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Meighan Stone

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Collaboration Is the New Competition

Posted: 03/16/2012 4:11 pm

Thirty-something MIT Media Lab Fellow and 7Robot CEO Sarah Szalavitz said it best this week. From the Austin epicenter of South by Southwest Interactive, she pronounced: "Collaboration is the new competition."

From Invisible Children to charity: water to Pencils of Promise to Warby Parker to the Girl Effect, the "New Guard" in international development was out in full force at SXSW this year. And this New Guard has an approach that's definitively open source.

They're an upstart generation changing the way we connect, do business and help empower others. Long-standing international development organizations would do well to borrow a page out of their evolving playbook. Charities and NGOs have long seemed to look at potential funding and supporters as just one small pie, ready to politely elbow each other for a piece. They are pushing, they believe, for the same donors, the same supporters, the same dollars.

The New Guard doesn't see other groups as competitors. They see them as collaborators in delivering a stronger product, to a much larger potential audience. Nor do they consider any issue or supporter too unlikely to engage, bravely marching into the alleged void that is the "Millennials."

Roaring into the heart of this New Guard vs. Old Guard debate at SXSW, as if cued from stage left, was Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video.

Everywhere at SXSW, Kony 2012 dominated -- from Steve Case calling on the audience at the excellent Startup America events for a similar push on the JOBS Act, to frankly any conversation or panel participated in for more than three minutes. It impressed the technorati, baffled long-time advocates in its viral reach and left everyone checking their phone or iPad for the accolades and criticism piling up by the tweet.

Much has already been said about Kony 2012. But make no mistake about a larger movement at work. Invisible Children are not the only ones who approach international development and advocacy in this new way; they were simply the first to so completely and explosively break through. And in doing so, they somehow found an extra 70 million people who cared.

30-minute-long-video cared, shattering the golden two-minute rule of online video content.

Whether the branding of charity:water and Pencils of Promise driving their explosive growth and programs on the ground; the stylish and altruistic products of Warby Parker, TOMS, Kammok or Hello Somebody; the fearlessness of To Write Love on Her Arms in facing depression and addiction/recovery in a real, honest way -- they're ready to do things differently.

Invisible Children spoke at SXSW, most notably at a panel somehow over a mile away from the main conference and posted without their organization or Kony in the title. Those of us who came out to listen to Invisible Children COO Chris Carver inexplicably walked into a rarity at the packed SXSW panels -- a room with only 20 people. To discuss a video that had become the most viral online ever.

Many from this New Guard were in attendance -- Jaimie Popp from the Nike Foundation's groundbreaking @girleffect campaign and Paull Young from charity: water. Carver took question after question, sharing their mission, genuine desire for collaboration and astonishingly open plans to release all of their metrics. They gathered in the hall afterwards, connecting and humbly admitting where each other's organization seemed to do the better job.

The crowd was out in full force afterwards at the French Legation Museum, where Warby Parker's Lane Wood created a salon in the midst of an outdoor carnival. Backed by The Citizens Band, the New Guard traded tips and typed notes for follow up into their iPhones. You could purchase Warby Parker's sharp, beautiful eyeglasses for a jaw-dropping $95 a pair. For every pair purchased, a pair is donated and distributed in a developing country through NGO partners. Don't think that's a big deal? Try going to school, working or driving without your glasses.

You could find the New Guard earlier in the week at CTC International's headquarters, far from the conference fray. At an event for Malaria No More, CTC Founder Zane Wilemon hosted social entrepreneurs Hello Somebody, selling watches to support their "Hello Freedom" anti-sex trafficking campaign and KAMMOK, who produce technically innovative outdoor products. For every KAMMOK, an anti-malarial bednet is donated through Malaria No More. And then they donate 1 percent of sales on top of that.

Wilemon has over 70 employees, 65 of who are Kenyans. They've sold over 125,000 L.I.F.E. Jacket coffee sleeves in the past 5 months through Whole Foods, which has allowed them to triple their work force in Kenya. Not bad for an upstart from Austin.

