What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the second of a three-part series in which I’ll share some lessons drawn from the world of software development that can be applied to the social good sector. Today’s post is about using data to make better decisions. Read the first part about recognizing obstacles to action for what they are here

One of the defining features of Scrum (the software development methodology we use here at Idealist) is the regular opportunity for “retrospectives.” Once a week the team gathers to talk about what went well during the previous week, and what we want to change for the next week.

The key here is the short cycles—it allows us to experiment with semi-crazy ideas, because we’re only committing to them for a week. If they don’t work, we throw ‘em out the next week. It’s very low risk.


Photo via Nomad_Soul on Shutterstock.

An obvious benefit of this “inspect and adapt” habit is that it allows us to continuously improve our processes. A less obvious benefit is that it creates a culture of empiricism. Whenever we can, we bring real data to the retrospective.

We might start off with an instinct or a hypothesis like, “I wonder if we’d get more done if we aimed higher next week” (which is a valid question, not a foregone conclusion).

We can then test that hypothesis immediately and a week later gather to look at the results. We aimed higher—did we or didn’t we get more done?

Inspect, adapt, change the world

Nonprofits and other worldchangers use inspect and adapt processes as well, of course. The staff at Single Stop USA, for example, are working to end poverty. They keep students in school by helping them and their families navigate the world of public benefits, providing them with access to tax preparation support in addition to legal and financial counseling.

Since their founding in 2001, Single Stop has continued to work towards that goal with laser-like focus, but understands that their approach must be nimble enough to evolve based on empirical data.

Nate Falkner is the Vice President of Strategy and says that Single Stop USA makes better use of data than any organization he’s worked with. For example, they’ve used data to identify potential partners to help distribute their programs.

Early on, they looked at studies that showed that programs that gave community college students at risk of dropping out just two to three hundred dollars would often mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

A lightbulb went off, and the Single Stop team realized community colleges were ideal partners. Single Stop’s programs could serve as a dropout prevention strategy for the colleges (on average, Single Stop clients receive benefits and services worth over $1,000), while the colleges could provide Single Stop with access to a large number of potential clients and an infrastructure through which to expand.

Similarly, after gathering data that showed the words “tax preparation support” carries less stigma than “government benefits” (think politically charged terms like “food stamps” and “welfare”), Single Stop refined its messaging to potential clients. They focused their outreach message on the tax preparation parts of their program, drawing in clients who later became interested in their other resources.

Let out your inner data nerd

When it comes to developing an “inspect and adapt” process, we recommend keeping the following in mind:

1. Schedule time for reflecting on process, and treat it as sacred.
It can be tempting to skip the retrospective when other things seem more pressing, but we’ve found that treating it as sacred has kept us sharp.

2. Minimize the risks associated with innovating on process.
We limit our experiments to one week, which allows us to try out some pretty dramatic ideas. You’ll often hear someone say, “It’s only for a week, guys” during our retrospective sessions. This reduces anxiety for people who tend to be averse to big changes.

3. Adapt the process; don’t move the goalposts.
As Nate says, “Our mission is ending poverty, and that doesn’t change. We’re being smart and nimble about how we approach that discussion and how we approach stakeholders on their terms.”

How have you used “inspect and adapt” techniques to innovate on your internal processes?

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How one Idealist is bringing affordable e-learning to Malawi

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching'oma school

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching’oma school

When Gail Swithenbank made a trip to Malawi this January, e-learning wasn’t on her mind. She was visiting the Ching’oma school to check in on a scholarship program she’d helped create for children to attend secondary school and study permaculture—low-tech, sustainable agriculture methods.

But when she visited one of the high schools the scholarship recipients would attend, she saw that they needed more support than just tuition.

“It was two rooms, no windows or doors, few desks. No books or paper. Just two blackboards. The teacher had one book that they all copied from. Kids are walking seven kilometers each way to get there,” she says.

Gail realized that for the scholarship to make much of a difference, the students would need textbooks and materials. A library full of books could really help, but it would be better if they could ‘leapfrog’ directly to e-learning using low-cost laptops.

Bridging the digital divide

But an e-learning program would be challenging to implement; only about 5% of Malawians have internet access, according the World Fact Book. Even if provided with low-cost computers, the students wouldn’t be able to reliably access the trove of knowledge and learning platforms online.

