Corporate engagement with the social sector tends to be a one-way street. It’s always C-suite executives and professionals who have something to offer organisations — whether it is their technical expertise, management skills, or ideas about work processes or plain wisdom.
But do corporates have nothing to learn from the development sector?
NGOs and social entrepreneurs deal with some of the most pressing issues of the day. It’s true that NGOs don’t answer to shareholders or a financial bottomline. But that doesn’t mean the absence of accountability. There are a multitude of stakeholders present in the development sector (too many, it often feels like!).
Social sector organisations also work with diverse communities, and in dynamic environments. This means teams are resourceful, adaptable, strong-willed and patient.
We do serious work in the development sector. And I think we have a lot to teach professionals and organisations in the corporate world, if they choose to listen.
Diversity and inclusion:
NGOs often hire individuals from diverse backgrounds. In one sense, this is easy because all candidates share a common thread of social purpose.
Corporates can take a few notes from NGOs here. One best practice for inclusive hiring is implementing blind hiring practices, where the candidate’s background is not disclosed to the hiring manager until the final stage of the hiring process. This can help reduce bias and increase diversity in the workplace.
Social enterprises and grassroots social workers work with limited resources. They often have to come up with creative solutions to changing circumstances.
One example of adaptability is NGOs leveraging technology to overcome resource constraints. For instance, NGOs used mobile technology to deliver healthcare services to remote communities, or engage in organic social media efforts to mobilize support for their cause.
Corporates can learn from these NGOs in terms of building a culture of innovation, promoting experimentation, and encouraging employees to take calculated risks.
Development sector organisations are typically more transparent in their operations and reporting, driven by a sense of social responsibility and accountability.
One best practice that corporates can adopt is establishing transparent reporting processes that go beyond financial metrics, to cover environmental and social impact metrics.
The best social sector organisations recognize that they cannot achieve their mission alone. They understand the need to work collaboratively with others.
One key lesson for corporates: Building trust and rapport with partners. This can be achieved through regular communication, shared decision-making, and a focus on mutual benefits.
NGOs are typically driven by a clear and compelling purpose. The shared vision of purpose is a powerful motivator for teams, and can help tide over short-term hiccups or disagreements.
Articulating a purpose can be hard for corporations. Going ahead and aligning operations with these values? Even tougher. But there are instances of it being done. For instance, MNCs which advertise a zero layoff policy will definitely attract a loyal, dedicated workforce. But they will also have to be careful with the pace and quality of new hires.
In anycase, companies that articulate and adopt a clear, purpose-driven mission statement can motivate employees, attract customers who share these values, and create a sense of shared purpose across the organisation.
NGOs are often focused on achieving social and environmental impact, in addition to financial returns. They have developed best practices in impact measurement and reporting that can be useful for corporations who are serious about their triple bottom-line.
One best practice for corporates: Establishing a clear impact measurement framework that covers both financial and non-financial metrics. This can help organisations track their progress towards their social and environmental goals, and identify areas for improvement.
Social sector organisations are led by people who navigate complex, dynamic environments each day. They have decades-long experience in motivating teams, and getting people to work towards audacious goals of change.
Here are a few lessons I believe corporate leaders can learn from social entrepreneurs: Setting up a culture of adaptability and innovation in teams, inculcating an aspect of service in work, and most important: leading with authenticity.
Authentic leadership involves being transparent and vulnerable with employees and stakeholders. It takes some level of humility and trust on the leader’s part.
In conclusion, the social sector has much to offer the corporate world. And anyone serious about inclusivity and sustainable change would do well to listen!