Disruptive Development

By Sara Veltkamp, Sr Associate, Minerva Strategies —

I consider my attendance at Global Washington’s Annual Conference this year an act of self-care. 

If you’re not familiar with Global Washington’s conference, it is a gathering for organizations working in global health and international development to learn from each other and get inspired to do their work around the world.  It was listed as one of the 6 Conferences in Fall 2015 That Will Make You, Your Company, and Our World Better.

There have been too many times over the past few months when I’ve felt disheartened by the state of the world.  Not only by the terrible events in Paris, Malawi, Burundi, Beirut, and elsewhere, but the disappointing reactions of people in the US and abroad: French local elections swinging nationalist, Donald Trump’s hate-filled speeches generating positive poll results in the US, rampant Islamophobia and anti-refugee sentiment, attacks in San Bernardino and against Planned Parenthood, the list goes on.

However, listening to the impassioned speakers share their ideas on the best ways to end extreme poverty, counter bigotry, spread stories of our inspiring work, and advocate for policy reform was like a balm of hope to my soul.  

The theme this year was well-chosen: Disruptive Development.  If there is a period of time when we need to disrupt the way the world is operating, it is definitely now.

Unfortunately, my colleague Joy and I are only ever able to be in two places at once, but we’d love to highlight a few parts of the day we especially enjoyed.

Disruptive grantmaking

This panel reminded us that being a disruptive funder can take many forms. For Tableau Software, it’s about providing free access to data visualization software and general operating funds. (This got a huge round of applause from the crowd.) For The Lemelson Foundation, it’s about promoting invention to improve the world not by funding individual inventors, but the ecosystems of education, mentoring, and investment that fuel them. At the Seattle International Foundation, it’s about providing support for women’s reproductive health in countries where abortion is illegal.

The commonality on the panel was the willingness to get creative, and to evaluate success – or failure – and to make pivots accordingly. Neal Myrick, director of CSR at Tableau Software, said it best: “Failure should be happening frequently and in very small steps.”

Disruptive media

In addition to the all-star moderation (ahem), we loved the practical value of “Cut Through the Noise: How to Get the Media’s Attention.”

The panel covered the basics of a good story and what grabs the attention of people working in media, but it didn’t stop there. We discussed how the media landscape is being disrupted – more niche outlets, the dramatic influence of social media, and the inherent challenges and boons that these changes create for media outlets and news consumers.  In addition, we pitched our stories to the panelists in small groups and discussed what organizations could do to take advantage of the current disruption and get their stories heard.

Disruptive social businesses

The idea of social enterprise, or an alternative model for businesses in which the “bottom line” is social impact as well as financial gain, is on the rise in the US and worldwide. In “The Rise of Social Businesses,” the panelists worked to define what a social business is in the contexts in which they work.

Iliana Montauk of Mercy Corps’ Gaza Sky Geeks, the first technology accelerator in the Gaza Strip, claimed that tech sector businesses in Jordan and Palestine are inherently social businesses because of the culture that they create.  Employees have a say in what happens, and their bosses encourage them to break the strict social hierarchy expectations. This includes everything from wearing comfortable clothing to interjecting ideas in open forum discussions. The success enjoyed by businesses that encourage this informal work environment and sharing of ideas has opened the door to criticism of the authoritarian model used in more traditional companies, and in government models more broadly.  In effect, the tech sector is working to change societal norms for the better, toward free sharing of ideas and more civic engagement.

Let’s disrupt the future.

Now that I’ve recharged my batteries and am able to remind myself that I’m not alone in this fight, it’s time to continue.  We all have a role to play, whether it’s supporting your favorite global health or development organization, designing programs that use innovative techniques to reach people more effectively, or speaking up at the water cooler when someone complains about tax money going to help far off countries.

The Global Washington Annual Conference reminded me that Minerva Strategies is not working alone. I left the conference ready to link arms with our other disrupters, and go help improve the world.