Designing with the “End” in Mind

By Seimi Park, Summer Intern

If you enjoy strategy and problem solving as much as we do here at Blue Garnet, odds are that you’re familiar with the term “design thinking.”

Design thinking began as a buzzword in consumer product spaces, at companies like Apple and Nike. In recent years, however, the methodology has been more openly embraced by organizations for which the application of design concepts might seem less intuitive.

The relevance of “design” may not be apparent in the nonprofit and social impact sectors. However,  many design thinking principles are innate to the work of social change organizations. So, what exactly is design thinking and how is it applied in the social sector?

Design thinking is a framework for understanding complex problems and creating innovative, human-centered solutions. Unlike most problem-solving methods, design thinking begins with the end in mind – focusing on solutions and the way that things could be, rather than focusing on problems and the way that things currently are.

The design thinking methodology can be captured in five key stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

  • Empathize: The design thinking process begins with engaging your end-users or beneficiaries through conversation to develop a richer understanding of their experiences, emotions, needs, and desires. E.g. What are your community members saying about what they really need from your services?
  • Define: After gathering insights from your conversations with your end-users, develop an action-oriented problem statement that can be used as a foundation for brainstorming. g. How can you boil down all the point points you heard into prioritized needs?
  • Ideate: Spend some time “dreaming up” potential solutions – be creative and think outside the box! E.g. What would you do for and with your client, if you had unlimited resources and abundant staff?
  • Prototype: Ask yourself what your potential solutions could look like and translate this vision into something tangible by building models or mock-ups. E.g. Can you test out a pilot project of a new program or service you brainstormed?
  • Test: Get feedback from your users on what works and more importantly, what needs improvement. E.g. How did the pilot project meet the community needs identified?

While the methodology can be broken down into these five stages, the process of design thinking is never quite complete, requiring constant iteration. In other words, you’ll likely go through the process multiple times before you generate a viable solution.

The Blue Garnet team after an energizing brainstorming session on ways we can continue to employ design thinking in our work

Here are a few examples of how Blue Garnet uses design thinking principles in our work:

  • People come first. In order to maximize our impact, we focus on better understanding our clients and the communities that they serve. Our work is centered on developing meaningful relations with our clients, learning about the experiences of stakeholders, and putting ourselves in the shoes of the Southern California community through innovative techniques, such as empathy mapping.
  • Starting with the end in mind. When we work with clients, we begin by asking questions: What social impact are you hoping to achieve? How will you measure your impact? What do you need to hone to make this impact possible? We believe that defining your desired impact is critical to ensuring the sustainability and efficacy of your organization. 
  • In order to truly think outside of the box, assume nothing. Don’t limit yourself to conventionality and that which has already been done. Every client is unique. We don’t problem-solve by relying on precedent – rather, we problem-solve by learning from our clients about their individual needs and working through the defining and brainstorming stages of the design thinking process 
  • Continuously iterate. Always ask yourself, “What can we do better?” There is rarely a definitive “end” point to our work in the social impact space. As a “team of learners,” we are continuously thinking of ways to better support our clients and communities. 

At our social impact consulting firm, human-centered problem solving has been woven into the Blue Garnet-DNA. As we continue learning and growing, we would love to hear from you. How are you thinking about design thinking principles in your own organization? Let us know your thoughts at hello@bluegarnet.net.

 

 

Further resources on Design Thinking:

Design Thinking for Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector. Liedtka, Salzman, and Azer https://www.amazon.com/Design-Thinking-Greater-Good-Innovation-ebook/dp/B0719PRBM5

“Bringing Design Thinking To Social Problems, Ideo.org Focuses on the People in Need.” Pastorek https://www.fastcompany.com/3020789/bringing-design-thinking-to-social-problems-ideoorg-focuses-on-the-people-

“Design Thinking for Social Innovation.” Brown and Wyatt https://ssir.org/articles/entry/design_thinking_for_social_innovation

New at Blue (Garnet)

By Sofia Van Cleve

Three months of working as an Analyst at Blue Garnet have flown by! My name is Sofia Van Cleve, and I’d like to formally introduce myself while also giving you a glimpse of what it’s like to start working at Blue Garnet.

