Borders are not just geographic. Attendees learned from unlikely partners who have joined together to create social change and innovation.
This session was moderated by Jocelyne Daw, Founder & CEO, JS Daw & Associates, and featured:
- Batool Hassan, Director of Business Development, Acumen
- Anita Nowak, Advisor & Operating Director, McGill MOOC, The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation & McGill University
- Sam Stephens, Executive Director/CEO, Global Soap Project
Transcript of session (includes Q&A):
Jocelyne Daw: You are aware, obviously, that this session is about unlikely alliances and I think one of the interesting things that has been a theme throughout the Social Enterprise World Forum so far is the absolute critical nature of building innovation, social enterprises, is by working with partners. It’s very common to think of what I would call the ‘usual suspects’, the people who are natural partners with you. What we want to do is talk to you about unlikely partners, unlikely alliances, and give you some tangible examples of how unlikely alliances have come together to really create some incredible social change and really drive social innovation.
We’re very privileged today to have three panelists and I’m going to introduced them by from an alphabetical point of view. I’m happy to introduce Batool Hassan. Batool is the Director of Business Development for Acumen. Some of you might be familiar with Acumen. A couple of people did the human centered design course online this past summer, including myself and our team.
Then I’m happy to introduce Anita Nowak. Anita is the Integrating Director for the Social Economy Initiative at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. She comes with a really interesting background of teaching, speaking, working with social entrepreneurs and business people and also as a coach and professional trainer.
Then I’m pleased to introduce from the southern part of the United States, Atlanta, Georgia, where every second street is called Peachtree, Sam Stevens. He is the Executive Director and CEO of the Global Soap Project and he’s going to talk more about that organization. He’s been at the helm just almost a year ago and has really been involved in looking at how to grow it and scale it, which is something we’ve talked a lot about.
As I mentioned, what we’re trying to do is introduce some new way of thinking about partnerships and looking at potential partners. Without a doubt we heard an enormous amount about the importance of collaboration and that it’s only through collaboration that impact as possible.
I loved the presentation by Al Etmanski yesterday, talking about the different types of collaboration you need to be able to really bring a social innovation to life and that means often looking at people that are beyond your normal sphere, people who wouldn’t naturally be seen as partners. Al started out with disruptive innovation in terms of what they were trying to do around disabled people and looking and protecting their future. There’s the obvious partners that they would be working with. But then moving beyond that and saying who were bridge builders and starting to work with government in terms of having them being those builders and connectors for you. And then finally, those receptive entrepreneurs that really helped you navigate to make those changes. So trying to look beyond the usual suspects to see that there’s lots of different diversity that will bring more possibilities of success.
Our first speaker, Anita, is going to talk a bit about what’s needed to collaborate. She’ll talk as well about the fact that collaboration, there isn’t a one-size, fits all, everyone’s different, but there’s some key skills that you need to have in any kind of collaboration.
And then we’re going to move from the kind of what kind of skills to the how, give you some really tangible examples of how innovation is happening by working and going beyond the usual partner suspects and building with none traditional partners and the likely alliances and we’re going to hear from Batool as well as Sam.
Anita Nowak: I’m going to start today with a little story. I want to enlighten you on what I believe might be the reason Warren Buffet is parting with half of his fortune. In 2008 I was really, really lucky to go with a 100 students from Miguel to Omaha, Nebraska. Mr. Buffet welcomes us all at a conference room. There were a hundred of us in the room, and he asked the question “how many of you have heard of the ovarian lottery?” And nobody had heard of the ovarian lottery.
He said, “why don’t you imagine one of those lottery machines with all the balls dropped to the ground inside and at the moment that you were born out came a little ball with the place on the planet that you were born and the parents you were born to and so it’s like whole set of circumstances in your life. And how many of you in the room, would give up your ball a chance for another, a better one?” You do the math and all just stopped overwhelmingly against getting for better roles with no hands going up. He said therefore you one the ovarian lottery. Now, how that connects to this talk is that I actually believe that he’s caring with most of his money; this is a man who has empathy.
Now why I think empathy is important to the story. In the research I did for my doctoral degree I interviewed social entrepreneurs to form my thinking around what I called ‘empathic action’, acting on empathy with others. I situate empathy on what I called an altruistic emotion continuum.
On one side you’ve got pity, a word that sometimes gets confused with empathy, along with sympathy and compassion until eventually you get to empathy. And there’s a very big difference across that spectrum. When you pity somebody, there’s a natural power imbalance, but as you make your way across the continuum they get to place at empathy to actually recognize the kind of humanity that we all share in the planet.
I believe that Mr. Buffet recognized that he got lucky and there’s really no big difference between him and anybody else on the planet in terms of worth and value as a person but just deep inside the circumstances that you were born into, so I think that’s why he’s using his money to believe in empathy and he’s acting on empathy.
When we met originally along by a conference call to figure out how we’re going to do this talk, it was quite interesting. We went around our phones and we do what we do, what we do, what we do and we’re like, “Well, this is really hard, we don’t know what we’re going to say, if it’s going to tie all together.” But I said, “you know, if you really try to collaborate one of the things that you need is empathy. One of the things is an appreciation through what your partner is coming from and one of the most important parts of empathy is really good listening.”
What we’re going to do is we’re going to start off by actually doing an interactive activity, it may take two minutes to debrief on that and then I’ll pass it over to my colleagues. First of all find a partner, so just look to your right and left and beside.
