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Nine (with your help) Insights from Opportunity Collaboration

   /   Nov 2nd, 2011News

While attending Opportunity Collaboration, a professed non-conference conference focused on eradicating poverty last week in Ixtapa, Mexico, I started jotting down my learnings along the way. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.

A visitor is a blessing.

Peter Ndungu, from Nairobi, taught our colloquium group this old adage while discussing one of the readings. He said he wishes for visitors so that his neighbors will see how truly blessed he is. As Peter and I floated in the pool, drinking our frozen drinks, and sharing our life stories, I felt as if I was being visited, even though we were not in my home. He told me that though he lost both of his parents by the age of 11, he was determined to go to school. He would work two days a week so he could afford his schools fees and attend classes while living in one room he rented in another family’s home in the Kibera slums. Today, he runs an organization called Friends of Ngong Road that pays the school fees and uniform costs of over 700 kids, most of them orphaned by HIV/AIDS. His goal is to see these children grow and choose to sponsor the next generation of students, so he no longer has to ask for support outside of his own country. He tells me all of this and then he asks me, “And how was your life?”

Youth employment might just be the issue of our time.

Youth (ages 15-24) all over the world are disenfranchised and pissed off about it, or so I learned in a great conversation facilitated by Dr. William Bloomfield and animated by Whitney Harrelson of Making Cents International and Ashok Regmi of the International Youth Foundation. U.K.’s employment minister has called chronic youth joblessness a “ticking time bomb.” Underemployed and unemployed youth in Tunisia led the way in overthrowing President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last May. In the U.S., African-American youth have a 44 percent unemployment rate, and in Greece, 34.6 percent of all young people are unemployed. Political disruption isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but launching an entire generation’s adult lives in a climate of disaffection and disillusionment could have a variety of disastrous long-term consequences for our world.

People are hungry for maps of their movements.

Everywhere I go these days, it seems like someone’s talking about how all of the movers, shakers, and organizations within a given issue-area—whether it’s girls’ education or civic innovation or water rights—want to know about one another. If we can map the movement, the thinking goes, then we can avoid redundancy, stop competing for funding, and collaborate. I discovered efforts like the Knowledge Center for Solutions and the Blue Planet Network, that jive with our own efforts here at Dowser to create more resources for journalists who want to understand the landscape of particular global challenge and the best solutions out there. (Bonus: visionary thinker Jerry Michalski, who champions the notion of the relationship economy, is mapping his own mind.)

The social sector needs design thinking.

The true gift of “human-centered design,” like that described by IDEO.org Executive Director Jocelyn Wyatt, is its reminder that the best of us operate from a “beginner’s mind”—the Zen ideal of approaching old problems with a fresh, almost childlike disposition. Too many of us ride into town already 99 percent sure that we’ve got the answers, when in fact, we don’t yet even know what the real problems are. Design thinking requires stepping back, slowing down, witnessing, asking, and becoming more and more comfortable with not knowing. And it’s being adopted by a wide range of practioners—military officers, educators, scientists and more.

Society needs more journalism that explores solutions.

Okay, maybe this one is a little self-serving, but I really do believe that people working in the social impact space are hungry to read thoroughly reported, substantive stories about what’s really working—whether it’s impact investing models or grassroots approaches to girls’ empowerment. Without what we here at Dowser call “solution journalism,” already overwhelmed social sector leaders are left to wonder what their peers are doing that they might learn from and donors are left going on instincts rather than solid third party perspectives on where their philanthropic or investment dollars can have the most impact. This kind of longer form journalism can complement the great efforts already being made by the Under-told Stories Project, the newly launched Story Exchange, Social Edge, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Philanthropy Action, and our very own David Bornstein’s Fixes column at The New York Times.

Measuring and communicating impact is difficult because it’s dignifying.

If only there were a magic bullet for how organizations could count and communicate their results, life would be much easier for the average social entrepreneur or nonprofit leader. But when human lives are being affected, measuring the impact on those lives is inherently messy. Melanie Moore Kubo emphasized the need for complex stories of impact in her workshop on what she calls “story science.” If your results are simple, you’re not dignifying the true complexity of the human experience. That’s why we have to bring all of our tools—quantitative and qualitative—to bear when telling the story of our work in communities. It’s why doers and funders alike need to approach evaluation as an opportunity to learn, even from failure, rather than a potentially punitive experience.

Responsibilities are the new rights.

One of the unique components of the Opportunity Collaboration experience is its morning colloquiums, in which a couple dozen, diverse people sit around in a circle and discuss critical readings. While discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it became clear that the crew around me was equal parts incensed at how far we were from living up to this high-minded document, first ratified in 1948, and relieved that it exists at all, even if it only functions as an unattainable ideal. Further, in this age of institutional weakening and global interconnectedness, we asked ourselves, what would a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities look like?

There is nothing new under the sun, even in Ixtapa.

The real question is not, what is the next, best thing? But what is the best way to execute the tried, true thing? We actually know most of what we already need to know about eradicating poverty; it’s just a matter of creating effective, customizable systems for delivering on that knowledge. That’s why many of today’s entrepreneurs who are truly deserving of recognition and funding are not actually inventing anything, but framing and executing old wisdom in new, important ways. The innovation is in the execution.

Had any insights while in Ixtapa? Or at another conference you were recently at (PopTech, anyone?!)? Please add the 9th insight here in the comments section.

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