Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Blue Sweater - book review

I spent a good part of my recent birthday stuck on airplanes, re-routed from connecting flights, and sitting on the tarmac instead of getting home. This was my first birthday since my mom died. This was a perfect set-up for self-pity.

Luckily for me, I was traveling with a Kindle full of reading and one actual book, Jacqueline Novogratz's The Blue Sweater. The upside of my endless date with United Airlines was that I read Novogratz's book in one sitting. And self-pity quickly became pitiful.

I can sum up The Blue Sweater in three words - privilege, power and poverty. The book is a memoir that provides stories and insight into Novogratz's development as a professional and her evolution as an effective change maker. Novogratz and her organization, The Acumen Fund, are now monuments on the landscape of social enterprise, but this landscape was essentially unnamed twenty years ago when Novogratz got started. The stories Novogratz tells of making the case for bringing market rigor, feedback loops, and accountability to poverty reduction efforts are powerful in their context. They may now seem obvious and familiar to many in philanthropy (regardless of whether or not you agree with them) but they were novel and profoundly challenging to the status quo in the 80s and 90s. This seems even more so in the area of international aid in which Novogratz was refining her thinking.

Novogratz's book is powerful in its human-ness. Her efforts to understand her colleagues who found themselves on both sides of the Rwanda genocide are compellingly unresolved, powerful elements of understanding her and her work, and poignant inquiries into why people do what they do. Her honest telling of the mistakes she made in learning about other cultures and holding poor African women to standards of work she honed at Chase Bank all add to her credibility as a change maker, both for the reader and in the work itself. The very timeline of the book is useful to today's social entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Novogratz is no overnight sensation - she tried things and failed, moved from job to job, weighed salary and meaning decisions, and created TPW, Next Generation Leadership, and other programs before launching Acumen. Most refreshing is her absolute awareness of the privileges and advantages she has in doing what she's trying to do. My favorite stories on this point are those she shares not of travels and work in Africa, India or Pakistan but in the Mississippi Delta with a gay, black, female colleague. Novogratz faces, and faces down, sexism, racism, nationalism, and privilege throughout her work, and weaves what she learns into what she is trying to build and the story she is trying to tell. She's not above or separate from these "isms" - rather her life and work are shaped by them and her struggle with them. Much of what we now discuss - return on investment, feedback loops, social networks, market return, sustainability, empowering the poor - came to the forefront of contemporary social change dialogue through the time period and work that The Blue Sweater describes. The story grounds these developments in real people, organizations, and dilemmas.

There are two parts of the book that fell short of my expectations. The first is interwoven with the larger strategic narrative of Novogratz's life - the pursuit of "humane business" successes that could fundamentally ease poverty. Ironically, her discussion of the founding of Acumen, a nonprofit venture fund, leaves out any meaningful parsing of why the fund is organized as a nonprofit. Part of this quibble on my behalf may be anachronistic - the very existence of an Acumen and the work Novogratz has done has helped build social enterprise and new capital structures and financing mechanisms for social change. They didn't exist when she was creating Acumen, she helped build them. So I don't wish to hold her at fault for not choosing an option that did not yet exist. The book, however, would be that much stronger if she - as someone who grappled with the dualism of nonprofit/philanthropic and profit-driven/sustainable - would look at the new middle ground that is growing so rapidly and reflect more deeply on the potential and limitations of that new space.

The second shortcoming is not about the strategies or hypotheses that motivated Novogratz, nor about the results of her work. Rather it has to do with her key lesson from the book - that of learning to listen. She is elegant in her memories of the late John Gardner on the importance of listening. Her personal stories are full of her failures and improvements as a listener, whether it involved new colleagues in India, her parents, Kenyan bureaucrats, or Stanford classmates. She is a compelling advocate on behalf of markets as listening tools and the ups and downs of her many enterprises offer plentiful examples of that. So it is somewhat ironic that the book is sadly missing the voices of those whose lives have been improved by these market interventions. We meet Novogratz, her mentors, her colleagues, and the social entrepreneurs she learns so much from and to whom she brings so much. But other than the little boy in the titular sweater and a sunflower farmer in Pakistan we rarely meet the people whose lives are improved by new irrigation tools, business ownership, or telecom access. We meet the people who use market forces to bring these tools far and wide, but we don't meet (many) of the people whose lives are changed by them. Maybe in her next book.


Unknown said...

An excellent review! I, too, hope to read a second book that tells the stories of individuals, families, villages and regions effected by change. That chapter of her life began only seven years ago and the outcomes from investing "patient capital" in these enterprises does, indeed, take hard work and time. Please go to the Acumen Fund website now for those stories and the wonderful work in progress.

Sidney Hargro said...

This is an excellent post about Novogratz's work - someone that I have been studying lately. I haven't read the book but I will!

Anonymous said...

Hi Lucy,

I got to see Jacqueline speak at Duke last night, and had a chance to very briefly speak with her at a reception/booksigning following her talk. Having recently read your review, I couldn't help but ask her about whether she had considered incorporating as anything other than a nonprofit.

She said that as time has gone on she has been even more certain that incorporating as a nonprofit was the right way to go, because it allowed Acumen to take bigger risks in order to create sweeping changes of broken systems. While part of their initial discussion focused on not wanting to be seen as trying to profit off of the poor, what emerged as the most important benefit of choosing a nonprofit organizational form was that it protected their right to fail.

I asked about whether they had thought about some of the blended forms, and she said that they were experimenting with some of these and raising a relatively small fund that might offer 3% return over 10 years, but she felt strongly that the Acumen Fund investors are looking for social returns rather than financial returns - they are happy when their investment turns into social change.

Note that this conversation happened while she was signing a copy of the book, and I'm paraphrasing from memory - this wasn't a formal interview by any means!

Indian T.v Serials said...

The major causes of the negative perception of Africa isn't the simplification by outsiders. It's the very real tyranny and wars that African governments and people are themselves responsible for. I've never encountered a single aspiring nation in the world that won the right to be called a country by guilt-tripping even their most sympathetic listeners; they win it by achieving maturity and independence and becoming accountable.

Asian Tv said...

Of course, there are other lessons to learn from this book. Because it's not preachy or driven by a narrow agenda, there is room for people to learn much from Ms. Novogratz' experiences. If nothing else, this book is worth reading just to see how far one person will go to make the world a better place. And how she did that through the very people she helped.