Jennifer Bishop On How Corporates, NGOs & Social Enterprises Are Working Together To Create Positive Change
Jennifer Bishop is Private Sector Partnerships Manager for VSO. She engages companies around their corporate responsibility and sustainability agenda, and their HR and employee engagement agenda, to create high impact corporate volunteering and pro bono programmes.
VSO is the world’s leading NGO which delivers international development programmes globally through volunteers. Business volunteers play a significant role in VSO programmes, developing the capabilities of entrepreneurs, job seekers and not-for-profit partners in these global programmes while in turn, developing the volunteers into corporate leaders who have global perspectives and skills.
Jennifer is passionate about sustainable business, social enterprise and the cross over between business and community programmes. She has a BA in English Literature and a Master of Education and Master of Divinity. Her background is in migrant and refugee literacy and NGO management. In 2014 she founded Resonate Consulting, a small firm to connect corporates to community pro bono projects and in 2017 founded the Australian Pro Bono Network, a collection of companies working together to develop impactful pro bono and skilled volunteering programme. She has lived in London since February 2018 and is enjoying the food and the buzz of living in a global hub city.
Jennifer shares her experience in creating positive partnerships between different sectors and discusses typical challenges for social entrepreneurs and those working in the international development space.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led to working between the not-for-profit, corporate and social enterprise sectors?
[Jennifer Bishop] - I worked in the non-profit sector for quite a long time and increasingly saw just need for non-profits constantly trying to reach out to funders, to corporates, just for an awareness. Then, a friend of mine was working in the corporate sector in finance, she complained to me and said they had a pot of money that they were trying to give away and actually found it really hard to find an NGO to give the money to.
I actually heard that a few times from different corporates, where they had resources, they had pro bono, but they found it really hard to find NGOs to give away to. I thought this tension was just a total contradiction? Both sectors needing something or wanting to connect and then not being able to reach out to each other. That was really the genesis of the Resonate consulting model back in 2014.
Obviously it's iterated quite a lot over the last four years or so, and really landed down as a consulting model where we reach out to corporates and NGOs and see how we can match them together. But that's been quite a journey, because I went through a social enterprise incubator program in Brisbane, back in 2014, to test this model. It really played with different service models to make that work, to figure out where the value's landing for both the NGO and for the corporate, to make that an affordable service.
Have you got any key projects that you want to share, that you've run through Resonate?
Yeah. We have a couple of products. One is a workshop or we call them a ‘hackathon’, or ‘marathon’ is another word that some people might use. That's a ‘done in a day’ model which really suits corporates that are time poor but might have a day that they'd like to give to the community. That's a lab model where we bring a problem from an NGO into a boardroom or into a workshop with a corporate, use a corporate frame to solve a problem, create a bit of a roadmap or blueprint of the solution and then send the non-profit back with that resource to implement that.
That has great effect, but as you can imagine, it's limited in its impact, and often the NGO is left with a lot of work to do after the workshop. Another thing we work on is a more long term mentoring model where we'll do a similar kind of scoping project that might last a day, but then match a corporate mentor or professional with that NGO, to check in and follow milestones through over three business months. It allows a bit of a follow-up for the NGO, a continued relationship with the corporate. We also do mentoring, social entrepreneur mentoring, so matching a miscellaneous business mentor with a social entrepreneur to help them brainstorm, think about their business model, and help them to consider new networks and resources. There's quite a few ways actually, that we've found have worked, but those are three.
In working in the corporate sector, have you noticed any trends within that corporate sector when it comes to running ethically, and committing to tackling social and environmental issues?
Yeah, it's been a really interesting journey, learning about corporates, because I don't come from a corporate background. Things I've been observing is a real adoption of the SDGs as a framework of thinking about impact, of design of things like Corporate Sustainability Programs, Corporate Social Responsibility Programs, ways of thinking of the corporate foundation and how that might work.
That, [SDGs], becomes a real shared language between the corporates and non-profits. It's something that really both sectors can grasp and talk to each other about, and that becomes a good criteria of matching, because with shared goals, obviously there's shared vision, shared understanding. But I have been finding companies reaching out more to find out particularly about pro bono and corporate volunteering and how to embed that into their sustainability programs, and that's a real positive for Resonate, for where we've positioned ourselves. It’s a bit of a global trend, really. I think back, 10 years ago, really it was legal pro bono that was very well known, and an industry that was developed, and increasingly seeing events and articles and conversation topics from professional services in other sectors really inquiring how they can do more than that corporate volunteering.
I think sustainable business, since the GFC, so for the last 10 years, it's very much the top of company's minds, whether they like it or not. Really to think, ‘how are we behaving sustainably in a way that perhaps we're not going to face another GFC?’ And also, ‘how are we attracting and retaining staff? How are we appealing to our employees? Particularly millennials coming in with a new wave in the workforce. How are we perceived to be purpose driven, or mission driven, and therefore an attractive option to our employees in a competitive marketplace?’
