Amy Ahearn on Human Capital Strategy
Hear from Course Designer Amy Ahearn on the thinking and development behind our Human Capital Strategy course that we created in partnership with +Acumen.
Amy Ahearn is a learning designer who specializes in online education. She is currently an Associate Director at Acumen, a nonprofit venture capital fund that invests in social enterprises around the world.May 30, 2018
Philanthropy University: Please introduce +Acumen and the work you do.
Amy: I’m Amy Ahearn. I am the Associate Director of +Acumen and I oversee the design of online courses. +Acumen’s mission is to help anyone anywhere become more active and effective at creating social change. We offer free and low-cost online courses which have enrolled over 450,000 social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders and corporate change-makers looking to tackle poverty more effectively.
I’ve been with +Acumen for about 3.5 years. Before that I designed online courses for the Stanford School of Medicine, worked on State Department international exchange programs in Washington, D.C., and completed a Fulbright in Malaysia where I taught English.
Philanthropy University: +Acumen partnered with Philanthropy University to offer a course in Human Capital Strategy. What are some of the key takeaways learners can expect from taking the Human Capital Strategy course?
Amy: Acumen started as an impact investing fund. We have invested over $114 million in social enterprises around the world that are tacking problems of poverty. Early on we learned that it is not adequate just to invest financial capital in order to help these entrepreneurs tackle the problems of poverty. We also needed to invest in human capital or the people and the leaders who would have the skills sets and moral imagination to take on these complex social challenges. This course on human capital strategy focuses on helping both non-profits and social enterprises develop the people who are going to work in their organization. It will help you navigate everything from how you plan for organizational growth, to how you hire and interview, to how you start to manage performance to how you establish values and an organizational culture to foster a productive workplace.
The course will feature three case studies from real social enterprises and non-profits. One is New Story Charity, a non-profit based in Silicon Valley that builds housing in communities in Latin American. The other is Ethiochicken, Ethiopia’s largest producer of day-old chicks, and they focus on improving livelihoods of framers. And the third one is Amal Academy, which is a non-profit based in Lahore, Pakistan that is a professional learning academy that helps Pakistani youth develop skills. Participants will learn first-hand from these three entrepreneurs and non-profit founders about how they have applied some of the best practices in building a team and managing a workforce as they tackle complex social challenges.
Philanthropy University: How did you come across those three organizations to use as examples?
Amy: Amal Academy was founded by an Acumen fellow who then founded his own enterprise in Pakistan. Ethiochicken is an Acumen investee company. New Story Charity actually participated in another one of our courses so we connected with them there and we continued to follow their story.
Philanthropy University: The Human Capital Strategy course recommends defining core values of your company to help guide its growth. What would you say are the core values of +Acumen?
Amy: Acumen has a values “in tension” model. We recognize that as we try to tackle poverty and complex social challenges, there are no black and white answers; you are always going to be navigating ambiguity. So we use a pair of six values that are in tension with each other but are complementary. The first pair is generosity and accountability, so having generous intentions towards people but also being accountable and showing up and taking responsibility for the work that we do. The second pairing is humility and audacity. Audacity is having the boldness to propose new solutions and take on new risks and challenges, but also the humility to accept that we might be wrong and be open to new ideas. And the final one is listening and leadership. We want to take initiative and take leadership on issues where we think that we have a perspective, but also remain open to the perspective of others and to the communities and places where we work. We believe these sets of values are things that should be balanced at all times.
Philanthropy University: Your courses are taken by a wide variety of people. How do you make sure that the content is relatable for all those taking the courses?
Amy: All of our courses are project-based, which means that we will introduce some best practices or methods, but then give people a chance to apply those methods to their own workplace or their own context. Wherever they are in the world and whatever they are doing, they can start to see the connections between what is being taught in the course and what they might be able to apply in their real life.
The second way is that we mostly design our courses to be taken in teams. We encourage people to either form virtual connections with people around the world that are working on similar issues, or find a team of coworkers or friends who they can work on the course material with in person. As you get out into the real world and start discussing the course materials with others, you start to see the applications to your own your situation.
And finally, almost all of our courses feature case studies. We source them from a variety of different places. Particularly in this course, we have examples from Pakistan and Haiti and Ethiopia. We try to represent a variety of sectors and geography in the examples we pick.
