s Dream Big Vision and the “It’s a Habit” Company. Sam and Sammy are dedicated to empowering kids’ dreams and improving their financial literacy through the development of great habits and strategic life skills. Sam has read and sung off key with over a quarter million children around the world, encouraging them to get in the habits of saving money and reading! He has won numerous honors throughout his career including the New Jersey Coalition for Financial Education’s Lifetime Achievement Award!
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Collaboration is a word that gets thrown around a lot more than it actually happens. Pledgeling, a small social enterprise, proved the power of collaboration when it signed Evite as a customer and delivered over $1 million in donations in the first year.
He rattles off early milestones:
Pledgeling is not yet profitable but has 90 percent gross margins, giving it the potential to reach profitability as it scales.
Evite, the collaboration partner, provides digital party invitations. Lots of them. CEO Victor Cho says the company has sent over 2 billion event invitations. The company now sends about 20,000 invitations every hour and has over 100 million annual users. It is a subsidiary of Liberty Ventures Group (NASDAQ: LVNTA, LVNTB). Evite, Cho says, generates most of its revenue from advertising.
Jennifer Young, Global Director of Social Impact Programs, at Pearson, led the implementation of Pledgeling tools at Pearson. She explains why Pearson moved forward with the Pledgeling implementation. “Now more than ever, people are looking online for opportunities to contribute to good causes. That’s a major reason why as part of our campaign at Pearson to raise awareness and inspire action around the global illiteracy crisis, we have elevated online fundraising as our major call to action.”
Shifting demographics as well as technology influence consumer demand, Young says. “We know that Millennials, in particular, are more likely to promote causes across social media and so by integrating Pledgeling’s digital platform into our campaign, we have made it easy for younger advocates – no matter how small their giving potential – to join our movement and contribute in a concrete way.”
Evite was eager to collaborate with Pledgeling, Cho says. “Our users were asking for this functionality.”
Citron agrees, noting that consumers are more aware of brands’ social impact. “Consumers today increasingly expect brands to align with their purpose and use their business to make a positive impact on the world. Customers will switch to a competitor based on brand values – just look at the #deleteuber movement, which catapulted Lyft into a top 5 app within 48 hours because consumers make choices by their values.”
“In fact, 90% of consumers will choose a brand that gives back over one that doesn’t,” Citron adds.
Cho describes the how the collaboration works for the customer. “With Evite Donations Powered by Pledgeling, we are first and foremost making the process of giving easier–just a couple clicks. Also, importantly, we are offering this service in a way that does not charge a transaction fee.”
The Evite Donations allow Evite users to add a donation option to invites, Cho says. “Whether it is a child who wants to raise money for a charity instead of getting another pile of birthday gifts or a couple who would rather have friends support a favorite cause than bringing hostess gifts or wine, it’s in people’s nature to give. We are just making it simpler for them to do so as seamless part of the event process, and in a way that maximizes their gift.”
Young, who has followed the Pledgeling-Evite collaboration says, “I was really excited when I first learned of the Pledgeling and Evite partnership because of the potential it has to advance the reach of charitable giving through the simple act of connecting people to good causes through the major milestones in our lives – whether it’s a birthday, a wedding or an anniversary.”
Cho says the response to the new feature has been overwhelmingly positive but it hasn’t been without challenges. “Some hosts don’t want their guests to feel pressured or somehow expected to donate,” he says. “Some guests are still compelled to give physical gifts instead of donations.”
“At this point in time, we aren’t yet at a place as a society where giving a donation is widely accepted etiquette in lieu of gifts,” Cho notes.
Citron says that the Evite collaboration is a great example of the success their having, but notes that no single solution will work for customers of all sizes. “we are developing a variety of turnkey tools to roll out soon for smaller, mid-market businesses to make it easier to achieve their goals in ways that are different from our larger, enterprise business customers.”
Pearson’s Young believes the key to the Pledgeling’s success will be to leverage the growth of purpose-driven companies, helping them to frictionlessly connect their customers with causes they care about.
