SOCAP Conversations: Martin Burt on the Poverty Stoplight Approach to Ending Poverty

Posted by on February 7th, 2017

Martin Burt represented Poverty Stoplight at the SOCAP 365 event “Welcome Party: Poverty Stoplight comes to Washington, D.C.” on Friday, February 10. We were able to talk with Martin prior to the event.

Poverty Stoplight is working to eliminate poverty, household by household, in countries around the world. They do that by talking directly to people who are living in poverty conditions. They’ve developed a measurement tool and a methodology that helps impoverished families map their needs so they can navigate a way out. Since its inception in 2011, Poverty Stoplight has helped thousands upon thousands of families lift themselves out of poverty globally, from Paraguay, where the program started, to 25 countries including South Africa, Taiwan, Ecuador, UK, Tanzania, Nigeria and the U.S. (in New Orleans, Louisiana).

We talked to Martin Burt, founder of Poverty Stoplight and the NGO Fundación Paraguaya about his innovative “bottom up” approach to ending poverty around the world.

SOCAP: How does the Poverty Stoplight approach to eliminating poverty differ from other organizations with the same goal?

Martin Burt: Poverty is multidimensional. By looking at poverty beyond income you can find many additional solutions. Poverty Stoplight is a new measurement tool that helps people self diagnose their level of poverty, across 50 indicators. That is 50% of the work. Poverty Stoplight also allows people to convert that diagnosis into a family action plan. The unit of analysis is not the individual, but rather the household. So you have a bottom up approach to self diagnosis (that involves) taking stock of what you are good at and what you are lacking. It is a self awareness approach that is quite empowering.

The difference between Poverty Stoplight and other approaches that are out there is that it is not a poverty index, but a dashboard. It is not an aggregation of data, but a disaggregation. The information can be aggregated to analyze the data, but the prime decision maker here is not the head of a welfare agency, but the head of the household. What you have here is a survey that is not extractive. It is not that somebody goes to the house and sucks the information away, the person is doing her own survey–compiling data for herself and developing a dashboard that can help her prioritize her actions.

Can you give an example of how the measurement process works at the household level?

The head of a household, either at home or in the workplace, fills out the survey using a computer or tablet. At the end of that 20 minute visual survey you get your own dashboard which gives you an idea of where you are in everything: weight, income, housing, transportation, violence, self esteem, family budget, financial health…etc. The dashboard shows each indicator as red (extreme poverty), yellow (poverty) or green (not poverty) for the entire household. If the adult has a child, the adult cannot overcome poverty without the child being well taken care of and vice versa. You cannot get a child out of poverty if the mother is chronically unemployed.

Your solution is also described as a coaching methodology. Does a mentor work with the head of household to develop their plan to get out of poverty?

Yes. Once the person sees their dashboard, then the program facilitator, who could be a social worker or the head of HR in the company, helps them to identify the top three priorities they want to address. Usually the solutions are locally applicable. Every country has its own way to get wheelchairs or to fix teeth. People are sometimes not aware of those solutions or don’t know where to start. So we have a coaching methodology that is based on helping people answer two questions: Is it worth it? and Can I do it?

Is it worth it? has to do with motivation. Can I do it? has to do with skills. So they develop some practices for motivation and skill building in order to help lift themselves up out of poverty. We also use peer pressure, group support, prizes and incentives. It’s a holistic approach, based on a concerted effort.

What opened your eyes to the need for people who are living in poverty to be asked to participate in the measurement process and to speak to what outcome they want for themselves?

We started with a microfinance program here in Paraguay. We saw that some people actually overcame poverty very easily and some people, despite financial assistance, did not. So we started consulting with them to ask, what does it mean not to be poor? So we defined locally what it means for people not to be poor or for people to be ok. They very quickly helped us define the 50 indicators and what the thresholds are.

