Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in political science, Chris Bessenecker enlisted in the Peace Corps. Alone and with minimal resources, Chris learned first-hand the power of human-centered design in development work, and went on to apply those learnings to building a unique innovation program at Project Concern International.
Proper water access and sanitation are crucial the success of any community - especially in rural and hard-to-reach areas of the 3rd world. And, while many well-intentioned people and organizations have done their best, many have fallen short because they're simply not designing solutions based on the needs of the communities they seek to serve. Chris Bessenecker learned the hard way just how important it is to learn directly from the people in the communities NGOs are serving, and pioneered ways of bringing innovation and human-centered design into the field, where WASH programs are most needed, and have the potential to have the greatest impact.
Most solutions brought to bear in third world areas follow the best practices, as determined in laboratories and academic environments in first-world regions. Most of the time, the solutions are generated based on the knowledge and understanding of the needs of the creators themselves, and not the needs of the communities in which they'll operate. This can lead to misunderstandings, waste, and incredible missed opportunities as NGOs often deliver solutions that are inappropriate for the context in which they'll be used, rendering them all but ineffective.
Chris Bessenecker learned early in his career, while working for the Peace Corps in Honduras, just how important it is to design solutions, based on the input, needs, and culture, of the local community. By using a human-centered approach, and some good old fashioned grit and determination, Chris helped develop solutions while in the field, that helped solve local challenges far more effectively than solutions developed in a lab ever could.
Upon leaving the Peace Corps, Chris joined Project Concern International (PCI), where he continued his work in development. With the support of the organization's leadership, and some forward-thinking philanthropists, Chris created a whole department within PCI, dedicated to fostering innovation in every aspect of the organization - from their work in the field, to office environments, to fundraising, and everthing in between.
PCI is a global development organization that drives innovation from the ground up to enhance health, end hunger, overcome hardship and advance women & girls—resulting in meaningful and measurable change in people’s lives.Learn more about Project Concern International
HOST – NARRATOR
Welcome to Cause and Purpose, the show about leaders, innovators and change agents, working on the front lines to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges
My name is Mike Spear. And our guest today is Chris Bessenecker. Chris is the vice president of strategic initiatives at Project Concern, international, a dynamic human rights organization, working to improve lives and livelihoods in communities at home and around the world. Chris began his work in development right after college. When he joined the peace Corps and found himself in Honduras, working to build lifesaving water and sanitation systems in rural communities through his work in the peace Corps. Chris learned the importance of human centered design and how simple, common sense solutions can make an incredible difference in people's lives.
Chris, thanks so much for spending some time with us today.
When I was seven, my father who grew up pretty poor, kind of worked his way through school and then got married and was working at an aluminum plant. And during nights he got his degree on the GI bill and he had always had this kind of wonder less this dream of going places and bill, after he got his degree, he decided that we were all going to like pick up and move to Australia randomly. He sold everything. We got on a boat, went to Australia and live there for two years. And that exposed me to that. There are other things going on in the world besides what's happening in Davenport, Iowa. When we got to Australia, we took a train up to Brisbane. There were actually a lot of migrants moving to Australia at that time. In fact, we lived in what was a former world war two sort of boot camp.
And they had all these really kind of rustic houses on stilts. And we lived in one side and there were a lot of Slavic migrants that have come to Australia to work and they didn't speak the language. And so there was just this whole world that opened up that helped me understand both my uniqueness and the uniqueness of the people that I interacted with. And I remember that at seven years old, I remember I was fascinated by it. I, your heightened level of awareness and heightened observational skills are increased when you're in those contexts. You you're just so much more aware. There's so much when you're in your own environment and in your own space that you just don't pick up on.
MIKE SPEAR (02:50):
So how did it feel to be in that environment?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (02:53):
Exciting. It's exciting to learn and to put yourself into context, being that aware and understanding little nuances, little, little differences, like the uniforms that the kids wore, the fact that they went barefoot or that they wrapped fish and chips and that they called them fish and chips and they wrapped them in newspaper. And just all of these little differences that were not part of my world back in Iowa. And I just found that fascinating.
