Time, talent, treasure: What it looks like when they come together

Pam Scott at the PSI design immersion in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in March 2016. Photo by: Carson Linforth Bowley

At a recent human-centered design immersion in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, participants had only five days to learn and apply this creative problem-solving process. Leading the sprint from brainstorming to prototyping to iterating was Pam Scott, a designer by training and “philanthropist by passion.”

Scott brought HCD experts mostly from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives, together with reproductive health experts from Population Services International. Despite being the first one in and the last one out of the room where teams assembled around “how might we” questions, Scott’s energy stayed as bright as the sticky notes where she wrote motivating phrases such as “be silly” and “shut up and make it.”

“My greatest talent is that I know and work with amazing people,” Scott told Devex over dinner at the Ramada Resort in Dar es Salaam. She called it a privilege to bring her “posse,” people skilled in design, strategy, marketing and technology, together to apply their radically collaborative form of human-centered design to the issue of unintended teenage pregnancy in Tanzania.

Scott founded the Curious Company, a brand strategy and innovative research studio, in 2000. It has evolved into a collective of problem-solvers working all over the world to design and develop solutions by delving into the lives of the people their clients and partners aim to serve. This group of professionals, ranging from an anthropologist to a behavioral science specialist to a top marketing executive at Facebook, use their playbooks from the private sector to tackle intractable problems in the social sector.

While Scott is funding this project with PSI, she prefers to be considered a consultant, saying that she works for the organization, not the other way around. When she got the initial phone call from Kate Roberts, senior vice president of corporate partnerships and philanthropy at PSI, about how she might support the nonprofit global health organization’s work in 65 countries around the world, Scott said she rolled her eyes because it sounded “too damn good” to be true. Instead what she found was a scaling partner eager to learn from a design thinker and innovation catalyst with decades of experience in the private sector.

“Since I’ve gotten involved with philanthropy, I’ve found that everybody wants to be my friend and everybody says they want to work with me for my branding or design experience. Sometimes they put me to work to keep me busy but, in the end, all they really want is money,” she said.

Many philanthropists find it difficult to identify opportunities for genuine collaborations that ask for more than just their financial assets. “You do start to wonder who you can trust to put what you have to offer to work in a meaningful way,” Scott said.

This first phone call with Roberts was one of many conversations that led to the launch of Maverick Collective. This new model of philanthropic partnership started three years ago and will launch publicly at Women Deliver, the global conference on the well-being of girls and women taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark, this week. Roberts co-founded the initiative with the Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway. Scott is one of 14 founding members, women outside of the development community who have committed to investing at least $1 million and their time and talent to address some of the biggest challenges facing girls and women.

There are currently pilot projects in 13 countries across issues such as HIV prevention and maternal and child health. Many of these projects are still in their earlier stages, but Scott’s design approach with PSI in Tanzania is already informing Adolescents 360, a PSI-led initiative funded with $30 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce unintended teen pregnancy among adolescents in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

“Her passion is infectious, which works well with our model of philanthropists becoming effective advocates for girls and women,” Roberts said of Scott.

Kate Roberts, senior vice president of corporate partnerships and philanthropy at PSI, speaks with Devex about a new initiative called Maverick Collective.

Sixteen years ago Scott met Tim Koogle, the founding CEO of Yahoo. A glitch on the dating website Match.com pulled her profile out of hiding. When Koogle sent her a message, Scott responded incredulously — if he was Tim Koogle, she was Princess Diana. The two have been married for 13 years, and Scott has transitioned from brand consulting at companies such as Nike, Porsche and Unilever to working in partnership with her husband.

“We date before we get married typically,” Koogle told Devex, describing the approach he and Scott take with the donor-advised fund they manage at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The two spend a lot of their time traveling to visit the organizations they have invested in. “We show up,” Koogle said.

In Dar es Salaam, Scott shuttled back and forth, working on her knees with materials spread out in front of her, and then suddenly standing up at 6 feet tall, saying things such as “You rock my world!” and dishing out high fives to the design teams huddled around their prototypes. “Too often in the social sector we let the seriousness of what we do lead us to dry, uninspiring executions of well intentioned programs,” she said. “There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t delight people to make better choices for themselves and better decisions for their families.”

