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What can business learn from the development sector?

In this first blog of a two-part series, I’m going to describe just a couple of the things that I think business can learn from the development sector – and in the second part of the series I’ll talk about a few things that the development sector can learn from business.

For a long time, I’ve been interested in the potential of partnerships to solve complex problems, based on the very simple premise that many of humanity’s problems are too big to solve alone. I’ve worked in roles where my job was focused exclusively on brokering partnerships for sustainable and inclusive agriculture; I’ve advised clients on partnerships to improve women’s empowerment; and, I’m somewhat of a disciple of the work done by The Partnering Initiative, who specialise in cross-sector collaboration and run courses on the art of partnership. I felt unduly righteous when one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals was specifically scoped to encourage “Partnerships for the Goals”, recognising that the other 16 Goals can’t be achieved in isolation. The thing is that partnerships in and of themselves can be tricky; creating a partnership doesn’t necessarily make a difficult problem easy. And when working at the nexus of partnerships, I’ve realised that the difficulty can arise from different sectors’ attitudes and areas of expertise, especially if one sector feels it has nothing to learn from another.

This is the first lesson that business can learn from the development sector: to have the humility to know that you (a company) can’t solve every problem alone. I’ve worked in the private sector for a long time and I believe it can be a force for good, but too often I’ve seen companies “barge in” with great intentions to fix a problem (that they sometimes know little about). Take the corporate propensity to build schools, for example. Yes, in many countries, schools are needed, but so too are other enabling factors such as qualified teachers, pay for those teachers,  a good curriculum, parents who can afford to let their children go to school, amongst wider structural factors such as infrastructure, transport, access to nutrition, gender equality and so on. A school does not provide an education system and (most) NGOs know this, which is why they try to work on the bigger, more complex problem, or the failing system, often in partnerships with others. To be clear, I believe that companies build things with the best of intentions, but the impact could be so much better if they took a step back to understand what is really needed to improve the wider system – and took a step towards a partner who can bring a different perspective. (I use schools and education as an example; the same could be said of hospitals and healthcare, irrigation schemes and agriculture, recycling plants and waste management, etc.)

The other lesson that business could learn from NGOs is how to think about impact. The development world regularly uses a concept called a ‘theory of change’, which is a relatively easy model to grasp, helps to plan for social change, yet is rarely used by companies. In its simplest form, a theory of change comprises inputs (resources), activities (what you do), outputs (tangible numbers), outcomes (the changes arising from the things that you do) and impact (the ultimate impact you want to have) – it’s a logical plan of action. More sophisticated versions allow for assumptions, indicators and metrics, influencing factors and so on. Needless to say, some organisations have made theories of change unbearably complicated and cumbersome (with matrix-style log frames to accompany them), but that’s a separate blog post. What’s surprising though is how few companies use a theory of change to plan the social good that they intend to achieve (this will come as a shock to anyone who has never worked in the private sector). I have to confess that I am a late convert to the theory of change, previously dismissing it as overly simplistic. However, having used theories of change recently with a global organisation that is convening partnerships for change in many social and environmental areas, there is a certain elegance in the simplicity of a theory of change. A carefully completed theory of change can become the lodestar for a partnership or project. It is a strategic document that enables decision-making about the use of resources, the things that you do (and, more importantly, don’t do). It can become a framework for measuring progress towards the intended impact. In messy problems, a theory of change can chart your path to creating impact, taking into account the constraints that you face.

To conclude, at times the private and development sectors can seem like worlds apart and bringing them together to collaborate can be like a foreign language lesson, but in this first blog of two, I’ve highlighted just two of many things that the private sector can learn from development – know when the problem is too big to solve alone and plan your activities for impact. The second blog will look at reciprocated learning opportunities between these unlikely bedfellows.