The development sector is at a crossroads, and those of us working to find answers to the persistence of poverty are faced with a question that will define our success or failure: shall we compete, or shall we collaborate?
The significance of this question was crystalized for me at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford this spring. Over the course of an incredible week of celebration, discussion and exchange, I was astounded by the multitude of innovators with designs for the future, and organizations with inspiring new models for change. I was left with the conviction that the ideas, tools, and people needed to put an end to extreme poverty already exist. They just need to converge.
For that, the global community of social innovators and entrepreneurs (a small but notable portion of which was gathered in Oxford) needs to work together, freely and continually exchanging and improving upon one another’s ideas.
In an age of instant communication and worldwide connectivity, that possibility doesn’t seem at all farfetched. But there is a significant obstacle standing in the way of this type of collaboration, one that is, frustratingly, self-imposed. That obstacle is a development “industry” that enforces competition and ownership, and disproportionately recognizes those who present proposals as entirely their own.
The unfortunate truth is that NGOs and social entrepreneurs need to attract attention just to keep the lights on, and that means competing with organizations, often those that are working toward a common goal, for severely limited funding and recognition. To survive, development organizations must outshine their peers and, most importantly, protect the ownership of their ideas.
I speak from experience. At Fundación Capital, balancing the benefits of collaboration with the need to own ideas is a near constant internal debate. While on one hand we value and hold dear our innovations, on the other we see time and again how partnerships with like-minded institutions make our work in financial inclusion and asset-building for the poor exponentially more valuable.
We therefore grapple with the clear and apparent tension between the imperatives of thriving in the development sector, and faithfully serving a mission that exists solely to serve a common good. How can we reconcile the benefits of intellectual property with the possibility that our ideas, nurtured and adapted by others, could improve people’s lives? How do we ensure that the need for competition doesn’t obscure the advantages of collaboration?
The Skoll Foundation is certainly part of the answer, and is a clear example of an already shifting paradigm in international development, one that de-emphasizes individual enterprise and instead builds and develops coalitions for change. The Skoll motto includes the phrase “connecting social entrepreneurs” for a reason, and a big part of their success has come in bringing social thinkers together to increase impact and approach problems through new perspectives.
And they are not alone. Indeed, many international donor institutions now recognize the power of a community of innovators working together; among those are the Ford Foundation and Citi Foundation, two institutions (and funders of Fundación Capital) that rightly emphasize and encourage collaboration among their grantees.
But ultimately, the shift from competition to collaboration must come from within. NGOs and social entrepreneurs must endeavor to actively seek partnerships with one another. Imagine what could happen if the spirit of collaboration were the rule in international development, not the exception; if we, as social entrepreneurs, non-profit managers, poverty fighters, environmentalists, health workers, inventors, policymakers, and others, were governed one and all by the desire to share our ideas for the greater good.
If we decide, collectively, that ideas that can change the world are too powerful to keep to ourselves, our shared impact will be the difference between prosperity and poverty, between justice and injustice, between inclusion and exclusion. To commence the celebration in Oxford, Jeff Skoll opened by saying that “changing the world is a team sport.” I, for one, am ready for game time.