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Interviews

Change the World through Leadership with +Acumen

What do you do when you are an innovative organization that is well-resourced, attracts great talent, and is highly active in its chosen domain? The answer, obviously, is to give away your leadership training to the public for free. At least that might be obvious if you have this bold goal: “Find new models to … Continued

What do you do when you are an innovative organization that is well-resourced, attracts great talent, and is highly active in its chosen domain? The answer, obviously, is to give away your leadership training to the public for free. At least that might be obvious if you have this bold goal: “Find new models to tackle poverty around the world”.

This happens to be the case for social impact investor Acumen, who is offering a series of leadership MOOCs for the social sector leaders (as well as the general public). Thus far, the following MOOCs have been offered:

  1. Making Sense of Social Impact: Acumen’s Building Blocks for Impact Analysis (Nov. 11)
  2. Adaptive Leadership: Mobilizing for Change (Nov. 4)
  3. Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation (Oct. 14)
  4. Acumen Essentials I: Moral Imagination (Aug. 27)
  5. Storytelling for Change (Sep. 3)

Charlie Chung of Class Central talked with Jo-Ann Tan and Tomoko Matsukawa of Acumen to get the scoop behind their motivation and approach to offering these MOOCs. Here they describe the types of participants that sign up for their MOOCs:

Who is Acumen?

Acumen, founded in 2001, is a venture philanthropy organization. It receives donations, like other charitable organizations, but rather than giving money away, it provides loans or makes equity investments in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that have innovative approaches to serving the poor. Thus, they take into account not only the potential financial returns, but also the potential social returns of each investment. All financial returns are then cycled back into other investments. Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz describes this approach in a TED Talk as a middle path between simple aid and pure business-return based investing. To date, Acumen has invested $89M in more than 80 companies engaged in innovative ways to help the poor.

One example of an early investment is d.light, which makes solar lanterns that are economically viable replacements for kerosene lanterns in the developing world, thereby eliminating the environmental impact and fire hazards of using kerosene. Acumen invested in d.light at a point in its early growth past when traditional grants end, and too early for traditional venture capital to invest.

To be clear, Acumen does not believe its business-focused approach can solve every poverty-related problem. As Acumen’s Jo-Ann says:

There’s a lot in the social sector that can learn from the business world, and vice-versa, a lot the business world can learn from the social sector. We feel very comfortable walking between those two worlds, hopefully bringing together the best of both, and then recognizing where [our approach] will work and where it will not.

This is referred to as ‘impact investing’, and it is an exciting new trend among a few nonprofit organizations. Ironically, as we have seen unrestrained capitalism lead to failures in modern economy and society, we have also developed a better understanding of the strengths of capitalism in driving certain types of innovation and entrepreneurship. Acumen believes that engaging market forces is an important listening device to better understand customer needs.

A Partnering Approach to Train Leaders

As Acumen went about its work investing in the entrepreneurial community serving the poor, what they found was that what was missing was not just money, but leadership. Thus, in 2006 they started the Acumen Global Fellows program, which selects 10-12 individuals from a pool of applicants and cultivates leadership skills through a year-long program that includes formal training and then placement in Acumen portfolio companies. The program has been a success, and Acumen later introduced the Regional fellows program that reaches a broader number of individuals (20 per each of 3 regions), but works with them in the capacity of their current jobs and focuses on developing leaders from the regions where it invests – East Africa, Pakistan and India. In addition to developing its own curriculum, in areas where there was already outside expertise, Acumen chose to bring in an esteemed group of external training partners:

This results in a best-of-breed training curriculum with a diverse set of expert perspectives. However, the reach of this in-person training was limited, especially compared to the large need for these skills. Thus, Acumen decided to open up some of the training and share it with the world. Jo-Ann describes her thought process they first thought about offering MOOCs:

We were really inspired by the movement in online education. How can Acumen share more of what it is learning in training its Fellows and what it is learning from the field with more of the world? People who are excited about this type of work can learn from us and use the tools, skills, and knowledge that they gain to create social innovations and change the world in their own way.

Thus, was born the idea for offering Acumen’s training curriculum to the outside world, through their +Acumen (“plus Acumen”) umbrella, which aims to add Acumen to the lives of people through local chapters and activities. They started quickly in 2013, and delivered 5 different courses last year, with over 20,000 participants from across the globe. These MOOCs are geared towards a broad audience: social leaders, business leaders, individuals looking to get into the social sector, students, those involved in government and politics, etc.

Acumen will continue to experiment with MOOCs, and plan to add MOOCs related to financial and operational skills, eventually resulting in a full leadership curriculum. True to the entrepreneurial approach, Acumen has produced these courses on a low budget–no hundred-thousand dollar production budgets here. They have also tried different MOOC platforms, and look for the best suited for each subject. As Jo-Ann and Tomoko state:

 We are a very small team. Last year we developed and ran the 5 courses with part of Jo-Ann’s time, 1 full-time person, and 1 more person part-time—a lean team. We don’t have high-production video.  Feedback from partners indicated that students engage with video better if not completely flashy and a little more personal. We’re comfortable iterating on the content. We want to put things out there that we are comfortable with, get students feedback on it, and build from there.

Jo-Ann and Tomoko stated that though their external training partners were eager to work with them, a few had some initial concerns that openly sharing their content would diminish the value of their paid offerings. But they found that most MOOC participants were being introduced to these partners for the first time, resulting in positive publicity. Thus, they will continue this experiment in MOOCs: “If the demand is there we’re going to keep building courses, keep improving them, and improving the infrastructure we use to run them.”

Clearly, Acumen is an innovative nonprofit, in terms of blending a business approach with social aims. But it is also creating another innovation by opening up its training to the world, and collaborating to bring its partners along with them. Through these MOOCs, Acumen is modeling the level of innovation it is looking for in its portfolio companies, and thereby magnifying its impact on the world. Good for them. Even better for us. See a list of Acumen MOOCs here.

 

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