MIKE SPEAR (03:21):
How did that affect you and your family? When you came back home to America,
CHRIS BESSENECKER (03:24):
Particularly in middle America, you have a certain conformity of what you should look like, dress like act like, and that wasn't me. I just remember being different. You know, we had this experience that most of the kids we interacted with didn't have, it's not something you can explain and, you know, unless you've been in that situation, it created a difference. There were certain assumptions about people and how they dress and what they look like that you just didn't have coming back from that experience. And, and it was hard to communicate. So in some ways we were a little weird coming back. Maybe we were weird before we left. Once you're exposed to anything that's outside of your context and you grow from that, you can't go back you and put it in a box and nor do you really want to. So sometimes it's hard to relate people.
CHRIS BESSENECKER (04:17):
And then, you know, as I was a girl who went to school and went into the peace Corps, that added another layer of context, that is hard to explain and, and really throughout my career. And I've learned to adapt, to not try to tell everybody about how they don't really get it. And you know, I've learned to understand that part of understanding differences is also understanding that people throughout the world, including here have their experiences, which are unique as well. And you know, if people are interested in it, then, then I talk about it. If not, then, then, you know, we talk about stuff where we can connect
Those early experiences, traveling abroad led Chris to study economic development in college. He then joined the Peace Corps where he got his first taste of how development works in a real world context.
CHRIS BESSENECKER (05:03):
They say, you know, pick your top region and your top language. And I picked Latin America and Spanish, and that's what I got and ended up in Honduras.
MIKE SPEAR (05:14):
So how was that transition? What was it like landing in Honduras and being on your own for the first time after college
CHRIS BESSENECKER (05:20):
In peace Corps, you're assigned to an agency, it might be a nonprofit organization, or it might be the government. In my case, I was assigned to the ministry of health. The night we arrived in Tegucigalpa, the capital, when we got on this bus, it was like a old Bluebird bus. You can really see anything and just sort of, it was flickers of light and we'd be driving through these bodies and you could smell, you know, life happening. It was food cooking, you hear babies crying and people in the street because that's where you go, especially when it's, when it's hot out. So people were out in the street and you smell, you know, raw and you know, you're so close to the bone. And I just remember that moment and feeling sort of at home in that environment, it just sort of opened up all of your senses. You heard things and you smelled things and you saw things and you know, your brain is absorbing all this. And you know, some people I guess, would find that very discomforting and, and very frightening. But for me, it was just like, there's just so much, that's so different to absorb. And again, you know, it's just something that I raised.
MIKE SPEAR (06:27):
Where did you first stay when you arrived?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (06:29):
So I went to a place called bill and guac show, which was this little municipality in the sort of the Northwestern corner of Honduras nestled between sort of El Salvador and Guatemala. It's just beautiful village. And you drive up this mountainous road and down into this Canyon. And there was this old stone cathedral, all these small tiled. And in some cases, thatched homes, I wasn't a water engineer. And so in the water and sanitation sector, if you're not a water engineer, that means you're building shitters. And I was going to be a part of that. I thought that was great. I get to my site and like, alright, where are the materials? Where's my motorcycle. I'm going to go up to all these villages. The, we don't have any money. We don't have any materials. We don't have anything, you know? And so I learned very quickly that the wheels of government move excessively slow and corruption is infused in all of that. And so by the time any kind of funding gets down to your level, you know, you, maybe you have nothing to do. So I learned pretty quickly that if I wanted to do anything other than sit around, I was going to have to do it myself.
MIKE SPEAR (07:40):
Proper sanitation and sewage treatment is one of the cornerstones of economic development. It's one of the least glamorous, but most important things we can do to help lift people out of poverty, but it comes with lots of challenges.
CHRIS BESSENECKER (07:53):
Fecal transmitted diseases, aren't visible. You can't see it. So you're telling me that I'm getting sick because of something that I can't see, and it wasn't readily acceptable. I mean, their parents had gone out in the Bush and their parents' parents had gone out in the Bush and, you know, it's hard to grasp that. So I started giving talks on diarrhea and diarrhea was one of the biggest killers of children under five at that time. And so I did a lot of trainings in my poor Spanish, and every time I did it, I got a little bit better. And I got a little bit more savvy about how to communicate and how to communicate in a way that's effective.
