Human-Centered Design and Other Blog Topics


Believe it or not, but I blog on platforms other than this one.  In fact, some of them have relevance to Fonkoze’s journey.  Let me highlight a couple of recent ones.

A few days ago I posted a blog related to my visit to J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which was started by the actor Sean Penn in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.  They use TaroWorks, a technology tool developed by Grameen Foundation (my day job).  I was able to tack the visit onto my trip to Haiti for the Fonkoze Family Coordinating Committee, which I Co-Chair.  That meeting focused on the importance of Fonkoze being a member-based organization (and what that means in practice), and how SFF was working to increase client retention.  As a result of that visit, I encouraged J/P HRO and Fonkoze to consider some areas for collaboration.

I have also published a blog on what I have learned about partnerships through working in the Arab World for the last ten years.  After a preamble focused on the history of Grameen Foundation’s work there, I boiled it down to 10 lessons.  I referred to this blog during my wrap-up comments at FFCC, since working in partnership — which can be very powerful and terribly maddening — is a central part of the Fonkoze journey, too.

Also on the Grameen Foundation “Insights” blog I wrote about the eMerge Americas conference, which was focused on jump-starting the idea of Miami becoming the Silicon Valley of Latin America.  Maybe this vision, if realized, will create opportunities for Haitian-America tech entrepreneurs in Miami?

Lastly, I published a blog about a conference Grameen Foundation organized in Mumbai, India around the concept of user-centered design in financial products, also known as human centered design and client-centered design.  Basically, the idea is designing financial products that are the most relevant to the needs of the poor, ideally in a customized way.  Doing so could have a major impact on client retention.  So could scaling up the Foundation’s adult education modules, so they were available to all clients who wanted them.  Anyway, I gave the closing speech at the Mumbai conference and here is the text of my remarks, and here is a final report from the conference in an easy-to-read format.

User-centered design is one way of describing what SFF, in partnership with the Fonkoze Foundation, is doing in an effort to come up with a new generation of products for its members.  It is not easy work, but it is what the Haiti’s poor need, and deserve.  More than ever, I believe Fonokze has the team in place to design and deliver those products.  But it will nonetheless take a massive effort to do so, and perhaps some lucky breaks from Mother Nature in the form of no major natural disasters for another year or two.

This coming Friday is the semi-annual retreat of the Fonkoze Futures Committee, which is focused on fund-raising for the family of Fonkoze organization — essentially spearheading a five-year capital campaign.  I have agreed to Chair this group for one more year.

Furthest afield from my work with Fonkoze, I published blogs, such as this one, about my time in Key West celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary with a bunch of my dearest friends, including the Carter Brothers Band who entertained us for seven straight nights with amazing music.

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Succession Challenges: No Easy Answers

March 29, 2014 Leave a comment

The recently-concluded meeting of the Fonkoze USA Board of Directors in Haiti was reportedly productive, motivating and enlightening. It was also the first in-person meeting of that governing body since 2006 that I did not take part in. Indeed, I am winding down nine years of service on that Board this year, in part due to a compromise made years ago that stipulated a maximum of three three-year terms for (almost) any Director.  (I only know that the meeting went well based on the fact that its Chairman and my successor, Matt Balitsaris, was kind and conscientious enough to brief me by telephone as a courtesy days after the meeting ended.)  question-mark1

This got me thinking about the larger challenge of succession planning in social sector organizations like those in the Fonkoze Family (Fonkoze Financial Services, the Fonkoze Foundation, and Fonkoze USA).

Like many social sector organizations with commercial aspects that launched in the 1990s due to a mix of management and conceptual breakthroughs, a booming economy (and a related boom in philanthropic activity), and fewer totalitarian regimes in power around the developing world, Fonkoze is struggling with how to replace aging talent on its staff and governing bodies. A related challenge is how to progressively turn over roles traditionally held by foreigners to Haitians. As with so many things that seem logical if not obvious, the devil is  truly in the details.

