Think Big, Start Small, and Seek Impact

Highlights from Ann Mei Chang’s Keynote at Humentum’s #OpExDC2019 Conference

The global development community is at something of a crossroads, says Ann Mei Chang, author of “Lean Impact.” There are several trends happening that have led to a pivotal moment in the nongovernmental organization (NGO) industry, she says. And the direction that NGOs should pivot toward is innovation.

In much the same way Eric Reis’ “Lean Startup” revolutionized the startup world with minimum viable products, continuous innovation and numerous iterations, Chang’s book, “Lean Impact” aims to do the same for organizations focusing on social good. She has a wealth of experience merging Silicon Valley innovation practices with the nonprofit and social goods sector.

Ann Mei Chang learn impact book

The trends Chang sees include the unprecedented connectedness and accelerated rate of change provided by digital technology, artificial intelligence touching every aspect of our lives, and climate change leading to a rise in natural disasters and subsequent social and economic disruption. 

“We’re also seeing funding changes,” Chang says.”The rise of nationalism has cut foreign aid. Countries are focusing on their own self interest meaning we need more from the private sector.”

All these things add up to organizations that aren’t meeting sustainable development goals, she says. And it’s because they need to radically shift their thinking. “Everyone knows the Edison quote about inspiration and perspiration,” she says. “The flashy part is the 1%, and it’s absolutely necessary, but it’s only the beginning. The rest — the testing, iterating, failing, picking it up again — that’s the 99% needed to deliver change at the impact and scale needed in the world right now.” 

Many organizations think small, start too big, and then lose the path to impact. Instead, the opposite is needed.

Think Big

Instead of thinking small and immediately focusing on constraints, have an audaciously huge goal, Chang says. Her example was VisionSpring. VisionSpring has an audacious goal to bring eyeglasses to most, if not all, of the 2.5 billion people who need glasses and don’t have them, improving learning and productivity worldwide. They began in El Salvador and India, working with entrepreneurs. They helped some people, but were losing money and couldn’t scale, she said. 

“They made a pivot to more urban areas, allowing them to reach more affluent patients whose funds could help reach more rural people. They became self-sustaining, which is an admirable goal, but they still couldn’t scale this up,” Chang says.“They pivoted again and partnered with BRAC in Bangladesh.”  

With BRAC’s investment and network, they reached 5 million people, which is pretty good, but only a fraction of their audacious goal. They pivoted again, working with a new organization called EYElliance which brings manufacturers, local governments and others to integrate public health and school systems to accelerate the impact of their project.

VisionSpring gave themselves a huge goal and never stopped focusing on it. “What does mission fulfillment really look like? They kept the benchmark in mind and used whatever means they could to get there,” she says.

Start Small 

Opex DC 2019 think big

NGOs love to spend a year planning pilot programs and requesting proposals and working on grants before the work touches real people, Chang jokes.

Instead, she thinks more should start smaller and just get something done. If it fails, it fails faster and smaller. Her example was Copia Global, a business selling consumer goods to underserved populations in the developing world.

It started as a catalog for people who need access to goods in rural Kenya. Normally, to get items to these areas, an organization would set up shops, supply chains and delivery mechanisms. Instead, the CEO started small, by going to the store and taking photos and pasting into a catalog, Chang says. 

It was up and running in days. People would order from the catalog, he would run to the store and deliver to the village. It wouldn’t scale, but it was a solution and he learned the interest was there, especially in cement, the most popular product Copia Global initially delivered.

The company tried partnering with other people in local kiosks, but those people wanted to sell their own items, not the catalog merchandise. Instead, Copia Global was more successful placing catalogs in complementary businesses like hair salons. 

“People flip through the catalog while they wait. They talk about products. There’s additional income for the salon owner. Testing and validating experiments like this helped them grow their business,” she says.

Seek Impact Relentlessly

Many organizations work in similar sectors and all of them think their solution is best. They can’t all be right, obviously, but we don’t want to question people who are giving of themselves to do good in the world, Chang says. We don’t ask hard questions. Is this really the best? How do you know? To find out, focus on real metrics.

How many people did we reach? How much money did we raise? How many social followers do we have? These are all vanity metrics. They sound impressive, but maybe someone else with the same concept could have done better with fewer resources, she says.

“Real impact is adoption rate, unit cost, success rate, retention, etc. These are the metrics that will pay dividends over time,” Chang says. If you want to show your impact, you must ask tough questions and focus on effective data, not vanity metrics.

“When you look at companies, they’re never satisfied making just some profit,” Chang says. “In fact, they are required to maximize shareholder value. It should be the same for NGOs. Don’t be satisfied doing some good.” 

Ask the hard questions. Are we maximizing impact and scale? To do so, we need to think big and start small.

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