MIKE SPEAR (08:30):
So what was the most challenging part for you?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (08:32):
There's an effort to convince people one that you'll even do what you say you're going to do. And part of it was convincing them that we'll bring cement and we'll bring laminated roofing, and there'd be things that we'd asked them to do. And that's a hard thing to do because that's takes time out of their day, that they're merely getting by just to feed their family. If you ever dug a three pit in Rocky soil, it's not an easy thing to do. And it takes several days of work to do that. I had committed to bringing these materials that the ministry of health said that they'll have in their warehouse and weeks went by and people had dug their pits and waiting for me to bring the materials and then they never came. And then the rain started and a lot of these pits started filling in.
And I remember going up to this one community, I go up every week and update them that still hasn't arrived. Still hasn't arrived. Still hasn't arrived. This man, Fernando, who's always very subdued and very quiet. He came into the meeting and he came in late and he was drunk and he was crying and he was yelling. And basically what he was saying was, you know, I trusted you. You said you were going to do this. And I reluctantly trusted you and you failed. And he, and he was right. I had committed something that I can deliver. And I learned very early on in my career that you never do that. Don't commit unless you can deliver, because these people had been failed so many times by so many people by so many systems. And I became part of that. How did you handle these new challenges?
I started looking into why didn't they have the concrete and the corrugated roofing. It turns out they had it, it was in the warehouse, but they didn't have money for fuel to bring it up the 20 miles up to the community. And so some how by the few I'm, I've got my peace score stipend. I'm just sitting on it. It's understanding you don't have to just accept things. You can, you can find other ways to do things, to make things happen. And so I threw down my, whatever it was, $20 and it saw the problem. Then I could have done that three weeks ago, but I didn't. And it was a great revelation for me. It was one of those lessons in life that you learn how important your word is. And particularly if you want people to trust you, and particularly people who live on the edge, the consequences are far greater.
When you're living at the bottom of the pyramid, that failure of mine was a great teacher of how I needed to behave throughout my career. I was going to be successful, meaning that I was really going to have impact and change in the world. You're skilled and knowledgeable in multiple areas. Why did you choose sanitation as your main focus? Actually, the sanitation ended up being more fascinating to me because it is the less sexy of the water and sanitation side sanitation. And then the research bears this out is often more impactful because when you have open deprecation, all that washes down into the streams, there's a lot more exposure and that's how people get sick. And that's how kids die. I studied the design of the trains and how they can facilitate not only effective containment, but actually encourage people to use them. And one of the things that I discovered in those early years of my peace Corps service, and then I worked for UNICEF in Honduras to do this national, that train survey was that a lot of children would not use latrines. And I couldn't understand why, you know, there's this real fear that people had of the trains. And particularly because the child's buttocks is smaller diameter than the typical seat on a train. And so, I mean, diarrhea was the number one cause of death in children. I figured if I could solve this problem by working with building different latrines that'd be cool. And I got the slow carpenter show to build me like five different prototypes of latrine seats that I could fit to fit the butt of a young child.
MIKE SPEAR (12:51):
Why do you think no one had figured this out earlier? You know, in the case,
CHRIS BESSENECKER (12:54):
When I did the national level survey, they had built hundreds of thousands of trains throughout the country, UNICEF U S government Honduran government, because either the behavior hadn't changed or the design wasn't appropriate for the context or the condition in the case of children, massive amounts of children were using it. So we spent millions and millions of dollars to basically try to eradicate open deprecation. And we failed because we failed to be thoughtful about design, thoughtful about implementation, and considering who all the users were. We focused on adult male user, they use it this way. So build this and not on all the other users that really started another great lesson for me was to understand human centered design
MIKE SPEAR (13:47):
Human centered design is an approach to problem solving. That includes the perspectives of the end users throughout the design process. It's a simple and kind of obvious idea, but you'd be surprised how rare it is even in the social sector. Usually people think of design is happening in a lab or controlled environment. How do you go about approaching it in the field?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (14:08):
They usually start out with 10 questions, I think, long and hard about what those 10 questions are. And then I go to the community, I go to community X and that's the same 10 questions that go to community. Why could a community after I've done that a number of times, and I'm getting the same answer. I know I'm onto something. If I get a variation of answers and I probe deeper, I find the nuance related to, to that questions. And I learn, and you start to understand, Oh, in this context it has this impact and this context, it actually has it. In fact, maybe that's the answer is that context, if you can recreate that context, it's about triangulation consistency. You certainly can't assume that, you know, before you even go, can't do it in a lab, you can do it in a university classroom. You have to go there and ask the same question over and over and over and over and over again, before you gain insight. And then you can potentially come up with a solution. That's going to make a difference
MIKE SPEAR (15:12):
Looking back on these experiences and the difference that you were able to make in these communities. What are some of your most important takeaways?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (15:19):
There's just so much to learn and so much to learn from people who don't have, what you have and you know, it's a cliche and P score that you get more than you give. I mean, that was true. I mean, I got five PhDs worth of understanding and education that I continued to fall back on from living and working in bed language.