Step two is to move your chairs around in such a way that your shoulders are aligned but you’re facing exactly the opposite direction and you’re not looking at each other.
Step three is choose who’s going to sit first, okay, like do that decision right now. So speaker number one we’ll have one minute to describe a favorite day either a day you have in the past, a day you like to have in the future, and if you guys are exhausted from lunch and all of these step you just describe what happen today. Okay, but ideally, it’s like a favorite day. You’ll speak for a minute and the person whose listening is going to do active listening.
Your job is to soak in what you’re hearing without thinking much about how it relates to online and what question you’d like to ask, just be present for the minute.
Okay, thank you very much. The first person who spoke now your turn, the second person speak but I want to really remind you that you’re not making eye contact that’s certainly part of this process, you’re looking at opposite directions away from each other
Okay, keep silence, just think about two questions by yourself, “what did it feel like to speak, what did it feel like to listen”, and as you’re thinking about that move your chairs back to its position, okay, quietly.
We’re just going to take a couple of minutes in this very good warm space where you just talk about the conversation with perfect strangers and we’re going to talk about what it was like to talk in this certain stance, and there’s no right or wrong answers, what comes up but what was it like to talk?
Attendee: It’s very easy to talk.
Anita: It was easy to talk.
Attendee: Versus listening. We can call them beehive.
Anita: Okay, the sound, the actual sound.
Anita: Okay, so it’s easier to talk. So actually it’s a calling, okay. What was it like to talk?
Attendee: You wish you could tell this person about yourself, because what he’s saying doesn’t relate, it won’t get help to where you are.
Anita: Who want to guess that speaker’s sex, no? (Laughing) All right, so who else wants to talk about? Yes, what was it like to?
Attendee: I think it’s a bit bolder because we have to keep that perfect day and you have to work in there as much as I love but also be brief.
Anita: So you’re almost actually sort of qualifying what you’re seeing and how you’re saying it, right? So as a speaker you’re kind of judging yourself.
Attendee: I think you called this verbal communication, and so I had to only use voices.
Anita: Yeah, that’s the big difference. Communication scholars say that 11% of communication is actually what you’d say. The other 89% is all the body language, all the eye contacts itself, so yes.
Attendee: I’m not used to talking for a straight minute where I couldn’t ask questions of the person.
Anita: Right, so talking, so you’re just noticing that it’s a different tempo for you.
Anita: Because you couldn’t see them so you’re talking but there’s a voice, right? Poker face, right, or nothing to go live. Yeah, that’s really good.
Attendee: I felt like, like in a flow.
Anita: You felt like you were in a flow. Okay, you felt like you had the space where somebody was listening was you.
Attendee: It’s more about the day I described it.
Attendee: Somehow I’m reliving that.
Anita: You were there, present for the moment.
Attendee: I was able to get in a little deeper touch with my feelings about that day because I wasn’t distracting myself with looking at them wondering whether they were listening or not listening.
Anita: Okay, so let’s talk now a little bit about what was it like to actually listen, what would that feel like?
Attendee: Relax, it was relaxing.
Anita: Relaxing [inaudible 00:17:45]
Attendee: I’m going into the detail with what she’s saying.
Anita: So you were fully present for what she was saying.
Attendee: Yeah, I knew exactly what she means.
Anita: Yeah, yeah, excellent.
Attendee: I can see myself in that space a lot better because I wasn’t worried about, “hey, how I was looking and listening actively” and also I wasn’t having to think about all the cues but focus on that 11% which is just the verbal words.
Attendee: I thought it would be quite similar, it was actually quite emotional to hear someone not have the same kind of perfect day.
Attendee: Well, I thought a little bit responsible because here you have a person whom you’ve never met and all of a sudden letting you look into an intimate corner of their life. Like you’re sharing a special day with you.
Attendee: I went second so I knew I had to speak so I was starting to think about what I wanted to say and not listening to what she was saying.
Anita: Right. We can carry on talking about this forever, but I do want to pass it on so I’ll just add what comes up often when I do this exercise with a bunch of different groups is that listening is a hard work, right? Because most of the talking, notice from your relationships at home that you’re mostly trying to build up your own story to respond back, right? So you’re not actually really, really listening. People loved to be listened to and if you actually do give a space to hear them so much more is accomplished and remember I’ve had that seven years of professional fund raising and they always talk about the importance of seeking support and getting the pitch right and the mission and on and on. I came to realize that if you, as a fund raiser, spend more time talking and selling your programming as opposed to listening, we’re really not doing the job.
We did this activity to set up one facet of what it’s like to work collaboratively with people in different spaces. Empathy and listening is really, really important. Thank you for sharing that with me.
Sam Stephens: The Global Soap Project takes used soap from hotels, like the hotels that some of us are staying here today. You check in, you use a bar soap one time. When you checkout there’s a perfectly good bar soap left behind.
On any given day in North America almost 3 million bar soaps were thrown. At the same time every year 2.5 million kids under the age of five die from hygiene related elements. These diarrheal diseases and pneumonia are the truly leading cause of death for children globally. The number one way to prevent those causes of deaths is hand washing with soap. It’s the most effective intervention, more effective than the vaccine or effective than medications. Hand washing with soap alone will cause the death rate to go down.
You get incredible waste. Millions of millions of bars of soap get thrown away every single day. At the same time, you got millions of people dying because they don’t have soap. From the juxtaposition of these two issues was born the Global Soap Project. Our role is to take soap from hotels, recycle it into a brand new bars of soap and distribute those soaps to people who would like access to it, for hygiene education or military and response programs around the world, and make sure that once they receive soap from us they never go without a soap for the rest of their lives.
