THE BLOG

The 'Fashion Week' of Social Impact

09/17/2013 06:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2013

Next week, the world descends on New York City for the annual pilgrimage to discuss how to solve the most challenging social, economic and political problems facing our planet today. But, do any of the proclamations, announcements or promises actually come true? If so, who checks on the progress year-to-year?

Anchored by the United Nations General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative there are over 100 conferences, roundtables and receptions that will feature a collection of organizations from a wide sector of both public, private and civil society. Call it the "Fashion Week" of social impact.

Here's a sampling of events, and the hosting organization:
• Malaria Reception (UN Secretariat)
• Social Good Summit (Mashable, UN Foundation)
• UN Global Compact Leaders Summit (UNDP)
• Civil Society Voices on Post 2015: Messages from the National Level (Colombia, Sweden, Beyond 2015)
• Launch of the Knowledge Getaway for Women's Economic Empowerment (UN Women)
• Health for the Post-2015 development agenda (Mission of Japan)
• A trans-formative agenda and sustainable development in Nigeria and Africa (Nigeria)
• Innovations in Labor Migration (ILO)
• China on the World Stage (UN Office for Partnerships)
• Women Leaders Forum: Connecting Women's Health and Girl's Education for Scalable and Sustainable Development (ITU and UNAIDS, Advance development for Africa Foundation)

Organizations come to tell their story, share their experiences, meet potential funders and talk, talk and talk and talk about what needs to be done.

It is safe to say that the UN folks will be preoccupied with the Syria issue; so they will definitely be doing a lot of talking. But, outside the General Assembly is where the fun begins.

Others will convene to discuss (loads of discussing) how the different 'actors' (yes, that's what they call them), come together to solve some problems which continue to persist in many of the developing countries around the world. The actors are from big corporations (think Cisco), large private foundations (Rockefeller and Gates Foundations), non-profit organizations (Save The Children) and representative government officials.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have been to many of these events; and, in fact, have organized similar ones with the UN.

The formula for a good event that will surely get lots of attention is:

1. Lots of grand announcements from attendees about what will be done, has been done or (mostly) what should be done.

2. Lots of bling, such as high-profile (and sometimes low-profile) celebrities who get on stage, tell you a story about their passion and then make a statement or grand gesture

3. Lots of photos and back slapping -- it is the ultimate 'red carpet' walk -- celebrities, good cause, good photos

Here's how these events work: during the Women of the World Summit this past March hosted by the Daily Beast, the actress Angelina Jolie made a commitment to give $200,000 to the Malala Foundation to educate 40 girls (Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating girls education).

While many see the Angelina Jolie gesture as admirable (it is) and worthy of notice, my question is: Seriously? $200k for just 40 girls? That's $5,000 per girl! It's like sending a 12-year-old to Harvard, and in Pakistan where the per capita income is $1,286.

Does Angelina Jolie's donation really bring more attention to the value of girl's education? Since 2008, Nike's 'Girl Effect' video campaign has attracted over 3 million views. The Nike Foundation and the NoVo Foundation have collaborated and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on girls' education. Since 1988, Intel Foundation has spent over $1 billion on math and science education for girls in developing countries, such as India. And, that is the key component of 'real' social impact versus 'pretend' impact. That is, that these organizations 'Just Do It.' No hoopla. No celebrity announcements. No tragedy has to happen before they dedicated funds. They have directly impacted millions of girls, many more millions of families and generations to come. But, the work of giving girls self-confidence, life and business skills capabilities continues. Malala has showed us that the mission is not over yet.

So, as we oooh and ahhh at the celebrity showcase this week in New York, pause, and ask the question: Is there a there, there? Does the announcement match the impact? And, if so, who is going to know a year from now if anything actually changed?