Xperts Speak is led by Melissa Akaka, Academic Director at Project X-ITE, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Daniels College of Business, Co-Director of the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center, and Elizabeth and Ali Machado Faculty Fellow.
Janney Carpenter speaks about the Barton Fellowship Social Enterprise Fellowship program and how to effectively build social impact organizations. Watch the video, or read the transcript below.
Melissa Akaka: I’m here with Janney Carpenter, the Faculty Director of The Social Enterprise Fellowship at Barton Institute for Community Action. She is also faculty at the Korbel School of International Studies, as well as University College’s nonprofit leadership programs. So, she comes to us today with an extensive background in international development, as well as social enterprises, and I’m really excited to have her here. Welcome, Janney.
Janney Carpenter: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Melissa: So just to start off our conversation, we know that there’s a lot going on in the world right now and so many things to think about, but before we get into that, if you could just tell us a little bit about your experience in terms of international development and design thinking in particular.
Janney: My background really doesn’t have too much to do with it. I’m a reformed banker. So I worked in finance on Wall Street for a while for JP Morgan, and then decided that I really wanted to get more into community development and development consulting, and development finance. Then I started doing consulting work for 12 years with Shore Bank Advisory Services and doing international development, and I really focused on microfinance, and small business development. And then, I moved more into Community and Economic Development here in the United States. And then, I taught at The Kellogg School in Chicago at Northwestern while I was in Chicago for five years, and then, I have taught here at DU since 2008, mostly at Korbel.
Melissa: And in terms of your background in both international and domestic development, how does that tie into our conversations right now around innovation and entrepreneurship and how we can support that? So, how does your background bridge that gap?
Janney: I think the thing that I have learned in my consulting experience is that organizations on the ground have a deep understanding of local problems and the people, the customers are beneficiaries, and really play a key role in providing useful information to design effective strategies like the design-thinking and human centered design process you alluded to earlier, but they also play a key role in implementing. One common theme you see is among international development and community development here in the United States, which is that you need local actors and local organizations, whether they’re for profits or whether nonprofits or some hybrid in between.
The social purpose organizations really are critical to provide access to local markets, hard to serve markets, to provide economic opportunities, or to connect local businesses to markets and to create more sustainable and scalable solutions, but the key is those load the design process has to be informed by the local level and not be applied from the outside top down.
The best solutions and most effective organizations I’ve seen in my years of consulting with international development organizations and in the US. They all have a deep knowledge and understanding of the problems locally. They fall in love with the problem, and then they design solutions and learn and adapt and innovate and iterate to design the best possible solution, solution possible.
Melissa: It sounds like it would make sense to get the local community involved in solving problems that directly impact to them. Even though these problems are pretty wide scale or global. What are some of the challenges of getting the local communities involved in the solutions themselves?
Janney: We are facing massive, complex and rapidly changing problems – both social and environmental ones in today’s world. And obviously those problems vary dramatically across markets and across sectors, and they’re changing in different markets and for different segments of the population. So, trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution rarely works very well. It might be cost-effective. It might scale quickly, but I think often you end up with impact this deep across you know this deep, but a mile wide versus sustainable measurable impact that can really change the trajectory of a community or really create lasting impact. And so why do it unless we can have meaningful and sustainable impact?
I also do believe scale is important. There’s a lot of people who fall in love with the word innovation. But if you innovate, innovate, and innovate and never try to scale your solution, that’s also a problem because you learn how to do it better by implementing. Scaling is a process of continual innovation learning as you go, adapting using feedback loops from customers and data to help you understand what solutions are best and how do you need to tweak it to get the better the best outcomes you can for your target clients, and so innovation doesn’t really matter unless we can scale impact. But I think scale needs to be defined pretty clearly. Every organization may have a different best way to scale. Pathways to scale can be growth and number of customers and just direct service or sales. It can be improving the depth of your impact by product diversification to the same target customers. It can be through partnerships. Or it can be through replication–you can scale with a really good local model like local theater. It’s pretty hard to scale local theater. But it can have a huge impact in a local community as inspiration and as a creativity outlet and bringing community together. That’s not going to scale easily, but it could be easily be replicable.
Melissa: I love that you have sort of multiple avenues for connecting international problems and local communities and thinking through how we might be able to grow our solutions so that they’re not only working for one small area, but we can also think about how we can in different ways depending on the situation, or the local environment introduce forms or adaptations of those solutions. I would love to hear about the work that you have been doing with the Barton Fellows, your classes, and your consulting that helps to bring these frameworks to life.
Janney: Let me start off with the international development because I started in microfinance. And so, working with the Grameen Bank and BRAC and Accion was a great window into seeing the potential for scale for microfinance, which is a product driven strategy. Yet some organizations like BRAC in Bangladesh would combine microfinance and said, “Okay, this is a great tool, but it’s not going to achieve impact just in and of itself.” You know there’s predatory lending too — access to credit is not always a good thing. So how do we combine that with access to healthcare, education, economic opportunity and connecting small business local entrepreneurs to markets? They took a very comprehensive approach to the problem and then said, “we are not wedded to one solution. The tools and strategies we use, we’re very agnostic about. We can combine for-profits and non-profits and all types of strategies to come up with the best possible way to reduce poverty for the people of Bangladesh.” And that’s a lesson. After, I went to Bangladesh once a month for seven years in a row, and I learned that lesson really thoroughly, and I think that really opened my eyes to what’s possible.
In the US, what we see is a lot of community development organizations that are highly fragmented. Community development has lots of different pieces. One moot area that has been growing in recent years is on social enterprises or organizations that combine an economic engine for impact as well as clearly defined social goals, and so instead of having a non-profit and a for-profit, a social enterprise synthesizes the business activity supporting social impact. So, for example, the Women’s Bean Project here in Denver—the more bean food products they sell, the more women they can employ and train as part of their business.