Some new technology offers a way around this problem. Developer Jamie Alexandre and a team of volunteers recently released a free, portable version of the content and software produced by Khan Academy, a free online educational platform. This new version, called KA-Lite, is designed to work offline. In addition to video lessons and interactive exercises, it allows teachers to track the progress of each student while they learn at their own pace.

When Gail heard about this, she saw the potential. She found more educational content provided by the RACHEL Initiative—free courseware, libraries, and an offline version of Wikipedia. By putting all of this on a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer the size of a Smartphone that plugs into a T.V., she could provide a complete platform that’s nearly free and requires very little infrastructure. She’s spent the last few months learning about the technology and reaching out to her contacts in Malawi, who are excited about the idea.

The tools are new. The lessons are timeless.

As amazing as these new tools are, some of the most important takeaways from Gail’s story have very little to do with technology, and could apply to almost any project. Here are a few:

1. Expertise not required.
Gail admits she didn’t know much about e-learning or computer science before she started working on this project. So she reached out to people with related experience, like Janice Lathen of Powering Potential, who has been setting up computer labs in Tanzania since 2007. Gail has also spent hours on Skype with a nephew who studied computer science to get help with the technology. Sometimes, tenacity trumps knowledge.

2. Build on existing relationships and create new ones.
Great ideas can sometimes die on the vine without the right support. After working with school headmaster Gilbert Kaunda on the permaculture scholarship, Gail now has a local partner. He’s in a good position to make changes at the school and work with the local government.

She’s likewise reached out to potential partners, like Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches science and sustainability at Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York, about a possible collaboration between the two schools. Ultimately, Gail hopes to work with them and others to build a new e-learning facility.

3. Use what’s already out there.
Gail could have started a new nonprofit to support this project, done lots of fundraising, hired a staff to curate the e-learning materials and build the building. Instead, she’s leveraging existing institutions and tools: the school in Malawi, content from Khan Academy, and the community that’s sprouting up around Raspberry Pi.

By focusing first on the problem in front of her and connecting the dots, she avoided getting bogged down in details and spending extra cash. Sometimes being innovative just means assembling the pieces in front of you.

Gail’s story is just one example of people using new tech to solve stubborn problems. Do you know of another? Share it in the comments below.


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Try this! Bring TEDx to under-resourced communities

The idea

Over the past few years, TED talks have become a popular way of sharing knowledge on pretty much anything. From robot technology to guerrilla gardening, the topics tackled by TED speakers have a limitless breadth, and the events are known to pack auditoriums and concert halls across the world.

But what about smaller, isolated communities who don’t have access to this bottomless pit of information, whether it be in person or via TED’s online video archive?

They create their own version.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the local venue.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the event’s first venue.

Both Kelo Kubu and Kevin Otieno have championed these new kinds of TEDx talks in two African villages. Kubu used a “TEDx in a Box”—an all-in-one kit of equipment needed to put on a talk—to hold Kliptown, South Africa’s first talk in 2011 and Otieno used the aid of other veteran TEDx organizers to get TEDx Kibera (one of Kenya’s largest slums) off the ground in 2009.

“It’s important to share [TED talks] with other impoverished communities, since the majority of the people in these communities have lost hope in life,” says Otieno. “We’ve already seen the small impact made in Kibera. People can learn, be encouraged, be motivated and be inspired to think big and differently. And they didn’t have that before.”

While their events both followed a similar structure of a regular TEDx talk, both Kubu and Otieno worked hard to mold the events into something the locals would want to attend, if not continue on their own. From promoting a simplistic, bare-bones image—as to not intimidate the largely impoverished attendees—to knowing what snacks to bring, the two successfully piqued the interest and imaginations of their specific communities by finding common ground.