Today we’re working with hotels around the world. We’ve got recycle centers in the United Stated, recycled soap of Canada, and we’ve got a recycling center in Hong Kong, which does the same thing for Asian hotels and the same thing for European hotels. So we’re recycling soaps and we’re distributing them. We’re partnering with organizations like the CBC, like Care, like Partners in Health, others on the ground that already have the World Health programs. It’s not just a one of, it’s not a pity shipment. It’s not a “so sorry for you, here’s soap with love.” It really is collaboration with the communities that we’re working with and it’s an understanding that we have an impact everywhere we go.
We want to make sure that we’re not undercutting the local market first. We’re not putting people that are trying to make soap out of business. We want to make sure we’re actually creating a customer base for them. We want to make sure that people are getting hard soap for free for a period of time. We want to get people to market the access of soap. Teach them how to use it , most importantly why they use it particularly so that at the end of the day after a year, year and a half they value soap so much they have to change their behaviors.
The local health impact is quite significant.
Our goal is to make sure that when someone receives soap from us for free that they don’t receive soap for free for very long but instead they’ll make soap for the rest of their lives.
So what does it have to do with unlikely alliances? Well, interestingly enough you’ll start as a nonprofit NGO because hotels are donating their soap to us. We have to ferment your soap into a new product but then we give it away for free, mostly to NGOs to distribute from local health programs. Recycling soap is our cost center. We recognize that it’s going to take alliances with partners not just collaboratively to get soap when you need it but education so that it meets the needs of the population. We recognize that there’s opportunity in the hotel soap as we’re building alliances there with making soap.
When they ask “how can we help, I want to collect soap for you”, there’s never “what are your financial means?” and so taking someone and saying, “We also need help with supporting your manufacturing cost”. How do we do that? What we recognized was that overtime the key is in leveraging empathy with our community of supporters and recognizing yes, our cost center might be in the recycling of the soap but empathy comes in because we’re providing a very, very simple product to people who are using it correctly and a simple product is not just a luxury. It’s something that truly saves lives.
As we’re talking with folks empathy comes in because if you imagine being a mother in a developing country without soap, think of how critical soap is, think of a woman giving birth without soap. Imagine going doctors without soap. That, that’s a scary proposition and imagine it is more, and you’re living in an environment where your husband is dirty and you’re dirty and you’re touching this kid and this kid doesn’t have access to soap. You don’t have access to soap so you’re touching him with dirty hands and can see your kid get sick. Imagine seeing your kids suffer from diarrhea, suffer from pneumonia, sometimes we all take for granted that something is very easy to stop.
Empathy comes in the power with our donor community to help them understand what is it really like to walk in that person’s shoes, it’s not a video but to empathize with them and to motivate this core because it’s for collective humanity.
Some of the alliances that we try to create were quite unlikely because of we’re recycling organization who was the natural fit? Well, the answer could be quite tricky because we see the natural fit, there’s a business case somewhat for someone like UPS because we’re shipping soap, no problem. There’s a natural fit with Ministries of Health and the Clinton Foundation. Makes sense, no problem.
We leverage empathy to whoever isn’t necessarily a natural fit. We started listening to not, not what was the business case, but to what draws them, what motivates them, what values does the company have that might aligned with this. We look at Hilton Hotels for example, they don’t only give us their soap but invest $1.3 million dollars because what motivated them was leadership. It was the idea of serving humanity. It’s about leveraging empathy to help them connect those dots.
Batool Hassan: At high level, Acumen has been around now for 12 years. We’re investing $88 million in 80 different companies across about 11 countries, such as India, Pakistan, East Africa, West Africa, Latin America and Columbia. Our main focus is really how do we find social enterprises, for profit and not for profit, that are serving the low-income community by providing basic community services. Sectors we work in are health care, housing, water and sanitation, energy solutions, agriculture, and education.
We do look for unlikely alliances and there’s one example that I just wanted to share. Our work that we are involved in is really finding innovative, high-risk, risk taking entrepreneurs, who are saying that they’re going to solve the problems of poverty in their community. It starts from the place of empathy because it comes from those communities or they come from that environment and they know actually what it takes to serve low-income individuals and see them as people with dignity.
On the other side we recognize that there’s a role for bigger business today in service provision in a lot of these geographies. For us it was really “can you find businesses through which their expertise, their assistance, their skillsets, can actually accelerate through the business models some of the entrepreneurs and the innovations that we’re seeing?” Can we actually accelerate them? When we say that we invest in businesses it is not just about one Mom & Pop shop, we want to see if this can be a transformative business that scales rapidly and reaches globally.
In 2005 we invested in water company called Water Company International. They started operating in India. Water Health International it’s not a new technology, it’s reverse osmosis UV compression technology.
When we see the problem you would think that there’s huge demand that if a company were to enter or provide a portable water there would be a fast uptake, and what we’ve learned through our model for the last 12 years what we called patient capital was that this is a long challenging, hard approach.
We thought when we first started that it would take five to seven years for these companies to actually not just be sustainable but scaleable. We have started to see is that it’s usually a 10 to 12-year process before you have it because it’s not just a matter of demand and then therefore there’s the market. Those are truly hard different things and we’ve learned what does it actually take to reach market creation, what does it take to do sales and distribution in a lot of these rural communities.