To give you a better picture of who I am, here is a picture of my face. What this picture doesn’t show, though, is my mixed, and often confusing, background. (Hang in there for a few seconds!) I was born in Sweden to a Swedish mom and American dad, who had met in Albania as young church planters. We lived mainly in Greece and Albania, with a few months in Scotland, Sweden, and Romania, before we moved to Orange County, California when I was fourteen years old. My years surrounded by poverty abroad inspired me to study International Development at UCLA, from which I graduated in the fall of 2017. I’m dedicated to seeing renewal happen in the world, and Blue Garnet is the perfect place to learn how organizations make lasting change on a local level in Los Angeles.

 But what exactly does Blue Garnet do as a social impact consulting firm? Many people ask me this today, just as I did when I first heard about this industry. Essentially, we help coach, develop, and evaluate organizations working in the social sector. Our clients span foundations, nonprofits, and businesses, who all invest in their strategy and talent to better focus on long-term impact. Many of my coworkers came from for-profit consulting backgrounds, where they helped companies maximize profit; but they migrated to Blue Garnet with a desire to use their skills and giftings to maximize social change.

Entering into this space and adopting the “Blue Garnet Way” necessitates a lot of learning. I had studied some program design, evaluation, and statistics in college, but I definitely needed to tune up my skills in data analysis. I read Naked Statistics and Evaluation in Organizations, as well as taking an Excel course online, to tackle my first project: analyzing multi-year survey results from a nonprofit cohort evaluation. It was daunting, but pretty interesting. I’ve also participated in webinars on topics like social media for social impact, equity in philanthropy, and research on nonprofit sector trends. I totally nerded out over the report “A Portrait of LA1,” which analyzes the American Human Development Index across LA County, segmenting by ethnic group and geographic region. I brought this book to the beach after work (oh, did I mention our office is a 5 minutes’ drive from the beach?) on a Friday and sat for hours reading it. What more could I ask for? The beach close by and a work culture that embraces geekiness? I’m sold!

Other than just being social impact geeks, the Blue Garnet team works on fascinating and diverse projects. Though there is truly no typical day at Blue Garnet, my favorite days are meeting with our clients across Los Angeles and Orange Counties. We regularly travel to in-person design and strategy sessions, focus groups, and other meetings. We’ve had research and learning presentations for a foundation in Santa Monica, volunteer management discussions with nonprofits in Pasadena and Claremont, and conferences in downtown. I’m a huge extrovert, so I really value getting to know our clients face-to-face. Then I love spending quality time on the drives with my coworkers, and LA traffic often gives us plenty of time to chat (if you’ve been in LA more than 2 hours, you know what I mean!)

I would be remiss to share the Blue Garnet life without giving a shoutout to my team. They are seriously the most brilliant, passionate, and caring collection of people I have ever met! They have welcomed me into their lives by taking me out to lunch, inviting me to their Kentucky Derby party, letting me come with them to pick up their kids from school, making sure I go to the doctor when I need to, and always caring about me as a person, not just an employee. I’m tearing up as I write this, overwhelmed with gratitude for the chance to work at Blue Garnet.

Whether you’re a college student looking for hope that postgrad life is truly good, a Blue Garnet client, or a fellow social change agent curious about working with us, I hope this brief introduction gives you a better flavor of the Blue Garnet team and the life of a social impact consulting Analyst.

Feel free to send me a hello or any questions you may have about Blue Garnet: sofia@bluegarnet.net. I hope to meet you soon!

 

 

——————-

A Portrait of Los Angeles County, found at http://www.measureofamerica.org/los-angeles-county/

 

Blue Garnet’s pro tips for every social enterprise

 

By Sofia Van Cleve

Building an impactful social enterprise is far from easy. Through the ups and downs of Blue Garnet’s 15+ years working in social impact consulting and building our own social enterprise, we’ve learned some huge lessons in social entrepreneurship the hard way. In late April, we had the chance to talk about these learnings at Social Enterprise Alliance-LA’s new event, the Professional Services Night. Along with six other volunteering organizations—spanning social media, tech, law, and strategy consulting—Blue Garnet was happy to provide our pro bono help to the participants.

