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Step Out of Defined Roles to Change the World

Thursday, September 24, 2015
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Each day in India more than 2 million non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide critical services to the country’s 1.2 billion people. That equates to roughly 1 NGO for every 600 people. Indians rely on NGOs to provide many essential services, often filling the gap for government institutions. However, because many NGOs operate on a shoestring budget, they struggle for access to talent with strategic business skillsets to optimize and scale their efforts. This is where pro bono consultants from the private sector can have a transformative effect on local organizations. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on a strategy session for an NGO in Mumbai in which an outside team of pro bono consultants provided valuable business perspectives and insights. The team was comprised of employees from JPMorgan Chase and IBM's Corporate Service Corps (CSC) who worked with the Kherwadi Social Welfare Association, one of the leading providers of vocational training in India. 

The Holy Grail of Any Large NGO 

The business team was part of a larger commitment from both IBM and JPMorgan Chase. Both companies send their top talent from around the world into growth markets to provide premium consulting services to social sector and government organizations for free. I listened to a talented team of four professionals analyze a complex problem: How to scale the NGO’s vocational training academy to reach 1 million people a year. 

At certain points, their recommendations were met with enthusiastic nods—of course, we have this problem! At other times, there was simply sober acknowledgment. NGOs often don't have the luxury of access to the kind of multidisciplinary, strategic, and operational planning expertise typically available to the private sector. An outsider’s perspective can open up new lines of thought and influence how an organization approaches its work. 

“Working with IBM and JPMorgan Chase brought home to me personally that data structured and presented well through well-designed reports can help us manage various situations better,” said Shivani Mehta, CEO of the Kherwadi Social Welfare Association. “The volunteers brought a different perspective and were able to help us look at a comprehensive holistic picture. This, along with the insights they gleaned from the data and their experiences with us, helped define a clearer way forward.” 

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After listening to the lively debate between the local client organization and the pro bono consultants, for me, the conclusion was clear. It is so rare, in the midst of the day-to-day demands of work, to have the opportunity to step outside of defined roles and responsibilities to effectively analyze problems. What's more, the prevailing "inside the box" thinking almost always overshadows attempts to change the status quo.  

Every organization can benefit from a change in perspective and, for NGOs that operate under extreme resource constraints, this is even more valuable—especially when the outside perspective brings a strategic mindset the organization can leverage to tackle its most pressing challenges. More importantly, because consultants can be hired and fired at will, they have great latitude to speak freely—and sometimes controversially—about how problems can and should be solved.

Consultants Benefit From the Pro Bono Work Too 

Pro bono consulting isn’t only game-changing for the organizations that receive this kind of support. Solving tough problems under tight deadlines in resource-constrained, cross-cultural environments teaches the consultants a great deal, too. 

In this case, the business executives from IBM and JPMorgan Chase achieved deep personal and professional growth, developing cross-cultural management abilities they can apply in their future leadership roles. Very few professional experiences enable such accelerated growth and applied learning. Most participants articulate an incredible change in perspective. 

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“It was also great to know that I can go into situations very different from my everyday work world and apply the logic and lessons I've learned over the years to great effect,” said Elizabeth Transier, client engagement leader for IBM Research, who participated in the IBM/JPMorgan Chase team. 

Diplomacy Implications of Cross-Sector Collaboration

The collaboration leads to other advantages, aside from the skills and professional deliverables that the NGO receives, and the personal and professional growth that the skill-based pro bono consultants get. On another level, there is extensive bridge-building with deep corporate diplomacy. And on a national scale, there are public diplomacy implications in these engagements.  

On the corporate diplomacy front, the companies engaged start to build trust and extensive social capital across sectors locally. For large, iconic American companies like IBM and JPMorgan Chase, there are also subtle public diplomacy outcomes which reflect positively on the United States and our broader relationship with India.

In this case, the IBM-JPMorgan Chase team laid out a six-year roadmap for achieving Kherwadi Social Welfare Association’ s vision to reach 1 million youth, working through changes in organizational structure, talent acquisition, partnership management, and financial foundations.

The results from this sort of programs begs the question: What if every NGO had their own team of pro bono consultants? With a clear-headed outside perspective, especially one that is based in deep knowledge and experience working in a structured but fast-changing environment, anything becomes possible.

About the Author

Alicia Bonner Ness is the senior manager of communications at PYXERA Global and the editor of the  New Global Citizen, an online and tri-annual magazine that chronicles the stories, strategies, and impact of innovative leadership and international engagement around the world. In addition, she manages ICV programs on behalf of Medtronic and IBM in Senegal and South Africa. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-profit organization dedicated to preparing young professionals for careers in global leadership. Prior to her work at PYXERA Global, Alicia served in a variety of roles in development, communications, and program management, at the United Nations Foundation, the Institute for the Study of War, and the Peacework Development Fund. Alicia holds a BA in International Relations from Barnard College, Columbia University, and is currently pursuing an MS in Applied Economics from the Johns Hopkins University.

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