Dow had a water conference. One of my team members had done a water conference. They were at that time trying to rethink how they engaged their departments. They had this idea that maybe traditional business models are not going to actually reach communities and there’s something to be learned from entrepreneurial innovation and social enterprise.
At the same time that we were investing in a lot of health international, Dow Chemical became interested in learning what does it actually take to serve the poor and how can you actually learn from the one health model and bring it to Dow’s business model. Along the way they wanted to provide a systems change, they give Acumen grant funding and they also partnered with Acumen. They seconded a Dow employee for their Dow Sustainability Service Core which didn’t actually exist at that time. They were starting to seed the idea and they used Acumen through our partnership. For example, they had a chemical engineer who went and worked with one our investing companies in Kenya that actually extracts Artemisinin and they were trying to improve yields so that they could extract more Artemisinin which is what we use to fight malaria. It’s an anti-malaria medication. They were seconded for three weeks actually hoping they could bring a lot of their expertise to that process and that was actually the start of the relationship. Talk about empathy, we were developing a process where individuals go and work between some of these geographies and not just understand consumer behavior, consumer preferences but also understand how hard it is and what it actually takes to build businesses and the challenges they see along the way. This starts to make a difference.
Fast forward, three, four years later and we start to have longer term conversations with Dow. Dow was seeing that a lot of the assistance that is necessary in the social businesses is very technical, marketing and sales distribution channels, channel distribution to rural markets. Change management between talent and management senior levels for them is very critical as well so they actually helped create a technical assistance facility. They announced it as a commitment in New York.
What we try to do provide grant funding to these early social businesses so that they can do very complete, very specific milestone exercises, everything from working with poor farmers to research on improving highbred seeds.
In May we brought together a number of corporations and we were able to do it because Dow helped. We convened a summit in Kenya that brought nine of the entrepreneurs who are working Africa in everything from agriculture to energy, to housing and also brought different corporations together whether it was Standard Chartered Bank or Unilever, or General Electric.
It was great to see that in addition to Dow and as we were all coming together and they had three days of just kind of intensive time together, not just with each other but the entrepreneurs are starting to learn from each other because they were brought together. The corporations actually are able to talk with the entrepreneurs, understand some of their greatest challenges, and then actually took them to see the work in the field and to the root of understanding some of the business challenges of the excitement in innovation that’s happening in these markets.
Since then it’s been about scaling and collaboration. We’ve seen relationships between the different corporate engagements directly with the entrepreneurs and kind of peer to peer mentoring. We’re just starting to see this emerging and it’s exciting that there is so much more to do with corporations.
Question: I quite liked how we started with empathy. I understand that piece and there’s all sorts of reasons for people to give at an individual level or get involved at a corporate level, but I was wondering if some of you could share some of the actual concrete challenges that, even when we are most empathetic, when we add on an individual level sometimes that doesn’t necessarily translate to a system wide behavior level.
Could you share some of your experiences on overcoming hurdles like I would imagine in your work, there must be concrete challenges when you come up and bump up a collision of values that might really present hurdles.
Question: In terms of partnering with other organizations is there ever any ethical dilemma if the company doesn’t have a strong ethical reputation and how do you make that decision whether you’ll accept funding or not?
Question: I would like to talk about how those collaborations get made and how can you create the understanding that it has to be some level of connection to actual practice? As well, we are hearing from the top but not about the impact of the bottom, we are sacrificing the root to hear not just about the formation and/or expression of these alliances but about the real impact, the real connective tissue to where it really makes a difference.
Sam: I think that’s a fantastic question and it’s something that many social entrepreneurs have struggled with is how do we actually operationalize these ideas and in Global Soap we struggle with that as well. At the 30,000-foot level everybody gets it in five seconds. But what foes it actually look like in terms of making a real strategic impact on the ground? How do we do that?
What we recognized was obviously we couldn’t reinvent the wheel, we had to identify strategic partners that were already doing similar things. We started a dialog with them about what we’re they doing on the ground and then we have to ask ourselves, does it make sense for us to invest in what they’re currently doing?
The first question we had asked was “what role will we play on the ground?” Since 2009 we’ve worked in 31 countries, on four continents, various communities within those countries. Each community is different and so it’s a real challenge for us and I think the folks that started the organization kind of glossed over the fact and made an assumption that everything is going to be the same: we make a product and people will want it and then the revenue that we get from that product will just go back into recycling soap. Bob is your uncle, you’re done.
What turned out to be the case is it’s very, very complex because to have a meaningful long term impact it’s going to take time, it’s going to take strategic investigation of what’s currently being done on the ground, what is actually the need and one of the opportunities to invest in what’s already being done or then to design a project ourselves with our own staff and our own resources to use the revenue that we’re getting from one area and to turn around design a project in another.
The challenge for us and for our funders is it’s a constant struggle because one size doesn’t fit every example and so it really is a case by case wherein community A today and the, and the answer was A, and we’re going to be in community B tomorrow and the answer is B. So really it, it’s a strategic ongoing investigation about what’s being done on the ground from our perspective and then where do we choose to invest our resources. Is it back into us as an organization, do we actually put boots on the ground or is it investing in other organizations that we can help strategically guide to achieve a more efficient, more effective impact? It’s looking at efficiencies, looking at outcomes, it’s looking at strategic investments.
I don’t know if that answered the question or not but that’s how we’ve gone about that in the past few years.
Batool: I think the key is really what is the objective that you’ve set out to do, how are you trying to achieve it and then how are you sharing that story back which I feel like is that’s where you first started your question. The responsibility, Anita’s work probably agrees with this, is that it’s really about storytelling. The onus is on us to share those stories in a better way, in a more active way because we are the ones who are seeing what’s going on. It’s not just about the swirl at the top. Acumen has invested in both for profit and not for profit organizations. I would say in the beginning we found more not for profits, so we did debt rather than equity investments. In our current ratio they’re probably about 60-40 split. Uh, 60% is equity investments, 40% is debt investments. You can only debt into not for profits.
If you talk to a lot of the entrepreneurs that we’ve invested in and you asked them, “Do you identify yourself as a social entrepreneur?” And they say “no”. They just see themselves as entrepreneurs. They’re providing a service to the communities in which they work in whether it’s Gulu, Northern Uganda or its Kitale, Kenya, working with poor farmers in both of those areas. They just see themselves as entrepreneurs but because they’re from those communities what they really care about is family, businesses across Africa they don’t create this businesses to maximize profits or to find the next investor who’s going to be in and out. What they’re really trying to do is create employment for their communities and for their areas, provide stability for their families from employment and a legacy perspective first and foremost. They’re very, very careful about who they give up equity to, and they took a while for us to actually understand that you have really listen to what their objectives are in setting up these businesses and then do our values really align?
We also have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to corruption. Talking about challenges, that’s one of the biggest challenges that we see. You can’t be in places like India, Pakistan, East Africa, West Africa, and not contend with corruption. I wish somebody would do a study on the pure cost of corruption to business that a lot of times big businesses will say that this is a cost of doing business. The bribes you have to pay, the corruption that comes along the way.
We have a zero tolerance policy and we’re very careful about who we invest in and make sure that there is a values and a moral alignment. A really concrete example we invested in a housing company in Pakistan, and they have to get scheme approval for the housing development, a hundred acres of land, and there was bribes being asked for at all levels not just at the top but all the way to the person who would come to his door and say “just give me a thousand rupee bribe.” The entrepreneur came to us and said “what do I do? If I pay this bribe I will get the scheme approval, I will start building the homes, I can sell them and our project will stay on time and we would be underway.” And we said, “No.” At that point we did not know is this delay going to be six months, 18 months, what is the actual cost of this? Because he knew we were on the same page and on the same side, we are still working it out with him.
It’s been 18 months and we tried to use our voice in our local geography so we have teams on the group work with business community leaders, we have local advisories, local boards, so they can try and expedite, try and help out wherever possible.
A lot of times we’re actually seeing that these are for profit companies but that for profit is not alien to social entrepreneurship, that their mission is providing a good service to low-income communities but what they really care about is “I can I build a business that will be around 10 years from now, 20 years from now?” It’s not just about that charismatic entrepreneur, but “can I pass this on as a legacy as a sustainable business?” That’s more the main point that we look for.
Anita: After we, after we hear about each other for a while and, and we’ve created sort of a safe space of friendship, let’s say, I ask about risk taking and if that’s an important attribute for social entrepreneurs to have. Yes, of course it would be.
Then I ask them to dance for two and a half minutes to a song on YouTube video and they do, they stepped in to the risk taking because I’ve set it up that way. The next day there are always newcomers to the class who didn’t make it to the first week, because there’s still on summer vacation. But I want them to also feel part of the class and I want the class that was there the week before to let them know what the culture of the class is. So I put up a video about the Hugs Campaign that came out of Australia and then I invite the class to the people over there last week to hug the newcomers and welcome them into the class. That happens week one and week two. By week four we’re talking a lot about like how difficult social change is and how difficult social behavioral change is and I asked them to write down “what do you remember most about class one and what do you remember most about class two?”
It’s not a perfect, a 100% across the board, but there’s a critical mass of people remember the dancing and the hugging.
I tell them the story about Paul Shrivastava who teaches at the Obrien Centre for Sustainability at Concordia University. He was in sustainability studies for 30 years, long before the word was a buzz word. He’s come to the critical point where it’s like telling people, teaching people, getting them to understand cognitively about what’s going wrong with the world is not sufficient for behavioral change, just like empathy by itself is not sufficient for behavioral change. It actually needs action. He says it’s all about the heart.
We can stay up here and have conversations about alliances or we could actually talk about what it means when you’re face to face or in a room with a group of people having a conversation trying to find some common ground, I think the real breakthrough disruption happens when you actually get to know somebody and you start trusting each other and you’re listening with empathy. I’ll tell a story about um, a gal from Montreal that’s roaming with me. We have breakfast the very first morning and she was saying she just came back from Bolivia where she’d done some training with a group of local artisans and she’s trying to do entrepreneurial training for them so that they could have products sold on the marketplace. She says “I’m reaching this critical stage where people are starting to ask like if you had a $100,000 how would you spend it to scale it up?” And she’s like, “Oh, my God, I don’t know what I would do because I’m still used to like earning $6,000 together.” She said the first day of the training session, they had up on a wall of number of attributes and she asked all of the women to put their name under the attribute that they felt connected with them. So “mother” and “daughter” and “wife”, and then a bunch of others like “leader”, “entrepreneur”, a whole bunch of other words and almost all of the women put “mother” and “daughter” and a couple of them, “leader” and “entrepreneur”.