Why you might like to try this

  • Sparks local and global idea-sharing.  In Kliptown, Thulani Madondo, the leader of South Africa’s One Laptop Per Child branch spoke about the program’s efforts to bring new technology to remote communities and classrooms. In response, local children in the audience who had received laptops through this program recorded their own TEDx discussion on how they use it. “What was interesting to me was the ease at which the community caught on to the idea of TEDx and wanted to make their own,” says Kubu. “And to see both the creator of the laptop program and the children who received it side by side brought it full circle.”
  • Empowers community. Otieno says that TEDx Kibera has changed people’s perceptions on who can teach. “They realize that despite their socioeconomic status they are not different. They can’t choose where they are born but they can choose what they want to be.” Since TEDx became a reoccurring presence in Kibera four years ago, new businesses led by event attendees have popped up across the sprawling slum.
  • Provides insight on universal technologies. The TEDx in a Box kit contains tablets and smart phones that can be plugged into projectors to screen TEDx talks. Kubu says that bringing this usually foreign technology to small communities is a huge step in global education, especially for youth. “Kids catch onto new technology faster than adults. It doesn’t matter if they are in a rural community or in New York City. With just a simple tablet or smart phone in a classroom, children can become global citizens,” says Kubu. “This is the future of education.”

Gomba, a local artist, speaks about art, empowerment and life in Kibera at the TEDx Kibera event.

How you can replicate it

While each area‘s TEDx events should be uniquely crafted to make sense in their community, Kubu and Otieno agree that the idea is meant to be universal.  If you’d like to host a TEDx in your small community, or know of one that could benefit from a TEDx event, consider these tips from Kubu.

  • Do your homework on the location.  Community members will only be interested in the talk if the topics relate to real issues and ideas that are relevant to their society. For example, in Kibera, Otieno invited the head of a local art studio to speak, encouraging listeners to contribute to the space. “To make it work, you have to know something about the community. You have to know what their needs are and how it can benefit them,” says Kubu. “It has to make sense.”
  • Find the right messenger. Kubu says that, if you aren’t from the area, it’s key to connect with a community leader to spread the word about the event. People feel more comfortable hearing about a new idea when it comes from a familiar source.
  • Make the audience comfortable Be sure to create a welcoming atmosphere for attendees. If they’re used to sitting on the floor, don’t bring chairs. If social events in their community usually involve snacks, make sure you bring the right ones.
  • Make cost a non-issue. “It’s important to show the community that putting on a event doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” she says. “You can make money a barrier, and we don’t want that.  We want people to see that it’s easy and can be something they would have done on any other day.”
  • Provide tools to keep it going. Kubu left a stack of TED DVDs at Kilptown’s library—one of the few places in town with electricity and a DVD player. Now, locals visit the library weekly for an arranged viewing of a talk.

“Ideally, I’d like to see Kliptown put on their own TEDx talk,” she says. “But all we can do is start the idea. The rest is in their hands.”


Interested in curating a small-scale TEDx talk? Contact Kelo Kubu at Kelo.Kubu@gmail.com or Kevin Otieno at otieno_rebel@yahoo.com. 

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Step by step: Barefoot College brings rural ideas to a global sphere

Thirty years ago, in the small northwest Indian village of Tilonia, a rundown tuberculosis sanatorium lay vacant—its collection of once-crowded buildings gathering sand and bleaching to white in the desert sun.

Now, after an inspired rejuvenation, the 45-acre campus is home to one of the most successful education centers in the world: The Barefoot College.

Built in the 70s as a platform to empower local poverty-stricken villagers by sharing regional  skills (like farming, building, and manufacturing using local resources) and traditional knowledge, the Barefoot College now serves as a model of rural higher education throughout India and the world.

From teaching residents how to build successful and lo-tech water supply schemes to creating powerful working roles for women in communities where most jobs are left to the men, the college has sparked a shift in education tactics on both a local and global scale.

But what helped this small institution become so powerful? According to the college’s extremely modest and media-shy founder Bunker Roy, it all comes down to maintaining a solid focus throughout the development and growth of the organization.

Getting schooled 


A woman at the Tilonia Barefoot College campus works on a solar engineering project. (Photo by UN Women Gallery via Flicker Creative Commons)

In 1972, a small group of young professionals started the college with the intention of melding the minds of urban professionals, who were educated in a modern college setting, with poverty-stricken villagers, who were skilled in traditional tasks passed down through generations in their small community.

Bringing these two seemingly opposite pockets of educated individuals together could widen the minds of both groups, thus upending the hierarchical, wealth-based education system for the best, the staff thought.

This progressive model worked—but only for so long.

Changing the syllabus 

A decade after the college’s start, most of the urbanites had returned to financially secure jobs in metropolitan centers, leaving the villagers in complete control of the campus.