So, the Barton Institute was created a couple of years ago within DU. We were trying to design a program that would help students get experiential learning opportunities and be able to provide more and create more impact with local organizations in the community. Again, those local actors can deliver, better define problems, understand customers, and listen to customers and adapt to develop better solutions and implement them more effectively than a top down solution from far away.
The Barton Institute Fellowship was a chance to provide graduate students with exposure to social enterprise. As a set of strategies, not a single strategy, but a set of principles, a way of problem solving, and giving them a set of strategies and tools to better tackle complex social issues.
So that program was designed with five key elements. I call them the five seeds. One is content – this is a quarter long course that provides an overview on what social enterprise principles are, how they work, and examples. Two – a cohort of interdisciplinary graduate students. Why? Because in real life, no problem is just in one discipline. I would need to work with you in the business sector, I need to work with social workers, I need to work with people who can tackle problems from multiple angles to design real problems. Real problems are multidisciplinary in nature. Three – an experiential learning project/context – something to apply these insights to and then we added career development or career mentoring. So, we give students an opportunity to see other individuals in their respective fields and get a better sense of their career paths and how they developed and what the opportunities are what questions they might ask themselves along the way. And then, fifth, we had a capstone project or presentation at the end of the full-year fellowship, which went for two quarters. This gave the students a chance to synthesize and pull together their insights about social enterprise and what strategies and tools and they’ve added to their own toolkit. And one of the things that we’ve learned from the three years we’ve done this is many of them, talk about the most valuable thing they got out of it were the interdisciplinary nature of the cohort. We had people from Morgridge, Social Work, Business, Law, and the School of International Studies that created new ways of approaching problems and new ways of thinking about our problems. People also felt that they came away with human-centered design principles and critical thinking skills, about how do we think about what impact we’re trying to have and design the best strategy to achieve it, and being able to really appreciate the importance of always asking that question and listening to the community and making sure all voices are at the table. So, you really understand the problem and you’re not making assumptions from a distance.
Melissa: Now the Barton fellows are transitioning outside of DU as an entity. So, how can faculty and students get involved with thinking about local communities and increasing community impact. What are some things that that we can do?
Janney: The Barton Fellowship Social Enterprise Fellowship program is transitioning out of DU and is going to be reinvented. In reviewing this, it has been a very successful three-year pilot, though our pilot’s funding has changed. We’re trying to hear how to reinvent it now that Barton has moved off campus into their own independent non-profit.
I think one thing that we’ve learned is that experiential learning, learning for graduate students and all students is super important. And the ability to work on real problems with a local organization that can understand the problem and share their insights makes problems meaningful and real, and it gives you an opportunity to not try to solve the problem, but help a local organization who really understands it solve it better or be more effective by increasing their outcome or their financial sustainability, which is always a challenge.
All of these organizations with a social purpose are always balancing the financial sustainability, which requires scale and efficiency and economies of scale with social impact, which requires innovation and listening and creative problem solving, and those two things have to go in hand- in-hand to really design effective solutions for local communities.
One of the things that that we really hope to get out of this social enterprise fellowship is that students’ opportunity to work with local organizations provides them inspiration about ways to tackle problems and ways to have that entrepreneurial mindset about how to solve local problems. At DU, we’re seeing more and more organization and more schools at DU try to build in experiential learning.
Several schools are trying to work towards addressing this. What are the tools you need in your toolkit? But then how do you apply them to real world situations, and also how do you make sure you build in time to reflect and but make sure you’re really understanding the problem because that is a critical piece that often we leap over in our rush to find a solution.
One of the rules in international development is the rule of unintended consequences. You think you’ve solved something, but actually you’re causing some other problem without intending to, so you have to really be very conscious of how to do things effectively and listen and learn from the community you’re serving.
Melissa: A practical takeaway for faculty is to think about how they could get the community involved in their classrooms in their curriculum and the programming that they’re building out to not just think about for-profit or corporate partners, but also think about community partners that could enhance the classroom, but also benefit from some engagement among with students and faculty as well.
Janney: I think so. I think there are different ways to do it. And certainly, CCESL has a great program for community engagement. And trying to bring in the community into your teaching. I think the other piece that’s really important is for social entrepreneurship.
I would say a couple things. One, some problems are more meaningful than others, right. And so, really think about your social impact and for whom. What are you really trying to do? Is it the core of your business or your organizational strategy, or is it a tangential? And how can you integrate it a little bit more fully into your operations and your strategy, so that you are achieving the most you can? That strategic clarity is really important about what the role of social impact is in your organization. Bring voices of experience into the classroom and make that a diverse set of voices. Bring examples and bring community-based leaders into the classroom to talk about the strategies that have been really effective for them and the lessons they learned along the way. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a for-profit or non-profit. It’s managing organizations effectively. It’s the same set of tools and strategies. Social organizations have a harder job–they’re measuring financials, profit, and sustainability, but they’re also having to measure effective social impact. And sometimes that’s a lot harder.
Melissa: I think this provides a lot of insight into how we can think a little bit more strategically about our engagements as the partnerships between universities and community members and as we develop alternative ways of learning in such a crazy environment that we’re in right now. And we’re also thinking about the importance of these partnerships for not just for a learning experience, but for actually being able to engage with the community and help support the community efforts that are already being made. This is really cool. I appreciate you being here and providing us with a lot of insights into how we might be able to make a bigger impact and more sustainable impact at the community-level that could then translate to solving bigger global problems.