By the end of the training and now she’s telling me the story she had to stop to hold back the tears and I had the whole goose bump moment. She said, “By the end of the five-day training the number of women who had their names under “leader” or “entrepreneur” she said was breathtaking. I said, “That’s what your work is about.” That’s the kind of story we have to share with one another at meetings even when we’re talking about big contracts in order for us to bridge divides.
Question: I would like to go back to the question about alliances when there are ethical questions.
Sam: Step one is just having clarity on what your mission truly is and making sure that everybody involved has clarity, a very clear picture of what it is you’re trying to achieve so that you understand what you’re values are. If you have any ambiguity about that you can open yourself up to quite a few challenges.
A second point might be, understand the rest of the partnerships that you have: what they value, what they’re looking for. Understand yourself and then understand the others that you’re working with. Who else are you aligned with, who else are you working with, and what are their values and what are their ideals?
An example that I’ll share really quickly is I was with another organization in 2008 as an executive, a large billion dollar organization, just right about the time of the financial crisis in United States, and Lehman Brothers, a bank that was about three weeks out from collapsing, came to us and said “one of the executives at the bank who knows that he’s going to be under quite a bit of an image crisis wants to contribute a large seven figured gift to your organization because, number one he supports what you’re doing”, but I don’t think that was really the reason. Number two was the fact that it was going to help improve his image. Here we are as an organization taking a step back and thinking, number one, we know we’re going to need this money because the financial crisis is on its way and generating revenue is going to be even harder six months from now, and here’s this person offering us seven figures which is going to go a long way towards offsetting some of the other cuts that we know were going to come.
But at the same time, we have to understand what would everybody else that supports us think if we jumped at this gift, the seven-figure gift, how would that make us look to the rest of our supporters? It took several days but the decision was to turn that gift down because we felt that thousands of other organizations they supported us. We’re investing in our mission, in our vision, in our ideals which were to be transparent and to be honest and to be good global citizens, and we felt that accepting that gift was not in alignment with what we were as an organization, but also what our other supporters were looking to us to be.
Another thing you have to be careful of is mission creep. If you don’t have clarity about what you want to be when you grow up as an organization you’ve got an investor that comes in and says, “You know what, I like what you’re doing but how about if we started doing this instead or on top of what you’re doing?” We’ve addressed that at Global Soap. We’ve had people that come and say, “You know what, this is great but how about you’re getting a shampoo business too or how about you’re getting a lotion business too?” And they’ll dangle a whole bunch of money over our heads.
Honestly, three years ago because the organization didn’t have the clarity that we have today, we probably would have done it because we were going to jump at the first cash that we could. Today we understand who we are, what we’re going to be, and we understand what the rest of our supporters are looking for us to be so that we can say, “Yes, that thing fits and there are other things that don’t,” even though money is always tempting.
Batool: I think Sam covered it really, really well. I’ll say that we actually had a gift from Lehman well before and then wouldn’t you know it did not come through at the end. So there’s a lot of ups and downs. We have said no to funding, people have said, it’s a mining extraction company, “Go to the Congo, we want you to take your model to the Congo.” And we said, “No, we do X, Y and Z. We’d love to have your support so we can learn what it actually takes and you can take some of these models and take the insights and replicate what we know.” It’s a difficult road to be on when you’re trying to raise funds and everyone’s interest and your own can differ.
But I don’t want to just sound as if we only take the moral high ground. I think a lot of these are iterative conversations. We have a saying at Acumen too, “assume goodness”, so we do try to really spend a lot of time getting to understand not just individual donors but also corporations and other businesses and really try to understand the intent. Are they really trying to learn, are they really trying to be helpful? It’s not as if there’s a black-mark against you and then you’re never forgiven ever again, because we all fail and we have all had failures along the way. We’re very open about them too.
It is a tension and an ethical question that we grapple with every single day whether it’s deciding on who we invest in from an entrepreneurs perspective or whether it’s who we approach from a funding perspective. We don’t take any of those decisions lightly. They are iterative conversations and it’s never black and white. There’s a lot more grace than not.
Question: You were talking about bribery and corruption and different things. I was also wondering about the Goldman policies. Did you have any practical examples of how the Goldman policies either helped you or stopped you from doing the things you wanted to do?
Batool: When we first started Acumen we thought that we would not touch government with a 10-foot pole. Since then we’ve revised and learned that in a lot of the geographies you can’t actually scale and succeed unless you work with governments and how critical and important they are.
We also had this other observation that there is something about a 300,000 customer served mark, that is a tipping point, where when you’re small, you’re under the radar and nobody really notices you but when you start to become bigger everybody notices you.
Then everybody who has something to lose starts to stand up and pay attention. We’ve seen our entrepreneurs face a number of challenges whether it’s media, campaign smears against their integrity, saying that their taking bribes and kickbacks when it’s actually the opposite – because they refused to take bribes they were getting smeared by local politicians. But the good has been we invested in an energy a biomass company, they take rice and gasify it to convert it into electricity and light up Behar in Northern India.
What the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy actually enabled was CapEx subsidies to the company so that they actually had a lower cost in the setting up the power, the mini power plants and were able to provide electricity at $2.00 per month to light a house, which is very, very affordable. There’s times when subsidies from government policies are important, whether it’s around housing or agriculture.
We’ve realized that we have a role to play as an advocate, as a policy influencer. At the same time, when you need to you can ignore it.
Sam: I think Batool is spot on. From our perspective, we had a similar policy in the beginning which was we only work with NGOs on the ground. We don’t partner with local government and interestingly enough we revised that last year because one of the well-vetted partners that we had on the ground in a country in West Africa tried to bribe us – once they got the product, they wouldn’t distribute it unless we started giving them some money.