Thus began a new phase in the college’s direction. Cut off from external aid, the students boosted their self-sufficiency as a community, relying on their new-found knowledge of external technologies (solar energy and clean water systems) and already embedded traditional wisdom.

The women of Tilonia began to install solar panels in the college’s roofs, significantly cutting back on the village’s electricity bills. Teachers reintroduced puppetry, a past traditional teaching tool, into classrooms that once were struggling under western education-based lesson plans. They were pulling themselves out of a rut with the simple trust in their own developed skills.

Roy saw this as a substantial turning point in the school’s metamorphosis.

“This is one of the Barefoot College’s greatest accomplishments—to reduce dependency on the urban professionals and demonstrate the capacity and competence of the poorest of the poor,” Roy said.

The original idea of the college, to acknowledge traditional skill-sharing education platforms, had essentially remained the same, aside from shedding the urban influence. Which turned out to be precisely what Roy had wanted it to be.

“For an unemployed and unemployable semi-literate rural youth to be providing a vital service in a village, effectively replacing a urban trained paper-qualified doctor, teacher, and water engineer is a totally revolutionary idea,” Roy said.

This twist in focus helped steer the college onto the expanding path it’s on today.

Teaching by example

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At a 2008 Pop!Tech conference, Bunker Roy shows how the college uses traditional educational tools, like puppetry, to teach. (Photo by Pop!Tech via Flick Creative Commons)

The college has inspired 20 similar schools to pop up across India, and works with small, impoverished villages across Africa and the Middle East to train locals in creating their own similarly founded campuses.

More than 200 semi-literate people have been trained in solar engineering for village energy sources and 500,000 now have access to safe drinking water through an array of hand pumps and rainwater catchment systems designed by students.

And, many times, the students become the teachers. Recently, outside professionals have visited the Barefoot College to learn traditional construction techniques from skilled villagers to use in urban settings.

Locally, struggling villages have found a new sense of economic stability and self-respect through the college’s efforts.

“It has been the job of the Barefoot College to provide that critical space for the poor to grow from ‘no-human beings’ in the eyes of so-called civilized society to a responsible, respected and accepted ‘barefoot’ professional,” Roy said.

But while the college has found sturdy ground in Tilonia and across the globe, Roy said that the idea to create a new type of rural education system was fated to be a challenging push against the norm.

However, his original intentions have anything but diminished.

“It is an eternal struggle,” Roy said. “But the struggle and the challenge make it worthwhile knowing that it’s making a tangible difference.”

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Fight hunger with Idealist!

Photo Credit: World Food Day US and Cananda, Flickr

Every night, 1 in 8 people goes to sleep hungry. To address this statistic, on Tuesday, October 16th, people around the world came together and participated in World Food Day, an annual event that since 1981 has encouraged people to take action to end hunger. While World Food Day has passed, if you’re interested in being part of this movement and changing that statistic for the better, there are plenty of jobs and internships on Idealist that focus on fighting hunger.

  • If you’ve always wanted to eliminate hunger while having a cool job title, check out the Director of CHOW position at the Broome County Council of Churches in Binghamton, NY. CHOW stands for the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse, which distributes over 130,000 pounds of food every month through over 30 soup kitchens. Just think how snazzy your new business card would look.
  • If you want to work in NYC,  take a look at the Development Associate position at Edible Schoolyard, an organization that helps teach healthy, organic eating habits to public school kids in New York City.
  • For people interested in affecting the roots of the hunger problem, Just Harvest is a public policy advocacy group in based in Pittsburgh, PA. It works with a variety of public programs, from farmers markets to food stamps, and it currently has a bountiful autumn crop of jobs posted on Idealist.
  • Of course, interesting jobs that fight hunger are not limited the the United States. You could be part of the effort to lessen dependence on food aid at the One Acre Fund in Kenya. Ten jobs were listed in October, so the Fund is serious about helping African farmers become more productive.
  • If working in one country is too much of a commitment for you, check out Medair. It’s a relief organization that works across the world in conflict spots, natural disaster zones, and basically anyplace where hunger is a problem. You could work in Afghanistan, Madagascar, or Haiti, to name just a few of the available job opportunities.

Finally, if none of the above postings appeal to you, don’t lose hope. You can always apply to be a beekeeper in Cameroon.

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Organization Spotlight: A look at who’s fighting poverty on Idealist

Earlier this week, two conferences — the Mashable Social Good Summit and the Clinton Global Initiative — took place here in New York, discussing how we can all come together to address pressing global problems like poverty.