Everybody in the UK or in the U.S. or in Spain or South Africa knows what it means not to be poor on income, which is the easy one, or in transportation or in housing. Once you have local definitions of what it means to be ok, then people can relate and say, I can do that.

No one is poor in everything. Like (the idea) in Anna Karenina, (that) all happy families are alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in their own way, every poor person is poor in their own way. That has to be respected. The overcoming of poverty (should be) a personal commitment with the support of society.

Where do you see the future of the program going?

I think that today’s technology allows poor families to take over and control their situation. Before there used to be paper files, which would have made that impossible. But the internet and increased digital capacity allows poor families to self diagnose and come up with their action plan, really take control of their situation and take advantage of all the services that are available. It is meeting supply and demand, but from the demand point of view. It is not like the hospital wanting to know who needs health services, but the patient wanting to know what type of services are available for her.

We are interested in starting a pilot program in DC to adapt the poverty indicators to what it means not to be poor in DC, what is the standard that families living in poverty aspire to, locally. We’ll be working with the community to find out what kinds of local solutions there are. Usually there are solutions, but the people in poverty don’t see them.

What is inspiring you most in your work right now? What is giving you hope for the future?

We are doing two types of competitions. In one students are competing to see who can get their parents out of poverty first. Engaging high school students to measure their family’s well being and convince the parents to overcome whatever problems they are having, is really turning youth into great assets. Another type of competition empowers poor families to help other families get out of poverty. So working with poor communities: with workers in companies (our biggest client here in Paraguay is a supermarket with 7000 employees–so that is 7000 families), with students, and with poor families helping other poor families.

It is not about the war on poverty, as defined by the top. It is victory over poverties as defined by each family. We use the words “poverty elimination” because it is the process of going from red or yellow in an indicator to green. Each family self defines when they are green, when they can move that little sticker in their dashboard to green, in each category. So we are results and impact focused.

Visit to learn more.

Martin Burt is the Founder of Fundación Paraguaya (the Paraguayan Foundation for Cooperation and Development) and Poverty Stoplight. He is a pioneer in applying microfinance, microfranchise, youth entrepreneurship, and financial literacy methodologies to address chronic poverty. Burt has been honored with the 2016 Latin American Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the Microfinance Award from the Inter-American Development Bank, the Outstanding Social Entrepreneur Award from the Schwab Foundation, the Skoll Foundation Social Entrepreneur Award, the Ashoka Changemakers Award, the Oikocredit Award, the Templeton Freedom Award, and the distinguished alumni Award from the George Washington University and University of the Pacific, among other distinctions. He is an Avina Foundation leader and a Synergos and Eisenhower Fellow. He has published books on economics, development, municipal government, poetry, and education.

Impact Investing for the 99%: A New Path to Mainstreaming

Posted by on February 3rd, 2017

A SOCAP Guest Post by Joshua Levin of OpenInvest

All investments have impact. But to-date, impact investing has been largely limited to small, private companies, and accessible only to accredited investors. What if it were possible for normal folks to easily allocate their retirement portfolios in such a way that maximized the impact of their investments on issues they care about – e.g. climate change, gun control, gender diversity, etc? Such an innovation would unlock vast amounts of capital and consciousness, catalyzing the true mainstreaming of impact investing.

Individual investors are currently being left out of powerful movement. In public equities, over US $1 Trillion has moved into Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) strategies annually over the last 5 years [1]. Yet only a small fraction appears to be owned by retail investors. This despite the fact that according to Morgan Stanley, over 70% of individual investors now say they want their money to align with their values [2]. Given this chasm in even the most liquid and marketable asset classes, small wonder that impact investors have focused instead on getting big checks from Limited Partners (LPs).

But this “missing retail” segment – the amount of SRI assets individuals should hold if responsible investing had the same proportional ownership structure as the normal stock market – represents an approximate $3.6 Trillion opportunity in the U.S. alone.

