A promising summer journey in education

Ed Pioneers 2

This week, I had the privilege to meet many people who were deeply passionate about education reform in the US. I’m on a fellowship with Education Pioneers, an educational nonprofit that seeks to grow a pipeline of leaders in the education sector. For my summer project, I’ve been matched with Teach For America, an educational nonprofit that seeks to eliminate educational inequity.

It’s always inspiring to meet people who are passionate about social causes. (And I had the great fortune to work with many of them in my last job.) You know it when you meet such people and talk to them. You can tell it from their words and deeds, and stories.

Some of them are lively and talkative. Some of them are quiet and reserved. Regardless of their external orientation, they all have a deep and personal conviction of why they want to work in education. For example,

  • One of them, M, grew up in a humble background. The odds were heavily against him and others like him. Fortunately for M, he had a lucky break and went on to do well. Despite his success, he knew that many others were not as lucky as he was, and it became his personal mission to eliminate the education inequity. He enjoys serving the underprivileged, and he considers himself so lucky!!” to be able to do so. Wow!
  • Another one of them, H, came to the US when he was a young boy and spoke no word of English. He overcame his initial handicap, and feeling a sense of gratitude to the country, he joined the army. His tour of duty took him to war-torn places around the world, where despite the destruction and abject poverty people took education seriously. He saw village kids go to “school” made up of makeshift tents in the mountains. It made him wonder how for all its wealth and spending on education, there was still so much inequity in the US. He wanted to join the education sector to do something about it.

And there are many other folks. Talking to these people, I found them to be extremely bright and talented. Quite a number were from business school. They could walk into any Fortune 500 or consulting company and earn a salary many times what they would get in the education sector. Yet many of them chose this path instead.

It’s interesting that whenever I talk to people in the US about the education system, they would have strong opinions that were generally not very positive. Most people think there are too many vested interests and the problems are too deep. When asked for their one-word description of the education landscape, some of the replies were: “intimidating”, “complicated”, “divisive”, “layered”, “complex”, “entrenched”, “incongruent”, “opaque” and “intricate”.

Yet, there was also one other word that stood out to me: “promising”. Promising, not in terms of the current state of affairs, but in terms of the people who are passionate and want to make a difference. As an optimist, I like to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Perhaps adversity and passion are two sides of the same coin? Perhaps like a spring, the harder you depress it the stronger it pushes back at you? Perhaps in the very depths of the complex problems lie the source of strength for the solutions?

Ray of light

A lot of discussion and criticism on education centers around money and resources. Perhaps this is not surprising, since these are tangibles that are easier to count and compare. And I do not disagree that money and infrastructure are important. At the same time, I think the greatest resource lies not in these, but in the people who strive to make a difference. These are more intangible, because its not just about the number of such people but also the depth and substance of their passion and conviction.

As I embark on my summer journey to learn more about the US education system, I will likely come across many complex challenges, perhaps far more than there are solutions. At the same time, I have faith that in the adversity also lies hope. I look forward to knowing many awesome people and their inspiring work. In that regard, I feel optimistic, and at the same time, I can’t help but feel so lucky!! :)



Photo Credits:

Education Pioneers 2014 GSF Chicago/Midwest Cohort

Brian Talbot via photopin cc

Dorena-wm via photopin cc


What value, the nonprofit work?

The following is an excerpt from an email from the CEO of a nonprofit in Singapore, reproduced with permission:

“We have much to be thankful for this week. Several people who had participated in our programmes visited us with offers of help. A 28-yr-old mother who is gradually experiencing some stability in her life offered to give free facial treatments to the mothers residing in her neighbourhood. She is now living elsewhere but wanted to do something for the people who supported her and her children when she was in difficulty.
A young man in his 30s dropped by with his fiancé asking if our reception area was still called the Peace Café. He was showing his fiancé where he lived as a child and the places where he hung out. We told him that it is now called Café Beyond and we chatted a little about his experiences here. As he left, he told us that he will be seeing us again as he will be registering as a volunteer on http://www.beyondself.sg.”
A younger man in his early 20s who had “worked” at Café Beyond also dropped by on his day-off. He was a resident of a home we used to run and is now working at a restaurant at the Marina Bay Sands. He came by offering to link our members to opportunities at his workplace.
Finally, there was also another in his 30s who rode his motor-bike right up to our door-step with his fiancé riding pillion.  He had come after work and was still in his overalls. He services the lifts and escalators at Changi Airport and is deeply grateful for the life he is having now. He told me that he woke up one morning last week thinking of us and decided that he had to visit. He recounted that as a rebellious teenager he had been in trouble a few times and wasted quite a bit of precious time. He left us a small donation and said that he will be visiting again to explore volunteering opportunities.

I always look forward to hearing from this nonprofit, Beyond Social Services. I am familiar with their work with troubled youths and their families, and I know how challenging the work is. Challenging, not because the people they serve are problematic, but because most of us find it hard to imagine and appreciate how life takes a different path for some people, and we have a tendency to hold them against some conventional standard. It’s also challenging because for many of the youths, their families, friends and communities may have long given up on them.

Despite their challenges, with the support of nonprofits like Beyond, many of these youths eventually find their paths in life. Their stories struck me, because they have gone from being outcasts of society to being active contributors, and they have gone from being receivers to givers. Their gifts may be simple: a small donation here, a little contribution there. The monetary value may not be huge, but the transformation and the intangible value is.

A friend recently sent me an article about “10X programmers” in Silicon Valley. These are programmers who are 10 times more productive than their peers. In the same breath, my friend asked whether 10X efficiency was possible in service sectors especially public service.

I don’t have a good answer, but I suspect it will not be found using the same perspectives and thought processes we are familiar with in the for-profit world. Perhaps a 10X social worker is not so much one who can work at 10 times the speed of others, or who can create a product that can be sold at 10 times the price of others. Perhaps a 10X social worker is more towards someone who can, through his/her sincerity, passion and skills, inspire and turnaround even the most troubled youths that the rest of society has given up on?

Or, might that even be 100X?

The “What”, “How” and “Why” of KM in nonprofits

I’m on the knowledge management (KM) track again :)

If you work in nonprofit and are looking at KM in your organization, something I read this past weekend may be useful. These are journal articles, so I will only outline a few broad points and add the sources at the end for those who are interested to read more.

Previously, I introduced KM and how knowledge is created and shared. After this, the next possible questions could be: how can I assess the state of KM in my organization to know what I might need to do. Perhaps importantly too, how can I get others to support it? I see these questions as broadly the “what”, “how” and “why” of KM in nonprofits.

To address the “what” and “how”, some frameworks may be useful. Three researchers (Emmanuele Lettieri, Francesca Borga, Alberto Savoldelli) studied Italian nonprofits and wrote an excellent article (“knowledge management in non-profit organizations”) about the role of KM in achieving excellence in nonprofits. In summary, they did the following

  • First, identify the unique characteristics of nonprofits
  • Next, identify the role and benefits of KM in nonprofits along five areas
    • Meeting community needs
    • Creating social value
    • Implementing vision and strategy
    • Using resources well
    • While ensuring economic survivability and sustainability
  • Then, look at where knowledge resides (in individuals or among groups) and whether it is in tacit or explicit form
  • Then, looking at the life cycle of knowledge, how it evolves within the organization and the community, and the extent to which it occurs

This is an excellent frameworks article that I would recommend for KM folks (even if your interests are not in nonprofits).

Article 1

Suppose at the end of this assessment, you identify some things you need to do, for example, develop an IT system to support KM. How do you get others to support and use it? This is the “why” question.

A different trio of researchers (Natalia Cruz, Victor Perez, Celina Cantero), this time looking at a Spanish nonprofit, studied the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on knowledge transfer among nonprofit employees (“the influence of employee motivation on knowledge transfer”). They found that intrinsic motivation was most important for knowledge sharing within the organization. This is in line with other studies that have shown the benefits of intrinsic motivation, for example, on teamwork and performance.

Interestingly, the study found that extrinsic motivation was not necessary. This runs somewhat counter to common perception. Coming back to the example of the IT system, common solutions to get people to use IT systems are to have incentives (e.g. track contributions and reward people) and penalties (e.g. mandate employees to input information into the system). Perhaps these work well in for-profits. But they may not work well in nonprofits, who also tend to be more constrained in their ability to reward (as they have fewer resources) or punish (as volunteers join and leave on their own free will).

Figure 4

Instead, we must figure out what intrinsically motivates or inspires people in nonprofits to see value in an IT system and embrace it. Since intrinsic means different things to different people, the IT system should not be developed as a top-down solution. Rather, it should be approached from the bottom-up, starting from the mission, social value and people’s intrinsic motivation. In many ways, I think this is characteristic of nonprofits and perhaps even a strength. For nonprofits, while the endpoints are important, so too are the starting points, the premises and the paths towards them. If we simply take business concepts from for-profits and apply it to nonprofits, we may miss something fundamental.

And I may try to give an illustration of this in a subsequent post.

For those who are interested the citations for the articles are:Lettieri, E., Borga, F., & Savoldelli, A. (2004). Knowledge management in non-profit organizations. Journal of Knowledge Management, 8(6), 16-30.Cruz, N. M., Pérez, V. M., & Cantero, C. T. (2009). The influence of employee motivation on knowledge transfer. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(6), 478-490.Photo credits:Lisa Randall via photopin cc

Rishi Bandopadhay via photopin cc

Knowledge management and nonprofits, what’s the link?

This quarter, I’m taking a class on knowledge management.  As part of the class work, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on this blog (rather than start a new one).  In line with my interests I’ll be discussing this in the context of nonprofits; and in line with the spirit of this blog I will try to keep the ideas simple (or at least, simpler!).


In our organizations (and lives), we encounter a great deal of knowledge.  It comes in many forms, and there are different ways to look at it.  Take the following story, which was first told by my friend Whit (and adapted with his permission):



“You go to Starbucks and order a drink: grande non-fat caramel mocha with whipped cream.  The barista is new and to help him make the drink, we can create an instruction card stating how many pumps of syrup, ounces of milk, the temperature to which the milk should be steamed, and how much whipped cream and caramel to put on top.  The knowledge of preparing such a drink can be broken down into clear steps, and transferred to any new barista through an instruction card or reference guide.  This frees the senior baristas to attend to other customers rather than coach the novice barista on how to create a different drink each time.

Suppose the barista got your drink wrong, and you express your frustration at him.  How should he respond?  Is there a reference guide that offers clear instructions on how to address your specific unhappiness?  But there are so many variations to such situations.  So, imagine the barista pulls out a 2,000-page book, looks up “frustrated customer comments”, searches for the exact one (page 486, paragraph 2, protocol 953) and respond?  Many of us may laugh at such a suggestion.  More likely, the barista quickly recalls any similar past encounters and adapts his response, or if he is really clueless, he observes how his supervisor resolves the issue.”

This story illustrates two types of knowledge:

  • There is a type of knowledge that can be captured in systems, whether in physical or electronic form.  For example, things like instruction cards (as in the fictitious Starbucks story), manuals, guidelines and databases.
  • There is another type of knowledge that cannot be (fully) captured in a system because it is embedded within people and practices.  For example, things like intuition, discretion and consensus.

Having a clear understanding of how knowledge exists and is used in our organizations is important, because it allows us to figure out appropriate ways to create and share it.  This can vary widely from one organization to another.

For nonprofits, given their social missions the work often involves a great deal of social interaction where context and relationships are important.  For example, if the nonprofit works to strengthen vulnerable families, the social worker needs to build trust and rapport with the family.  He (or she) needs to understand the family’s history, background, circumstances and challenges, strengths and weaknesses, goals and aspirations, before tailoring a plan to help the family.  It can be a complex and dynamic process.

Some of the knowledge may be codified and captured in systems, for example, data on the help resources for such families.  However, a larger part of the knowledge is accumulated through multiple experiences, or even newly created in response to new situations.  The nature of most nonprofits tends to lend itself to the latter type of knowledge.  (Although, some nonprofits can function quite effectively through highly established systems that may not vary much, for example, food ration distribution.)

Interestingly, there is a growing trend of nonprofits trying to codify more and more of their knowledge.  For example, a nonprofit I know that works with vulnerable families has tried to define parameters (such as family income levels, type of housing, number of children etc.) and prescribe step-by-step guidelines for how its staff should help (or not help) those families.  Another nonprofit has developed computer software that its social workers can plug in the variables for a family and the software will generate the “model solution”.

There are different reasons why some nonprofits do this.  Some of them think that the knowledge they work with can be codified.  Some may feel that this is a good way to ensure objectivity, consistency and fairness in how they carry out their work, so as to minimize ambiguity and contention.  Some see IT as a silver bullet for all their issues, for example, in training and propping new staff when there is high staff turnover.  Some don’t really understand why they do so (or even realize they are dealing with knowledge), but only because their board or consultant has directed them to follow the technology bandwagon.

It is hard to tell how well a highly systemized or codified approach actually serves people’s needs and the nonprofits’ missions.  In all fairness, we may not be in a position to judge either.  What will be useful though, is greater consciousness among nonprofits as to: the nature of the knowledge they need to drive their missions and work; how that knowledge is best created and shared, and therefore; what knowledge management approach is best suited for them – be it a more systems approach, a more people approach, or a careful (and deliberate) combination of both.

This may all sound simple and straightforward, but often we may not think about knowledge in this way.  Sometimes, we may not even notice that there is knowledge involved.  But it pays to be deliberate about it.  If we pick an inappropriate approach, we may one day experience the equivalent of the barista reaching for the 2,000-page manual!



Photo credits:

worldoflard via photo pin cc

DBTabasco via photo pin cc

Winter Break Post

Happy New Year! :)

It has been a nice winter break.  I spent more time with Fern & Rusty, and caught up on a few things I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t find the time to do so.

Winter 2013

Which included, four pieces of writing.  It sounds odd to be still writing while on break, but I guess it’s different when you choose to write vs. you have to write :)

I also read Michael Sandel’s “What Money Cannot Buy”.  It was a farewell gift from a friend, and a provoking read.

In short, Sandel discusses how we have monetized and applied economics think to more and more things.  Drawing from wide-ranging examples, such as paying for the right to pollute, cut queue, pick up kids late from the child care center, buy live organs, and even personal things like professionally scripted best-man’s wedding speech, Sandel argues why this can be troubling.  He draws his arguments from two main objections:

  • One, it is unfair when things go to those with the most ability to pay.  For example, paying for someone else’s live organs.
  • Two, monetary values can crowd out and corrupt other non-monetary values such as loyalty, tradition and sanctity, among many others.  For example, turning National Day Parade tickets into a business.

This is not a book review, as I’m not good at such things.  Besides, there are many people who do it better than me, and you can read one here.  But I would like to share quick thoughts on a related issue.

As you know, my interest is in nonprofits.  In particular, nonprofits’ adoption of market concepts, models and practices that emerge from the for-profit world.  The parallel to Sandel’s point is that while many of these concepts, models and practices can apply just as well for nonprofits, some many not be so.

One example is the use of financial incentives to achieve goals.  Increasingly, more nonprofits are using financial incentives to achieve quick wins, but this may be at the expense of larger mission goals.  For example, I know of some nonprofits who have explored paying for volunteers (despite the oxymoron!).  We are also seeing novel (and sometimes seductive) ideas such as market based pay for executives and social impact bonds (i.e. where investors pick and choose social projects to invest in, and earn a return).

The intent is not to write off such ideas.  For the nonprofit sector to flourish, I believe it needs to keep an open mind to all possibilities, even those that we eventually conclude to be inappropriate.  At the same time, nonprofits need to be mindful how such concepts and models could potentially shape (or even corrupt) their mission and values.  To do so, nonprofits will need to start out with very clear ideas and understanding about their unique purpose, role and identity.

So, much as there are some things that money cannot buy, there may also be concepts and models that do not benefit nonprofits.  In principle, I think most nonprofits would agree with this, but in practice it may not always be obvious until perhaps they get too deep into it.

“Willful Blindness”

This morning, I listened to a brilliantly sobering TED talk by Margaret Heffernan on the topic of Willful Blindness.

The concept of willful blindness originates from law, where one intentionally avoids civil responsibility by putting himself in a position where he will be unaware of facts that would render him liable (wikipedia).

Likewise, we may be aware of certain social issues (and even disturbed about them) but prefer or choose not to see, hear or do anything about them.  There are different possible reasons for this, for example:

  • A general sense of helplessness or powerlessnes;
  • Concern over investing effort that does not pay off well;
  • Fear of consequences (esp. if it challenges authority or social norms);
  • Diffused civic responsibility (we think someone else will do something); or
  • Expecting the authority to do something (something not uncommon at home!).

In each of the reasons above, we start off with a sense of discomfort.  We may not be able to pinpoint it, but something just does not feel right e.g. when we see disadvantaged groups or groups who are taken advantage of.  The discomfort arises because it goes against our moral sense of values such as care, fairness and collectivism.  Yet, the same discomfort also chews at us, because we have a common and shared civic responsibility to do something.

There are a few strategies to address the discomfort when it arises: revise our moral code (very difficult to do), take action to redress the situation (which may take moral courage and effort), or rationalize the situation.  As it turns out, we are pretty good at the last strategy of rationalizing.

The trouble with rationalizing is that when we do it, and hundreds and thousands of others who are just like us, do the same, we collectively condone and perpetuate the conditions that create the social issues in the first place.  This inconvenient truth is a kinder version of a quote by the late US President John Kennedy, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

How is this related to the non-profit cause?

I notice that many non-profits emerge in response to some social issue(s).  This is highly noble.  At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that while the non-profit is about the social issue, the reverse is not true.  The social issue is not about the non-profit.

The reality behind social issues is often the lack of, and thus the need to have more and not less, collective responsibility and response.  Therefore, rather than make themselves the center of the issue, the mission of non-profits is to help each and every one of us realize our common and shared civic responsibility to confront those issues and take action.  Their role is to help us overcome our collective willful blindness to the issues and their effects.

There are many things that non-profit need to mobilize in each and every one of us, but I shall just list four of them (by no means exhaustive).

  • The moral courage to confront the tensions
  • The ability to reflect deeply about them
  • Developing our voice and agency to respond to them

My thoughts on the issue are still forming and evolving, but it seems clear that if non-profits are serious about their mission, it cannot be just about soliciting more donations to offer more services.

The following three cute monkeys is the original manifestation of the old saying “See no evil.  Hear no evil.  Speak no evil.”  In light of Heffernan’s comments on willful blindness, there is another possible reality: “Choose to see nothing.  Choose to hear nothing.  Choose to say (or do) nothing.”  Hopefully we can be less of the latter!

see no evil hear no evil speak no evil

NonProfits: Of Identity, Contributors and Volunteers

I have started reading Peter Drucker’s “Managing the Non-Profit Organization”.  Three things strike me in his preface.

1. The Identity of Non-Profit

The first thing Drucker does is identify a fundamental difference between “non-profits” against other identities.  He argues that “non-profits” do not have a clear identity.  Their identity as a “non-profit” or “non-government” merely says what they are not.  It does not say what they are.

He writes, “It is not that these institutions are “non-profit,” that is, that they are not businesses. It is also not that they are “non-governmental.”  It is that they do something very different from either business or government.  Business supplies, either goods or services.  Government controls.  A business has discharged its task when the customer buys the product, pays for it, and is satisfied with it.  Government has discharged its function when its policies are effective.  The “non-profit” institution neither supplies goods or services nor controls.  Its “product” is neither a pair of shoes nor an effective regulation.  It’s product is a changed human being.  The non-profit institutions are human-change agents.  Their “product” is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adult; a changed human life altogether.” (Drucker, 1990 p.xiv)

In many non-profits that I know, people often see themselves “doing things” e.g. attend to X people, dispense $Y of help, organize Z events.  This process approach to things appears to be influenced by the business world.  The way in which some non-profits are funded (i.e. by specific outputs) may also have contributed to this.

However, if the “product” of a non-profit is a changed human being”, then they ought to see and communicate their work in terms of the (positive) change that they bring about in people.  The ‘bricklayer story’ was a favorite of my former Mayor who told it umpteen times to impress upon our colleagues that as a bricklayer one can see himself as: 1. laying bricks; 2. building a wall; 3. building a religious institution; or 4. doing the work of God (whoever God may be).

For-profits may argue that they too work towards some larger goal(s) e.g. Zappos seeks to “Deliver happiness”, but a key difference as Drucker argues is that a “changed human being” is not necessarily the outcome they pursue to the end.  The more that non-profits can relate to this deeper sense of purpose, the clearer they will be about their mission.

2. Making Contributors out of Donors

Drucker says, “It is much more than just getting extra money to do vital work.  Giving is necessary above all so that the non-profits can discharge the one mission they all have in common: to satisfy the need of the American people for self-realization, for living out our ideals, our beliefs, our best opinion of ourselves.  To make contributors out of donors means that the American people can see what they want to see – or should want to see – when each of us looks at himself or herself in the mirror in the morning: someone who as a citizen takes responsibility.  Someone who as a neighbor cares.” (Drucker, 1990 p.xvii)

How often have we viewed sponsorship and donation from the perspective of the receiving party?  The focus is often on ourselves as receivers: we appeal to the world to give us that something we need to do our work.  But in doing so, how much do we help people to see themselves as part of the cause, to develop ownership and advocacy beyond just providing money or resources?

A major shift in my last non-profit was to turn the focus away from ourselves and our projects, to the needs of the community and the aspirations of potential contributors.  We stopped explicitly asking people to donate to the specific programs we created (even though we never turn down a kind offer :)).  Instead, we believe that everyone has an innate passion for some good cause; our job is not to compete with their inner cause and prove that ours is more worthy of their time and money but to see how we could help them unlock their innate passion.  As we supported multiple causes in the community, we saw ourselves as a “social broker”.  We guide people along different pathways, even customizing new programs for some organizations.  We believe that if people want to contribute time, we should help them achieve it rather than pester them for money.  We even refer volunteers and donors to other organizations if we feel that they can better meet their aspirations.

As Drucker notes, non-profits have one mission in common, “to satisfy the need of people for self-realization, for living out their ideals, their beliefs, their best opinion of themselves.”  The more we appreciate this, the more we fulfill our purpose in society as non-profits.

3. Volunteers as a Special Breed

“Precisely because volunteers do not have the satisfaction of a paycheck, they have to get more satisfaction out of their contribution.  They have to be managed as unpaid staff.” (Drucker, 1990 p.xviii)

I feel strongly for this point, as I think many non-profits overlook their responsibility to their volunteers.  Many non-profits whom I worked with, see their volunteers more as “free labor”.  Particularly because our Education Ministry has a requirement for every student to clock certain numbers of “community hours”, deploying this “free labor” is seen as a matter of “willing buyer willing seller”.  That is, the students need to fulfill their “community hours”, and non-profits have labor needs so it’s a fair match.

Again, this comes down to how we see point #2 above, and how we see our role in helping these students achieve self-realization rather than fulfill academic requirements.  But more than that, I agree with Drucker that as non-profits we have a responsibility to ensure we give people a fair, if not greater, “return” (in this case non-monetary) for their contribution to the cause.  At times, this can feel like a heavy responsibility to bear, but the more we can think in these terms, the more we serve our cause by cultivating long-term contributors and advocates for it.


Drucker, P. F. (1990). Managing the non-profit organization: Principles and practices. HarperCollins.