I believe two things are central to these groups' success: an endemic commitment to collaboration and a refusal to accept the small audience theory.

The New Guard shares without hesitating how they overcame a particularly ugly challenge. They will happily tell another group about their best tools. They are the first to openly brainstorm an idea, the kind that would normally be reserved for a closed-door Board meeting. They truly believe a rising tide lifts all ships.

Sure, it's understandable to think we have such a limited audience to engage on international development, especially with donor funding contracting (see the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria's alarming news on funding suspension in November). Economic downtown has pushed everyday Americans to approach donations with a sterner skepticism.

For long-established organizations, it's often hard to right the ship from the same old messages and tactics to find these new audiences, even as the work on the ground is worthy and proven. The Policy Department killed my tweet, I need to add 17 acronyms. That group in our coalition won't support our press release if we don't name-check their constituency. Why won't they approve my budget to go film compelling and desperately needed in-country content?

The New Guard creates strong content to push their message, sells novel products to drive programs or simply adopts digital approaches to pressing problems other groups might hesitate to explore -- or simply not fully understand how to employ yet.

The New Guard relentlessly focuses on quality of content, branding and communications. Vik Harrison from charity: water brought her design experience for global brands to bear at the startup. You'll find "bold defender of the brand" in her email signature, and that commitment to the organization's vision and authenticity has carried them well.

"Humanitarian photographer" Esther Havens was at SXSW, creative support for so many campaigns. She's shot for TOMS, charity: water, Invisible Children, The Adventure Project, END7 and many others that have captured the powerful, real stories of those people featured to drive successful campaigns. Another Millennial.

Let's be clear -- this is not a breathless endorsement driven by likes and tweets or some pretty pictures or footage, or in any way criticism of all the incredible and well-established groups doing life-saving and life-changing work every day, around the world.

Nor is this a celebration of "content" over real impact. All of these groups should have strict monitoring and evaluation, sound financials. No amount of sharp videos can overcome poor performance on the ground. It would be the height of the Global North's self-indulgence to think that if we all just watched a video, our "awareness" was an end unto itself. It is not.

A Facebook "like" has rarely saved a life, nor has a YouTube view -- but the onus is on the larger international development community to use the New Guard's unique ability to break through and help them translate it into hard action. All of these New Guard groups I've spoken with actually celebrate that debate, they want the feedback -- they want you, as experts, to help make them better. They want to collaborate.

It's remarkable how many of the founders of these groups started their own organizations because they were turned away by more established NGOs and nonprofits, deemed as having no experience or nothing to offer. Perhaps the NGO community would be well served by looking to how tech and digital sectors have been revolutionized by working well with upstarts.

The good news is they're probably already there, in your organizations -- your 20 and 30 something staffers. They look to the New Guard and long to use some of the same creativity and tactics at your nonprofit. My hope is those in charge will look out across a sea of workstations and see their young staff in a new way.

The UN Foundation has done a strong job of engaging up and comers, with an advisory panel of entrepreneurs and openly engaging the New Guard, such as partnering with the emerging Global Poverty Project. UNF had a strong presence at SXSW, with Diana Walker and her colleagues offering lessons on celebrity engagement and winning campaigns.

Where could we benefit by seeing even more of these upstart groups? TED, the World Economic Forum, CGI, traditional NGO fora. They're often found on the Summit Series, my hope is they find more partners in places of record for high-level influence.

Who was missing from SXSW and is a critical and expanding part of this New Guard? African and developing region social entrepreneurs, startups and upstarts. Panels, parties and hallways were overwhelming male, white and Global North. Many of those in the New Guard long for justice and a level playing field, more than charity -- and in a Millennial sense at its heart, where it's less "us helping them" and just us.

More established organizations, after giving smart, constructive criticism, would be served well to come alongside and partner. They can and should marry their on-the-ground experience and hard political lobbying expertise with the New Guard's astonishing ability to find new friends and advocates.

It is their comparative advantage and we should take them up on it.