Tim solves the covid crisis: A policy entrepreneurship post-mortem

This article discusses Tim’s attempt to enact water and hygiene survey for unhoused people in Seattle in 2020, during the COVID crisis. The project was eventually abandoned due to a lack of audience and competition from projects with greater expected benefits. The post lists lessons for future policy entrepreneurs from strengths and weaknesses of the project. I discuss when and why to close your projects.

In February of 2020 I was looking for work in Seattle while volunteering at a local homeless shelter. The Covid-19 crisis had just struck Seattle, and most volunteers had gone home to avoid infection, so we were busy. As I talked to beneficiaries and staff I realized that the WASH needs of the homeless were shifting fast due to the crisis. Businesses which provided water and bathrooms were now closed, city services like transitional housing were shut down and new hygiene education was needed. Meanwhile, shelters were under pressure from the city to shut-down or cease taking new residents. Many unhoused people chose to move out of shelters to protect themselves and avoid the onerous requirements. Most service providers at the time gathered monitoring data from their beneficiaries, so as unhoused beneficiaries left shelters the response lost information. The last needs assessment had been conducted in 2016 and could not generalize to needs during the crisis.

This is a common problem in humanitarian crisis. You need information fast and it must be generalizable to the population in need. To be generalizable you cannot just interview people in a few homeless shelters, because the people still in shelters are a skewed sample. Fortunately, because policymakers know little about the new needs, a less precise study is till valuable. In response, I proposed to organize a spatially randomized water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) rapid needs assessment (RNA). I had experience organizing WASH assessments from my work with REACH/Impact Initiatives. The format adapts easily to the Covid-19 pandemic, check out this great study by Magenta. On paper the project was a great fit, the information gap was large and I had an unusual and valuable set of skills.

The first thing I did was start networking. Having just returned from the Middle East, I needed old hands in Seattle to provide context information to guide the research questions, the final information consumers and the funding search. Using my volunteer connections I spoke to shelter admins and started cold-emailing all of their connections in the City of Seattle (CoS), other NGOs, and academic groups. I received few responses. I switched to cold calling all service providers, shelters, advocacy groups. Eventually I landed a call with some generous advocates for people who live in their cars (the city had stopped enforcing the street ordinances, so they had more time). Their comments combined with the literature review enabled me to write a survey plan, available here.

At the same time, the larger nonprofits I spoke to did not show interest. I was able to contact both city departments and service providers with multiple facilities. These conversations were not encouraging because both parties felt that information about the unhoused who had left the shelter system was not valuable. In one conversation, an NGO executive agreed that most unhoused people had fled the shelter system, that they had no info about their needs, but remained uninterested in the project. I therefore doubted that the study would find a use if I made it.

The search for funding did not go well. I lacked two critical assets – a local reputation and 501c3 status. I got a response from a local foundation, who informed me that without a larger local org. to sponsor me they would not commit to funding the project. None of the contacts I had acquired by then were interested in sponsoring. By this time, my financial situation had become tenuous. I was at risk of losing my own housing or going into debt. I decided to scrap the project and take a job offer at Apple to pay the bills. With the new job I had only time for my academic writing or the WASH survey, not both. I decided to spend my hobby time on the academic work, for my long run career benefit. Because I had not found a clear audience and there were few career incentives to continue the survey , the time was right to move on, regrettably. Despite ultimately abandoning the project I learned some dos and don’ts for policy entrepreneurship.


  • Get as much interaction with policymakers as possible. Arrange in-person meetings if possible. Call if you cannot meet in-person. Email only as a last resort. Call several times until you get an answer. If you lack names, just google organizations in the field and cold call any numbers you can get. It only takes one responce to open the door for snow-ball interviews. If someone does not return your calls, be persistent. However, limit yourself to 5 voice-mails and emails (do not be a dick).

  • Make a list of every person who could be an end user. A weakness of my strategy was focusing on NGOs and city departments rather than police departments, hospitals and elected officials. Ironically, the NGOs tended to be more interested in their beneficiaries rather than the at-risk population. Keep trying interest groups until you find institutions that really need your information/policy/product.

  • Get your hands dirty early. Going out and starting data collection would have been a great show of commitment. And I could have talked up some preliminary findings to build buzz for the project.

  • Surround yourself with great people. Having a friends who are interested in the same things makes you more motivated and provides sources of advice otherwise unavailable. For example, a friend who runs his own non-profit had sage advice for my networking.

Do not:

  • Show a lack of confidence. Your audience has limited time to listen and probably no technical knowledge, so your self-presentation dominates their judgement. Showing self doubt just wastes everyone’s time. In the long term, invest in your mental health; treat yo mental-self, maintain consistent friends, experiment with positive psychology, get an exercise habit (see evidence-based advice here). Short term, record yourself giving the elevator pitch before calling people. Re-record yourself several times until your really sound confident. Wear your favorite underwear to meetings.