Here’s how we can close the gap:

The first blockage to mainstreaming is lack of awareness. Most financial intermediaries have stood as a roadblock, with some statistics saying fewer than 10% of advisors, for example, are highly interested in sustainable investing solutions [3]. There is certainly no shortage of sustainable fund options and other tools for investors to start driving change. But the incentives of the Wall Street food chain generally militate against transparency and customization. Rather, they promote a “leave it to the experts” mentality, so that they can continue to sell preset portfolios that protect their margins.

Fortunately, technology makes it possible to dis-intermediate agents who are standing in the way, and to customize portfolios that invest in companies whose impact is consistent with each person’s values. This is our approach at OpenInvest. By bypassing the entire “fund” model and algorithmically constructing each user’s portfolio, investing once again becomes personal, transparent, and impactful. Users can now fully customize their investment portfolios and retirement accounts to support the things they care about.

But this is just the beginning. By vertically integrating and replacing middlemen with computing power, individual investors can now take new actions any time they want – in response to real-world events – while their portfolios always stay balanced and tracking the market. They can have full transparency into what they own, they can vote in their own shareholder resolutions, and they can see rigorous reporting of their real-time social and environmental impacts.

To mainstream, we need to make responsible investing easy, visceral, and social. That requires advanced technology, but then translating that technology into user experience. We can’t claim to have fully cracked that nut, but we’re making sufficient strides. OpenInvest has experienced nearly 20% week-over-week growth since our launch at SOCAP16 in September. It’s clear that the demand for impact investing is real and all around us.

Innovating in public equities is the obvious first step to engaging individual, unaccredited investors. But it’s also the way to build a sufficient demand pipeline to incentivize the impact investing community to open up. Starting this year, we will begin swapping out pieces of portfolios with alternative, impact investing products that we know users care about.

There are already impact products in the retail market – from new crowdfunding equity platforms to Calvert Community Notes. But for the motivated individuals who buy these, what does it mean for their diversification? Are you overweight solar, Indonesia, your local community? We believe the key to liberating unaccredited impact investors is to start from the top-down, with a fully balanced responsible portfolio. We can then offer to replace slices with deeper impact products, while always maintaining portfolio-level diversification. As such, we welcome partners from the SOCAP community to help get products onto our platform for our growing base.

To be clear: retail investors of the future will enjoy similar performance and diversification as their parents. But their holdings will cut across impact asset classes, as they see and feel where their money is going and how they are shaping the world every day.

Following Trump’s election and his subsequent actions, there’s more demand than ever to find new channels to drive change. Yet while they picket in the streets and write monologues on Facebook, individuals are letting their most powerful weapon – their assets – collect dust. The key is to start by giving public markets back to the public. Then we can create a pipeline of capital to help scale impact investing, while in turn restructuring personal portfolios to truly engage our communities and the world. Through a combination of technology and psychology, we now have the tools to democratize capital. Let’s cross that tipping point together.

Article sources:

1) US SIF 2016

2) Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing


SOCAP 365: Join Us in Conversation Year-Round

Posted by on January 27th, 2017

By: Liz Maxwell, SOCAP 365 Product Manager

The world is very different since we gathered last September. Global markets will continue to be shaped by shifting political landscapes, at what feels distinctly like the beginning of a new era.

At SOCAP, we believe in cross-sector collaboration. We believe that diversity is a strength, that differing perspectives are valuable, and that the inclusion of broad voices is mandatory for meaningful dialogue. We know that market systems are dynamic and complex, and that sustained impact can only be built collectively over time.

In 2016, we launched the SOCAP 365 year-round event series. The intention is to convene the SOCAP community throughout the year in multiple locations. Our goal is to meet you where you are, dive deep locally, and build stronger regional alliances to support the continued growth of impact investing – both as a value-driven methodology and a strong community of practice.


SOCAP 365 Events in February and March

Here are immediate opportunities to join us at the first five SOCAP 365 events in 2017:

Additional events will be announced on a rolling basis; update your location here to receive invitations throughout the year to events happening near you.

