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Interview

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Research Center Works To Prove And Improve Impact Of Social Entrepreneurs

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

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.

Quentin Palfrey, courtesy of J-PAL

“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:

  1. In some cases, RCTs may not yield results as quickly as policymakers would like for decisions that require immediate evidence.
  2. It can be difficult to generalize results from one study to other contexts; for example, a summer jobs program that helps youth avoid violence in Chicago may not work in the same way in Philadelphia.
  3. In some cases, it might not be ethical to do a randomized controlled trial, for example when a program has the resources to serve everyone who is interested.

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.

Entrepreneur Leverages Celebrities’ Influence For Charity

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

“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.

The City Gala held around the Grammys raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities, including Travolta’s own Jett Travolta Foundation, named for his son, who passed away in 2009.

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?”

John Travolta with Philanthropist Dale Godboldo, courtesy of City Gala

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.”

Halle Berry with Greg Reid on stage at the City Summit and Gala, courtesy of City Gala

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.”

Ryan Long, courtesy of City Gala

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.”

 

 

Reverb Is Making The Live Music Industry Greener

Clean Energy Advisors is a sponsor.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

Lauren Sullivan and her husband Adam Gardner, a touring musician, wanted to make the concert scene more environmentally friendly. They’ve created Reverb, a nonprofit, to help the industry get its green on.

Adam explains, “The live music industry has historically been highly disposable, creating large amounts of landfill, energy and water waste. Think of all the plastic cups on the ground at the end of a concert or a weekend long festival, for example. Tour busses and trucks guzzle fuel carrying large crews, and large amounts of equipment across long distances every day on a tour. Tens of thousands of fans commute to a venue typically located 40 miles outside of major city centers, contributing to over 80 percent of a concert’s carbon footprint.”

Adam recognized that other nonprofits face that Reverb could overcome. “Local and national enviro nonprofit organizations have had variable experiences ‘tabling’ at concerts because they aren’t directly connected to the band or they don’t have the capacity to compete against all the other attractions at a show to get concertgoers’ attention.”

Working directly with the bands, Adam says, they can make a big difference. “Because I’m a touring musician myself, I’m able to speak to artists and their managers directly about how we can help make their tours more green while mobilizing and inspiring their fans to take action that adds up to real change.”

As a musician, Adam has an advantage. “I understand the challenges and opportunities live music events and tours create. We make it easy for bands to bridge the gap between their intentions and actions, as we embed our staff into their tours as part of their touring crew to handle tour greening behind the scenes while setting up a fan-facing interactive Eco-Village.”

Reverb has a crew that works the concerts. “Just like they have staff to handle setting up their lights and sound, we provide expert staff to set up biodiesel fuelings for tour vehicles, local farm food for catering, compost and recycling, etc. Out front at the Eco-Village in the concourse of each venue, fans can connect with issues and organizations that are near and dear to their favorite musicians. We also incentivize fans to participate by offering them ticket upgrades, meet and greets with the band and prizes. We want to make this fun and meaningful for fans in a way that only enhances their concert experience,” Adam says.

It is still a hard sell at times, Adam says. “The challenge is sometimes a general resistance to change, and lack of prioritizing or recognizing the negative impacts of live music. I get it–it’s hard enough to pull off a major production every night in a different city–everyone out on the road has their plates full and don’t have the know-how or capacity to take on new territory.”

There are challenges in trying to scale, too, he says. “We try to ‘teach a band to fish’ as much as we can, but ultimately the best programs have our staff onsite handling them–so there’s a limitation as to how much we can do directly to green tours. That said, the biggest impacts are with the millions of fans these major musicians have and their actions adding up to something truly significant. Impacting fans to take action is getting more and more powerful as social media and large concert events grow.”

Chris Warren, CEO of Clean Energy Advisors, says, “The work Adam and his team do is awesome. They spend countless hours on tour with musicians and make a difference one recycled bottle or locally sourced dinner for the crew at a time. Everyone I have met at Reverb is committed to the mission. It’s thought leaders like Adam who see an opportunity to make a positive impact and do something about it that give us great hope for future generations. We’re proud to walk hand in hand with Reverb to spread the word about climate change and to take actions that make the world a better place.”

Adam’s vision to leverage the bands’ fans to make a real impact in the world.

He says, “We are called REVERB because the message of sustainability starts with the musicians and reverberates out to their fans, which then take that passion and inspiration home to their families, workplaces, schools, and communities. We’ve been able to make a pretty good dent in changing the public’s hearts, minds and actions through the incredible reach and connection of music. It has taken many forms–fans have volunteered thousands of hours, given thousands of dollars to causes, taken thousands of actions in their own lives as simple as ditching disposable water bottles and using reusable ones.”

