What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the final installment of a three-part series detailing lessons learned from the world of software development that can be applied to the social change work. Previously, we talked about identifying obstacles to action and using data to inspect and adapt. Today we’re talking about the importance of making small improvements along the way.


It often takes a series of smaller ideas to get to the big one you love. (Photo via ratch on Shutterstock.)

Have you ever been really excited about a new project, but you’re not sure how to start? Some people prefer to plan as much as possible from the very beginning, while others just want to dip their toes in with a small step. These two approaches are common in the software development world. The first approach is called “waterfall,” and the second is known as “iterative.”

Iterative development is at the heart of Agile software development strategies. Iterative methods assume that in a complex project, there will be too many variables (sometimes called “risks”) to account for up front.

Instead, the goal is to identify the smallest possible increment that will prove or disprove a hypothesis. And we build only that part!

Of course, we might have other ideas in mind, but we focus on building a small piece and then we collect feedback from people, see how it’s actually being used (which is sometimes different from how we expected), and figure out the best way to move forward.

Iterating in the social good space

Linda Kay Klein leads the Work on Purpose program at Echoing Green, a social impact accelerator which has awarded $31 million dollars in start-up funding to over 500 promising social entrepreneurs in 40 countries since its founding in 1987.

Work on Purpose is a perfect example of iterative program development. Linda says she was originally brought on to promote a book by the organization’s senior vice president, which illustrated one principle for finding your purpose through the stories of five of Echoing Green’s social entrepreneurship Fellows. She says at that time, Echoing Green had a hunch that it could become more than a book, but they weren’t sure where it would lead. It was unclear how her job would take shape, but both Linda and the organization were willing to take a risk.

Over the next two and a half years, Work on Purpose evolved under Linda’s leadership. Echoing Green’s staff identified nine more principles for finding your purpose, each of which are now illustrated via stories and taught through interactive activities. The stories and activities became a series of workshops, then an online learning platform, and eventually a curriculum on which faculty and staff of over 50 colleges, universities and nonprofits have been trained.

Linda and her colleagues evaluated each piece of the program at every step along the way via surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one meetings. They even refined their evaluation methods as they went, drawing upon research in the fields of education, psychology, and organizational behavior to develop proxy measures that would enhance their evaluative methodologies. She credits this formative evaluation process for the fast growth of Work on Purpose from a book into a successful program.

Linda believes Echoing Green’s “evaluate early and often” technique is relatively common in the social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs have a long history of evaluating buyers’ responses to products and changing them up as needed; social entrepreneurs do the same thing with social programs and products.

“Our Echoing Green social entrepreneurship Fellows are all in start-up phase,” Linda adds. “They haven’t had a long enough history for longitudinal research, so—like the Work on Purpose program did—they evaluate and make changes in real time. That’s what being scrappy is all about.”

She says that traditional nonprofits haven’t always done this, instead evaluating programs at the end of a long pilot phase, perhaps missing opportunities to make adjustments along the way.

Evaluate early, evaluate often

Here are some things to keep in mind for an iterative approach to program development:

  • Identify your MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This might not be applicable to every social good project, but it’s probably applicable to more than we realize. Your minimum viable product is the smallest deliverable possible that will prove or disprove a hypothesis. This means getting something in front of real people as soon as possible, like Echoing Green’s first round of workshops, and collecting feedback before iterating further. Be careful not to confuse this with “the least amount of work we can do.” It’s not small for the sake of small; it’s the minimum needed to isolate variables and learn as much as possible.

  • Evaluate against problem statements, not solutions. In software development, it’s tempting to evaluate success based on simple metrics like traffic and feature use. But every feature is attempting to solve a problem, and if people are using the feature but the problem isn’t solved, the feature has failed. Similarly, in the world of social good, projects must be evaluated on their impact, not their use. Echoing Green set goals not only about the number of schools who would adopt their curriculum, but also the impact the curriculum would have on participants.

  • Use proxy measures. Linda credits the TCC Group with helping to shape the way Echoing Green approached evaluation for its Work on Purpose program, specifically helping them identify trustworthy measures that would allow them to project longer-term effects than they were actually able to assess. As an example, research shows that people who feel more related to one another are more likely to work on one anothers’ behalf. With this research as a proxy measure, the Work on Purpose program can now assess participant’s long-term likelihood to work on behalf of others simply by measuring whether or not they felt more related to others after a workshop.

How have you used an “evaluate early and often” approach to iterate on your programs?

For another example of iteration in action, check out our post about Farmigo, a company that’s bringing the farmers market to you.

