Does business listen better than the social sector?

David Bonbright, Co-founder and Chief Executive of Keystone Accountability, says that when it comes to listening to the people that count, businesses are doing better than social change organisations. Here’s what we can do about it.

I want to tell you a story that illustrates how business listens to its customers better than we – those of us who work to create social value – listen to those we mean to help. The story poses a question to me: Why don’t we do this better? My answer may make you uncomfortable.

In 2009, my organisation, Keystone Accountability, was working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s agriculture development program. We’d been invited to a meeting to advise the Foundation on one of its ‘big bets’ to reduce malnutrition. Dubbed ‘hidden hunger’ by development professionals, malnutrition is a terrible and totally curable disease. It’s a massive, infuriating problem; almost one in every four children under five across the world suffer stunted growth due to malnutrition – that’s over 150 million children.

The meeting was memorable because the other participants were not the usual gang of aid and development practitioners, but top marketing executives from some of the world’s giants in consumer sales – companies like Nokia, Starbucks, and Kraft.

Turning to marketing experts for advice

Over several years, the Foundation had invested several million dollars in developing a new vitamin A enriched strain of cassava – a staple crop and primary source of food in parts of the world where malnutrition is rampant. The idea was to put the micronutrients into the staple crop. This would decrease malnutrition without requiring any change in consumption. Kids would be better nourished just by eating as normal. Brilliant idea, right?

But it had run into a major snag. The enriched cassava looked and tasted totally different. People didn’t see it as their beloved cassava. They didn’t like it.

So now the Gates team were turning to marketing experts for advice in distributing their enriched cassava.

The marketing wizards at the meeting were openly aghast on hearing this story. They could not resist a gibe. “Let me see if I have this right,” said one. “You embarked on the major research and development of a new product, developed it to final stage, and never talked to the customer?” This produced a chagrined nod of assent from the Gates Foundation’s programme officer. “Then what you must do now is start over from scratch, this time involving your customers at every step of the way.”

If you want to go far, go together

Regrettably, the enriched cassava story is the Everyman story of development and philanthropy. It can be told ten thousand different ways and it applies to every human problem. It is the story of well-meaning professionals – outsiders – who do things for and to people, rather than with them.

If a Champions League organisation like the Gates Foundation falls into this trap, then you can imagine how it is for most of development, where resources are far scarcer.

I left that day pondering the seemingly inexhaustible wisdom in the African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. I wanted to know what would have happened if the Gates Foundation had approached its idea in a completely different way:

  • What if it had gone to the affected communities, listened to their stories, earned their trust, and put themselves fully in service to those communities?
  • Would this have led naturally to these communities seeing how to fully realise the value latent in a relationship with the Gates Foundation?
  • Would it not have created a sense of ownership in the communities of the fruits of all that scientific and technical wizardry that Gates could bring?
  • Would it not have underpinned the kind of self-confidence and autonomy in these communities that would ripple out to initiate many other benefits to them?
  • Would it not have done so more quickly and effectively than the top-down model used by Gates?

In other words, wouldn’t an approach grounded in mutuality have been, in the end, faster, cheaper, and many times more effective?

What do businesses get that we don’t?

So, why does business get this and we at social change organisations don’t? Or maybe the question is better phrased: What is it that business gets here?

Consumer businesses must have repeat customers. Business-customer relationships are essentially transactional. Listening to current customers, who in a competitive marketplace can choose alternative products or services, is a basic survival skill. There is a direct and immediate accountability loop this is just not there in development and philanthropy.

In social change, relationships can’t be reduced to transactions. Women smallholder cassava farmers in Ethiopia are not going to take up hybrid cassava from someone they don’t trust. Trust amongst people whose life story is shadowed by neglect and abuse is very hard to earn. Transactions may be how we keep score even in development (how many farmers cultivate hybrid cassava?) but relationships are the playing field.

Approaches to development are often juxtaposed as top-down or bottom-up. This framing misses the true culprit. In social change, as in our personal and social lives (but not as consumers) it’s relationships that determine outcomes.

To solve tough societal problems, we need everyone. We need top-down (read technical expertise, money, institutional capacity) and we need bottom-up (read local ownership, initiative and commitment). But we need everyone in effective, high trust relationships.

Shifting the power

So, maybe business ‘gets it’ with respect to listening because it can only gain and has nothing to lose. In philanthropy and social change, if effectiveness means doing-with rather than doing-to people, we have to be open to real change at both personal and organisational levels.

Our challenge is ordinary and even banal, something Jenny Hodgson of the Global Fund for Community Foundations captures well in a piece reflecting on two years of the hashtag #ShiftThePower:

“In the day-to-day work of anyone who sees themselves as working towards a larger social good, when it’s only too easy to fill one’s time with the ‘stuff’ of projects, proposals, workshops and reports, #ShiftThePower is a reminder that a) few interactions are ever power neutral and b) that often, those we seek to ‘help’ have much more power – knowledge, skills, networks – than they are given credit for and it is the job of those institutions that are serious about real, lasting change to know when to give up their own power, stand back and help make that happen.”

To be effective, we have to stop doing-to people and work in mutuality. As we succeed, it will be business gurus writing articles like this one about learning from the social change sector.

Are you really listening?
Two questions for social change organisations to ask themselves:

Question 1: How do you know how people experience you? Any answer that does not describe some continuous, light-touch process of listening is highly suspect. This is because research-heavy approaches by non-profits just don’t lead to action. Research is too easy to ignore in the face of more compelling calls for management attention – like those from funders.

Question 2: What are three things that you have changed based on feedback from those you seek to help? This is the acid test. The problems non-profits are tackling are complex, shape-shifting demons that would have been solved by now were they not so tough. The best organisations – the ones you want to support – are constantly adjusting to the best evidence they can muster. Feedback from beneficiaries is just about the best evidence that they can readily get. Effective organisations use it to take corrective actions. And after they make a change, they go back and ask again: “We made this change. What do you think?”.