 

The creativity and passion we saw during the night got us super excited about new social enterprises in LA and wanting to share some tips with social entrepreneurs at large. Our co-founder, Way-Ting Chen, and the attendees explored how to improve their existing organizations or build their entrepreneurial dream with an eye for impact. Daniel Nash, a music composer and web designer, said Way-Ting’s help was “Phenomenal—I got the next steps for my business idea and steps down the line that I had no idea about. She helped me think ahead and know what resources I need to connect with and when I will need them.” We loved chatting with people like Daniel (and not just because he gave us the nicest compliment in the entire world!), but we don’t want to be stingy with our advice. So we’re going “open source” with our recommendations, hoping they’ll help other social enterprises out there, too.

 

If you want to maximize your impact and develop a high-performing organization, you need to make sure your organization has the following four components.

What You Need to Know About Impact as a Social Entrepreneur:

  1. Organizational clarity: Start with the end in mind. What impact are you trying to achieve through your social enterprise? What are the top three things YOU need to do really well to get there?
  2. Shared Leadership: Bring others on board to do this together and build your team to complement your strengths.
  3. Healthy Economics: Align your business model to your goals by focusing on who your target client is, what you offer them that truly makes a difference, and how you can afford to do so over time.
  4. Accountability for Results: Define your 10 key measures of success related to both impact and performance. Gather and analyze relevant data for insight, then iterate your strategy.

It’s okay if you don’t have all of these right now. The good news is that you can build them over time. If you have questions or want to build these for your organization, please contact us at sofia@bluegarnet.net.

 

We hope that the Services Night and Blue Garnet sharing these four tenants of impact will inspire social entrepreneurs in LA and beyond!

 


A special thanks to SEA-LA and Danny Brown for organizing this event, and West Monroe Partners for hosting! Thanks also to Daniel Nash for your incredibly kind words (we’re still blushing!).

Social inspiration from an unlikely space – the corporate world

While Blue Garnet is known mostly for its work in with nonprofits and philanthropies, we also proudly work with socially-minded corporate clients. Our corporate clients wrestle with many of the same questions as our nonprofit and foundation clients, such as impact articulation and measurement. However, they do have a unique challenge: clarifying their purpose. Corporate citizenship (or CSR or community development) departments that began as legal compliance or “charity work” purely for marketing purpose purposes are evolving. A new wave of leaders has “found a seat at the table” and they have a genuine commitment to sustainable social change and are armed with innovative, inspiring ideas.

An article called, “Five Social Impact Trends that Inspire Us,” outlines five of those inspiring ideas. Spoiler alert: the articles highlights and describes the trends of increased transparency, workplace volunteerism, corporate leaders taking a stand on polarizing issues, correlation between purpose and profit, and impact measurement. While it’s a great starting point – I wanted to push the list further and add my two cents. My reflections come from an extensive corporate citizenship benchmarking effort among leading corporate citizenship companies I recently led at Blue Garnet. So, without further ado – here are a few additional trends that I think are not only inspiring, but critical to truly maximize the impact of a corporate citizenship.