There are few easy answers. The values, insights, reputations and relationships of founders and long-serving employees and volunteers represent substantial assets that no organization would want to give up unless it had to. But sometimes, along with those assets come liabilities. Two examples: rigid views about how the organization should function, and holding on to roles that ambitious young talent yearn for (and may leave if they do not see a pathway to securing).   Figuring ways to gradually ease one generation of leaders into roles that maximize the assets they represent, but minimize their liabilities, is much easier said than done.  Overall, Fonkoze has dealt with this well (such as the case of Anne Hastings’ transition last year from a CEO role to a volunteer/governance role), but major challenges lie ahead.

For my part, I have said many times that when I leave my (paid) post of President and CEO of Grameen Foundation someday, I will accept no formal role in the organization for a period of at least five years.  While that would limit my ability to help the organization during that period, it would have one big benefit — it would give my successor room to grow without me looking over his (or hopefully her) shoulder, or even being perceived to be doing so.  Above all, I would not accept a seat on the Board of Directors, which I believe is a lazy and often counter-productive way of thanking and attempting to involve well-liked departing CEOs. (Though I believe putting or keeping a departing CEO on the Board can be the best option in some cases, such as with Anne’s retiring as CEO of SFF last year and continuing to serve on its Board, which I supported.)

Last year, Grameen Foundation elected its fifth Chairman — a wonderful man named Bob Eichfeld.  Within a short time of accepting the role, he asked me to write up an “Emergency Succession Plan” — essentially, what I would advise him and the other remaining leaders to do if I were suddenly killed or incapacitated.  This sounds like an obvious and sound practice, but it took me five months of procrastination before I wrote it up. Confronting ones mortality, in any sense of the word, is not easy for most people — and certainly not for me.

Interestingly, 8 1/2 years into my role with Fonkoze, I do not know whether any of the CEOs or Board Chairs have ever written an Emergency Succession Plan.  I expect amidst all the frenetic activity, punctuated by major natural disasters every few years that disrupt everything and prove to be major distractions and hardships, there has been thought to composing such documents but perhaps none has ever been completed.

Scarcity Blog (Part Two) Published

January 16, 2014 Leave a comment

I have just published the longer and I hope more interesting installment of my two-part blog on behavioral economics and in particular, on the implications of the arguments made in the book Scarcity for microfinance and more broadly for international development.  It includes a brief analysis of Fonkoze’s CLM (“Pathway to a Better Life”) program through the behavioral economics lens.

Full Financial Inclusion, Defined

January 13, 2014 1 comment

The Center for Financial Inclusion (on whose Advisory Council I proudly serve) has done a great service by defining a very important concept: “full financial inclusion.”  They have not, however, made it easy to find that definition online so I have taken it upon myself to create this blog post with the single purpose of reproducing their definition, which is:

Full financial inclusion is a state in which all people who can use them have access to a full suite of quality financial services, provided at affordable prices, in a convenient manner, and with dignity for the clients. Financial services are delivered by a range of providers, most of them private, and reach everyone who can use them, including disabled, poor, rural, and other excluded populations.

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Scarcity Blog (Part One) Posted

January 13, 2014 Leave a comment

As promised in my last blog, I have written a two-part blog on the behavioral economics-based analysis of scarcity in an important new book.  Part one has been posted today on the Grameen Foundation blog.  Part two will be published later this week.

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Understanding Scarcity

December 30, 2013 Leave a comment

One of the things life has taught me is if you want to do anything meaningful and/or difficult with someone else, it is vitally important to try to see the world, or at least your hoped-for collaboration, through their eyes.  This is true regardless of whether or not you agree with how they are viewing things.  Simply understanding their point of view is a great asset.  (In fact, I think it is more important if you don’t agree with them.)  Sometimes people won’t tell you what how they see things.  Sometimes they don’t even know themselves.  But with effort — usually in the form of asking some questions and simply giving it some thought — it is possible to get a good sense of where people are coming from and how they view you and the collaboration.

An important new book looking at poverty through the lens of behavioral economics

An important new book looking at poverty through the lens of behavioral economics

If you are reading this blog, you probably have wondered how the world looks from the perspective of a poor woman in Haiti.  Trying to be helpful to them through involvement in organizations like Fonkoze is easier if the end clients’ worldview is not totally foreign to you. That is true whether you are delivering a product or service to their doorstep or trying to spread the word about organizations like Fonkoze in your church or Rotary Club (to cite just a couple of examples).