MIKE SPEAR (15:40):
After the Peace Corps, Chris joined the team at Project Concern International, a global development organization, working to empower people, enhance health and hunger, overcome hardship and advance women and girls while not as well known as some of their larger counterparts. PCI has a Sterling reputation and has a variety of high-impact programs all around the world.
What was it about PCI that stood out to you and made you want to be a part of the organization?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (16:07):
PCI for me was that type of organization that was really passionate and smart about what it was doing. It wasn't doing it just as a charity. It was doing it intelligently. I really loved the creativity that came with a smaller organization. You know, that kind of pull yourself up by the bootstraps. And there's not a lot of layers. You have to go through to get things done.
MIKE SPEAR (16:32):
Chris was able to apply what he learned in the peace Corps and use the agile nature of PCI to build a program around what he called global breakthrough innovations.
CHRIS BESSENECKER (16:41):
Breakthrough innovations, because they've taken something that was an entrenched problem that affects millions of people. And then we're able to come up with a new way of thinking about it and a new way of addressing the problem.
MIKE SPEAR (16:56):
PCI was able to secure funding from a private donor interested specifically in innovation, a rare thing in the nonprofit space.
CHRIS BESSENECKER (17:06):
Most organizations, like PCI, are funded by donors who want you to do something specific. There's not a lot of fluff money for innovation. I don't, I don't consider innovation fluff money, but I think a lot of people don't necessarily understand it. My hope was that with this one donor that did, and the example and the lies that then we can sort of present this and say, this is what this kind of investment can do is you harvest ideas from the field. You put it through a process and put it through rigor and you yield something that can be transformative.
MIKE SPEAR (17:47):
Chris and his team organized a design. One of the goals was to replace a clunky and unnecessarily complicated cookstove that costs upwards of $50 per unit and extremely expensive purchase for someone living on less than $1 per day. And the stove wasn't even working for the people who needed to use it besides the cost savings.
Why was the stove that came out of this process better than what the community was already using?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (18:11):
Part of that was the, so there's this clay element that's dried and hardened. That's the inside. And then there's a metal component outside while the metal you don't need it it's looks cool, but you don't need it. And that's a lot of the costs. The idea of putting a handle on the pot that you have to pull out. You know, we tested this out in the communities, the $50 version out in the community before we started this design sprint, one of the things that they wanted and they wanted the size was really small. They wanted something bigger because they cook more substantive food on that. And then we decided through this design sprint process, that once they take that chuckle out, then they have to use a charcoal cooker to cook it. So we said, well, why can't we create it so that it cooks both the wood.
And then the charcoal, we took it back to the community and we were showing them the minimum viable product and they were tinkering with them. And then we, we revealed, and by the way, then you can just use this and cook, use the charcoal, burn the charcoal on the pot. And like they were screaming and clapping. They were so ecstatic that you didn't have to buy another unit to use the charcoal in it. It was a simple fix. Like most of these things are simple to do, but nobody had considered it or had asked. It was a great experience because it was great for everyone to sort of see how powerful a process like this is. You know, this user centered design process.
MIKE SPEAR (19:48):
It seems like such common sense, but well-meaning organizations often create solutions that are designed in an academic or lab environment, but rarely do they take into account the specific needs of the end user community.
CHRIS BESSENECKER (20:00):
This is one of my favorite stories. I was in Haiti after hurricane, I went to this community and there was this basically this trailer of solar panels and the solar panels fed this massive water filtration system. And it would pump out thousand gallons of clean water a minute. And it was built by the university of, you know, name, the state. They brought it down and they built a company out of this. And they were going to like save the world by bringing this new technology that people just had only been exposed to. It w world's water problem would be solved. So they put it in a container, they bring it down, they bring it way up to this village. And we went out to look at this thing. It had been there for a year and it had been used. It was so complicated. They had two manuals in English on how to maintain it.