  • Increased engagement: As the article mentions, corporations are more frequently taking a stance on polarizing issues – everything from climate change to LGBTQ rights and immigration. In fact – many corporations seemed to have developed a public persona. But whose views is the corporation expressing? I believe it’s a combination of key leaders, staff, and its community. In order for an organization to accurately express the beliefs of and truly engage with its staff and community, many leading corporate citizens have learned the value of listening. In order to not only align your corporate views to your key stakeholders’, but also improve the well-being of your employees and community – you need to ask them – directly, genuinely, and regularly. I heard some great examples, including robust “listening tours,” community and employee surveys, and a community taskforce to inform corporate priorities.
  • Empowered employees: In line with the article’s trend of increased transparency and “bringing your true self to work,” leading corporate citizens are handing over (some of the) reigns. They are empowering employees to direct corporate resources. The most common way employees are given a “voice” is through workplace giving campaign donations matches. Additionally, more companies are letting employees decide the nonprofit beneficiaries of corporate volunteer events. And to save the best for last – a few leading companies let a panel of employees determine its community grant beneficiaries.
  • Increased focus: Sophisticated citizenship programs have moved beyond the “confetti” or “spray and pray” approach where lots of small grants/gifts are provided to many different organizations. These grants are nice – but lack the power to truly make a difference. This approach is typical when a company’s primary citizenship objective is marketing-focused (e.g. building a company’s reputation). However, if a corporation truly wants to fund sustainable social change and develop a brand known for doing good, it needs to focus its giving priorities and provide fewer, larger grants to long-term grantee partners. Additionally – particularly in technology – leading companies align corporate giving objectives and priorities with corporate and employee expertise. A couple of real-life examples are a utility company that prioritizes STEM education or a technology company that provides grants to organizations that use technology to combat society’s biggest challenges. The benefits of a focused, strategic giving strategy are two-fold: employees are more easily engaged when they understand and connect to your citizenship efforts (which is easier to do when the objectives are aligned to their expertise) and it provides a great opportunity for skills-based volunteering (e.g. an engineer for a utility company mentoring a student at the local school’s corporate-sponsored robotics lab).
  • Becoming certified: B-Corporations take the commitment to be a good corporate citizenship to the next level! B Corps are purpose-driven and creates benefit for all STAKEholders – not just SHAREholders. The goal: redefine success in business. B-Corps are certified to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. While a relatively new type of company, there are already a lot of them – more than 2,100 from 50 countries and over 130 industries. You many have heard of a few of them: Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and (yours truly) Blue Garnet! (click here for more information about B-Corps)

I hope you are inspired as I am. What you would add to the list?

All Aboard!: A Tool for Changemakers to Create Impact

by: Marcelo Pinell

Setting sail on the sea of social impact can be a daunting and overwhelming feat. Some, out of fear, have yet to leave shore while others have been tossed and turned by the challenging waves of the social sector. As the newest member to step on board Blue Garnet, I have been privileged to navigate these vast waters with a team of skilled and experienced social impact geeks who have steered through the rough seas, withstood the storms and driven the high winds of strategy to help leaders and their teams chart their ultimate impact.

Recently, I had the opportunity to witness these social impact geeks in action as I provided support for our Impact Formula Strategy Lab series. We had three eager organizations initially commit to investing in the development of their strategic thinking for three sessions spread across May through July. I was able to join the second session in June and watched the teams progress all the way up to a fourth session this November, which was later added due to popular demand. As it turns out, the work done during this Lab series was not what I expected. The following are some key insights that I walked away with after the Lab. I hope my reflections serve as a fresh perspective on the value of this Lab series in helping leaders create impact.

 

The right dosage can help leaders and their teams address their outcomes

Truth be told, not every nonprofit can afford consultants who can extensively work with them one-on-one for months on end. Plus, some nonprofits may not even need the full services of a consulting firm. Strategy Lab Session 4 PhotoThe Strategy Lab proved this point for me. Providing the correct dosage of support can help leaders and their teams address their outcomes. From May through July (and then once more in November), we trained and educated teams from three organizations. Once a month, they attended a half-day session in which they actively learned, participated, and worked through their Impact Formula. These teams would then go back to their organizations to work on assignments from the session and would return for another session the following month to gain more clarity and continue to build on their work. It was an iterative process that demanded hard work, but after the Lab series, these teams left with the tools and confidence they needed to head back as change agents for their organizations.

 

Consultants are not the changemakers, leaders are!

I’m sure you’ve heard this proverbial saying before: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” I began to see this proverb unfold before my eyes as I watched the Lab participants wrestle with strategic questions. More than giving them a business model, the Lab gave participants the time and space to work as a team with other people in their organization, which is typically difficult to do due to competing priorities and schedules. Additionally, the Lab allowed participants to gain awareness of a holistic view on achieving their “ends,” ask key learning questions and acquire strategic tools so they could think critically about their organization’s impact.

The assumption so often is that the professional consultant creates the impact. Though there is a place for consultants, no one can replace the passion and hours that these leaders give to the people they serve. If you can help equip a leader and deputize them as a change agent, then he or she can build a culture of change.