Perhaps you have even interviewed Fonkoze clients, or other beneficiaries of microfinance or other anti-poverty programs, or just had an informal chat with a random person whose socio-economic status was well below yours.  Or maybe you have read accounts of, or talked to, people who have conducted such interviews.  (My book Small Loans, Big Dreams tries to allow the reader to get intimate view into the lives of low-income women in rural Bangladesh and urban Chicago.  The book Portfolios of the Poor adds many additional insights.)

It is possible to get fairly deep insights into how the world looks through the eyes of a poor person by interviewing them at length and observing them as they go about their lives.  However, initial perceptions are often incomplete, or flat out wrong.  In my interviews in Bangladesh, I was learning new information a full two years after I began talking to the women about whom the book is written.  I also think it is useful to simply give some considered thought to the world looks to a poor person, even without conducting any interviews or reading.

Another way to approach this objective is through the emerging field of behavioral economics, which is basically the intersection of psychology and economics.  I have just finished an excellent book titled Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.  It attempts to study the phenomenon of scarcity through the behavioral economics lens.

Poverty is a special case of scarcity, but their approach and findings are more general.  They also apply to scarcity of time (i.e., people who are too busy) and scarcity of human contact (i.e., people who are lonely), for example.  It turns out that the phenomenon of scarcity impacts the human mind and capabilities similarly regardless of what is scarce, and whether the person is rich or poor, male or female, Asian or American.

Their analysis explains a lot about why people under conditions of scarcity behave in certain ways, and do not behave in other ways.  In short, this condition enhances some capabilities but deforms others – in a fairly predictable manner.  For microfinance and human development generally, there are some important implications for practice.  In some cases, this analysis confirms and explains long-held assumptions.  In other cases, it challenges prevailing assumptions and current practice.

I also recall writing a blog about abundance in Haiti.  It turns out that abundance is related to scarcity in some important and unexpected ways.

I will be writing a blog about this book and what its implications are for holistic, double-bottom-line microfinance in the days ahead.  If I do not post it on this blog, I will certainly link to it.  I encourage feedback and ideas, both before and after posting these reflections.

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Nelson Mandela, and Father Joseph

December 6, 2013 Leave a comment
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

As I read all the tributes to Nelson Mandela in the wake of his death yesterday at age 95, I recalled the fact that I memorably met the man once.  It was at a small and magical dinner hosted by the philanthropists Craig and Susan McCaw in their Seattle home in the late 1990s.

In fact, I was one of two non-profit leaders asked to speak at this event attended by two dozen leaders from the worlds of business, philanthropy and government.  A bit nervous as one can imagine, I gave a short talk on my work with Grameen Foundation.  (Among those I met that night were the sitting Governor of the state of Washington and Bill Gates, but Mandela’s presence was what made the night so unique and thrilling.)

After each course was served and cleared, people were asked to move from one table to the next.  This way, everyone got some time with Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel.  By that time, Mandela was rather hard of hearing so it was not easy to engage him in conversation.  But just sitting with him at a table for eight people for twenty minutes was quite something.

Father Joseph Philippe, founder of Fonkoze

Father Joseph Philippe, founder of Fonkoze

I see a lot in common between Mandela and Father Joseph Philippe, the founder of Fonkoze.  Both are/were great moral leaders and men of action.  Both are savvy (and occasionally infuriating) negotiators, practical visionaries, sometimes rather stubborn, and impossibly generous of spirit.  Both emerged from their years in the wilderness – Mandela’s spent in prison, Father Joseph’s biding his time until the Duvalier dictatorship fell – and immediately started building movements to create social and political change.  Clearly they are also different in many ways.

One of the stories that I hope gets told about both as people reflect on their lives is that of the friends, helpers, and “intrapreneurs” around Mandela and Father Joseph who were essential in allowing them to realize so many of their visions, even if not always in the exact forms they initially imagined. 

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