Cho is excited about where the Pledgeling-Evite collaboration will go in time. “We are helping people do good when they get together and the response from our users has been incredible. We’ve had a great start to this partnership and we expect to grow the amount of charitable donations raised exponentially in the coming years. Even the smallest donations can add up to make a tremendous positive impact on the world. It’s very exciting!”
Citron also has grand expectations. “Our vision for the future is that every business will fulfill its purpose through an authentic giving strategy that helps them grow, builds loyalty from their customers and employees, and makes a positive impact on the world.”
On Thursday, February 9, 2017 at noon Eastern, Citron and Cho will join me here for a live discussion about the collaboration’s success and its implications for the future. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Lindsey Tropf, CEO and founder of Immersed Games, is working with her team to create a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that is as entertaining as World of Warcraft and as educational as school.
Their core product is Tyto Online, is expected to launch soon. One module of the game, Tyto Ecology, is available for sale and has generated $140,000 of revenue to date. This module is a single-player game that has sold 18,000 units.
The Immersed Games team includes 13 full-time staff members plus others working from a “local labor grant.” The startup isn’t yet profitable, but does generate 70 percent gross margins on sales today and expects to ramp that up with volume.
Tropft isn’t just playing around; she’s serious about education. In fact, she’s a doctoral candidate in the School Psychology at the University of Florida.
She says, “We aren’t just creating a video game, we’re creating a learning and inspiration platform. As we grow our content, the long-term vision means that students from eight years old and up can explore a game world with access to learning almost anything they want. They might stumble across some physics quests that spark a passion for the subject.”
She hopes to create something of a bridge from the game to the real world. “Then we suggest an activity on our Learning Dashboard that helps them apply that in the real world and realize that all these skills they’ve been learning actually generalize. This is why I think of us as having the potential to be a learning and inspiration platform for a generation of gamers.”
Tropf sites some interesting statistics. She says, “Young children spend 78% of their screen time doing educational content, but as they get older, that drops drastically. Children eight to 10 only spend 27% of their time in content that parents consider at least somewhat educational.”
She says the reason is pretty simple. Older kids say educational games aren’t fun.
“We’re creating a game that teaches but also plays like a real game– because it is! Tyto Online is an MMORPG, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, which is a game like World of Warcraft,” she says. “Instead of killing boars and collecting hides for quests, you’re doing things like looking for evidence about if something is an invasive species that you can then transplant out and save the local ecosystem.”
She notes the design of the game is different from most educational content in two ways. “First, we’re social! As an online game, we can enable unique and emergent types of gameplay that wouldn’t be possible in a single game. For example, we’re planning on teaching entrepreneurship and enabling players to sell to other players in the game, purchase kiosks and advertising, etc. in a real marketplace in the game with live people.”
“Second,” she says, “we’re unified. We’re putting all our content into one single game so that we can retain a player for a long period of time and lead to many learning opportunities (and recurring revenue for a sustainable business model).”
Immersed Games participated in Intel’s Education Accelerator, a four-month, in-residence program for EdTech start-ups that is run jointly by Intel Education and Intel Capital. The selective program draws promising candidates from a “large worldwide” applicant pool, according to Elizabeth Broers, Director, Public Sector Thought Leadership & Intel Education Accelerator.
Broers says, “By applying the foundational concepts of engaging gameplay with 21st-century learning skills, Immersed Games have created worlds where kids can dive in and start creating. The team at Immersed Games created a platform where the learners are treated as gamers but learning as if they were in the classroom.”
She adds, “The learners are creating biomes, learning the concepts of ecology in a fun, game-like environment. Additionally, Immersed Games is also incorporating Next Generation Science Standards and creative problem solving into all their products.”
Tropf says that funding has been one of the greatest challenges so far. Game development happens before the revenue starts, she points out. “In order to build just our first module of content, we had to build the entire networking infrastructure, most of the main game systems, and an entire toolset for content development.”
Today, she worries more about what’s coming. “I’m most concerned about optimizing our tools and workflow so we can create content as quickly as possible to make sure we have a large set of learning opportunities in the game world. And of course making sure those experiences generate a really engaging gameplay experience.”
She also worries about user acquisition. “Our first game sold pretty well on Steam, but that’s mainly ‘core’ gamers — 18-35-year-old men, and isn’t the right fit for Tyto Online, so we’re pursuing testing new channels and messaging with parents and kids themselves.”
There are limitations to how far the game can go in approaching the learning environment in school. Tropf explains, that in the game, players may be challenged to figure out why some jackrabbits are getting sick and propose a solution. “An excellent teacher can make this completely open-ended where students can present an unlimited amount of solutions and work through it, while in the game setting, we do have to pre-design this and code it in, so we naturally have a more limited amount of solutions.”
Tropf acknowledges another limitation is that the game can’t put students into the real world. “There’s the risk that students may not generalize their learning and realize they can apply these outside of the game world if they only learn in a game. We’re working to address this with our web-based Learning Dashboard.”
“Our long-term goal is to think of this as an inspiration platform. Students can play for years as they learn across many areas of content, being exposed to new subjects and digging deep into complex systems for their favorites, like mastering building ecosystems,” Tropf says.
Broers is optimistic about the company’s prospects. “Immersed Games has a huge opportunity in front of them and we look forward to watching them grow and expand Tyto Online into additional STEAM areas. As with any start-up, it’s all about how quickly they can execute but they have a talented group with a clear mission and the momentum is with them.”
On Thursday, February 2, 2017 at 1:00 Eastern, Tropf will join me here for a live discussion about the startup’s game development and strategies for distribution. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
The University of Southern California has recently created the Center on Artificial Intelligence for Social Solutions or CAISS, specifically to develop uses of artificial intelligence–AI–for use cases of interest to social entrepreneurs.
The Center is a collaboration between the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Eric Rice, an Associate Professor from the School of Social Work, has been tapped to lead CAISS.
The potential for AI to be an effective tool for entrepreneurs with no background in technology is confirmed by Rice himself. When asked about his LinkedIn profile URL, he acknowledged not only that he doesn’t have one, but also said, “I’m a bit of a Luddite.“
The Center has gathered commitments of $3 million for its launch. The two partner schools put up much of that money with additional funding from private partners. CAISS has an annual operating budget of $500,000 and has only one full-time staff person. The Center itself is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Leading the new Center is as close to entrepreneurship as Rice admits getting, though as an academic he is entirely focused on social good.
Rice explains that the Center is looking at two particular sets of social problems. The first set is the “Grand Challenges for Social Work” established by American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. These twelve challenges are focused on social issues facing the United State. The other set is the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs established by the United Nations in 2015 as goals for poverty reduction by 2030, primarily focused on the developing world.
One of the first projects the Center has undertaken is developing an AI tool to identify peer leaders among Los Angeles County’s homeless youth. By better identifying peer leaders, they can spread information about AIDS infection and prevention more rapidly. Their initial study showed success in increasing the number of youth who were getting tested for HIV.
Alison Hurst, the founder and executive director of a Safe Place for Youth, admits she hasn’t given much thought to how AI can be used to serve the homeless youth her organization is charged with helping. “I just know that we need to use all the tools in the bag to understand the interventions needed as our social problems keep growing,” she says.
The Center is one of the first places that AI engineers and social scientists have come together. Rice points out that “AI lets you model the messiness of the real world so you can probabilistically figure out how to proceed.”
One of the partners in the youth project is called My Friend’s Place, which is led by Executive Director Heather Carmichael, LCSW. She notes the potential for both financial and social benefits from implementing AI tools. “My Friend’s Place is doing amazing work with 1,500 youth experiencing homelessness every year,” she says.
“With limited resources and the breadth and complexity of the young people’s needs, it is our obligation to pursue knowledge, support and interventions that will reach the greatest number of youth,” she continues. “Imagine, if AI can help us identify 1 of the 100 youth we serve daily as a potential peer leader, we can expedite an invitation to health education and peer leadership programming, and ultimately ‘produce’ peer leaders socially positioned for the greatest impact!”