You couldn't get the parts of that community or even in the capital. But what was really ironic was you had this massive system, thousands of dollars that wasn't doing a thing. It was just sitting in the yard and right next to it, the priests in the, in the seminary there that had these three filters, five gallon buckets with these stone filters in it. So they did have this three tiered filter system that was so simple and it was working and it costs probably $10 and nothing to maintain other than, you know, washing out the filters every once in a while. And so these are great examples of good and bad development, but just about good and bad design
MIKE SPEAR (21:41):
Human centered design and innovation projects were great in the field, but creating a culture of innovation within an organization, especially a nonprofit can be difficult and demanding.
Why was it important for you to bring innovation and human centered design to PCI?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (21:56):
I sort of envision what PCI might look like if it became like it's larger counterparts. And it wasn't a pretty picture for me. I didn't want to work in an organization like that. So I started looking at what do organizations do? What do big organizations do to keep their flexibility, keep their creativity. And the more that I researched that the more that I discovered that they hardwire innovation into it, in some cases, if they were lucky, it was part of their DNA to begin with. There are certain constructs to building innovation, to being intentional about that. And so, you know, I pitched the idea to the powers that be, and they, they liked the idea. And so we started building an innovation environment within PCI pitching this idea of the innovation program.
MIKE SPEAR (22:45):
How did you go about getting buy in from leadership and from different teams that are participating?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (22:53):
It was a generic enthusiastic. Yes. We love innovation. Let's innovate whatever else you said. And then when you sort of get into detail, what that means, then people scratch their heads a little more. And, but I have to say that, you know, PCI was very receptive of it. The problem is that everybody loves innovation. I haven't found anybody that said, no, I don't like to do innovation, but it's a word it's just kind of a thing that sounds good. And so people want to sign on to it. And a lot of organizations will say, yeah, you know, we're in a, we're an innovative organization. Everybody's in an innovative organization. When you start saying, well, how, what makes you innovative? Well, we did this thing and that was really innovative. Well, any organization or any company can, at one point in time, stumble on an innovation. What makes you innovative is that you're intentional. You, you create a culture for innovation and you create a mechanism pathways so that anybody at any time who has an idea can be heard, and then it's sort of encouraged and trained and supported to move that to its ultimate end point. And that end point may be colossal failure, or it may be a global breakthrough innovation, but you have to have the systems and the encouragement and the buy in from senior leadership to be able to do that.
MIKE SPEAR (24:22):
So how did you go about building a sustainable innovation program at PCI? What was the secret sauce?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (24:28):
We got people excited about innovating in their space. So it's not just about innovating bells and whistles of what the community interacts with, but it's innovating like in accounting or innovating in human resources. And so we really wanted to push people to understand that innovation isn't limited to the programmatic solutions of what we do. It's not just about the product. It's about the process. The challenge that we had, which has basically minimized a lot of that process level innovation was just the funding. When funding is so tight, you can't do the trainings. You can't put the level of effort that you need that has really challenged the system and the production of sort of the structured innovation. Typically there's this filtering system. So you start with ideas and then you go to concepts and then prototypes. And then if you're lucky, some of them will become, you know, standard practice at some point.
And so we started building now and we started training our staff on it. We made it part of the performance measurement and we built a digital platforms for any one of our countries to do it. There were a lot of successes with that. So walk us through the process a little bit. I mean, high level, like if I've got an idea for something I want to change a PCI or a new program idea or process or something from my corner of the office, how do I go about doing it? You know, there's the ad hoc route. And then there's the PCI innovation route at hoc route is, you know, you pitch your idea to your supervisor and maybe your supervisor's really enlightened and wants to take it up. Or maybe they'll say, well, that's not how we do things here. PCI innovation route is you, you submit an idea, there's an online platform.