There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that Scott likes to cite: “What you do for me, but without me, you do against me.” She wants to bring this philosophy to the social sector by helping organizations do more to put the people they serve at the center of everything they do. In Tanzania, Scott is building capacity among PSI staff to involve teenage girls in the conversation about their legal right to contraception. Ultimately the goal is to make sure they do not have children before they are ready, which has been called one of the simplest, fastest, cheapest ways to reduce poverty.

Melissa Higbie, deputy country representative for PSI Tanzania, talks about the way Pam Scott has helped the organization build capacity around human-centered design.

“Pam is thinking up out of the box solutions by focusing in on what the teenager really needs and not what we think the teenager needs,” said Michele Barry, the senior associate dean for global health and director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health at Stanford Medical School. “I think human-centered design is really just a fancy way of saying getting into people’s heads and seeing things from their perspective, and Pam is really good at that.”

Barry met Scott at a salon at the home of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and was immediately struck by what she called a disarming sincerity that causes people to open up and share. Growing up in a military family, Scott moved every two years, from Maryland to Alabama to Hawaii, and she learned how to bloom where she was planted. At an early age, her mother taught her what remains one of her favorite pastimes: people watching.

That early curiosity, combined with dyslexia that makes her thrive in three dimensions rather than two, led Scott to her line of work. She studied industrial design, but as a marketing professional went on to pursue design less as a craft and more as a consumer-centered process. While Scott has been a thought partner to some of the most successful companies in the world, she said the experience working with PSI has been more satisfying. But she admits that model will not work with every organization and every philanthropist.

“It's an amazing experience to have this opportunity to work hard and to bring my skills as well as my dollars,” Scott said. "But I can also understand why a lot of nonprofits don't do it. Philanthropists represent a lot of personalities and skill sets that might not always align with the objectives of the organization. PSI has had to be really careful about who they engage.”

One of Scott’s goals is to move the field of philanthropy from hubris to humility. Whether or not philanthropists use the human-centered design process to guide their giving, they can and should put their assumptions aside and seek answers not from themselves but from the people they are trying to serve, she said. Initiatives such as Women Moving Millions and Maverick Collective provide her platforms to spread that message.

The growing number and growing influence of women philanthropists presents an opportunity to put women and girls at the center of global development, said Jennifer Mitrenga Maymon, vice president of institutional giving and women’s philanthropy at Opportunity International. 

Women are at once the most underutilized resources in the world and the smartest investments in the world, Maymon said. Programs for girls and women currently receive less than 2 cents of every development dollar. As women philanthropists step into their power, they have the potential to direct philanthropic priorities toward women and girls. 

“Historically many of the largest philanthropists in history were complemented or driven by their female counterparts. But now we see women really stepping up and creating their own identity through philanthropy,” Maymon said. Because women are less inclined to take risks than men, the aspect of community that collectives offer is particularly valuable for women philanthropists, she added.

As part of a series of videos featuring Maverick Collective founding members, Pam Scott discusses her work on teen pregnancy prevention in Tanzania.

Scott has a self-proclaimed “girl crush” on another female philanthropist with the power to build and inspire coalitions: Melinda Gates. “I love how she talks about the issues. I love how she influences Bill. I love how she’s made gender lens investing mainstream. And I love how her marketing background led her understand the power of empathy and human-centered design,” Scott said. “Melinda brings a powerful combination of rigor, focus, and humanity to her philanthropy.”

Melinda Gates has said that she and her husband learned over time that making change is about building coalitions in addition to making grants. The co-chair of the Gates Foundation is also a co-chair of Maverick Collective, which the foundation is helping to support. At Women Deliver, Scott and Gates will join with other philanthropists to discuss the role they can play in driving the systems level changes needed to lift women and girls out of extreme poverty.

Scott is focused on the issue of unintended teenage pregnancy in Tanzania, a problem she sees as solvable, but she is also in the process of bringing together a coalition of the best and brightest talent she knows to address other social sector issues related to girls and women around the world.

“This woman is all in — head, heart, hands,” said Diane Tompkins, who worked with Scott in the early days of the Curious Company. “She is big in her creativity and big in her curiosity and now can help the world in a big way by transforming philanthropy.”

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.