Rice observes that one of the biggest challenges the Center faces is getting the engineers and the social scientists speaking the same language. “Their way of thinking is very mathematical. Our way of thinking isn’t,” he says. “We had problems because we weren’t speaking the same language.”
That challenge also is the key to AI’s promise, Rice says. ” They ask each other questions they’ve never heard before .” This creates opportunities for answers they’ve never given before.
Not all social problems appear to lend themselves to AI applications, Rice acknowledges. Mental illness is an example he sees where AI interventions may be a long way off.
He insists, however, that AI has great potential for solving social problems and points at the success with the youth program. AI helps social scientists see unlikely outcomes, in contrast to traditional statistical models that help us see how the average person sees average problems.
Barbara Grosz, Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences in Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, also collaborates on the youth project in LA County. She is optimistic about the collaboration’s promise to help solve social problems.
“AI has the potential to support significantly, and in diverse ways, the work of people who are addressing social problems,” Grosz says. “For it to succeed in doing so, though, requires the combined efforts of those with expertise in AI and people whose expertise in the social sciences and policy give them a deep understanding of these social problems, their roots, and the key characteristics of approaches that are likely to work.”
She also highlighted the contributions of Rice’s co-founder, Milind Tambe. She adds, “It needs sufficient support to enable their work.”
While the collaborations have yet to create consumer products, it is clear that the Center’s work could now begin to complement efforts of social entrepreneurs with sufficient backing from impact investors to develop new tools for addressing social problems.
On Thursday, February 2, 2017 at 4:00 Eastern, Rice will join me here for a live discussion about using AI for solving social problems. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
The international development community learned decades ago that when relief organizations bring in donated goods that are distributed for free to people in need, one of the outcomes is often the death of local businesses that provided those goods. Why then are NGOs continuing to employ this model in Haiti, asks author, entrepreneur, investor and professor Daniel Jean-Louis.
Jean-Louis is based in Haiti. His firm, Bridge Capital provides small loans to businesses that otherwise don’t qualify for loans from Haiti’s conservative banking sector. His 100,000 jobs initiative is working across sectors with NGOs, governments and the private sector to create 100,000 jobs by 2020. He reports having helped to create more than 10,000 jobs so far, though he worries Hurricane Matthew may have destroyed some of those jobs when it destroyed so much else in Haiti.
Bridge Capital is small by almost any standard, with just $1 million in capital. In Haiti, where a $10,000 loan can have more impact, that represents the potential to help 100 companies. Jean-Louis hopes to triple the capital base in the coming year, allowing him to reach a level of profitability. Profits come from the 7 to 8 percent net interest margin on its loans.
Jude V. P. Tranquille, founder of Haiti Entrepreneurship Camp, about whom I’ve written previously, says, “Bridge Capital brings investment and the 100k jobs builds a network of businesses around the country. People are benefiting from business growth as jobs were being created, transforming lives and providing hope to families. I personally know some businesses they have funded, including Enersa Haiti, a company that provides solar energy.”
Jean-Louis is a purpose-driven entrepreneur. “My vision is to curb unemployment. I have worked all of my adult life toward that. We want to solve the problem of unemployment in Haiti. I want to help my fellow Haitian friends and family.”
Unemployment is a big problem in Haiti, he explains. “Unemployment has been a problem in Haiti as long as I can remember. A lot of people have something to do, a small micro business, but never a real job that can sustain their costs.” He notes that 70 percent of people in Haiti lack a formal job.
Jean-Louis says the government is the root of the problem. “The Government has never provided a good atmosphere where businesses can start and grow. The World Bank has published a study over and over that shows that Haiti is one of the worst places in the world to start a business. It takes thousands of dollars and months of time to register a new corporation.”
By raising capital in the United States for deployment in Haiti, Jean-Louis hopes Bridge Capital will provide fresh capital that will catalyze job formation. He makes it easier, he says, for entrepreneurs to raise money.
Jean-Louis’s book, From Aid to Trade, explains the failures of the aid apparatus in Haiti. He notes that Bill Clinton acknowledged that 50 percent of the aid promised to Haiti never left the United States. While the intention was good, he says, “it was ineffective.”