In these changing times, we must gather. We must stay connected, remain committed to the work at hand, and remember the power we have to build strong alliances and global movements together.

What Would You Bring to Our 10th Annual Convening at SOCAP17?

Posted by on January 25th, 2017

“If (SOCAP’s) objective is to change the world, as opposed to the United States, how do we get more inclusivity and participation from people around the world to ensure that we are co-creating solutions?”

-Audience member at the final panel of SOCAP16

The Closing Panelists of SOCAP16 Looked to the Future


Conference producers are always considering questions like the one above posed by an audience member at the final panel of SOCAP16. We often look to you for your thoughts on how SOCAP can do more to facilitate change and serve our community better. During the closing panel of SOCAP16, moderator Penelope Douglas asked panelists and community members to look to the future and suggest “big questions” they would like for conference organizers to ponder in planning SOCAP17, which will be our 10th annual convening.

It has become a tradition that the closing SOCAP conference panel is selected on the last day. SOCAP Producer and Curator Lindsay Smalling explained in her introduction to the final panel of SOCAP16 that she and others asked “bright spots, great minds, interesting folks” who stood out as conversation leaders throughout the week to join for an impromptu discussion moderated by (long time friend of SOCAP and former Mission Hub Chair) Penelope Douglas.


Big Questions for SOCAP17

Here are a few of the great questions suggested by the selected closing panel speakers and members of the SOCAP community who were in the audience.

Amanda Joy Ravenhill, Center for Carbon Removal (currently the Executive Director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute)

“How can we move from this extractive economy to a truly generous economy that is inspired by nature, mutualism, reciprocity, and regeneration?”

David Bank, Editor of ImpactAlpha

“There is a quote…First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. I think this movement that we are all part of, we are definitely past ‘ignore you’ and I think we might even be past ‘laugh at you’, so I think we are somewhere between fighting and winning.

The question is, what does it look like to win? What happens when…the economy, the culture, the society we are living in actually values inclusivity, values nature, values humanity? What does it look like to win?”

Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, Portfolio Services Director, Kapor Capital

“My frustration is that in conferences and spaces like this, when you look around the room there is a decent amount of diversity, we could improve on it, but so often when we leave these spaces and we go back into our communities and our homes and our churches…it doesn’t look like this. People aren’t invited to brunches, people aren’t invited to babyshowers…etc.  

My question is, how can SOCAP actually inspire you to go out into your respective communities and ensure that the sentiments you are talking about here actually bleed into your actions in who you are talking to, who you are working with, who you are uplifting and empowering in your workplaces?”

Konda Mason, Co-Founder and CEO of Impact Hub Oakland

“My (question) is, can we take (it) as an assumption that equity is the best growth strategy? And can we put that out there to everyone who comes (to SOCAP17) that that is the burning question…How does that look: equity as the best growth strategy?”


Audience Suggestions

  • SOCAP, ask yourself very hard, and ask us to tell you, who is not here who needs to be here next year to answer (Konda Mason’s) question about equity?
  • Deborah Cullinan, CEO of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, suggests that change begins with culture. If she is right, how do we move out of networking and sessions to creativity? What would SOCAP create? (Watch Deborah Cullinan discuss the critical need to shift culture in the SOCAP16 session Shifting Culture Toward Equity)
  • How do we move beyond the myth that incremental change is what’s going to change a very broken system?
  • We talk a lot at SOCAP about how to measure impact and deliver more impact into the community. How can we better measure and deliver the experience of impact back into the investor community to bring more people into it?



What Are Your Big Questions? Tell us!

We want to hear from you too. What would you bring to SOCAP17? Here are few ways to contact us and get involved:

  • Submit your own your content ideas through our SOCAP Open platform when it goes live this spring. Sign up for our newsletter to learn the latest news on SOCAP17 Open dates.  
  • Register for SOCAP17 now to join our 10th gathering of our community of impact investors, entrepreneurs, foundation leaders, and others who are building the market the intersection of money and meaning. Join us at SOCAP17.