On Tuesday, February 28, 2017 at noon Eastern, Adam will join me here for a live discussion about the work of Reverb, making the live music industry greener. 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.

Adam Gardner, courtesy of Reverb

Adam Gardner, courtesy of Reverb

More about Reverb:

Twitter: @reverbrocks

REVERB is a community of music makers and lovers harnessing the power of live music to tackle today’s most urgent environmental issues. We partner with major musicians, festivals and venues to green live music events behind the scenes while mobilizing millions of concertgoers to take actions that add up to real change. Leading the music community since 2004, REVERB is a 501c3 environmental non-profit founded by activist Lauren Sullivan and her musician husband, Adam Gardner of Guster.

Adam’s bio:

Adam wears two “hats”— Guster frontman and Co-Director of REVERB, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to educating and engaging musicians and their fans to take action toward a more sustainable future. Gardner co-founded REVERB with his environmentalist wife, Lauren Sullivan in 2004. Since then REVERB has greened over 200 major music tours and festivals and over 5,000 concert events, kept over 117,000 tons of CO2 from the air, fueled touring fleets with over 900,000 gallons of biodiesel, partnered with over 4,000 environmental groups and have reached over 27 million music fans.

The artists that have partnered with REVERB to help them go green and mobilize their fans include Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, Linkin Park, Jack Johnson, Drake, FUN., Sheryl Crow, Phish, Jason Mraz and many more. REVERB also works with the music industry to improve business practices including record labels, concert venues and radio stations. While Adam is often on tour with his own band playing to sold-out audiences from Radio City Music Hall in New York to the Warfield in San Francisco, he is busy work-ing for REVERB in the back of his biodiesel-powered tour bus. REVERB and Guster launched the annual Campus Consciousness Tour in 2006, bringing daytime environmental programming to students and a green concert event onto college campuses across the country. Past headliners include Grammy Award-winning artists, Ben Harper and FUN., hip-hop sensations, Drake and J. Cole, and indy rockers Passion Pit, Walk the Moon and X Ambassadors. Adam has had the honor of testifying to Congress twice: in 2010 about the benefits and need to support sustainably produced and community-based biodiesel and again in 2012 in support of keeping wood products such as musical instruments free of illegally sourced wood.

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Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

 

How This Collaboration Raised Over $1M For Charity

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

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.

Pledgeling is a mobile-centric donation processing company with fifteen employees. CEO James Citron says the company hopes to double the staff within 18 months.

He rattles off early milestones:

  • Powered over 30,000 fundraising campaigns
  • Raised $3 million in donations for 4,000 nonprofits
  • Had 10,000 nonprofits join their network
  • Sold 40 customers who license their software
  • Process “hundreds of thousands” of dollars of donations monthly

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.”

Victor Cho, courtesy of Evite

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.

Why This Founder Thinks She Can Make A Good Educational Kid’s Game

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

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.”

Lindsey Tropf, courtesy of Immersed Games

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.

Artificial Intelligence Is Now Ready For Social Entrepreneurs

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

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.

Eric Rice, courtesy of USC

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.”

Eric Rice, courtesy of USC

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.

 

How To Create A Successful Corporate Social Responsibility Program

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

Why do some corporate social responsibility programs seem to backfire? There are lots of reasons, but University of Kansas Assistant Professor Jessica Li recently published a paper that explains why some do.

Her research shows that people in some countries have distinct reactions to two companies engaging in the same behavior when one of the companies is foreign and the other domestic.

Jessica has provided us with three tips for creating a corporate social responsibility program that works.

1. Consumer attributions are key.

It is important to understand that CSR is not always perceived positively by consumers. Consumers make attributions about why a company is engaging in CSR, ant these attributions influence their attitudes and behaviors.

2. Know your audience.

Consumers with collectivistic orientation make more altruistic CSR attributions for a domestic versus a foreign firm. Thus, the same CSR behavior performed by a foreign company will be perceived less positively than if it were performed by a domestic company in countries like South Korea or India.

3. Be authentic.

It’s important to show collectivistic consumers that you genuinely care about the cause. Biases against foreign companies can be minimized if the foreign company shows that it authentically cares about the cause, such as by engaging in CSR for a long time.

Jessica Li, courtesy of the University of Kansas

Jessica Li, courtesy of the University of Kansas

There is nothing worse for a CSR professional than to invest in a program that causes a negative consumer response. The money and effort feel wasted. Despite the responsibility of the company to do good, making that good profitable makes it infinite. These tips can help companies avoid CSR disasters.

