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I’m writing this blog as I come back down from Davos 2010: literally, in terms of the journey back down the mountain to Zurich; metaphorically, in terms of coming down from the high and inevitable buzz one gets from this unique event.
For me the week reached something of a crescendo on Friday, a day that began at 7 a.m. with a breakfast panel and ended sometime in the early hours of Saturday with a reflective beer. I found my way through deep snow to our early panel discussion on the future of Business/NGO partnerships, where I joined Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children UK and Marianne Barner, Head of the IKEA Social Initiative. It was a good discussion which focused a lot on the long- standing Save the Children/IKEA partnership but also got into the interesting area of NGO transformation and the supporting role business can play in helping to bring about this necessary change.
Clearly, pictures of smiling kids are more popular with corporate marketers than back-office systems, but investment in the latter is every bit as important as an enabler of the former.
My highlight of the day was a CEO Roundtable of NGO leaders that Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP) hosted early Friday evening. Not surprisingly, most of the Davos agenda is geared toward the titans of the private sector with a liberal sprinkling of government leaders, pop stars, and academics. But relatively few events are specific to NGOs.
We’d deliberately targeted this event at heads of NGOs--to have Accenture’s leadership hear first-hand from them on where business can make the biggest difference to development. I was co-hosting the event with our management consulting lead Mark Foster and head of strategy consulting, Mark Spelman, with Jon Sopel from the BBC, playing the role of moderator.
The question we put to them was simple: What more can we be doing as Accenture to provide greater access to and connections with our private-sector client network?
If there was an equivalent of the G20 for the not-for-profit world, then this gathering was probably pretty close to it. No less than 13 CEOs, presidents, and secretaries general signed up to join the discussion, which was limited to just 20 participants.
We also asked: What are the issues that the private sector could make the greatest difference on? What sectors and companies are most relevant? What more could Accenture do and of course, what would be the challenges?
It was an opportunity for us to share our thinking around what we’re terming “development convergence”—a hypothesis that says that across all sectors, there is an increasing convergence of issues, strategic interests, and therefore solutions. We predict that new coalitions will emerge and that in the future, development outcomes and impact will matter more than the brand, sector, or tax status of the intermediary organization(s).
The discussion was fascinating. One topic raised by the CEO of a very large NGO stuck in my mind as being absolutely pivotal to the success of business/NGO coalitions--you could say it was the elephant in the room. It was phrased as a “language and trust” issue and it is a simple one: Namely, that while there is growing engagement and understanding within the leadership of more enlightened NGOs on the positive role that business can play on development, this isn’t always mirrored on the ground at country office level, where there is often deep suspicion as to the motives, values, and culture of big business.
Leadership can talk about partnering with business as much as they like, but if they fail to win the hearts and minds of the foot soldiers on the ground then it’ll be destined to failure.
Exactly how we harness the latent socioeconomic power of big business towards development impact may be unclear. But what is clear is that those who are defining the future development agenda will increasingly be seeking an answer. They’ll be soft on inputs and intermediaries--hard on outputs and outcomes. Resources will flow toward those who can demonstrate and articulate a positive socio-economic impact and away from those whose stories are ambiguous.
It is imperative that the leaders of these NGOs can understand and influence this convergence agenda and advocate within their own organizations as to the important role of business. The trust and language issue will not be resolved overnight. NGO workers on the ground will still be more comfortable talking about poverty reduction than wealth creation, but strong leadership on all sides will slowly break down these barriers and unlock the latent power of development convergence.
Gib Bulloch is the Executive Director of Accenture Development Partnerships, an internal not-for-profit organization that provides business and technology expertise to drive high performance in the international development sector.
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