Better Than New

Grant-makers are Listening to the Voice of the Customer in Tibet by menteral
June 20, 2007, 10:28 am
Filed under: Social Change

Tibet PhotoBy Adam Menter

I recently read an article on that tells the story of a foreign teacher named Kevin Stuart in rural Tibetan China who is using English language education as a means to empower local students to write grant proposals and improve the situation in their communities. Having traveled to similar areas of the developing world and seen first-hand how aid is often distributed by foreign foundations and NGOs, it was great to read about an initiative like this.

Too many foundations, as well-meaning as they are, use what I would call a “push” strategy. Using only the most basic and cursory methods for understanding what – if anything – is ailing a given community, they force-feed people ready-made solutions that were devised using their pre-existing cultural frame. These over-assumed solutions often aren’t appropriate for the situation or the local culture – and aid dollars are not used to maximum affect. By teaching these students English, and connecting them to grant-making institutions, what Mr. Stuart is doing is giving these communities a stronger voice. Quite literally in this case. This voice can both articulate needs and suggest solutions – allowing grant-making agencies to “pull” more effective from the communities whose needs they are trying to meet.

Businesses can fall into the same trap – introducing products with an incomplete working understanding of customers’ real needs. Even when great social research and market studies have been done, it is tempting for companies to over-assume the solution and push products into the marketplace. While these solutions may make sense from the company’s cultural frame, and in relation to existing product offerings, they can miss the really big opportunities – even if they do meet some success in the market. Sometimes the misleading puzzle piece is how and when new products are devised and tested. Long-term, exploratory ethnographic research is a much more powerful tool than targeted, closed-ended, focus groups – even if it is more blunt and requires more synthesis.

As our globalized, networked, transparent, and open-source world continues to evolve, the companies that have the strongest connection and most constructive relationships with their customers are going to thrive. Open-sourced innovation and co-development are buzzwords that businesses are just starting to understand and use effectively. It will be a better world – both for businesses and for people – once it’s really figured out.

As far as Mr. Stuart’s community in Tibet goes – I am heartened but not completely sold. In some respects, his initiative is just another hoop that local communities have to go through to get hand-outs. And does teaching English really strengthen communities and promote cultural diversity? Many of the examples given in the article – creating a digital archive of traditional, constructing pigsties, and introducing running water – seem like the same old host of ad projects. I’ll start getting really excited when more grant makers learn to speak Tibetan and live in the communities they mean to help.


Why Can P&G Only Afford 10 Homes in New Orleans? by morepete
May 26, 2007, 10:02 am
Filed under: Social Change

By Pete Mortensen 

I have to admit, I’m pretty torn about the Tide iPod (a nano, from the looks of it). It’s stylish, and the intent of a project to bring new homes to New Orleans is one I can get behind, but something about it feels a bit too much of a put-on.

Call me cynical, but the maximum output of buying Tide vintage T-shirts will be 10 houses in New Orleans. To me, this reflects something deeply wrong with a lot of corporate social responsibility efforts. Rather than making a donation of a share of profits to a cause a routine part of business or, better still, part of the business plan, companies mark a donation to charity as an extraordinary event.

In this case, it’s worse. The donation is framed up as dependent on the actions of ordinary people to buy these houses, but then an artificial limit is placed on the money that can be raised. No matter how many t-shirts get purchased, 10 houses will be built in New Orleans. Why involve outside people in that process at all. It’s a mistake Fox executives recently made on American Idol. They vowed to donate 10 cents per vote on the “Idol Gives Back” episode — up to $5 million. Well, what about the extra votes? I think they ended up with nearly 80 million phone calls, but the company grew no more generous on behalf of their eager callers.

I don’t know if this is cynical, exactly, but it implies that companies take contributions they could manage on their own anyway — we can build 10 houses, we can afford to donate $5 million — and then come up with a game so that people feel like they’re part of a social cause. I imagine, at some point, this kind of ruse will lead to a backlash. If I’m buying a shirt that will have a social impact, do I get upset and demand my dollars back if my purchase comes after the cap has been reached?

People can sense when they’re being manipulated, and this strikes me as a dangerous line to walk. When contrasted against the business model of the Product RED lines or of Tom’s Shoes, which sends a free pair of shoes to a needy child in South America every time they sell a pair to a well-off customer, it’s pretty clear that these one-offs reflect a very constrained view of the potential for social good to lead to good business.

Still, I do like the Tide iPod. Anyway to get a partnership with Apple going ala the (iPod)RED so that every purchase means dollars for New Orleans, not just up to the first 10 houses?

(Originally posted to Better Than New)