 

Reaching your intended impact is an intense, iterative and invaluable process

During the Lab, all of the teams got on board and steered through some serious strategic questions. As they sought to gain clarity, though, I noticed that their comfort articulating their theory of change interestingly and surprisingly took a slight dip during the second session. Strategy Lab Session 2 photoOn a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), the teams rated their comfort articulating their theory of change a 3.6 after the first session, which then dropped down to a 3.3 after session 2. By the third session, however, the rating jumped back up to a 3.8. The data seems to point to the reality of the intense and iterative nature in building discernment. From my perspective, the teams were initially shocked by some big waves regarding their theory of change, but they gained more confidence and clarity over time to create a vision for impact.

The teams were able to create a vision for impact not only because they iterated on their own work, but also because they learned from each organization’s different approach to tackling its Impact Statement. The value of peer learning was so great that the teams asked for a fourth session, which we completed last week. This additional session allowed the teams to check-in and hold each other accountable to their work.

Navigating the waters of social impact can be overwhelming, but the opportunity to help these organizations map out their impact was an invaluable journey for both them and me. I jumped on board the Lab and saw that it provides the right dosage to help these changemakers “zero in on impact.” Great job, teams! I look forward to the impact that comes forth as a result of your labor. Keep on sailing!

Nonprofit leaders are getting help from an unlikely place – robots!

by: Leah Haynesworth

Robots are here and they are transforming how we solve complex problems, including those in the social sector. At the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering’s Robotics Open House this past spring, we caught up with some budding changemakers whose robots are helping to create positive social change.

Changemaker #1: Jens Windau, a Ph.D student, Jens Windaufounded AIO Robotics. His company prints 3D hands and wrists in Los Angeles. Typically, prosthetics take approximately four to six weeks to be delivered and cost over $5,000. These 3D-printed prosthetics, however, can be printed in 24 hours and cost $20, significantly reducing the wait time and cost of prosthetics.

Jens has used his work to create a better Southern California by donating 3D-printed prosthetic hands and wrists to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). In the future, he said, 3-D printed prosthetics could expand to include other body parts, like feet.

Changemaker #2: Rorry Brenner has developed a vision-based system that allows robots to guide blind people through the grocery store. In his study, Rorry blindfolded 45 participants to see if they could find a box of Lucky Charms with this system. He witnessed 100% accuracy and is now trying to incorporate a high-definition camera into the system to increase speed.

Robotics has already started to combat pressing social issues, even though it is not necessarily the most obvious complement to social change. “There are problems that people don’t even consider tech being able to solve,” Rorry said.

Can robots help you? Where to start:

Curious to know if robots are in your future? Brenner recommends carefully examining artificial intelligence (AI) as a tool when looking to solve social problems. In order to capitalize on, or at least recognize, how robots can help affect change, those of us in the social sector should:

  1. Stay aware of the advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence
  2. Realize that there will be an increasing number of partnerships that can be created between the social sector and the field of robotics
  3. Start to understand what we do not understand; robots do not have to be seen as scary

To get you started, we wanted to share three resources that we have found about the cross-section between robotics and the social sector:

  1. Information about e-NABLE, a Google-sponsored community that prints 3D hands
  2. A story about how Jens and CHLA are using prosthetics to help children thrive
  3. Background on OpenAI, a recently created non-profit AI research company associated with Elon Musk whose objective is to advance open-source-friendly AI in a way that benefits humanity

We’re “geeking out” (and hope you are now, too!) about how robotics will impact the social sector in the future. Do you currently use robots in your social change work? Let us know how by commenting below.

Making Strategic Planning Real

by: Shannon Johnson

It’s time to get real…about making social impact in Los Angeles. That’s exactly what The John Gogian Family Foundation did on January 27th, 2016, in Torrance, CA. Lindsey Stammerjohn, Executive Director, understands that long-term sustainable social change doesn’t just happen – it needs to be carefully planned. So she and the foundation stepped up to the plate and hosted a forum for all their grantees (70+ in attendance, their highest ever) focused on “Making Strategic Business Planning Real.” Pretty awesome, huh? We thought so too.