We actually had to turn around and go to the government and say, “We need your help because we can’t handle this.” It’s been tricky with bribes because we’re operating in 31 countries. It’s always a challenge. Some government entities enforced anti-bribery. In others, the government is the one that’s demanding the bribe. We worked in Haiti quite a bit and had a distribution going down, when the cholera outbreak occurred and our large shipment of a 20-foot container made it to the docks in Port-au-Prince and the government said, “Fantastic! Now all we need is a thousand dollars and we’ll clear this for you.”
We had to go back to the donors, the corporations that had underwritten the cost of this container, we had to ask them what they wanted us to do. In that case they said, “Go for it!”
There is a governmental change in East Africa recently in an NGO that we worked with. All the NGOs in that country lost their NGO status and so suddenly the work that we were doing was taxable and we had to make a decision. Do we continue doing this because we’re now partnering with a non-registered organization, or not?
For us it’s been case by case and really just being transparent and clear with the donors and the partners that have and making a decision based on what the demands are. It really is much greyer than I wish it were.
Question: What is different? What are the cases and arguments that we would hear differently about empathy in this conference than the ones they would hear in a typical business conference, in a psychology conference, in everyday life, Dr. Phil, whatever.
Anita: My answer is that it’s not spoken about enough, period. One of the things that I’ve also noticed at social entrepreneurship conferences that isn’t spoken enough about is the compassion fatigue that people have just like the relentless effort that goes into it from love and all the right things and that there’s just not enough, like it’s just not taking care of yourself, right?
We’re real people at the end of the day. Maybe at most conferences about any kind of business transactions, traditional entrepreneurship, were not actually talking about enough about who we are as people engaged in the process.
Batool: Empathy is a bedrock of what we do. It, it’s a starting point for all of us. Oftentimes we use the term “moral imagination” at Acumen. What that really means is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, which is a definition of empathy. When we use that as a starting point, we try to add that, that’s a value. It’s something that we live by as a team in everything that we do whether it’s out there fundraising and really listening to what is it that individuals want to see their philanthropy being used for, all the way to our investment team as they meet and talk to entrepreneurs, as they meet and talk to the end-customer who’s being served, how is this actually improving their lives at the end of the day and not in a nice path little way but really tangibly substantial way.
Sam: I don’t have too much to add except that in my view empathy is one of the methods that as social entrepreneurs we leverage many other things, including obviously a clear message outward to our customers, to our supporters. I think empathy is a backbone of that.
A second method that we’ve leveraged at Global Soap is an understanding of business alignment as we look at potential partnerships. What are they currently doing as a business or what are their interests as a business which can be, interestingly enough, two different things. And having clarity on where there might be alignment with what we’re doing. Then tailoring that message based on empathy towards those potential alignment areas, and in listening.
Once we’ve identified where there is some business alignment with interest or with actual activities we convey a message that’s rooted in empathy.
It’s an iterative process and it’s a process includes a variety of different methods.
Jocelyne: You know the presentation was about alliances and I think one of the challenges we have is we use so many different terms. We say alliances, we say partnerships, we say collaborations, and they are all slightly different. Partnership for example is really where you share risks and rewards and there are some core principles that have been developed by some people who’ve been involved in partnerships for a long time, including The Partnership Brokers Association. They talk about three core principles:
- sharing risk and reward
- is there equity in the relationship? Is there a shared value, mutual benefit?
- is there transparency.
Those are kind of core principles that in addition to skills that you have to have or empathy and active listening. Those are kind of bedrock things that if you don’t have in what I would call a true partnership won’t, it doesn’t matter what’s happening. The relationship won’t continue.
Question: I think about the distinction a lot because I come from the profit sector and for profits don’t always want to think about empathy. So if it’s $5.00 for this product it’s $5.00 whether or not you really need it or it’s $5.00 whether you’re cuter and I like you and I want to give it to you and I think in econ 101 what I understood is the profit motive can’t take empathy into account.
What’s fair isn’t always what’s equal when you think of empathy. Should everybody here have a seat? That might be what’s equal but it’s not necessarily what’s fair. Empathy is so important in social enterprises that you take out profit as your major motive, or you it’s not just about a number of beds but it’s “do the people who are in the beds really need them?” That’s where empathy comes in trying to understand each situation.
One of the challenges the sector is facing is when we’re forced to evaluate our outcomes, the natural model is one that does not incorporate empathy. It’s how many volunteers, how many jobs did you create? So if you’re looking at things like you know we have a whole bunch of immigrants that are doctors driving taxis it’s not just have 500 jobs, it’s that we don’t have people doing meaningful work. That distinction is really important because where I’m struggling is in the new world. We’re talking about evaluating a product that you can’t evaluate with the same models and the minute you put empathy in all your targets are different. So in your model that Anita was talking about, it’s not about whether or not these women that are artisans have jobs and have livelihoods, but do they see themselves as a leader and do they think of themselves with dignity?
Question: Just to build on and some thinking that I’ve had listening to people over the last day and a half now, I think we need to have really frank discussions on what success looks like. We hear a lot of talk lately about impact, impact, impact and I haven’t heard anybody tell me what that actually means.
