Social Impact Academy: How to Design Programs for Social Change

Social Impact Academy: How to Design Programs for Social Change

This week in the Social Impact Academy, we explored different approaches to implementing programs for social change. Sam Sternin, an international consultant, introduced us to Positive Deviance and Yennie Lee, the Impact Manager at shared about Human-Centered Design.

Session recording:

Session summary:

Introduction to Positive Deviance – Sam Sternin

Positive Deviance is one approach to behavior and institutional change.

Basic method of Positive Deviance:

  • Identify individuals whose behaviors have enabled them to achieve better outcomes than their peers despite having access to the same resources. If 90% of poor children are malnourished, that means 10% of them are nourished! Ask what that 10% is doing differently.
  • Design a program which encourages people to practice the deviant behaviors or strategies. Simply informing them does not work; only action creates change.
  • Monitor progress to reinforce positive behaviors.

Positive Deviance tries to tackle issues differently from traditional methods

Experts vs. communities

  • Experts say “you have a problem, we’ll fix it!” which is often not well-received or desired. Ideas from outside are difficult to transplant somewhere new which creates resistance to outside solutions.
  • Instead, make community members the experts! Ask communities what they care about and work to find solutions together.

Sustainable change vs. dependency

  • Outside solutions deepen the community’s dependency on outside actors.
  • Use solutions that already exist within the community. Home-grown solutions lead to more sustainable change.

Altering the social dynamics within communities

  • Identify community members who have already found a way to deviate from the norm within their social restrictions.
  • Rather than focusing on the educational ‘why’ behind new behaviors, have them start practicing the behavior immediately.

Let the community define what impact looks like

  • Community members should organize the program and monitor the progress with minimal outside facilitation.
  • Methodologies should be action oriented. Don’t wait to test something new!

Read examples of Positive Deviance in this introductory article.

Introduction to Human-Centered Design – Yennie Lee

Human-Centered Design is another problem-solving approach that can be useful to implement social change. It starts with people and ends with innovative solutions informed by those people’s needs. When you design from their perspective you have solutions that the people will embrace.

Good design is desirable (human), feasible (technology) and viable (business), but your emphasis should always be on the human element.

There are three phases of the design which should experience divergence and convergence in the process

  • 1. Inspiration: Open up to creative solutions for problems by challenging your assumptions on how things work. Use analogous inspiration- the deliberate practice of looking at other contexts that are related to the design challenge you are trying to solve.
    • For example, when IDEO was helping a U.S. hospital reconsider emergency room procedures, it visited a NASCAR pit team.
  • 2. Ideation: In this phase, make sense of what you have learned from the community and translate what you have learned into ideas. Always be inclusive of out-of-the-box ideas when brainstorming. Then take your inspiration and transform it into tangible prototypes that you can test in the community.
  • 3. Implementation: Take your prototype or program into the world and to see how the community reacts. Test multiple ideas for effectiveness. Get feedback by asking, “Are we meeting basic needs and expectations?”

Human Centered Design is meant to be flexible, there is a good chance that you are already practicing these steps!

Visit’s design kit for Human-Centered Design tools.


Q: Positive Deviants often attract more jealousy than curiosity in communities, how do you reconcile this problem?
Sam: We try to focus on the Positive Deviant’s behavior rather than on the Positive Deviant as an individual. Rather than saying, “You should all be like this person,” we show the behaviors that can allow others to be successful.

Q: What if you do not have the budget to search for Positive Deviants in your direct target community?
Sam: It is usually not expensive. With Positive Deviance the community joins your process of finding deviants. This allows you to discover solutions that work in their unique circumstances. An example of this is a community with malnourished children. Community members weighed the children themselves and identified children from poor families that were well nourished. They then performed the interviews to find out what those families were doing differently.

Q: Does identifying Positive Deviants come through the process of involving the whole community to find those who have deviant behavior?
Sam: Yes the process is very community based. The people whose behavior you want to change must get involved because although Positive Deviants are always there, they may be in the most unlikely places.

Q: Could you share an example of an easy way to get staff to implement the Human Centered Design approach?
Yennie: Operationally, Human Centered Design is not an easy undertaking. I encourage you to explore mindsets on for inspiration. Some organizations have one person formally facilitating the use of human centered design.
Alexis: This can be tied back to the Performance Imperative discussion in the first session of the Social Impact Academy. For an organization to be social impact focused it must have courageous leadership and systems for the staff to be recognized. At GlobalGiving we use 7Geese, a performance management tool, and kudos candy bars to acknowledge positive contributions of team members. GlobalGiving has integrated staff recognition to our values which reinforces the desire for adoption of certain behaviors. This technique could be applied to recognize staff at your organization who implement Human-Centered Design.

Q: I’d love to hear more about the human element of Human Centered Design. How are clients involved in that process?
Yennie: The community should be constantly providing feedback on your process. You might have to look for respondents in new and creative ways.The phrase fail early, fail often is the best way to learn what you shouldn’t be doing. Don’t be afraid to change your methods.

Q: What are the differences between the challenges associated with social issues versus tool based solutions when using Human Centered Design?
Yennie: Product design is a difficult and lengthy process. Creation of social services tend to move much faster but implementing and scaling them is difficult.

Q: How do you suggest we help our funders better appreciate the time it takes to implement social impact?
Sam: Going through the Positive Deviance process may take some time, but it means that communities open up to change and their behavior will stick. Investing that time in the beginning makes everything much faster in the long run and provides more impressive results to report back to your funders. Pick the right indicators and you can show improvements pretty quickly. An example is fighting malnutrition. Weight gain is an easy impact number to share because children can be weighed every week.

This post was written in collaboration with Kennan Howlett, Program Team Intern. 

1 Comment


about 6 years ago

I am so thankful that you have provided this much detail regarding SII/SRI Strategies for Program Development. Tools and Dialogue like this will enhance the minds of Nonprofit Leaders, Staff, Donors, Investors, Fund Managers and the like. It will take out of the box thinking by Social Leaders to trigger a hungering desire in us all to feel responsible for our fellow neighbor, teacher, vendor etc. To do this effectively I wholeheartedly agree with you, that true social change would take place when we learn to Infiltrate underprivileged populations at a deeper more emotional level. Simply allowing the locals to provide program input or guidance just isnt enough. I am asking whether GlobalGiving is aware of any Social Impact All-Inclusive, One Stop, Program Model that stimulates the economy, generates ROI for investors while actually Impacting 9 out of 10 of the worlds Top Social Disparites? I ask because I have been designing one in my mind for my entire life! I recently accepted that delivering this message to the powers that be is my Calling or most influential Life Path. It isnt easy or some fix the world with a website scheme, rather it is all that and much more . It is driven by the power of social equity with and infused culture of ownership and Community stewardship. The glue is FBCOs, Women and Emergency Readiness Initiatives. Funding is through a proprietary blend of SRI Investors, Crowdfunding, Private equity, Government and Foundation Grants and unprecedented in kind donations. 33

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