The world is changing, and October 10-13, 2017 the SOCAP community will come together for critical, challenging, action-inspiring conversations. Don’t miss your opportunity to shape those conversations now and to join them in October.

Can Design Improve Human Health? Design for Social Innovation Hosts the Measured Summit

Posted by on January 13th, 2017

A SOCAP Guest Post by Cheryl Heller

In the last decade, the centuries-old world of social innovation has been radically transformed by two forces. One is investment capital, which brought a legion of new participants, new models and ways of working, and new thinking about what impact is and how to measure it. The second (or first, depending on your point of view) is design.

Like money, design has proven its value to business –– in runaway products, killer apps, hot global brands, and in general, by creating the insatiable desire for beautiful new toys and services that keep free markets afloat.

Now, big money and pioneering organizations on the front lines of all the wicked issues we’re battling, from climate change to poverty to food insecurity, are placing major bets that design is the methodology that improves outcomes. But in this new territory, how does social innovation design work, really, and how do we know? We see evidence, but no one has undertaken a comprehensive effort to set standards for measuring it so that we can adapt it more broadly and scale it.

Five years ago I worked on creating a curriculum and establishing the first MFA graduate program in social design at the School of Visual Arts to address these intractable social problems. While at the two-year Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program, students examine issues related to food insecurity, healthcare, or poverty alleviation, and apply design principles to create a new solution or improve upon an existing product or methodology. And our alumni have gone on to create some powerful interventions: one student served meals in a dumpster as a means to educate diners about food waste (The Salvage Supperclub), another invented beautifully wrapped condoms to encourage women to take charge of their health (Lovability), and yet another designed a hospital management platform to reduce long patient waiting lines in India (The Good Guides).

Social design is the creation of healthy, mutually beneficial relationships between humans, with  technology, and between us and the earth. It requires diverse skills and experience, including systems design, critical thinking, strategy, game mechanics, innovation, and aesthetics to move people to think in new ways, behave differently, and become more resilient and resourceful themselves. To further examine this and celebrate the symbiosis between what we design and how it might improve the world around us, we created Design+Health.

On January 24th in New York City, we’re bringing together leaders in philanthropy, healthcare, business, NGOs and designers to begin the work of identifying and evaluating the impact of design on human health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the lead sponsor, joined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Autodesk and Sappi.

An audience of two hundred or so will hear from creators of design-led programs, and engage in conversation about their success, and how they measure it.

If you’re interested in how the design of a hospital can improve the health of the entire community, you’ll want to hear Michael Murphy of Mass Design talk about his systemic approach to measuring the impact of a built environment.

If you want to know how mobile technology can connect millions of women in Africa to vital information and care during pregnancy, come hear Jonathan McKay from talk about MomConnect and its success.

If you think it’s time patients had more confidence and agency in making decisions about their own treatment, you’ll want to hear Maggie Breslin, co-founder of The Patient Revolution, talk about design based tools to improve patients’ ability to engage doctors in dialog about their care.

And if you want to hear how the largest foundation in the world is integrating human-centered design into their work, listen to Tracy Johnson, from the Gates Foundation, who will talk about what she’s seeing and has learned.

Like impact capital, social design represents a new way of thinking about how we use creativity and resources to solve the problems of the world. We think it’s worth understanding more deeply.

Come join us.

To learn more and reserve a seat, visit

Cheryl Heller is Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and a winner of the prestigious AIGA medal for her contribution to design. She advised Paul Polak and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum on the groundbreaking exhibit, “Design for the Other 90%,” and has been instrumental in building the PopTech community. She is a pioneering communication designer and business strategist and founder of CommonWise, working with leading brands like Seventh Generation, L’Oreal and Hachette Filipacci.