You submit it, you submit it. It's just a paragraph. And you say, what your idea is that idea gets reviewed within 10 days, you'll get a personal phone call from me or my colleague. And we'll help you work through that idea for the next phase, which is the concept phase at the concept phase. We want you to do a little research, like explain the magnitude of the problem. Why is this a big problem? What data can you give us that there's huge inefficiencies? Are there huge challenges? And then what evidence exists? If any, that your solution might work, you don't have necessarily evidence that your solution specifically will work because it's an innovation. Most innovations are, are somewhat new, but no innovation is really new. Somebody has done something like it somewhere else. And so what evidence can you show that it has the potential to work?
Is it really wide open or are there specific criteria you're looking for in a project for us? Innovation really is about change. Not about what it is. It's really about the change that it makes. We have a threshold for innovation. So there's two parts to it. One is that it has to directly or indirectly contribute to our mission of transforming millions of lives. So directly is, you know, a product or service direct for, for the individual indirectly. It could be it's the finance department or it's the HR department. We were transforming our process that helps facilitate transformation. And then it has to meet two out of the following three criteria. It makes a current product obsolete, meaning that this way of doing things is so much better than the other way of doing things that we're going to just leave that other way. And we're going to do this second is that it has to improve value by a minimum of 50%.
So that's improved efficiencies. So decreased amount of time, decreased costs by 50% or increased impact by 50%. So we want to create a kind of a reach goal that this is not just normal improvement. This is, you know, significant improvement. And then finally it has to be something that's highly valued by our beneficiary, our donor, or our staff. If it's our staff, it could be a product assess, a mundane process that they're involved then that maybe takes several days to do in the course of a month that they can now do. In a matter of 15 minutes, that's huge in terms of efficiency and savings that they can now dedicate to doing other things. And so we want to hear from the customers, right, that this has meaning right, real value, but the concept stage, they have to define what that is. If they adequately described that and they also described how they would prototype it, that it moves to the prototype stage at the prototype stage, they're actually testing it.
So ask them to measure against the threshold criteria for innovation. And we ask them to measure against whatever other sort of metrics they have. And if it passes that, then it goes on to execution. So now we do it at scale, this sort of process or this thinking isn't anything revolutionary. Google has its process. Microsoft has this process, actually, 3m has been doing this for almost a hundred years. It's not new, but you can you learn from that? Or you can just continue doing things. As I think a lot of organizations do, or a lot of companies do, which is it's ad hoc. Innovation is ad hoc. And why, why be ad hoc about it? I mean, if you can accelerate the way that you improve things or do things, you know, why not execution of that vision is often harder than, you know, cause everybody's gotta be on board with it.
And there, it does take time and it does take resources. It's not expensive, but it's not without cost. And so that's always the challenge. What would you tell someone who wants to start innovation program at their organization? And doesn't have one, the challenges will always evolve and so you have to evolve with it and you always have to find new ways of doing things in. There are some problems. Caller was an example where that really literally for seven or eight decades, the solution hadn't changed. There are lots of problems out there like that. So for me, that's opportunity, right? There's so many opportunities that we can apply to do things differently. And if we're sensitive to the customers and that's a key part of it and understanding why is it that so many rural communities stick firewood between three stones to cook? You know, that's been done for eons.
How do you change that? We haven't figured it out. Lots of people are trying, but we haven't been able to evolve that in a way that makes sense. Again, innovation sounds great, but figure out how to do it. There are entities out there that do it, that do it pretty well. Those organizations that have hardwired innovation into their systems and the way that they work and then also built a culture around innovation. The culture is, is super important as well. And you have to get leadership to buy into it. You know, if this is a nice little project or initiative, it's probably going to die. That way. Leadership has to embrace innovation because staff aren't going to go out on a limb to innovate. If they're going to get shot down by the top, if they haven't bought into it, tell yourself you made the effort and then go back or leave and go to someplace.
That's more innovative. You're not going to make a lot of inroads until leadership buys into it, just because a certain entity or organization or company does it this way, doesn't mean that that's the right way for you to do it in a PCI. We, I had to figure out based on the way that we're structured, based on the nature of our work, what would work well at PCI in many ways, there's many successes that I can point to, but if you were to honestly ask me, do I think that innovation is embedded at PCI? I would say, no, not yet. I think we can get there, but our challenge at PCR right now is just the, the resources. You do need some resources to be able to do it. So that's important too.
MIKE SPEAR (32:34):
You've been good too, about taking time off to rejuvenate. It seems like you've brought back a lot of ideas from hobbies and pursuits outside the social sector.
