Uncharted Insider - November 2019

Uncharted Insider - November 2019

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the November edition of the Uncharted Insider.

Uncharted Update:

Ideas on my mind:

Social determinants of organizational health. Social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, and work that shape their physical and emotional wellbeing. They are powerful drivers in health outcomes; for example, there is a 20-year gap in life expectancy between richer and poorer zip codes in the city of Baltimore (We’re working on a social determinants project focused on healthy food access and food justice in north Denver). Recently I’ve been thinking about applying the concept of social determinants of health to organizations themselves. What are the social determinants of organizational health? What conditions lead to healthy outcomes? Perhaps things like comprehensive onboarding for new employees, continuously updated job descriptions, regular space held for bilateral feedback, and consistent and transparent updates from leadership. We likely spend too much time dealing with organizational health consequences and too little time focusing on organizational health conditions.

Monthly Rant

Less proof, more imprecision. Publicly-traded companies are regularly criticized for optimizing around their quarterly earnings and not thinking long-term about their business, and I’m beginning to think that the stringent impact metrics imposed upon us (or self-imposed on ourselves) are our sector’s equivalent of quarterly earnings reports. The pressure to arrive at proof might be getting in the way of thinking bigger, planning longer-term, and acting upstream. For a publicly-traded company to disrupt itself and reinvent its business, it needs to contend with the reactions it will face in the public markets. Non-profits and social enterprises that are held to precise proof-points of impact face similar consequences: they struggle to work upstream into root causes, they are held back from thinking divergently about where the space is trending. Better to demonstrate to a funder that we can guarantee delivery of 3,000 meals every month at the soup kitchen than to begin some imprecise, upstream work addressing the drivers of homeless that could be difficult to prove. That upstream work might not be effective (in which case funding is lost) and/or that upstream work might be so far upstream that it’s nearly impossible to prove effectiveness (in which case funding is also lost). Our system rewards short-term precision and proof because we are in a rat race that optimizes for the quick-ripening/low-hanging fruit of impact.

I’d suggest those of us in the impact investing, social enterprise, and philanthropic spaces consider two lines of inquiry:

  • At what point are our standards of precision and our thresholds of proof a barrier to real impact instead of an enabler of it? We need to embrace greater imprecision and lower our standards of proof. For example, when the only eligible grantees for a foundation’s “big bet” are those with a randomized control trial, is that a big bet or a safe bet? As long as we operate within the narrow confines of precision, we limit our ability to try experimental or upstream approaches.
  • When is our obsession with precision and proof of impact more about reinforcing our need to be right and less about determining that impact is actually happening? Is it possible that both the obsession with quantitative metrics and the relentless drive towards proof are sometimes more about our own fragile need to know beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt that our money and our work are actually effective? What is it about being imprecise that makes us so uncomfortable?

Can you help?

  • We want Uncharted to be a carbon-neutral company in 2020. Who has done this who can give us some insight here? We are open to all resources, advice, and people.
  • We are looking to take on a Program Related Investment (PRI) to finance the growth of our business development department. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in chatting with us?
  • Does anyone have any connections at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation?

What I’m reading:

  • Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change. Here’s why (and why it’s a more universal problem than just with scientists).
  • The real revolution in redistributing billionaire’s fortunes is coming from inside their own families. How those who have inherited wealth are giving it all away. Here. Plus this article by the author of Winners Take All on how 2019 was bad for the elites.
  • Social isolation is more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The epidemic of loneliness in the US and UK and the grants that are focused on bringing people together. Here.
  • Podcast: I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts this year, but this one is the best. It’s a multi-part series on Dolly Parton that weaves her prolific discography into a sweeping ethnographic exploration on culture, gender, politics, race, and religion in the United States.

Something personal:

Last week I went over to my new next-door neighbor who just moved in. I told him that I didn’t really know how to be a good neighbor, but I thought I’d start by introducing myself. We chatted for a while, and then he invited me to a friendsgiving dinner at their house. A few days later, I ran into some other neighbors I had never met before who live right behind me. Turns out we live so close that their wifi shows up on my list of available networks, but we’ve never met (they’re so fun and spunky and kind. They’re coming over tonight for drinks). What discoveries! And what a reminder that community is right around us if we’re willing to let ourselves be swept up in it.