On Thursday, February 2, 2017 at 2:00 Eastern, Jessica will join me here for a live discussion about making corporate social responsibility program work around 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.

More about the University of Kansas:

Twitter: @KUnews

Since its founding, the University of Kansas has embodied the aspirations and determination of the abolitionists who settled on the curve of the Kaw River in August 1854. Their first goal was to ensure that the new Kansas Territory entered the union as a free state. Another was to establish a university.

Map showing the location of KU campuses

Today, KU has become a major public research and teaching institution of 28,401 students and 2,600 faculty on five campuses (Lawrence, Kansas City, Overland Park, Wichita, and Salina). Its diverse elements are united by their mission to educate leaders, build healthy communities, and make discoveries that change the world.

Jessica’s bio:

Jessica Li received a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Arizona State University and a B.S. in Biology and Society from Cornell University. Broadly, Jessica’s research focuses on the role of emotions and motivations on consumer behavior. Due to her interdisciplinary background and desire to understand decision making from multiple perspectives, she often integrates theoretical principles from psychology, economics, and biology in her work. For example, one line of research investigates how fundamental motives, such as protecting oneself from physical threat or caring for one’s kin, affects financial decisions including risk-taking, present bias, and diversification. Another line of research takes an interpersonal approach to understanding displayed emotions on consumer judgment and decision-making. As social beings, humans make quick and spontaneous judgments from fleeting cues like an employee’s emotional expression. Jessica’s work has been published in journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research, the Academy of Management Journal, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, and the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Jessica teaches Integrated Marketing Communications at the undergraduate and MBA levels. In addition, she has taught a Ph.D. seminar in Consumer Behavior and a practicum in Promotional Plan Development. She is currently developing an online MBA course in IMC.

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Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

 

How This Social Entrepreneur Is Moving Haiti Away From Aid Toward Trade

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.”

Daniel Jean-Louis, courtesy of Bridge Capital

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.

How One Social Enterprise Is Celebrating Both MLK Day And Inauguration Day

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

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.”

Aria Finger, courtesy of DoSomething.org

“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.”

Youth publicly committing to do good, courtesy of DoSomething.org

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.

 

Two Social Entrepreneurs Help LGBTQ Youth–And Everyone Else–Cope


You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

Stephenie Larsen and Andrea Smardon have each found their own way to help others cope with challenges. Their work intersected last fall when Andrea produced and reported a story about Encircle, Stephenie’s LGBT outreach center in Provo, Utah, for NPR.

The NPR story highlights the odd juxtaposition of Encircle’s new center located within sight of the Provo Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, noting that in the fall of 2015, the Church implemented a new policy toward married gay couples and their children that excludes them from full participation.

Stephenie sees an urgent need for helping the LGBT community in densely Mormon Provo. “Utah has the fifth highest rate of youth suicide nationwide, with LGBTQ youth who experience rejection from their parents having an eight times greater risk of suicide. Those that are LDS experience even greater depression, suicidal ideation and family alienation, often losing their faith and spiritual community along the way.”

Andrea Smardon, courtesy of Changing Our Stories

Andrea Smardon, courtesy of Changing Our Stories

Andrea produced the NPR story while working on her new, long-form podcast she called “Changing our Stories.” The podcast is about making meaningful change. The episode on Encircle will be released soon.

Andrea explains her motivation for leaving her long-term job with KUER, the NPR affiliate at the University of Utah. “This is a time of incredible change. From a warming climate to social and technological change, we’re all trying to adapt. We need stories to help us process all of this. Stories help define us. They connect us with a shared understanding and serve as a guide to where we are headed.”

She notes that the news we generally read, see and hear is not up to the job of helping us cope. “Many of us are bombarded with news and information all day long, but those stories are not adequate to the task of making meaning from our lives. In the 24- hour news cycle, much is lost. I think we start to forget about parts of ourselves, our history, and our potential. We need something more nourishing. People are hungry for something more, starving really.”

Andrea could see the need for more discussion about the the LGBT community in Utah County where suicides are such a problem. While some have questioned the connection to rising suicide rates in Utah, especially in Utah County, Andrea was interested in Stephenie’s work with Encircle to address the problem head on.

Encircle is setting up operations in a beautiful, old home the organization is restoring adjacent to the Provo Temple. What goes on inside that home is what will give it significance

Inside, Encircle is doing something new and different, Stephenie says. “What’s revolutionary about our approach is that we do not just serve LGBTQ youth, but also their families. We do this because research shows that youth are nine times less likely to commit suicide if their family is affirming. We also hope that better-educated families will influence attitudes in our community.”