We use it too in my work and we have a way of thinking about it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would translate into other organizations where there would be unlikely alliances or partnerships or whatever we’re talking about here today. The other part of the conversation that I think I haven’t heard in the last day and a half either which is connected to empathy is a real conversation about power
Question: I think the problem stems from distinguishing between social enterprise and the rest of the profit sector and we do need to work on our measurement. Instead of measuring progress in all countries by GDP, we may wish to use the measure wellbeing in progress with true development indexes. The Australian National Development Index which I happen to like. Right now we’re just using GDP, really the whole world is, if we move from that but then also for citizens to understand that development indexes so they can engage in discussion and push for social entrepreneurship because they inherently believe in it.
They just can’t follow the discussion and push policymakers or push their corporations to act in a way they want because they don’t understand the metrics because we’re not really measuring social value.
Question: We’re talking about empathy, I’ve been hearing the word come up over and over again, and I actually work in a company that makes a toy to teach empathy. We found that play is really useful in that sense because play makes you drop your inhibitions, be yourself and all of a sudden you can have a really interesting conversation. It’s very hard to go into a classroom and tell the 30 kids whether they’re eight years old or 15 years old that they’re jerks.
Either way it’s really hard to say, “Hey, today we’re going to talk about empathy,” and have them drop their guard and really engage with it. Same thing with adults when we do our corporate staff. We know that play is a useful tool but I know that not everybody is going to use that in your work or I guess maybe for anybody who’s thinking about empathy what are the other ways that you find a real space for pause and reflection and an actual nuanced kind of sophisticated conversation on empathy because I feel most of the time we’re so busy developing our product or our program? How do you actually have that conversation for real outside of kind of rooms like this?
Anita: To build on the power question, I don’t know if you remember Mary Gordon at one point, I think the title of her talk was “The Surprising Power of Empathy”. I actually do believe that its empathy plus action. That empathic action thing is the most disruptive and the most subversive power that exists. I really, really, really do. But I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying the super structured and the power structures, right?
And you’re asking, “despite those circumstances, apart from play, what other systems exist or processes exist to bring the connective tissue alive?” Everything that we do in terms of celebration, think of a celebration in your mind like a party or a wedding, anytime you celebrate. We always show up as human beings in communicating with one another, so there’s laughter, there’s dance, there’s singing. Anytime those things exist and anytime you engage people in those processes we start to lighten up. We start to loosen up and like each other more. So that would be my answer.
Batool: In addition to investing we also have a Fellows’ program which is a leadership development program at Acumen. One of the curriculum activities that the team or the fellows do is called Everyday Barriers. We actually started introducing that through the online leadership work that we have now been engaged and which Jocelyne alluded to earlier.
Everyday Barrier is just literally 10 fellows come together in New York, they’re going to get sent out into the field, be placed at an investing company whether it’s in Behar, India or it’s in Ghana for about 10 months. One of the things that they have to do is we come in the morning, we’ll take your phone, we’ll take your wallet, we’ll give you a metro card with two rides on it and a $5.00 bill and hen give you a list of social services across the city of New York, whether it’s a soup kitchen or it’s a homeless shelter or it’s an emergency care unit, and say “go out and experience what it’s like to live on $5.00 a day”.
We all know it’s still not the same, but when they actually go and they come back it’s very powerful. Some of the stories that they share about what it really means to sit in the waiting room of a hospital and the 20,000 forms you have to fill out before a doctor will even see you, the types of probing questions and the judgment that you get before you’re actually seen by an aid worker. Or what it actually feels like to stand in line waiting for food at the soup kitchen. It’s a very powerful exercise.
Sam: Emotions are incredibly powerful tools when it comes to helping people empathize and for us, even when it comes to behavior modification when we’re working with people in the field and these 30 plus countries helping them change their behavior is one thing for someone to stand up and say, “Do this, do this, do this.” There’s another thing to make it fun, to make it educational. We found that fun exercises, something revolving around having a good time, really helps change the behaviors much more effectively than just wrote educational exercises. From an alliance standpoint or from potential partnerships, emotions are key. The foot in the door might be some sort of business alignment, “Hey, we want to talk to you about your shipping rates or something like that”, but then we come in and boom, we hit them with a powerful video. That helps them connect and understand, “My gosh, you know I’d never really thought of that before, but now you have my attention.” And now I’m going to open up to you about what matters to me and then based on that as we listen, as we share. The real meaningful dialog opens up based on that emotional connection.
More About SEWF
The Trico Charitable Foundation was honoured to host SEWF 2013. It made history in a number of ways – it was a first for Canada and attracted a record number of speakers and attendees (1,000 individuals from more than 30 countries and over 100 speakers from 20 countries) – but we are most proud of the quality of the discussions on Skills Building, Social Finance, Indigenous Social Enterprise, Collaboration, Policy and Research, and Social Innovation.
A special thanks to Photos With Finesse by Suzan McEvoy for the pictures, BizBOXTV for producing the videos, and Employment and Social Development Canada for helping to make this post-event coverage possible.
We would also like to thank the following partners for making SEWF 2013 possible:
- Social Enterprise Council of Canada
- MaRS Centre for Impact Investing
- Social Innovation Generation (SiG)
- The Canadian Community Economic Development Network
- Government of Canada
- Canadian Youth Business Foundation (now Futurepreneur)
- Social Change Rewards
Friends of SEWF:
Each year SEWF gives a different host country an incredible opportunity to celebrate and nurture its own social enterprise movement. The inaugural SEWF met in Edinburgh, Scotland. Since then it has been to Melbourne, Australia; San Francisco, U.S.A; Johannesburg, Africa; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Learn more about SEWF’s history here.