Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Do Stories Matter Anymore?

I just added links to both the Microfinance Open Book blog by David Roodman and the Innovations for Poverty Action blog (look to the right for my list of suggested blogs). Others more expert than I have weighed in on the debate of the true impact of microfinance on the poor (which I believe is a healthy one). And these two blogs are a great way to understand the debate. I'd start here.

For BOPreneurs, this debate is a useful illustration of how investor/donor requests for assessment of outcomes can impact an industry, and organizations within that industry. And it is ironic/paradoxical in its implications for stories. For many years, people in international development have recognized the power of telling stories. More broadly, entrepreneurs are encouraged to tell stories about how they, and their companies, will change the world. I encourage entrepreneurs in this blog, and in my classes, to use stories. But these inspirational stories that attract resources to your cause are also "anecdotal evidence" in the world of research. And they are suspect. The very act of telling stories is one of selection, and often, embellishment.

Microfinance organizations, and more broadly, social enterprises, need to realize that while stories inspire, they are not an end, but a means. What matters is what you do, not what you say (although I hope the two are closely related!) How do you measure the performance of your organization? I encourage entrepreneurs to pick 3 measurements ("metrics") and set goals for each over a 5 year period. This "3x5" becomes a map for your journey, as well as a way for you to track progress. Then measure and track how you do.*

At Envirofit, we have witnessed how a retrofit for a motorcycle taxi can significantly increase a driver's income and help build his family a new house, or send his children to school. But we have also struggled with resistance to stubbornly high costs and reliable parts supply. While the stories are important examples of what we can do, in the end, our success rests on our ability to sell more retrofits and more cook stoves. While the stories may engage people to support our work, they communicate our direction, but they don't measure our progress.

You need both. Good stories and good performance. And if someone criticizes your performance, or points out that stories are not the same as your performance, a good BOPreneur will take heed of Macbeth's** warning:

... Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

So don't be an idiot when it comes to the life of your organization. You are trying to do something of significance. Not just tell stories. Find a good story to tell, and then get back to work on making something people want and an organization that can deliver that to a meaningful number of people who need it.
* I think some microfinance organizations do this quite well. But others could do this better. And no, I am not going to name names. A perusal of websites will be illuminating, I think.
** I am not trying to be ironic by using a quote from one of Western culture's great stories in this post.

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