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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!

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  • 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.