I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer, but strategic business planning is (and should be) hard. You are asking and answering tough, strategic qDilys Garciauestions. Want to know what helps? Learning from others who have been there. That’s why we interviewed Dilys Tosteson Garcia, Executive Director at Court Appointed Special Advocates Los Angeles (CASA), throughout the forum. She candidly painted a real-life picture of the struggles and triumphs in her organization’s strategic planning process. Their process was of particular interest to the attendees as she and her team developed a bold and visionary plan to TRIPLE their impact while simultaneously undergoing a complete shift in their funding model. In the process, they strengthened their program model, invested in data systems and elevated their internal culture!

Thinking of starting a strategic planning process? As we shared during the forum, here are few tips to keep in mind:

  • A Strategic Business Plan becomes REAL when you not only define your desired impact in a measurable way but also align it with your business model, make sure you can afford it, develop a plan for how you’re going to implement it, measure your progress, learn along the way, and hold yourself accountable to it. PS – when all is said and done, it is a very, very powerful and beautiful thing and worth all the effort!

test

  • Process is as important as content. Building a strategic business plan takes time, but it can be “chunked” out into 3 main steps:

Where are we today?

  • Engaging the “right” people at the “right” time is critical. Think about whom, when, and how different stakeholders (e.g. Board, staff, clients, funders, supporters) should be involved. Our motto: involve “early and often.”
  • Your plan should be adaptive. Strategies and plan can (and should) change over time. (Read more about emergent strategies here.)

A big thank you to The John Gogian Family Foundation, Dilys Tosteson Garcia, and all the inspiring nonprofit leaders who attended for an engaging, productive day!

Are you interested in Making Strategic Business Planning Real? Click here to learn more about Blue Garnet’s Impact Accelerator Strategy Labs.

The Top 10 Ways to Do Good with Data

by: Leah Haynesworth and Sithu Thein Swe

The Top 10 Ways to Do Good with Data

Data Scientists: The Unlikely Storytellers

As a team of social impact geeks, we love hearing about new, effective ways to create social change. Consequently, we recently sent two of our team members, Sithu and Leah, to the Do Good Data Conference in Chicago. The Conference, which took place from April 28-29, 2016, brought together over 800 individuals to learn about the present and future of data usage in the social sector. The conference sessions encompassed a wide range of topics, from “Pay for Success: Funding programs that measurably change lives” to “Unlocking the ‘So What?’: Better Data to Advance the Social Mission of the Arts” to “Dashboards and Databases: How Google Can Help.”

After taking time to digest all of their learnings, here are Sithu and Leah’s top 10 takeaways from the conference:

  1. Share learnings from your work – both positive and negative – to support the social sector’s development.
  • The next steps for foundations are managing information as well as producing and sharing knowledge, according to Bradford Smith, President of the Foundation Center. While there are great resources for the social sector, such as IssueLab, foundations should discuss their learnings with their grantees and peers.
  1. Move beyond Excel.
  • Excel is an oft-used tool in organizations’ analytical toolkits. However, there are other solid options to collect, store, report, and analyze data, including Tableau, R, and Python.
  1. Much of project feasibility is the ability to evaluate the project.
  • When launching a pay for success program, some key elements to consider are: outcome, populations, the organization’s quarter by quarter expenses for the next six to seven years, and accessing data for evaluation. Key term: “evaluability.”
  1. Use data to drive narratives.
  • Understanding and clearly communicating data are crucial in creating impact. “Your next role in life as a data scientist is a data storyteller.” – Steve MacLaughlin, Director, Analytics, Blackbaud
  1. Data is only useful if it is relevant.
  • “Data analytics and visualization are great and much needed, but if your data are bad or incomplete, or your outcomes are inappropriate, then all you have are pretty graphs.” – Fluxx
  1. Data is not a panacea.
  1. Start with the ends in mind.
  • When using data, it is critical to clarify the problems on which to focus, determine the right questions to ask, and understand the aim in using the data. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to become overwhelmed by the data.
  1. Create mindshifts in how your organization talks about data and its purpose.
  • Creating a data-driven culture isn’t easy, but Erika Van Buren, Director of Learning & Evaluation at First Place for Youth, takes a great approach. She works with team members almost like clients by supporting them from the initial program development phase and collaborating with them throughout the process.
  1. Are you ready and willing to make the tough decisions needed to be a data-driven, impact-oriented organization?
  • During the conference’s first keynote session, a leader from a prominent foundation said: “In 20 years, I’ve never seen data change anything. It takes courageous leaders to make the changes.”
  1. “Data science is easy; the ethics of prediction is hard.” – Tom Schenk, Chief Data Officer, City of Chicago
  • As Stephen Goldsmith, Professor of Practice at Harvard Kennedy School, mentioned, there are soft biases in all of our decisions. With data algorithms, however, we can make the biases explicit, transparent, and open for public feedback and iteration.