For the book, he and his co-author, Jacqueline Klamer, interviewed 1,200 people. Their goal was to determine why aid doesn’t work and to explain that in terms that the NGO community would understand. He hopes to move the NGOs to act in ways that will support economic growth.
The book is written in English and so targets the international, mostly U.S.-based donors. Jean-Louis hopes to convince donors to become more mindful of the ways their funds are used so that they don’t make matters worse by supporting NGOs whose work thwarts the local economy.
The 100,000 jobs in Haiti initiative is a first realization of the thinking in the book. By engaging NGOs as partners in job creation, he hopes to make a dent in the chronic unemployment in Haiti.
Tranquille explains, “The 100k Jobs also sponsors the well-attended ‘Buy Haitian, Restore Haiti’ event, which is a platform designed to connect businesses and the NGOs to do more transactions together, raising awareness of the importance for NGOs to buy locally.”
Jean-Louis faces twin challenges with Bridge Capital. Many small companies are not properly registered, making it difficult to set up a proper loan agreement. Getting companies registered is difficult, largely because of corruption. Bureaucrats make the process slow and tedious until they are offered sufficient gifts to move paperwork through the system.
Success is easy for Jean-Louis to define and imagine. “We will be successful if we can create 100,000 jobs by 2020. If we can reduce unemployment by 20% in the next five years. If we can curb the poverty level. When I see politicians working for the people. This is when I will be successful and the country will get better, too.” It may be harder to do.
On Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 1:00 Eastern, Jean-Louis will join me here for a live discussion about his work, his book and the effort to create more jobs in Haiti. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
How many times have you wanted to give some money to help solve a crisis somewhere in the world but didn’t simply because you didn’t know to whom to give the money? The problem wasn’t likely that you didn’t have some candidates; more likely, you found too many candidates and couldn’t determine which would do the most good with your money.
Iguacu screens nonprofits working to address crises around the world to identify those that are having the best impact. Iguacu is a social enterprise that is so new it hasn’t yet set up its own 501(c)(3) organization, but that is the plan, according to founder Katherine Davies.
To date, Davies has funded the operations of Iguacu, but she is looking to establish a nonprofit entity so that she can collect donations and corporate sponsorships. Today, the organization has ten employees, including several analysts that Davies describes as “world-class” researchers.
To leverage the small staff and smaller budget, Davies has created a global network of experts that help Iguacu determine which nonprofits to support. She says, “The network gives their time for no fee because they support the Iguacu mission.”
Davies founded Iguacu when she decided she wanted to find a way to help people suffering from the Syrian civil war in 2014. “I wanted to help, to donate to a good charity helping the Syrian people. But looking online, it was really hard to work out which charity, and to even understand what was going on.”
At that moment, she recognized that should couldn’t be the only one struggling to find the right NGO to support. “Surely, we have the technology and smarts to do better. Surely, we can create a platform where the public can learn how to act effectively where there is great need.”
Deborah DiStefano, an ophthalmologist and owner of the DiStafano Eye Center in Chatanooga, Tennessee, became acquainted with Davies before she launched Iguacu and has watched its progress since. She says, “We are all humans – brothers and sisters globally. So many of us feel we want to help each other within our global family. We lack the correct vehicle to achieve this goal.”
Finding the right organization to support can be frustrating, Davies says. “There is a lot of noise on the internet. Sometimes we look up a crisis and find 300 charities, many making similar claims. Great suffering often occurs in the midst of war, and rapidly changing and complex conditions on the ground, and sometimes in fragile states.”
Davies created the solution. “At weareiguacu.com, the public can find effective charities to support addressing key challenges in the world’s major crises.”
The work isn’t without its challenges, Davies says. “The biggest challenge we face is people hearing about us. We are a small team operating on a lean model of operation. We do not have a marketing department!”
Iguacu can’t address every problem in the world, Davies says. “We focus on the key challenges in severe humanitarian crises in areas of the world where the local capacity or willingness to respond is limited. We currently cover Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, Central African Republic and Myanmar.” That seems like a good start!
