A Braintrust for Social Innovators

A Braintrust for Social Innovators
Photo credit: Rocket Learning

Late last year, South Park Commons and the Agency Fund partnered to create a new fellowship supporting the founders of non-profits and social ventures. We wanted to kickstart an ecosystem of innovators addressing the decision-making needs of people facing difficult lives. For example, what data-driven insights might help a family navigate the web of welfare benefits they’re entitled to? What community-based therapy models might help a teen mother manage her depression?

We’re now a month into the fellowship. We’ve discovered that most of our Social Impact Fellows are building some combination of chatbots, call centers, web apps, and community networks to deliver their services. So the “tech stack” is relatively consistent. This makes it easier to share hard-won lessons and best practices for user onboarding, activation, and engagement. There are also a few shared user metrics, and a common interest in using A/B testing to improve the insights delivered to users.

We wouldn’t have picked up on these synergies if not for the fellowship. The program is relatively intense: all fellows meet multiple times per week, over an 8-week sprint, to make progress toward specific milestones — like new prototypes, product deployments, or fundraises. They are part of a study group to explore emerging insights from development economics, social psychology, machine learning, and ethics. And during weekly workshops, they build momentum by individually collecting feedback on their progress and next steps.

Over just a few weeks, the fellows have quickly formed a “braintrust,” offering each other insights, experiences, code packages, and useful contacts. Within the community, we’ve established a norm of being open, vulnerable, and non-competitive — all while acknowledging the need to invest in ourselves… because social entrepreneurship can be as exhausting and draining as it is exhilarating and impactful.

Our hypothesis was that bringing social sector domain experts together with a technology community would accelerate the development of new solutions. We don’t have a verdict yet, but we are excited to share some early insights.

Our inaugural cohort of Social Impact Fellows roughly maps across four domains of impact:

1 — Youth decision-making

In many lower-income countries, young people far outnumber adults—a phenomenon known as the “youth bulge.” In India, more than 50 percent of people are under 25; in Africa, the figure is closer to 60 percent. This means that every year, massive numbers of young people enter the school system, the job market, and the marriage market. They will have to make complex, life-altering decisions, often in the context of scarcity and instability.

Noam Angrist and Moitshepi Matsheng of young1ove.org are exploring how to tailor guidance for adolescent girls as they select their sex partners, with the aim of reducing HIV incidence and early pregnancy.

Fernanda Ramirez Espinoza of consiliumbots.com wants to build a chatbot that helps high-achieving adolescent girls across Latin America re-examine their beliefs about women in STEM careers.

Both of these innovators are thinking carefully about how messages should be framed for youth. They’re also thinking about who is the most appropriate messenger — and in many contexts, it’s a peer. Which brings us to the next domain…

2 — Parenting support

The everyday challenges of parenting were exposed by the COVID-19 epidemic. With schools shut across the globe, parents scrambled to balance caregiving and homeschooling with work responsibilities. But families with limited means have faced a steeper struggle. Their children may be the first generation to attend school. They may lack the confidence, materials, and time to support young learners at home.

Namya Mahajan and her co-founders Utsav Kheria and Azeez Gupta at rocketlearning.org are empowering the parents of preschoolers to build their children’s foundational learning, through simple home-based activities that support child development.

Saransh Vaswani of saajha.org is building a platform to connect low-income parents in communities across India — enabling them to collectivize and navigate complex government and non-government services.

A key discovery for both organizations? That low-income parents have a deep need for psycho-social support — a service that schools rarely offer! Providing distressed parents with counseling and peer support can have profound impacts on the health and well-being of our next generation.

3 — Economic inclusion

Hundreds of millions of people are still excluded from the market economies they live in. They may be priced out of the market, or they might lack the insider knowledge needed to complete complex transactions. Maybe they’ve been excluded by their governments, through incarceration or political sanctions. Whatever the case, economic inclusion is an important step in creating equality of opportunity.

Briane Cornish is the founder of finequity.org, a financial services provider that helps people returning from incarceration to build credit histories, financial know-how, and confidence.

Fernando Ochoa of consiliumbots.com is exploring the design of robo-advisors that help low-income households make sense of housing subsidies and other welfare benefits they’re eligible to receive.

Piyush Poddar is building Affordably, a platform that expands access to digital goods through a merchant API that verifies customer eligibility for need-based price discounts.

All three fellows are collecting and analyzing data to understand how people’s “mental models” inform their economic choices. For example, for people affected by the carceral system, financial exclusion may seem like the normal state of the world — not something to be questioned. For people who can’t afford a Coursera certificate, the assumption may be that “Coursera is not for folks like me.” How can we identify and productively challenge such beliefs?

4 — Social inclusion

To dismantle poverty and injustice, people of all identities must be invited to participate in society — with dignity, safety, and equal opportunity. Yet too many people are excluded from public services (like healthcare and education) and from public spaces (both political and physical). How can we simultaneously disrupt exclusionary practices, and build institutions and norms that are more inclusive?

Jonathan McKay is working with co-founders Codie Roelf and Keith Mundangepfufu on SameSame, a chat service offering anonymous psychosocial support for LGBTQ+ youth living in countries that have criminalized their identities and expression.

Pippa Yeats is co-founder of turn.io, a software platform that automates WhatsApp-based communications for the social sector, leveraging insights from behavioral science to optimize social impact.

These founders are puzzling through the best ways to generate and present evidence on the impacts of chat. They are also thinking about how to link chat effectively with human resources, to achieve synergies between humans and machines.

WhatsApp chat service platform developed by Turn.io, a startup serving social sector organizations. Credit: turn.io, 2021

We are excited to support this next generation of social entrepreneurs. They are crossing disciplines, learning from their experiments, and building new technologies to fight poverty and expand opportunity. As they search for “what works” in their specific domains and contexts, we will learn alongside them.