Philanthropy University: How would you find a teammate if you didn’t join the course with them?
Amy: We recommend that people reach out to others in person that they can work with or connect in the discussion forums to find people in a similar location. We also see a lot of people taking them in a workplace. In a non-profit organization or social enterprise there might not be many other structured learning opportunities so going through an online course together can be a really great experience to work on an actual challenge that you are facing on the job. We see a lot of people doing that too.
Philanthropy University: Are there course instructors that you can reach out to during the duration of the course?
Amy: Across all of our free courses we use a catalyst model, which means that people who have taken the courses before and want to volunteer to help other people through it are active in the discussion forum and are there to supply help and catalyze discussions. We work with subject matter experts or other real practitioners to build the videos and course materials, so their instructional presence comes through those materials. And for the Philanthropy University course in particular, the great team at Phil U actively provides support to students.
Philanthropy University: Is there is a different approach to developing humanitarian courses verse courses like finance or science?
Amy: Before I joined +Acumen I used to work for the Stanford Medical School designing course for doctors. When a doctor is treating a patient there are certain best practices and procedures that they should follow. For the type of courses I was designing, there were clear right or wrong answers for how much anesthesia you should administer to a patient or how you should keep their airway open. As we turn to the realm of poverty alleviation and social change, we have to acknowledge that it’s not always going to be so black or white. There are definitely best practices, but there may not be a prescriptive solution or road map that you can follow. So the course design is inherently more project-based and case study based, oriented towards reflection and application and less didactic one-way instruction. We know that people have to wrestle with how to apply these ideas in their own context and to their own work.
That said, I really wouldn’t design a finance or science course differently than I would design a course for someone working in the humanitarian or NGO sector. In fact, we design finance courses for nonprofits! We have purposely sought out both instructors and course topics that are cross-disciplinary and cross-sector. We include courses that focus on topics like finance, branding, marketing, and business models because we think that anyone working on issues of social change and in the nonprofit or humanitarian sectors needs these kinds of hard skills and cross-sector approaches as much as people working in the private sector. Creative ideas and new solutions are going to happen when people look at their work through new lenses.
Philanthropy University: Have you found that some things don’t work for some regions or doesn’t translate to other societies?
Amy: Honestly, no. The idea that you have to localize content for very different populations is something that we have not found to be true. We have found sophisticated, talented, committed people in all areas of the world who are able to sign up for our courses, persist through them, and use the assignments to do things productively and create really inspiring change in their communities The +Acumen community consists of people are thinking in exciting, new and innovative ways, whether they are located in Sierra Leon or Pakistan or Michigan. So I think that as long as we are representing a variety of instructor voices and case studies from different regions, we’ve been able to see that the courses are relevant in lots of different places.
Philanthropy University: Are you able to measure the impact of these types of online capacity building courses on the students and the communities they serve?
Amy: Yes. The final assignment for all our courses is a portfolio that compiles all of the work that they have done in the course, and captures in both quantitative and qualitative terms how their work has changed as a result of what they learned in the course. That is the assessment we collect at the end of every course. But we realize that the time horizon for going out and implementing change and adopting some of these approaches could be longer, so we do a longer term lean data study, where we ask people survey to evaluate how they have taken what they’ve learned in the course and used it to change or adapt an existing organization or found a new enterprise. So that’s our two pronged approach: one formative assessment that happens immediately upon completion of the course, and one that happens later on. These are usually complimented by doing qualitative story collection which are interviews with students to hear how they’ve taken what they’ve learned and applied it.
Philanthropy University: Have any of the student stories stood out or made an impact on you?
Amy: I think the most exciting one in the last year came from a course on Systems Practice that we developed with The Omidyar Group. I talked to a team based in Bogota, Colombia who are actually the ones responsible for implementing the peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government. They used the course as a way to work through how to understand the complex system and negotiation process, and then go back to both the rebels and the government and use new languages and terms from the course to reframe the problem. It was cool to see that the Colombian Peace Process was actually being influenced by something they’ve done in an online course.
Human Capital Strategy
To learn more about the Human Capital Strategy course offered through Philanthropy University, visit the +Acumen Partnership page.
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