The conference sessions revealed the vast implications for data use in the social sector. Judging by the continual growth of the conference, the social sector as a whole is aware of the importance of data. What does this mean for your organization? How do you use data to inform your work and further your impact?

Does your (legal) form follow function?

by: Way-Ting Chen (with Giselle Timmerman and Taylor Chamberlin)

Deciding on the right legal structure for your social purpose organization or social enterprise can be a taxing process (pun intended), with many trade-offs to consider. Figuring out the differences between a Low-Profit LLC, Social Purpose Corporation, Benefit LLC, or traditional exempt organization is difficult enough to untangle, much less being certain of making the right choice for what your organization needs.

When considering legal structure decisions, start with the end in mind

Before deciding on a legal structure, consider your ultimate “ends”: your impact.

We’d like to help make this decision a little less tangled and a little better informed for you, and the first step is to answer the question, “legal structure for what?” Remember that in the world of social impact, your legal structure is just another means to achieving your ultimate ends: your impact. Simply put, your “ends” is your long-term organizational strategy, or intended ultimate impact. With the end in mind, you will have clarity about which legal status will help you to achieve your intended impact.

Let’s look at two client examples to put this approach into practice.

A supportive housing organization and a start-up apparel company both want to increase their financial sustainability while also growing their services. The supportive housing organization (let’s call it “Safe Haven”) is presented with the opportunity to develop a real-estate property adjacent to its building. The apparel company (we’ll call it “Sustainawrap”) is presented with the opportunity to create and sell products. How does each organization move forward with assessing the merits of these opportunities and their legal implications?

Safe Haven weighed the pros and cons of leasing market rate rental units or providing permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals. Their discussions landed on a critical question: Real-estate property for what end? They needed to define their intended ultimate impact in order to get clear and unified on what purpose the real estate property needed to serve. Ultimately, they realized they did not need a “cash cow” to generate unrestricted cash flow, so they committed to using this real estate for permanent supportive housing (using a hybrid legal model to minimize legal liability) to directly further their mission.

Safe Haven’s impact statement provided strategic direction: By 2023, North County homeless population will be reduced by 50%.

Sustainawrap weighed the pros and cons of launching a social enterprise to sell baby products. They struggled at first with defining how the social enterprise would contribute to their overall organizational strategy. After agreeing that their “ends” must be women’s self-sufficiency, they used their impact statement to help filter and guide decision-making.

Sustainawrap impact statement: By 2025, 100 homeless women living below the poverty line in LA County will be on the path to financial self-sufficiency. The means to their ends became creating jobs and selling unique baby products, so that impoverished women were employed. With this strategic goal in mind, business planning for their social enterprise was much easier, and they decided that a for-profit legal structure provided the simplicity and flexibility needed to achieve their ends. 

Organizations with similar mission statements may have very different impact statements. But, with clarity on their long-term strategic direction, the legal structure decision (along with many other critical choices) becomes simpler.

Finally, the expectations and perceptions we have of various legal structures is evolving. Based on the most recent Edelman trust barometer report, a full 80% of people agree that business must play a role in addressing societal issues.

"Scrooge McDuck"

A “for-profit” legal structure doesn’t make you a Scrooge McDuck

A for-profit structure doesn’t make you a Scrooge McDuck, just as a nonprofit status doesn’t put a halo over your head.  So, setting aside any expectations or stereotypes, make the hard decisions to figure out your intended impact and strategy, then make the legal structure decision that follows.