Each day at Idealist, we see people working to address poverty as well; if you perform a search for the keyword “poverty” on Idealist, you’ll find more than 18,000 organizations and opportunities tackling this issue. In recognition of all the organizations fighting poverty across the world, we’ve decided to highlight a few nonprofits that caught our eye here at Idealist.

blueEnergy in San Francisco, CA

Turbine in action (Photo Credit: blueEnergy)

Poverty has many causes, but one of the most prominent is that some people simply don’t have access to resources that other people take for granted. blueEnergy works to provide renewable energy, water sanitation, and other green services to some of the poorest regions of the Western Hemisphere. Take a look at blueEnergy’s program page to see the specific types of gadgets they’re using.


Street Roots in Portland, OR

Nick Fish, Portland, Oregon Housing Commissioner at groundbreaking for homeless resource center on 11.20.09 (Photo Credit: Streetroots.org)

In recent years, Portland, Oregon, has become a nonprofit hotspot. This could have something to do with the fact that Idealist has an office in Portland, but that’s a free-range chicken or the egg type of problem. Regardless, one of the great nonprofits in Portland that focuses on poverty is Street Roots. Each year Street Roots offers over 250 homeless and low-income people jobs selling their eponymous newspaper. Beyond the newspaper, there is a resource guide for people experiencing homelessness and poverty which covers both Multnomah and Washington counties. If you live in Portland and don’t know about Street Roots, pick up a copy! If you live elsewhere you can still read the online newspaper, which has some great articles.


OpenTable in Concord and Maynard, Massachusetts

Serving all who come to OpenTable (Photo Credit: OpenTable)

The goal of ending poverty in general can seem a little daunting. However, if you focus on solving one of the many problems associated with poverty, even small organizations can make a difference. This is the case with Open Table, a nonprofit operating in Concord and Maynard, Massachusetts. Open Table offers free food to anyone who wants it, but it’s no ordinary food pantry. Once a week at each of its locations Open Table holds a community dinner with a main course, dessert, and coffee. In doing so, OpenTable is moving away from the traditional “soup kitchen” model (think long lines and silence) and replacing it with a more social form of eating is becoming increasingly popular.

Advocates for the Other America in Washington, DC

Finally, as Election Day draws closer and the mudslinging increases, you may be forgiven for thinking that the political landscape in the United States is a little rocky right now. In fact, you may be tempted to write off the entire city of Washington, D.C. Don’t despair! Besides hosting an awesome Idealist grad fair, Washington is also home to Advocates for The Other America. AFTOA is a lobbying firm which represents the interests of low-income Americans. If you’re concerned about the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots in the United States, check out AFTOA see what they’re doing to let politicians know that poverty needs to be a national priority.

How are YOU tackling poverty?

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The way out: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

The United Nation’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is this Sunday, October 17th, and this year’s theme is “From poverty to decent work: bridging the gap.” After an economic downturn that has skyrocketed the number of people living in poverty or with precarious labor situations, it’s no surprise that the U.N. has chosen to focus this year’s events on organizations and ideas that lead to sustainable models for economic stability through job creation.

The Test of Poverty from Trickleup.org

Microcredit, small loans to budding social entrepreneurs, has received a lot of attention recently, especially as it proves itself to be not only an effective tool in empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty, but also as it increasingly becomes a profitable means of investing. You can become a micro-lender yourself by making loans through Kiva.org, which has facilitated over $160,000,000 in loans to over 225,000 recipients since it’s founding.

Another organization working in the realm of microfinance is Trickle Up. Working in Asia, Central America and West Africa, Trickle Up approaches microfinance through a wider lens than solely the facilitating of financial resources. Reaching out to people living on less than $1.25 a day, the organization provides one time grants, training on how to operate and sustain a microenterprise as well as ongoing business development and community building. You can check out a short video of Trickle Up’s work here.

Programs like Kiva’s and Trickle Up’s enforce that the true power of microfinance is it’s ability to empower people to lift themselves out of poverty – but that money, without knowledge, is not always enough to create the safety nets and sustainable livelihoods that lead to lasting social change. Do you know of any other organizations or individuals that are supporting this year’s theme for World Poverty Day? Share them with us!

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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