Building, Brick by Brick

August 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Starting in the early 2000s, twice each year I spend a long weekend on the Jersey Shore. Part of my ritual during those visits is to jog north starting in South Belmar (now Lake Como), NJ for several days in a row.  My path is along the ocean, which makes it pleasant (if sometimes rather windy).  The end of my five mile outbound path is the first half mile of the Asbury Park boardwalk. 

Asbur Park, NJ Boardwalk, in the late 1990s

Asbur Park, NJ Boardwalk, in the late 1990s

When I began these runs, Asbury Park was far removed its glory days in the 1940s.  Most of the storefronts and former event halls were boarded up.  Almost pathetically, people had painted images of thriving restaurants and stores on the walls of the closed stores that faced the boardwalk. 

But by the mid-2000s, I noticed that little by little, there were improvements and upgrades noticeable with each passing semi-annual visit.  At first they were almost imperceptible.  I remember thinking – perhaps heresy for a liberal – that these were evidence of some half-baked urban redevelopment scheme that had already bogged down and would ultimately amount to nothing.

From the late 2000s onwards, it was clear that my pessimism was off base.  Asbury Park was coming back.  Some said it was because the gay community flocked there and built up quality housing and the ecosystem of stores, restaurants and nightclubs that usually follow.  In any case, by the time I jogged on the boardwalk yesterday and earlier today, it was obvious that Asbury Park was booming.

The Boardwalk today

The Boardwalk today

I have noticed that the step-by-step incremental gains that turned Asbury Park from an urban wasteland to a trendy hotspot mirror the arc of building great humanitarian institutions and social enterprises.  There are few if any short cuts. 

Organizations like Grameen Bank and Fonkoze are built over years, even decades – solid product by solid product, good hire by good hire.  Certainly when great products and great talent come along it accelerates things, but those quantum leaps often create problems even as they solve others.  (Jealousy in its various forms is often one of them.)    

When I look at Fonkoze’s many accomplishments, solid foundation, industry-changing innovations, and resilient nature, particularly in light of my insight about Asbury Park’s revival, I think not so much about any single person, reorganization, value, product, partner or financing, but about the relentless commitment of key leaders to build a better organization, brick by brick. 

The gutsy and tireless response to the 2010 earthquake was in many ways Fonkoze’s finest hour.  But perhaps that focus shifted the organization’s orientation a bit, from building a great organization to surviving, one quarter to the next.  When it was able to break out of this survival mentality for short periods in the post-earthquake period, the focus was on taking big risks – perhaps with the idea that if they paid off, they could make up for lost time in that maddeningly slow process of incrementally building a great institution.  While some of those risks worked out, they were probably negated by those that did not. 

The leadership transition in 2013 was probably an inevitable, and healthy, part of moving the organization back to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” process of making Fonkoze a least a little bit better, month by month by month.  That shift is paying increasingly visible results, while much remains to be done. 

One risk that I have noticed in organizations that are in that relentless slog to build a great institution is that the focus on the next great innovation or recruit can create a sense of alienation among people who have been involved since the early days.  Without a conscious effort by leadership, these long-serving loyalists can feel taken for granted.  Probably as a result, they can become defensive, hostile to change (and change agents), and even complacent. 

Managing this dynamic is, I believe, one of the great challenges leaders face.

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Lean Research – Is It Time to Reimagine the Study of Financial Inclusion?

August 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Alex Counts:

Here is a great blog written by Kim Wilson, who invited me to the “Lean Research” gathering at MIT on August 1.

Originally posted on Center for Financial Inclusion blog:

> Posted by Kim Wilson, Fellow, Center for Emerging Market Enterprises and the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

“Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.” This aphorism credited to Albert Einstein inspires our call to Lean Research.

Two Fridays ago at MIT a group of 50 of us met to hash out some principles that, if followed, might generate better research in development and social science contexts. NGOs, universities, foundations, corporations, government, and multi-lateral agencies were represented in our group.

Our analogy of choice was Toyota. If “the Toyota way,” or lean manufacturing as it has come to be called, could cause profound and beneficial disruptions in production processes, might lean research cause equally profound and beneficial disruptions in research processes?

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The Start of a Movement for “Lean Research”?

