Make sure the locals get a name tag at the dinner table

Here in New York, we live in a city full of do-ers. A city dominated by a culture of people trying to make a name for themselves—actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and now, social entrepreneurs. This isn’t limited to only NYC, but the city is certainly a hub of social innovation with philanthropists and investors looking to stimulate resourceful social enterprises.

It’s remarkable. It’s exciting. And it’s just what the doctor ordered for the 21st century. Bring it on, creative ideas. Actually, bring it on, with a caveat.

Why the caveat? Well, let’s look at the crossroads of successful design and social change: next to sustainable impact lie the community voices, the social consumers themselves. You cannot have positive and resilient change without fully listening to the communities you seek to improve. Don’t just design with the community in mind, but make sure that you’re working with them and that they all have a seat at the table. This is integral for every stage—pilot, beta phase, program revision, and project continuity. It needs to be included in your leadership as well as your customer validation.*

With bachelors and masters degrees, and years of work experience, we can believe that we have the right answers to solve intricate social problems. We walk with bustling strides of overconfidence and visions of changing a village, a neighborhood, or even the world. But then we fail to consider the most important vision of all—that of the people we seek to help. Whether it’s in a parish in Africa or a neighborhood in the Bronx, you must be willing to co-create when directing problem-solving tasks.

This process of co-creating is also critical in the for profit world. Would Nike, a leader in sportswear, be able to sell as many shoes if it ignored its customers’ opinions? Nike not only pulls together focus groups full of consumers, but it also engages a broader set of stakeholders including running store staff, local coaches, and elite runners for feedback. They got to be where they are because they listen to their customers and the leaders in the field, and then adjust accordingly.

Social design needs to incorporate these same listening practices. Unfortunately, often well-intentioned outsiders forget to include the community in the conversation, thinking that they know better than the individuals they’re trying to help. Or worse, they just carelessly forget to incorporate their own participants’ feedback into the program. One of the most damaging things that a social entrepreneur could do is make uninformed assumptions about a community they’re working with, because with that comes the risk of disrupting communities and inflicting more harm than good.

Acumen listens well. They entrust the job of ‘doing’ to local entrepreneurs. The organization invests in individuals and leaders who know their community best and have come up with a strategy to tackle the issues they deal with every day. At Bicycles Against Poverty, the organization I work for in East Africa, we won’t implement program changes or expansions without having a field staff (read: local staff) discussion, chatting with the local leaders, running Ugandan focus groups, or surveying our Ugandan bicycle program participants.** Both Acumen and BAP know that listening is only the first step and that local leader integration is a must throughout each step of the way.

The 21st century needs more social innovation, and robust creative solutions to solve the world’s pressing problems. But these creative solutions need to be effective, and in order to be effective you must incorporate the local perspective. Who wants to drill a well that won’t be used?

So, for all you do-ers out there, get local, get listening, and get real impacts!


Posted by Molly Burke 

The views expressed in this blog are of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Acumen


* For more on this area please check out the new +acumen course at You should additionally direct your attention to Lean Impact and Lean Startup Machine for workshops and resources on integrating customer validation into your organization or company.

** Bicycles Against Poverty is a microfinance bicycle organization working in northern Uganda. Muyambi Muyambi, a native of Uganda, founded BAP based on his experience growing up in a rural village far from a health clinic and with no bicycle to help with transport.


Further reading: 


Listening to Tanzanian consumers for mobile network:

Canadians tend to listen: