In the slums of Tijuana, Mexico in 1961, a young doctor saved the lives of two little girls suffering from pneumonia. Today, the organization he founded will endeavor to embed innovation in a quest to transform the lives of 10 million people in some of the poorest places on earth.
In many ways, PCI (Project Concern International), a non-profit organization based in San Diego California, has been innovating in the field of development for the last 50 years. In the 70s, PCI popularized the walk-a-thon as a mechanism to engage communities across the country to raise awareness and money for its charitable work through the Walk for Mankind. In the 1980’s it tripled immunization rates in Indonesia through the unconventional practice of engaging grade school children as immunization advocates within their own families. More recently in India, we’ve played a central role in eradicating polio by fundamentally changing community resistance to vaccination in the most endemic areas of the country. In Bolivia we have tripled annual income of poor Bolivian llama producers in part by innovating how they corral their animals to reduce mortality. And in the far reaches of Afar, Ethiopia where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a brutal rite of passage from which almost no young girl can escape, FGM has virtually ceased in communities where PCI worked with government, religious leaders and women themselves to transform the way this centuries old practice is perceived. Today 95% of households in these communities no longer practice FGM.
PCI is not a large organization but we are large enough to make a significant contribution to global disease and poverty. Since its humble beginnings, PCI has been on a steady trajectory of growth in terms of impact, coverage and resources. Today, we operate in 16 countries around the world trying to address the root causes of poverty and poor health. We have over 600 staff (mostly field-based) comprised of health professionals, agronomists, community mobilizers, trainers and evaluators, among others, who are committed to finding permanent solutions to entrenched problems. In total our programs reach about 6.3 million people. We have a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator. This is the highest rating an organization can receive based on their financial stability, accountability and transparency. PCI is one of only 17% of 5,400 organizations analyzed that has received this rating for two consecutive years.
Despite our organizational capacity and accomplishments, we have determined that the status quo within PCI is not sufficient to meet the global challenges ahead of us. For example, food and water production will need to increase by 50% globally over the next 20 years to meet growing demand. At the same time, climate change is dramatically depleting these very resources amongst the poorest populations. Gender-based violence continues to kill and disable as many women as cancer, and its toll on women’s health surpasses that of traffic accidents and malaria combined. And while many developing countries have made significant advances in poverty reduction, education and health, there are no low-income, fragile states that have achieved any of their UN Millennium Development Goals and many countries are getting worse rather than better.
So what do we have to offer? About five dollars. That’s roughly what our budget amounts to…five dollars a person per year to transform their life and sustainably solve their most vexing problems. It is daunting but I believe we can do it. We have done it. Moreover, we want to do more by increasing the number of people we reach by 50% over the next three years. However, it will require us to change. In some cases, dramatically. We have to be better at nurturing and accelerating innovation. The truth is that within PCI, too many good ideas are not surfacing; too many staff feel constrained by their specific roles or time limitations; and too often policies and procedures hinder the creative process or sap the time that could be dedicated to innovation. In order to reach our goal we have to work better, faster and more efficiently. The time to do so is now.
So starting this year, PCI will become one of the first international development organizations to embed innovation from top to bottom in order to fundamentally change our internal dynamics and meet these global challenges. We’re calling it PCInnovAtion (capital A for Adaptability). It is one of just a handful of selected priorities within our new 3-year strategic plan aimed at achieving the goal of transforming the lives of 10 million people in the poorest communities and least developed nations in the world.
PCInnovAtion, as an approach, seeks to continuously unleash the creativity of our people, and foster it towards concrete and remarkable outcomes for our beneficiaries, our donors and the world. It will incorporate intentional innovation structures and pathways, as well as foster change in our culture and practice. These changes will enable the organization to elevate the dimension of performance in all that we do and the ways in which we do it. Innovation will come from every person, every unit and every country. It will be directed to solve our greatest development challenges, increase our operational efficiencies, and improve the capacity of our people and the productivity of our environment. We want to inspire everyone, from our local accountants, community change agents and drivers to the senior leadership, CEO and board, to play a more active role in our noble cause and create a place where the words “That’s not how we do it here” are replaced with “How can we do it differently to vastly improve results.”
In the coming weeks and months, we will begin this process by calibrating our management systems to facilitate innovation. We will also be generating, monitoring and pushing innovations globally through training, support and an on-line mechanism that can track, analyze and move innovation ideas quickly through a process of development and assessment. We will embrace and celebrate both success and failure as essential consequences of our commitment to find breakthroughs that will change the world. All confirmed innovations will have to meet the same threshold definition. They must be of a nature that contributes directly or indirectly to the achievement of our overall goal as well as meeting two of the following three criteria:
1. It makes the current practice(s) obsolete;
2. It substantially improves value (min. 50% improvement – of program impact, cost reduction, time savings, etc.);
3. It provides PCI with a unique product, method or set of skills perceived to be highly valued by our beneficiaries and donors.
As a non-profit with very limited unrestricted resources this will be a massive endeavor. Yet, as Steve Jobs once said “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have…It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” We get it. We believe we have the right people. Now we just need to lead.