CHRIS BESSENECKER (32:42):
It's important to stretch yourself in a lot of different ways. Invariably, what you learn in one area of your life. You're going to apply it in another area. And I have always found this to be the case. You find some solutions in the most random places and you apply them in those corners of your work or your life that you think would have no relevance. When sailing with my wife for two and a half years. And you know, we've opened up a business in old town, San Diego, and I'm learning about business, which I, I have no business meaning it's great if you're not learning, you're dying. So my little Pearl of wisdom is just expect to learn in, in the most unexpected places and embrace that and actually seek it out. Cause that's what's going to make life interesting.
MIKE SPEAR (33:32):
You've been in the social sector a long time and I've seen and done quite a bit. What do you see as the future of impact related work?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (33:38):
I think the sector is for both better. And at times for worse is being pushed into this drive for graduation. There's this idea that, you know, development started back in the sixties. We're now in 2019 and this perception that not alive has changed, that's actually not true. You look at the millennium development goals and we've halved poverty. We abated the scourge of AIDS. We've done really monumental things and some very hard places, but there's this perception that innovation is as sort of permeated into this idea where you've got to disrupt it. We've got to, you know, massive changes in it and we've got to do it really fast. And I love that idea. I love pushing that envelope. I think a lot of the movement in this sector is about how we need to move to private sector solutions. I think there's a lot of good in that.
I think there's a lot of sustainability in that, but it's not the panacea. It's not the silver bullet. Oral rehydration therapies is not going to be a daily occurrence. Even that took many, many years of development and evolution at the end, it happened literally overnight, but if you're in the sector now or want to get into the sector, you know, the social enterprise element of our work is really, what's very hot and where a lot of people are interested in. How can you develop a solution that doesn't live from grant to grant, which I think is a noble thing. Whether it's a social enterprise or not, you want something that's sustainable. The other thing that's very prominent globally is climate change and the impact that it's having now on the impact that it's going to have, we anticipate it's not about reversing climate change anymore. It's really about adapting to it. Climate change is a huge issue. Worldwide.
MIKE SPEAR (35:38):
What aspects do you think are most meaningful to attack?
CHRIS BESSENECKER (35:41):
Knowing that the most vulnerable communities are the ones most susceptible to the impacts of climate change? How are you going to help them adapt? And so people who can think about that and come up with solutions and come up with adaptations that are really relevant and meaningful to those who are already dealing with it. Those are going to be the people that are, can lead this sector into the future.
MIKE SPEAR (36:06):
What is it that keeps you going and excited about doing development work?
I love the possibility of change. And when I see it, I mean, there's nothing better. I mean, you can see real change in someone's lives because you've developed an approach or technology that helps them adapt to climate change or dramatically reduces the amount of time their daughter has to carry water on her head because it's something that you had a part in doing. I'm a lucky person that I've sort of fallen into this line of work and that I can from time to time, come up with solutions that can have a dramatic and consequential impact on that. Woman's 12 year old daughter that a household with their herd of animals that are trying to find pasture somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And that fuels me every day, being able to get up and help solve those types of problems. I never tired of that
HOST – NARRATOR
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Over the last 30 years my work has taken me to all regions of the world to address some of the most pressing problems faced by the global poor. My vocation in international development began as a rural Peace Corps volunteer in the northwest Honduras, Central America. Since that time I have worked or consulted for various organizations including UNICEF, International Rescue Committee, and Project Concern International serving in capacities as varied as research investigator, field director and vice-president of programs.
Throughout her career, Becky Straw has seen the impact stable employment can have on individuals and their families. A self-described “advocate for the unsexy,” Becky has repeatedly gotten involved with causes that foster entrepreneurship and job creation in developing communities around the world.Check out the Episode
Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in political science, Chris Bessenecker enlisted in the Peace Corps. Alone and with minimal resources, Chris learned first-hand the power of human-centered design in development work, and went on to apply those learnings to building a unique innovation program at Project Concern International.Check out the Episode
Carla Fernandez is a social entrepreneur and cofounder of The Dinner Party, an innovative nonprofit organization on a mission to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement using the age old practice of breaking bread. Carla joins Cause & Purpose to share her founding story and lessons learned from a life spent pursuing positive social impact.Check out the Episode
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