Why We Need Lean Principles to Scale Social Impact


Even if you are an optimist like me, it is challenging to look at the world and feel like we’re making progress solving the biggest problems facing people around the globe. Some of the problems people face are devastatingly fundamental and can feel paralyzing when we consider what they mean for the state of humanity. Two that really get to me are modern day slavery and illiteracy. Around the globe, 30 million people live in slavery today, and, nearly 800 million people around the world cannot read or write.

To solve problems like these, governments and for profit firms must play meaningful roles through policies that govern regulatory frameworks and business practices like supply chain management. Yet, I also believe that nonprofits and social ventures have untapped power to solve big social and economic problems. Tapping into this latent power, however, requires the social impact sector to embrace a new way of doing work – defined and anchored by the Lean principles.

If we expect to create breakthrough change through the work of social impact organizations, we need to foster breakthroughs in the way we do our work. In my opinion, social impact leaders should publicly and constructively push our field to regularly learn and improve in a way that is:

  • Relentless about staying close to our customer to design products and services that truly meet the needs of those we aim to serve;
  • Constantly aiming to increase measurable impact by iterating based on feedback, and;
  • Always stewarding scarce resources as prudently as possible to make the right investments to spark scalable change.

These are three core tenets of applying lean principles to social impact work. The principles offer a methodology in which social entrepreneurs and social innovators are forced to test critical assumptions  – about the way people may value their offerings, and the potential virality within a market – before major investments are made in these approaches.  This approach can help alleviate some endemic problems among nonprofits and social ventures – namely the phenomenon of major, premature investment in big ideas that seem promising but don’t have core assumptions tested in a structured, robust way. This can lead to years passing, and millions invested, before we realize that our seemingly good idea just didn’t work.

Our problems are too great, and our resources too scarce to accept this as the status quo. Instead, we should build minimum viable products that allows us to test our most basic assumptions about the value we believe we deliver to our customers. With this approach we get insight directly from seeing how target customers interact with a product or service. This is especially important when we aim to solve our most vexing problems – because quite often, those of us trying to help, live worlds apart from the people and communities whose lives we hope to improve – increasing the odds that our assumptions may be farther from the truth than we realize.

BerkeleyHaas is a true pioneer in the use of lean principles for social impact. We’ve woven lean principles into our social impact courses for years, and now offer a full MBA course dedicated to this approach, called Social Lean Launchpad, which I have the privilege of co-teaching this fall with my colleague Jorge Calderon, a Social Impact Fellow and Lecturer here at Haas. This should come as no surprise given our excellence in advancing social impact, and our defining principles – confidence without attitude, beyond yourself, question the status quo, and students always – each of which reflect the core tenets of this new way of pursuing large scale change. I look forward to sharing the breakthroughs we see in our class in this blog – stay tuned for insight!

(Photo: Steve Jurvetson, via Creative Commons)


Kat Taylor – Lessons in Community Banking

038Event: Kat Taylor Shares Leadership Lessons at Berkeley-Haas
Main Speakers: Kat Taylor and Ben Mangan
Date: Thursday, April 16, 2015

On April 16 Kat Taylor, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Beneficial State Bank, shared her experience and vision as a leader of the social enterprise bank. Beneficial State’s mission is simple – that banking can once again be about people interacting with people for the sake of economic growth and opportunity, in a healthy way.  Under her leadership, Beneficial State is trying to move banking back to main street, for the benefit of all. Some highlights from her comments:

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Leading and Managing Nonprofits and Social Ventures Course

By Cassarie Soungpanya, UGBA 16

While creating my Spring 2015 schedule, I decided to enroll in the “Leading and Managing Nonprofits and Social Ventures” course, which is taught by Ben Mangan, CSSL’s Executive Director. I signed up for the class expecting to gain a better understanding of which characteristics nonprofits and social ventures embody, as well as how these organizations operate.  I was glad to find that this course tackles its key course takeaways through hands-on learning rather than traditional lectures.

design-thinking-962x1024The class is structured around two main projects – a midterm paper and a final group project. Lectures are highly interactive, as students actively engage in discussion about assigned readings and other relevant topics that may come up during class. One of the most important points that Ben has emphasized throughout the class is that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning.” Prior to taking this class, I thought that a well-planned strategy was the core of an organization, but now know how important a company’s culture is to its success.

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Apply to Berkeley Board Fellows: Pro Bono help to create greater social impact

Berkeley Board Fellows (BBF) is an 8-month experiential learning program that places MBA alumni, MBA students, and other graduate students as Fellows on local nonprofit boards of directors. For the academic year, nonprofits welcome Fellows as (non-voting) board members, providing exposure to their mission and the leadership that guides that mission. The Fellows undertake a strategic project identified by the Board, applying the expertise of faculty and coaches provided by the Center. These same faculty and coaches provide training for BBF nonprofit partners on the Berkeley campus.

Unique features and benefits of hosting a Fellow include:

  • Strategically significant project: Fellows complete a strategically significant project identified by you and your Board. Projects can fall into any of the following four categories
    1. performance measurement
    2. financial management
    3. marketing
    4. strategy
  • Mentoring:  One of your board members serves as mentor to the Fellow for the term of the Fellowship to guide the Board Fellow through his or her participation on the board.
  • Time commitment:  Fellows expect to average eight hours of board service/month (meetings + project work). We place two Fellows on each board, so you can expect an average of 16 hours/month of support. The time commitment of the Board Mentor and/or the Executive Director varies depending on the complexity of the project assigned.
  • Deepening the Leadership Pipeline:  By hosting BBFs, you will help train the next generation of nonprofit leaders who will in turn improve the social sector.

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Apply to host a Berkeley Board Fellow today.

August 14, 2015 – Nonprofit applications close

October 5, 2015 – Matches of organizations and Fellows announced

October 21, 2015, evening – BBF Kick-Off Meeting (nonprofits and Fellows attend)

October through May 2016 – BBF serve with nonprofits

Community Partner Spotlight – Cal Shakes

logo blueCalifornia Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) is a 41-year-old nonprofit theater company with programming on stage, in classrooms, and with communities throughout the East Bay.

Cal Shakes attracts 45,000 audience members annually to its season of 100+ performances of Shakespeare, other classics, and new plays offered May through October at its outdoor amphitheater located in Orinda.

Through its bold, contemporary productions, and casual outdoor environment, Cal Shakes strives to defy preconceptions of Shakespeare and theater. Continue reading