Click here for our briefing on what an impact thinking mindset is, and here for how you can become a better ‘impact do-er’. For further help with your social enterprise’s legal structure, check out Sustainable Law Group, and the webinar series we presented together with the Society for Nonprofits.

What do you get when you mix international development, problem solving, and a love of dance?

Blue Garnet is proud to introduce our newest pragmatic idealist, Leah Haynesworth! Leah is joining us as an Analyst, which means she’ll be rolling up her sleeves on the research and analysis that fuels our client work and on building our firm culture. Giselle Timmerman, a BG team member for almost nine years, sat down recently to welcome Leah and help you all get to know her. Here are some highlights from their conversation…

Giselle: Let’s start with your “why” – Why did you choose Blue Garnet?

Leah: For two reasons. One: I love solving complex problems and I’m very analytical, which draws me to consulting. Two: I’m passionate about social impact – I’ve worked in international development in both Uganda and New York and interned in corporate social responsibility (CSR) at NBCUniversal and The Walt Disney Company. So I feel that Blue Garnet offers me the perfect opportunity to apply my skills and experiences to help organizations better achieve social impact.

Giselle: Perfect combo indeed! What kinds of projects are you hoping to dig into?

Leah: Well, I’ve just started working with one of our corporate clients on Board leadership, so I’m eager to expand what I know about CSR. Blue Garnet also works with quite a few arts organizatinos, and I am also a trained ballet, modern, and jazz dancer, so it would be great to work with them. And I really am analytical by nature; it’s my default state. So I’m excited to apply that strength.

Giselle: The BG team takes developing our strengths seriously and we help clients do the same. You’ve taken a few strengths assessment surveys—apart from being analytical, what other strengths do you frequently rely on?

Leah: I loved taking these strength assessments and found them really interesting. Perseverance is one of my top strengths and I definitely am very goal-oriented. When I get involved in something, I have every intention of completing it.

It was a bit surprising to see that humor was my top VIA strength. I definitely like to be goofy and I tend to get along with different types of people, but it’s not always something I share right away. Fairness and judgment are also big ones for me. When I initially meet someone, I usually give them the benefit of the doubt.

Giselle: Where do you think your fairness comes from? Does your upbringing play a part?

Leah: I hadn’t really thought about it, but yes! My siblings are twins, so I had a front-row seat to an emphasis on sharing and fairness. 

Giselle: I’m curious to know more about your experience in Uganda. What was that like?

Leah: It’s a difficult experience to put into words. I really loved learning about international development in the field. And I learned something everyday, personal or professional—ranging from how to communicate in Luganda, the local language, to the sensitive issues surrounding working with commercial sex workers.

Giselle: So how did you shift from being an English major at Princeton University to being passionate about social impact?

Leah: While in undergrad, I studied in South Africa and volunteered as a teacher in a township that was in a poorer area of the city. I was deeply impacted by the dichotomy between rich and poor, blacks and whites. So then I was inspired to go back to Africa after I graduated and my passion for working in the social sector snowballed from there. That’s why I pursued work in Uganda and it’s also what eventually led me to USC’s Master of Public Administration program.

Giselle: I know that you collaborated on consulting projects with several local organizations while pursuing your MPA. A large part of Blue Garnet’s work is helping organizations make the shift to an impact thinking and doing mindset. In your own words, what does it mean for an organization to have a longer-term focus on impact?

Leah: I think it means that an organization is always looking to make its desired vision and strategy real. In other words, instead of only concentrating on social impact for specific projects, programs, and initiatives, an organization with a long-term focus on impact attempts to incorporate social impact into its organization overall and searches for ways to push the limits of its organizational capacity for social change.

Giselle: Finally, I have to ask, what’s your honest first impression of BG’s culture?

Leah: My third interview was with the entire team, which cemented my feeling that BG was the right place for me. I feel welcomed and part of a community of people who are smart and work hard, but don’t take themselves too seriously – that can be hard to find!

Click here to learn more about Leah and the rest of our team.