August 6, 2014 4 comments

As I indicated in my last blog, I joined a stimulating gathering last Friday on the topic of “lean research” convened by the Fletcher School at Tufts and D-Lab at MIT.  The proposed definition of lean research that the group considered and used as a guide was research that is relevant, respectful, rigorous, and right-sized.  (See this blog with helpful definitions of the four proposed criteria for lean research.)

Kim Wilson of Tufts led off the day with a speech that included three examples of what one might call “research run amok.”  The first was a case where she had worked for a humanitarian organization that collected a huge amount of data through repeated surveys of poor people, but that used almost none of that information. Another story involved Fonkoze: she explained how she proposed to put a bunch of Fonkoze clients who had survived the 2010 earthquake through a 100-question survey, and how Anne Hastings (then the CEO of one of the Fonkoze organizations) refused to allow it, saying something characteristically blunt and principled like, “My job is to protect my clients, and your job is to extract [information] from them.”  In retrospect, Kim saw that Anne was right.  Her third major insight prompting this gathering was my blog on the researcher/practitioner interface, which I of course found encouraging.   

As I am not a researcher per se, occasionally the conversation last Friday strayed a bit over my head.  But it was a diverse group including academics, funders, practitioners, advocates and others, and I learned a lot and felt the vibe was constructive and action-oriented (which I liked).  I was asked to give closing comments alongside Amy Smith, the founder of the D-Lab (with which Grameen-Jameel Microfinance Ltd. is working on some exciting action-research in Morocco) and Juan Carlos Rodriguez of USAID’s new Global Development Lab

Below I have reconstructed (and slightly augmented) the core of my remarks, which Kim encouraged me to make as provocative as possible. 

In these closing remarks, I am going to touch on some things that Grameen Foundation and that I can do, and also what I think others should do, related to the discussions we have had today.  I will also mention some ideas I have been pushing for years, and others that popped into my head for the first time today.  You will notice that my ideas will tend to be fairly simple and practical, though I hope not simplistic – but you, rather than I, will need to be the judge of that.

Why Conduct Research?

My bottom-line framing of this entire issue is related to a basic question: why we do this kind of social science research at all?  In my mind, we do it for one reason: in combating societal problems such as poverty, we want to do more of what works well, and less of what doesn’t work, or works less well.  Period.  If research contributes to that, I will call it successful and effective.  If not does not, I will call it a failure – no matter how elegant the research design or how smart the investigators.  This is my take on the design principle of “relevance” which we have been discussing today.

I concur with someone who said that research has become too “elite” in that we mostly pay attention to studies that come out of “the best” universities and that follow particular research designs that are in vogue at the moment, designs that some call “gold standard.”  I think we need to recognize that valid research can be done through a wide variety of methodologies and sometimes by people with limited training in research methods.  The main question in my mind is whether we can learn something useful from research that can help us improve practice or policy.

If we are to deem some research to be the gold standard, that designation should be based on the degree to which the research has led to improved practice or policy, regardless of any other aspect of that research.

Making Research More Accessible

I think it is critical that we demystify research and present it in easier to digest forms, so that those outside the academy, particularly busy practitioners and policy-makers, are more likely to understand and apply the lessons of research.  One thing Grameen Foundation has done on two occasions is to commission an academic to analyze the totality of existing research on microfinance and financial inclusion, and then summarize it in a paper running about 30 pages, written in plain English.  This has allowed non-specialists, practitioners, policy-makers and others to get a sense of what research says generally about this social innovation, rather than relying on a single statistic, perhaps exaggerated or provided without context, by the media or an overzealous advocate or critic.

Grameen Foundation is going to come out with the third in this series 2015.  This gathering reaffirms in my mind the importance of publications like this that make research accessible to decision-makers outside the academy.  I encourage others to do so for other fields and other social innovations, as I believe they can help ensure that quality research translates into improved practice and policy.

Another publication I have been advocating for is one focused on “lessons for practice” for those who are providing financial services to the poor.  It turns out that many recent studies that looked into the question of whether financial services benefit the poor stumbled onto important insights about how those services can work best.  (This insight struck me when reading Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel’s book More Than Good Intentions, which I reviewed on the Center for Financial Inclusion’s excellent blog.)  So I have been pleading with the research community to boil those insights down into a single publication that could be read by senior executives and board members of financial service providers to the poor and hopefully influence their service delivery approaches.  Finally, one researcher, Tim Ogden of NYU, saw the need and agreed in principle to write it.  Still, it remains in limbo for lack of funding – but I am even more committed to getting it done after our meeting here today.

