The concept of positive deviance is the the idea of identifying what is going right in an area in order to amplify it, as opposed to focusing on what is going wrong and fixing it. The term was first used in the 1990s by Tufts professor Marian Zeitlin who documented “Positive Deviant” children in poor communities who were better nourished than others. Soon thereafter someone named Jerry Sternin took up the idea and operationalized the PD concept as a means to promote social change. Since then, in addition to child malnutrition, it’s been used to address such seemingly intractable issues in the fields of public health, education, and child protection, among others.
The Positive Deviance Initiative and Sternin’s insights on positive deviance open up a powerful and tested way to create change in large systems.
Regina Yau, Founder and President of The Pixel Project, already featured in The Good Times, mentioned Jerry Sternin’s feats in her article on charities and advertising in The Guardian as follows:
“Try what Jerry Sternin did when he was asked to open Save The Children’s Vietnam office in 1990 with meagre resources and a charge to fight child malnutrition within 6 months. His strategy was to observe mothers with young children in a village to locate what Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, call “bright spots” which are essentially effective efforts worth emulating. He noted what mothers with healthier children were doing right and got them to teach other mothers to do the same thing. Six months later, 65 percent of the children in the area were visibly better nourished and remained so. So look for “bright spots” already happening in your community – find out what is getting supporters actively engaged with the cause that you serve. Then, build your [charity] campaign around that.
We have a responsibility to break the “circus of sadness” and start focusing on how we and our supporters can move forward together to build a better future for those we help. After all, when we signed up to join the charity sector, we signed up to change the world.”