Positive Deviance Approach

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Positive Deviance Approach

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$500,000 - $1 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The PD approach is a strength-based, problem-solving approach for behavior and social change. The approach enables the community to discover existing solutions to complex problems within the community. The process invites the community to identify and optimize existing, sustainable solutions from within, which speeds up innovation.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The PD approach has been used to address issues as diverse as childhood malnutrition, neo-natal mortality, girl trafficking, school drop-out, female genital cutting (FGC), hospital acquired infections (HAI) and HIV/AIDS.
About You
Positive Deviance Initiative
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name



Positive Deviance Initiative

Section 2: About Your Organization
Organization Name

Positive Deviance Initiative

Organization Phone


Organization Address

150 Harrison Ave. Boston MA 02111

Organization Country
Your idea
Country your work focuses on
What makes your idea unique?

The Positive Deviance approach is unique because it is a strength-based approach that utilizes resources that already exist within the community. Because the approach develops solutions that are community owned, the solutions are sustainable. A unique aspect of the PD approach is that the method and process are non-expert driven and the community is invited to discover existing solutions.

Do you have a patent for this idea?

What impact have you had?

The successful application of the PD approach has been documented in more than 41 countries in nutrition and a variety of other sectors from public health to education to business. The following is an illustrative sample of PD-informed program impact over the past 15 years:

Sustained 65 to 80% reduction in childhood malnutrition in Vietnamese communities, reaching a population of 2.2 million people.

Significant reduction in childhood malnutrition in communities in 41 countries around the world.

Reduction in neo-natal mortality & morbidity in Pashtun communities in Pakistan and minority communities in Vietnam with near universal adoption of protective behaviors and social change.

Estimated 50% increase in primary school student retention in 10 participating schools in Missiones, Argentina.

Documented reduction in girl trafficking in impoverished communities in East Java, Indonesia.

Thousands of documented female circumcisions averted in Egypt and the formation of 12 “FGM free” communities.


By offering workshops, trainings, and convening’s, as well as technical support and online resources, the PDI collaborates with many different organizations in various sectors to improve the lives of vulnerable people around the world. PDI is at the center of a campaign to push the PD approach past the “tipping point” to be used in communities everywhere.


Our vision is that by 2015 the PD approach will have measurably and sustainably improved the lives of one billion people, and that use of the approach is so widespread that the PDI becomes obsolete.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

2010: The PDI will create a more interactive website to more effectively disseminate and collect new information. This will include creating an online community of practice through which practicioners worldwide will be able to share ideas, information, and resources. In addition, the PDI will organize trainings and events that will build up the cadre of trainers and practicioners who will carry on and spread the work.

2011 and 2012: In addition to expanding on the items listed above, the PDI will continue building networks and self-sustained regional PD hubs on each continent by providing technical assistance and convenings for local implementers. By developing and strengthening the networks through the creation of hubs, and connecting practicioners and trainers worldwide through the community of practice, the PDI hopes to create a network that is strong enough to make the need for PDI obsolete.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

The largest obstacle faced by PDI is the balance of building an organization to support a movement while at the same time trying to serve and nurture that movement which will eventually lead to the dismantling of the organization. If the organization were to remain centralized to the success of the network, that would prevent the project from being a success.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?


What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

In what country?
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


If yes, provide organization name.

Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

These partnerships are integral to the success of our innovation because they are key players in expanding and developing the network that will carry on the use of the PD approach in various fields.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

1.) Fundraising
2.) Mapping our networks and the spread of the innovation so that we can connect practicioners and trainers worldwide
3.) Continuously building and nurturing the networks through partnerships, trainings, communities of practice and other platforms so that the networks become self-sustaining

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

In 1991, the Sternins faced what seemed like an insurmountable challenge in Vietnam. As new Director of Save the Children in Vietnam, Jerry was asked by government officials to create an effective, large-scale program to combat child malnutrition and to show results within six months. More than 65 percent of all children living in Vietnamese villages were malnourished at the time. The Vietnamese government realized that the results achieved by traditional supplemental feeding programs were rarely maintained after the programs ended. The Sternins were mandated by the government to come up with an approach that would enable the community to improve AND sustain their young children’s health status…and quickly!

Building on Marian Zeitlin’s ideas of positive deviance, working with four communities and a population of 2,000 children under the age of three, the Sternins invited the community to identify poor families who had managed to avoid malnutrition despite all odds, facing the same challenges and obstacles as their neighbors and without access to any special resources. These families were the positive deviants. They were “positive” because they were doing things right, and “deviants” because they engaged in behaviors that most others did not. The Sternins and the community discovered together that caregivers in the PD families collected tiny shrimps and crabs from paddy fields, and added those, along with sweet potato greens, to their children’s meals. These foods were accessible to everyone, but most community members believed they were inappropriate for young children.v The PD families were also feeding their children three to four times a day, rather than twice a day, which was customary.

The communities developed an activity which enabled all of the families with malnourished children to rehabilitate their children and to learn how to sustain their children at home on their own, by inviting them to practice the demonstrably successful but uncommon behaviors which they had discovered in their communities. The pilot project resulted in the sustained rehabilitation of several hundred malnourished children and the promotion of social change in their communities.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

Jerry Sternin, co-founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI), and a pioneer of applied Positive Deviance, was an inspiration and a mentor to many people throughout the world, and used the Positive Deviance (PD) approach to improve the lives of thousands of people.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Personal contact at Changemakers

If through another, please provide the name of the organization or company