Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

Finally we have a Wharton cohort that gets enough critical mass and votes for a Social Impact course for the West cohort – am proud of class 37 for this accomplishment! This weekend we had Prof. Nien-hê Hsieh with us for three sessions of his class on Social Impact and Responsibility. At a high level, the class seeks to give us an overview of how to think about social impact work being done by non-profits, through CSR, CP, social entrepreneurship and impact investing. We also got quick clarifications on the different shades of grey between these different paths towards social impact.

We started off with an interesting case on SKS Microfinance and what it meant for an MFI addressing the BoP in India to go IPO and what role that had to play in the downfall of the company and subsequent clamp-down by the Indian Govt. on MFI-NBFCs and the regulatory environment that resulted. We had a vigorous conversation in class on the various aspects of this issue, and this discussion led nicely into a great article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Exploitation. This sets up an interesting normative framework to evaluate actions of entities along the grey line between exploitation and empowerment. It identifies three core ideas of efficiency, fairness and freedom. We also briefly considered how it leaves out other values such as community as found in Asian philosophy and going further to value the environment. It also did not go as far as to discuss other concepts from normative ethics such as utilitarianism or Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life, but still provided a good context to evaluate businesses and their actions against the metrics of not doing any harm, and respecting the choices of others.

We then had an engaging session on metrics and impact assessment and a debate around measurement and the artifacts it creates in terms of what gets funded based on what can be measured vs. what generates most impact, though not-quantifiable. Keeping those limitations in mind, we took a quick look at REDF’s SROI metric, Hewlett Foundation’s Expected Return metric, and as part of a case discussion, Acumen Fund’s BACO based comparison of investment choices much like this case.

We also touched upon Theory of Change,  and how that is driving organizations to evaluate their existence all the way from inputs, activities and outputs to outcomes and impact. My sense of this is that though this sounds better than the alternative of doing nothing, focusing too much on being able to quantify impact results in NPOs pivoting to implement projects that can be measured and reported on, vs. projects that are decided upon through participatory discussions with their target communities. Added on top of this is the limitations imposed by the North forcing an evaluation framework and process on the South without possibly adequate representation of the voices that are being helped. In general once has to walk the line between deciding by proxy and disempowering, and seeking open feedback and criticism from target communities and having them as equal partners in deciding upon their choices of development and empowerment.

After many years of volunteering with Asha, NVIDIA Foundation, Mindful Schools and other groups, this gave me a good setting to finally take the time to look back and evaluate all the mistakes I have done in the past and see how things could be done better, and what gaps I could see in where the industry is headed. Prof. Hsieh seems to be doing some really interesting work around looking at CSR and the day-to-day operations of corporations itself and assessing their footprint and making that more socially relevant. He also spoke to us briefly about ongoing work (including his own) on what the obligations of transnational corporations are towards human rights.

Can’t wait for the upcoming sessions and learn more! Class 38 and others that will follow – keep the light shining and vote for these classes!

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