In general, something seems missing in the ecosystem that comprises researchers, practitioners and policy-makers.  That “something” would be a person or organization or loose network that saw it as their job to ensure that research makes a tangible, positive difference in the real world.  I feel compelled to fill the vacuum in a few cases, and I am sure others are doing their parts.  But I think there needs to be a systemic solution.  I am not sure what it is exactly.  I welcome your ideas.

A Simple Poverty Index

One other insight from today is about the power of a tool that we have helped develop, called the Progress out of Poverty Index®, which has been referenced a few times today.  It is a survey tool built to be very lightweight in terms of the demands it places on those being surveyed, and those conducting the surveys.  It invariably has ten questions and can be conducted in less than ten minutes.  Quite advanced statistics and mathematics are “underneath the hood” of this tool thanks to our talented partner Mark Schreiner.  In fact, it is that sophistication which allows for its simplicity in terms of how those who collect and contribute data interact with it.

More tools like this, which are carefully built for robustness and simplicity, are clearly needed.  At the same time, we need to leverage existing tools like the PPI® rather than reinvent the wheel, over and over, in terms of survey tool development.  Certainly, today’s discussions have increased my commitment to not add more questions to the PPI, as advocated by some.

Four Ideas for Making Research More Relevant

Let me close with four ideas, three that occurred to me just today.

There was talk about giving voice to those being surveyed and studied.  I am not sure that involving them in research design and so forth is practical, but I was reminded of something from my years working with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.  Professor Yunus invited many, many researchers in to study Grameen, perhaps viewing their work as a way of augmenting its own monitoring and evaluation capabilities, at little additional cost.  But he always insisted that the researchers agree to publish, as part of their final paper, any rebuttal or comment that Grameen wanted to contribute.  To my recollection, Grameen never exercised that right.  But perhaps it kept the researchers honest from exaggerating their claims or not providing balance and context.

Today, I was wondering if it would be a good practiced in published research to not only give organizations being researched the right to do that, but even to insist on it.  Let the reader know how the researched institution felt about the process of being studied.  And why not take this one step further?  What if, as a good practice in respectful research, at the conclusion of the process a representative group of “human subjects” would be assembled and explained what the study found, in language they could understand, and then be asked for their comments on the results and the process.  And then their comments would be printed verbatim as an appendix to the study itself.  How might this change some of the power dynamics involved in research?

Another idea, which I have proposed before, is to hold researchers to the standard that they rightly hold social innovations and programs to: measure whether they have positive impact, negative impact, or no impact at all.  One would assume (or at least hope) that a social program or sector or innovation that had been studied by researchers would be more likely to perform better post-research than pre-research, or compared to programs/sectors/innovations that had not been studied.  (If not, why conduct the research?)

Well, if this is our hypothesis, there must be some way to measure whether it holds true in specific cases where research has been conducted.  That way we could know what is the impact of impact research.  My hope is that it would motivate researchers to spend more time ensuring that their research was being digested and applied before setting off to conduct the next study.

My third idea is to have some credible authority commit to publishing an annual list of the top ten examples of research positively influencing practice and/or policy.  Perhaps there could be a cash prize for the top example.  Maybe a competing ranking system could spring up if people thought the original list was in any way flawed.  My hope is that this could spark new dialogue about how to make research more practical and impactful, by drawing attention and realigning incentives.

Finally, I would like to suggest that this group develop a concise and, to the extent necessary, provocative “declaration” coming out of this meeting.  It would state how we feel research should be recast to be leaner, which is to say strike a better balance and application of the principles of being relevant, respectful, rigorous, and right-sized.

Thanks for considering my ideas and thanks especially to Kim Wilson, Kendra Leith and Elizabeth Hoffecker Moreno and their colleagues at Tufts and MIT for their leadership in pulling this important gathering together.

(Update: I strongly suggest people take a look at Kim’s just-published blog on lean research and the August 1 gathering.)

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Sensible Microfinance Research, Findings and Media Coverage

It has been a difficult couple of years, in terms of having microfinance researchers, practitioners and the media working together constructively.  Naturally, there have been some notable exceptions to this unfortunate trend, and some of the damage has been done despite good intentions, if not outright idealism.

One positive voice in this charged environment has (perhaps surprisingly) been the Economist, which has been fairly balanced as well as engaged during this entire period, having  recently written about about a landmark — and controversial — study about  the impact of microcredit in Bangladesh that others mostly failed to cover.