Encircle’s story fits Andrea’s podcast perfectly. “I’m finding people who are figuring out how to make change, small and large acts of ingenuity or bravery,” she says. “I’m looking for those stories that can help guide the way for all of us. I’m not talking about how someone lost 50 pounds in a month or invented the next addictive app. I’m talking about the kinds of changes that might help preserve us as a species or at least live fuller lives while we’re here. Every episode on the podcast is a story of personal transformation. Because that’s what I need to hear right now, and I’m pretty sure you do too.”

Every story of change includes challenges. In fact, it may be the hurdles people have to clear that make the stories meaningful.

Stephenie says money is her biggest challenge. “Raising enough money to renovate a house and run a project like Encircle is a huge undertaking. A lot of the fears I had about individuals not wanting us in downtown Provo have proven to be the opposite. We have experienced nothing but positive responses and an outpouring of love.”

Andrea faces her own challenge now that she’s on her own. “I no longer have a radio station and a ready audience for my work, so I have to figure out how to reach people. Anyone can post a podcast on iTunes, but getting heard is another matter,” she says. “I believe there is an audience out there that wants what I have to offer, but the challenge is connecting with them.”

Stephenie has a similar challenge. “We aspire to reach those outside our geographic area by putting information online,” she says.

Stephenie worries more, however, about not being able to change the hearts of people who refuse to have the discussion–but should. “We value spiritual connections and understand it oftentimes influences individuals’ openness to LGBTQ equality. We are limited by people’s willingness to consider issues affecting LGBTQ individuals with openness, and cannot change attitudes of those who will not come to the center.”

Andrea visited the center and spoke face-to-face with Stephenie and others for her story. That’s her model. She doesn’t work over the phone. She explains, “I’m telling intimate stories, and many of them would not work as well over the phone. I’m based in Utah, and most of my stories – at least for now – are about people here. I think these kinds of stories would appeal to people across the country and the world.” She hopes her geographic limitations won’t limit her audience.

Setting aside the challenges and limitations to peer into the future, Stephenie sees a big change resulting from her work. “We envision our community as a place where sexual and gender minorities feel valued and respected—where they do not feel inferior or defined by their sexuality. We work toward a future where families and congregations will encircle all individuals with love.”

“We will see a drastic reduction in homelessness, suicide, and depression,” she concludes.

Andrea’s vision parallels Stephenie’s. “My main goal is to connect people to one another, to help tell someone’s story in such a way that it changes the way people view their own lives and their place in the world.”

“At a time when the US appears deeply divided, I want to create a space for listening, trust, curiosity, and new possibilities,” Andrea said.

On Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 4:00 Eastern (2:00 Mountain), Stephenie and Andrea will join me for a live discussion about the ways they are working to help people cope with change and challenges. 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.

More about Encircle:

Instagram: @encircletogether

Encircle: LGBTQ Family and Youth Resource Center is a nonprofit organization that addresses the needs of Utah’s LGBTQ youth and their families, while changing attitudes within the community as a whole. Located in downtown Provo, Utah, the nonprofit center serves as hub to find resources that support the overall well-being of sexual and gender minorities, as well as provide a physical gathering place for families, individuals, and the community to host activities that are safe and enriching. Additionally, Encircle plans to facilitate individual counseling, conflict resolution, and other resources, including providing models of what inclusive homes might look and feel like.

Stephenie’s bio:

Stephenie and her husband, Mitch, love Utah County and have chosen to raise their six children there. She received a law degree from J. Reuben Clark Law School and is a member of the Utah State Bar. While living in Washington, D.C. Stephenie was an attorney for abused and neglected inner-city children. She then worked on Capitol Hill for both the House Committee for Children, Youth & Family and Utah Congressman Bill Orton. In Washington, D.C. she also worked for the lobbying firm MacAndrew and Forbes. Stephenie has done clerkships with Parsons, Behle and Latimer, Justice Stirba, Senator Orin Hatch and Utah County Guardian ad Litems.

More about Changing our Stories:

Twitter: @UtahPodcaster

Changing Our Stories is a podcast about transformation. Each episode is an intimate, true story about what it takes to make meaningful change. Forged in the Mountain West, it’s a virtual campfire under the stars. In a world where the 24-hour news cycle prevails, this show provides listeners a more expansive view on the human race, to reflect on where we came from, and imagine where we’re headed next.

Andrea’s bio:

Andrea Smardon is an award-winning reporter and podcast producer based in Utah. She’s a contributor to National Public Radio, and has worked at public radio stations across the country from Boston to Seattle. She recently left her reporting job at KUER in Salt Lake City to devote herself full time to podcasting and freelancing for national outlets.

Never miss another interview! Join Devin here!

Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

 

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