DiStefano is optimistic about the organization’s prospects. “It needs to continue growing its base of donors and friends in Europe and the United States to have a continued presence and global impact on human suffering. The organization’s message really resonates; I am confident that Iguacu will galvanize the people they want to reach.”
Davies has a great vision for the impact she hopes to create. “A rapidly growing community loving Iguacu will create a powerful force for good in the world.”
“Iguacu empowers the compassionate response and its success will help to bring large scale effective support to those who are in desperate need and who may think the world has forgotten them,” Davies adds.
The name Iguacu hints at Davies’ dream. “The name is a metaphor for this vision. ‘Iguacu’ (pronounced: igwah-soo) means ‘big water’ and is also the name of the great South American river known for its awe-inspiring waterfall. Iguacu evokes the power and beauty of thoughtful mass action, likening one person’s intention to a drop of water, and mass action to the great and beautiful Iguaçu.”
On Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 2:00 Eastern, Davies will join me here for a live discussion about Iguacu and the work it is doing to address some the acutest humanitarian crises in the world. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
The calendar’s juxtaposition of Martin Luther King’s birthday and the Presidential inauguration have never seemed so ironic as in 2017. In a single week, America will celebrate the person who gave his life for civil rights and the inauguration of Donald Trump, whom New York Times columnist Nick Kristof called a racist.
One person developed a plan to unify people this week. Aria Finger, CEO and “Chief Old Person” of DoSomething.org, is yet to turn 40 and so qualifies as young in my book. As CEO, she founded the affiliated agency TMI Strategy and serves as its president. This week, DoSomething.org leads a social campaign to engage its 5.5 million young followers, creating “Resolution Walls” in public to commit to improving their local communities this year.
Introducing DoSomething.org, Finger says, “We are a mission-driven not-for-profit and we are one of the most entrepreneurial brands in the youth space.” The organization has engaged young people in every state and 131 countries. The nonprofit works to address local and global social problems, and boasts of having organized the collection of 3.7 million cigarette butts from the streets and a drive that clothed half of the homeless teens in the United States.
Finger, who was personally responsible for the “Teens for Jeans” campaign that clothed homeless teens, launched TMI strategy in 2013 to capitalize on the rich database DoSomething.org had created over two decades of working with young people to do good. She describes TMI revenue today as one of two “main revenue streams” with the other being corporate sponsorships. According to audited financial statements posted on the site, 2015 revenues topped $19 million and assets topped $16 million.
“TMI works with tops brands and NGOs like PwC, Microsoft, the College Board, the Jed Foundation, American Student Assistance to help them reach and activate young people,” Finger says.
Nancy Lublin, the CEO and Founder of Crisis Text Line, says she’s known Finger since college, “She was whip-smart… and had a tongue piercing.”
“At its core, DoSomething.org is about optimism. If you believe young people are creative and effective, then you believe a brighter future is possible. DoSomething.org is an engine for hope,” Lublin adds.
That optimism seems to be just the right tone to strike as America celebrates the beginning of the Trump administration. DoSomething will take the public pledges from across the country to create daily challenges during this “Week of Action.”
Finger notes, “More than 75% of Americans currently see our country as divided. Not only will this campaign provide unity – showing that people from all backgrounds and communities want to make a positive impact – but it will activate young people to take real and concrete steps towards that change.”
She sees this as a beginning. “Adults have been screwing up our world for a long time; I’m excited to show the world that young people are solution-oriented doers that can actually make change. And this is just the beginning. By joining this campaign and by extension the DoSomething movement, these young people are committing to action for years to come.”
The campaign is now well underway. Finger reports on the progress, “We’re thrilled that more than 60,000 young people are joining this movement and by Thursday, we will be halfway through our Week of Action and will have both more numbers/tangible results and also several amazing stories about what young people have done this week so far to make change.”
On Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm Eastern, Finger will join me here for a live discussion about the progress to date and the prospects for unifying America under the leadership of President-elect Donald Trump. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.