07/31/2014 11:26 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2014

Why We've Ditched The Old Model For Doing Good

Companies know that getting the biggest bang for the buck in social impact investment requires applying smart business sense to the nonprofit realm. And they are right -- but the business model that needs to be applied is not the one you might think.

Even with a sharp eye on return on investment and eliminating waste, too many well-intentioned social aid programs fail, with the benefactors ultimately grumbling, "for all the good we did, we could've just cut a check to each of those we were trying to help."

Even with the right ingredients -- the will, the resources and the on-the-ground know-how to make a difference -- the recipe for effective aid can still flop. Where do they go wrong? I say, success is all in how you partner. And here's a hint: savvy tech companies are getting it right.

The Betas Have It

I recently came across Dana Ardi's book, The Fall of the Alphas. In it, she argues that business success in the Information Age will not come from the authoritarian, hierarchical, top-down-managing "Alpha" companies, but from the "Beta" companies where creativity is valued, inquiry is fostered, and connection and collaboration rule.

I agree, and everywhere we look, from tech giants to mid-sized businesses and startups, Alpha-style "control and command" managing is losing out to Beta-style appreciation and cooperation. And in my career in working in nonprofits around the world, I have found that these same "Beta" characteristics are what relationships between corporations and NGOs need more of in order to bring about the most effective social change. There is a July 2013 poll of 120 leading companies and NGOs that backs me up. It highlights trends toward longer-term, strategic, higher-value collaborations. So much so that 93 percent of the corporations and 79 percent of the NGOs said that partnerships have improved understanding of social good issues.

Throughout the 1990s I was based in the Balkans, working for a series of international relief organizations. I learned that their success required a special kind of partnership: a partnership that was not about dictatorial order-giving and order-taking. To find effective solutions to complicated social problems, investors and program teams from the State Department, USAID and the Gates Foundation needed to partner with local organizations with mud on their boots -- and engage by asking, listening, problem-solving, and collaborating together. They were unprecedentedly "Beta" in their approach, and looking back, that's what made them successful in making lasting change.

I joined Samasource to be even closer to what I see as a new emerging reality of corporate-NGO partnerships based on this "Beta" management model. Adri's book talks about the leadership model that is required:

[R]ather than aspire to omnipotence and acting as though they rule all they see, Beta leaders focus on ... the things they know they do exceptionally well. Instead of exploiting their peers' weakness in order to attain and hold on to power, they encourage their fellow executives to play to their own strengths so the entire team and organization can succeed.

Companies who fund social programs aim to do good. But Alpha-style funders like to dictate how things get done, and that can lead to eight mandatory workshops, for example, whether or not the first two were of any use. Or it can mean a mandate for volumes of detailed reporting without the support or technological help to do it, taking away time and resources from the work itself.

At Samasource, our founding funders are our allies, problem-solving not from above but alongside us. Only through these Beta-style relationships were we able to create our SamaHub technology, which allows us to break down large, complicated issues into small jobs that can be distributed easily, on a large scale, internationally -- giving opportunities for digital work and income to those previously without. Cisco knew the importance of getting the right talent, prototyping, testing, and then realizing the potential of such a technological undertaking -- and invested in it.

Our relationships with Cisco, Rockefeller, the MasterCard Foundation, Google and eBay and our other keystone investors are true Beta partnerships. Yes, they hold Sama's feet to the fire. They value data, want measurable results and appreciate Sama's commitment to lean startup principles. But we're on the same side. Garnering control and power, giving and receiving orders: these are not on the agenda. Our focus is on results, and to that end, our key investors are our thought partners -- working together to bridge the digital divide.

These high achieving best-in-brand organizations understand that much of what we do requires thinking differently about investment. They've shown a Beta-style respect for the knowledge and recommendations from our NGO. The result: Together we have transformed work across Africa, developed award-winning technology and launched a new industry called Impact Sourcing.

At Sama, we believe "talent is equally distributed, it's opportunity that isn't." But if the trend continues as Ardi predicts, ushering in a new "Beta" reality of shared thinking and fluid, collaborative problem-solving. Things just may change for the better. And from here I can see that we've already begun.

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Cisco product and cash grants help Samasource bring dignified, computer-based work to more than 3500 women, youth, and refugees living in poverty. For more information, please visit