But rather than rehash all these difficulties, let me draw your attention to a new article in the Economist.  The article makes an obvious and important point (one that is covered towards the end of the blog): a new research report (not to mention common sense) suggests that, at least in the context studied, any given form of microcredit will not be relevant or helpful to all poor people.

To me, this does not mean that entire classes of poor and unbanked people can’t benefit from any form of microcredit or microfinance, but rather that people need to be connected with those products that meet their needs.  (Though others could view these findings differently.)  In any case, this finding is a strong affirmation of Fonkoze’s approach to segment the poor and serve each segment with a suite of products designed to meet their needs – a concept captured graphically with its “staircase out of poverty.”  It also reinforces the concept of “human centered design” as it applies to microfinance, a topic about which Grameen Foundation recently issued an important report.

The main thrust of the Economist article is analyzing a new study that looked at what happened when one group of people was offered microloans and another, comparable group was given microgrants.  Basically, those who took the loans benefitted.  The same was true of people who were given the microgrants, an approach that is at risk of becoming the next international development fad, or as the Economist terms it, a new “panacea” (but I digress).   It is important to note that these were truly microloans (average size: $113) and microgrants (average size: $140).   They were given in a very poor environment: rural Mali.

The results were pretty impressive.  The Economist summarized them thus: “Both the loans and the grants had clear positive effects among the beneficiaries; more land was cultivated, use of fertilisers increased and profits from self-employment rose in comparison to the families that were given neither.”  Furthermore, “the positive effects of both loans and grants that the researchers found show that many poor people face liquidity constraints that prevent them from investing in capital.”  [Emphasis added.]

In a second part of the study, some of the people who declined microloans were selected randomly and given microgrants, and there was no measured impact – prompting speculation as to why this was the case.  (Above I share my unproven theory, which is that the discrepancy in impact is related to the appropriateness financial products.)

Regarding Fonkoze, this is an endorsement of the idea that for some poor people, grants (often referred to as asset transfers) are the most appropriate product, which is a pillar of the CLM program (the bottom step of Fonkoze staircase).  Other studies have confirmed how effective such “graduation programs” can be when they are delivered competently.

Regarding research and microfinance, about which I have written before (such as here), let me note that later this week I will be participating in a seminar on “Lean Research” being pulled together by colleagues at Tufts University and MIT.   (Kim Wlson of Tufts talks about “lean research” in this interview.)  I am not sure what lean research means exactly; I asked the organizers to define it for me as I prepare my presentation, sparking an invigorating exchange.  In general it seems to describe research that is done in practical ways that are designed to maximize the role of – and benefits to – the research subjects, and minimize the costs and other potential negative impacts to those being studied.  If it turns out to be an interesting gathering, I’ll report on it in this blog.

Also, Grameen Foundation is working towards publishing a third in its series, “Measuring the Impact of Microfinance” – which is meant to demystify and present in a balanced and non-technical way what recent impact research says about microfinance’s performance and potential.  Kathleen Odell has volunteered to do the research pro bono once again (in other words, as part of her academic appointment at Dominican University), and we are raising some money to cover the costs of printing and distributing it in the fall of 2015.  So, stay tuned.

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CRECER recognized as Truelift Leader

Alex Counts:

I have written about Truelift, a learning and recognition initiative that Anne Hastings of Fonkoze has served with me on the governing body of. Here is excited news about Truelift’s recognition of a leading microfinance institution in Bolivia that shares many characteristics with Fonkoze.

Originally posted on Truelift:

200x200_logo_crecer_peque We are excited to announce that Crédito con Educación Rural, or, CRECER, is the first Latin American organization to achieve the Leader milestone for its adherence to the Truelift Pro-Poor Principles. In the areas of, “purposeful outreach to people living in poverty” and “tracking progress of people living in poverty” this organization has reached the highest possible standards of success in accordance with our principles.

CRECER is a microfinance organization based in Bolivia whose mission is to, “offer, with excellence and warmth, financial products along with development services in order to improve quality of life, preferentially of women and their families.” Bolivia ranks 108th on the Human Development Index, measured by average educational attainment, income, and life expectancy; this ranking demonstrates a clear need for pro-poor services.

This rapidly expanding organization, created in 1999, is inspiring hope in the lives of the impoverished, ambitiously reaching all 9 departments in…

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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.

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