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How a New York City teacher stays committed to social change


Photo via Jose Vilson

Jose Vilson’s journey as an educator began during his senior year in college when, after leading a workshop on Cesar Chavez, he decided to forgo his intended career as a computer scientist and enter the field of teaching. According to a McKinsey study, 14 percent of teachers leave after one year, and nearly half leave the profession before their fifth year, citing difficult working conditions. Now, having taught in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan for eight years, Jose is proving to be an exception to the rule, and is tackling issues on education everywhere from CNN, to GOOD, the Huffington Post, and TEDx.

How does Jose make a job with such high turnover work for him? His drive is rooted in his commitment to education equality and long-term success for African-American and Latino youth. Staying focused on this greater goal has kept him in the field, and brought him recognition as a thought-leader, following his media presence and engaging blog.

“I come from the Lower East Side, the last frontier of the ghetto. In the 90s, it was a dark time: There was drug selling and murder. Growing up, we called it Beirut; you had people shooting from behind the walls through the projects. But the best part of being who I am and where I come from is that it affords me the opportunity to be patient and be more forward thinking.

“For example, people use the old leadership model where you have to be in front in order to take control, and students will sit back and take in what you teach. I don’t believe that. People mistake the leadership I bring as not taking charge, but I am trying to get students to be leaders on their own. For example, you will hear noise in my class. You will hear more of [the students] than of me. I also ask students to leave me alone and ask their classmates about solutions before they ask me. I don’t do it to be a jerk, but they need to be self-motivated and work on [their] own.

“[The students] make me want to be better. Walking the road I did, I beat the odds and want them to do the same.

“We need people who are passionate and driven to make education valuable to students. If you want to teach, do a lot of personal reflection. The person who you think you are may not be the person you are in the classroom. I would also advise you to really read. Find best practices. Find a group of friends who you really trust. Having that dialogue that makes the experience a whole lot better when you are learning how to teach.”


This story is part of Heart at Work, a monthly series produced by Idealist.org and Echoing Green, in which we tilt the spotlight towards everyday people doing extraordinary work that makes the world a better place.

What keeps you going when the road gets rough? Answer on Echoing Green’s Work on Purpose platform.

If you want a job like Jose’s, here are opportunities for you to explore on Idealist.org.

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Morning Links: Interesting ideas on how to shake up your career


Start your week off with coffee and a few good articles (Photo Credit: macinate, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Happy Monday! Last week, the internet was brimming with great career advice. Here is a round up of links to help you start your week off with reflection and action.

Have you found your place in the social-change landscape?

Although people are buzzing about social entrepreneurship, the reality is that social entrepreneurship is not for everyone and we need people NOT to be social entrepreneurs. Lara Galinsky, Senior Vice President of Echoing Green, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that rather than focusing on one way of making a difference, we need to encourage people to explore the various ways they can have a social impact:

But social entrepreneurs alone cannot change the world.They need artists, volunteers, development directors, communications specialists, donors, and advocates across all sectors to turn their groundbreaking ideas into reality. They need fundraisers, supporters who can change policies, someone to create a brochure describing their work. If everyone wants to start a new organization, who is going to do all the work?

If you’re ready to recharge your job search, complete this activity to figure out what kind of work you’d most enjoy in the social sector.

What beliefs are holding you back?

Sam Davidson, Co-Founder and President of Cool People Care, recently made a short list of things that don’t exist. Though they seem innocent, I think they can actually hold us back from creating the personal and professional lives that we really want:

Getting rich quick
An overnight success
Something that is easy to do and worth doing
“It’s not personal, it’s just business.”
That which is valuable or meaningful that came about effortlessly
A life without regret
The perfect man/woman/child
Having it all

What would you add?

Feel like you’ve hit a wall? Travel someplace new

Though it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes our expertise can make it difficult to be creative because our minds become set on a particular way of thinking.  According to the folks on American Express Open Forum, by going away for a while, your mind is allowed to wander which boosts creativity:

Creativity is all about making new connections between seemingly disparate concepts. “When you escape from the place you spend most of your time,” he says, “your mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas previously suppressed.”

But it’s not enough to simply hop a plane to anywhere. If you want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then you have to rethink its purpose in the first place.

“Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don’t have to think about those troubles they left behind,” Lehrer explains. “But here’s the ironic twist: your mind is most likely to solve your stubbornest problems while you’re sitting in a swank Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, mull over those domestic riddles you just can’t solve. You have the breakthrough while on break.”
Have you experienced a creative breakthrough while traveling?

Read something interesting recently? Share your thoughts and a link below!

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Contests and fellowships, from entrepreneurship to design


Image by GlobalX, who helped review Echoing Green applications in 2007 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Need funding and mentors to get your social change project off the ground? Here’s a handful of contests and fellowships we’ve spotted recently. If you know of others we should promote, leave a comment below.

Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition

  • WHO: University students
  • WHEN: Deadline is November 9
  • WHAT: The University of Washington invites student teams from around the world to propose businesses to reduce poverty in developing world. Semi-finalists are invited to Seattle to visit regional companies, receive expert coaching, present their business ideas to hundreds of professionals, and compete for up to $30,000 in prizes. Details here.

desigNYC Collaborators

  • WHO: New York City nonprofits, city agencies, and pro bono designers
  • WHEN: Deadline is November 10
  • WHAT: This competition pairs NYC organizations with all types of pro bono designers (landscape, interior, communications, architectural, you name it). The designers create solutions to make the organizations’ projects more beautiful and functional – and thus, their neighborhoods more livable, workable, and fun. Nonprofits and designers can find entry info here.

Women for Social Innovation’s Turning Point Prize

  • WHO: Philadelphia-based emerging social entrepreneurs
  • WHEN: Deadline is December 28
  • WHAT: Ladies, got an idea to make Philly the city of sisterly love? Apply for this grant and you could win a $15,000 grant to improve the lives of women, girls and families in the area. Residents and local college students are eligible. Learn more.

Echoing Green Fellowship

  • WHO: English speakers age 18+ whose organizations are in the start-up phase.
  • WHEN: Applications accepted December 5-January 9.
  • WHAT: Calling all visionaries around the world: have a new organization in the works but need some support? This highly competitive program supports its fellows with start-up cash, an $80,000 stipend, technical assistance, and a powerful network over the course of two years to make their idea the next big thing. Criteria and info here.

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Green jobs have tripled! So how can you land one?


Installing solar panels isn't the only way to work for a cleaner planet. (Photo: OregonDOT via Flickr/Creative Commons)

“Green jobs,” or jobs that touch on environmental sustainability in some way, are up, according to…our website! So how can you land one?

We recently spoke with New York Times reporter Austin Considine, whose piece Green Jobs Attract Graduates was published last weekend:

Amelia Byers, operations director for Idealist.org…said the number of jobs related to environmental work has roughly tripled in the last three years. “A lot of new graduates are coming out of a world where volunteerism and service has been something that has helped define their generation,” she said. “Finding a job with meaning is an important value to them.”

After we shared the article, the folks at Sacandaga Consulting tweeted back: “@idealist What tips would you give/what experience is needed for people looking to find a green job?

Good question. Here are some ideas…

Set yourself up for success.

Try some of the exercises in our free online Career Center and, if you’re looking specifically at the nonprofit sector, our Guides to Nonprofit Careers. Get really clear on the type of work you’re looking for, and prepare for interviews, salary and benefits negotiations, and success on the job.

Demonstrate your interest.

In Recent Graduates Head for Green Jobs, a response to the Times article, Care2.com blogger Amelia T. writes: “The worry, for me, is that “sustainability” will become so ubiquitous that it means nothing at all, another way for people to feel as though they’re doing something altruistic without much of an actual impact.”

Do smart searching!

Do you have additional tips or resources? Please share!

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Podcast: Lara Galinsky of Echoing Green, "Heart + head = hustle"

featuredBy Amy Potthast.

This week, Lara Galinsky, Senior Vice President of Echoing Green, is launching an inspiring career guide for social impact work called Work on Purpose.

We interviewed Lara about her new book. Click here to listen now!

Each chapter of Work on Purpose asks key questions for career seekers; illustrates the impact of these questions in the lives of Echoing Green community members; and offers a place for notes at the end for you to jot reflections from your own life.

In this episode of the Idealist Careers Podcast, Idealist’s Amy Potthast chats with Lara Galinsky about the central message of Work on Purpose: finding work that uses your “Heart + Head = Hustle.”

Click here to listen:

p.s. In the podcast, Lara shares the stories of the five people who illustrate this message:

  • Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, who graduated from medical school and Kennedy School of Government, and chose social-justice over medicine.
  • Mark Hannis, founder of the Genocide Intervention Network and the child of Holocaust survivors, who discovered as a college student that genocide still occurs, and that he could mobilize action to end it.
  • Mardie Oakes, founder of Hallmark Community Solutions, combined her background in architecture, community housing, and finance to develop housing for people with special needs.
  • Socheata Poeuv, creator of the film project Khmer Legacies, which documents interviews between Khmer Rouge survivors and their adult children.
  • Andrew Youn, Founder of the One Acre Fund, who started out in a corporate consulting job but later used his business skills to develop a market system for farmers in a region of Kenya to prevent annual famines.

Click here to learn more about Work on Purpose.

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

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