So therefore, ‘how are we embedding our mission into who we are, how we offer in these extra things such as secondments or community placements? Are we seen as a fair workplace?’ Again, that comes back to embedding the SDGs into a lot of the language around the company.
Absolutely. You've got a lot of experience in developing and creating partnerships. How do you go about approaching new partnerships and what do you think are the keys to successful collaborations?
It's a really good question. It can be really, really hard, because as you can imagine, the culture of the corporate sector and the non-profit sector can be so divergent in many ways.
Real partnerships are something that takes a lot of hard work. I've seen it work in a few really good situations. I think the first key is to have real champions and drivers that really own the partnership, and that really has to come from the top down.
When a CEO really grabs it, or when a senior partner in a firm really owns it, then that makes it achievable for a lot of people beneath them. I say that because often when a corporate sustainability, corporate social responsibility, staff member or employee engagement staff member would like to engage with this, one of their challenges is internal blockers within their company.
They might have challenges getting people, their seniors to sign off on this.
Getting senior leadership buy-in, really early, is really, really key to a partnership.
As I mentioned earlier, things like shared vision and mission is really important, so understanding that both interested in SDG 5, for example, which is gender, or SDG 8, which is about resilient livelihoods, so therefore going, "Okay, we're both on this same mission. Let's co-create something."
I'm seeing it more, and I'm more and more impressed, but a real humbleness, I think on both sides, to really learn from each other.
I think partnerships can be really hard when either side has a, "I know how this should be done" approach, and might think typically the corporate is the one that says, "Okay, well we've got the money, we've got the leverage. Do what we want." But sometimes actually, and often the case, the corporate is quite humble, and would like to just help, and would like to be guided in how to help, and it's the NGO that might not be that flexible or understanding.
I think it does need to come from both sides saying, "Okay, in our respective fields, you're the expert. I'm going to listen to you. I want to learn from you and let’s talk about how best to create an impact in this space. I can take back a lot of knowledge from this partnership." I think they're high level things. There's a lot more in the nuts and bolts on how partnerships work.
There are some great reflections there Jennifer. What do you see as some of the most important traits then of social entrepreneurs? You've worked with many, and matched many up. Why do you believe that some social entrepreneurs fail?
Again, a really good question. I think I can only speak from my experience as someone who came into social entrepreneurship with no background in business. I think one of my biggest challenges, and I wouldn't say failure, but huge hurdle, is that I'd come with good intention and not a lot of practical experience. I think there's a lot of nuts and bolts and thinking and planning that comes with business.
It's like a roadmap, a framework in your mind.
I think that if you come with business experience and learn the social impact side, I think you're set up a lot more for success and social entrepreneurship, rather than coming with a social impact background and trying to learn the business skills.
But it's not impossible, and I think there's lots of people learning as they go, including myself.
I'd say the most important traits would be a drive to learn, a curiosity, a passion for what you want to achieve, and a ‘never give up’ kind of attitude.
Because it can be so disheartening when you might feel that, ‘I should be successful by now’, or ‘I should have achieved certain things by now.’ It feels like other people are streaking ahead and I'm not. Everyone has a different ground zero from where they're coming from. Some people can hit the road running and really create a business within six months. It's soaring. Other people might take years to get it going.
I don't know if there’s a high rate of failure amongst social entrepreneurs. I'm not sure.
There are some great reflections there Jennifer. What do you see as some of the most important traits then of social entrepreneurs? You've worked with many, and matched many up. Why do you believe that some social entrepreneurs fail? [Continued].
I think people are really biting off a big job when they start a social enterprise, because it's not just a business that's just got to make money. It's a business that has to make money, but also has to create social impact, so it's immediately trying to juggle different and hopefully complementary priorities. But doing both is not easy.
And then achieving any kind of scale with that is really, really hard. I think again, it comes back to passion, drive, curiosity to learn, open-mindedness.
All great traits which have been mentioned in many cases before as well, so it's great to hear them coming from you as well. Jennifer, you have some great experience working in both the Australian and UK sectors. What would you say are the key differences then between the two countries when it comes to the work that you do?
It's really interesting. I've been in the UK now nearly a year and I've been working for about 10 months. I must say I'm still learning the UK sector, just really mapping it and understanding how companies work here. One tangible difference, is the UK feels a lot more connected to the world, as in, the UK is right in the heart of Europe, so there's a much more sense of business done across borders. There's a sense of being much closer to the US, so therefore people just come from meetings from New York, that kind of thing.
Whereas, in Australia, it felt really much more like we were a domestic market that was doing things, and then there's the rest of the world out there. Australia is a very international country, with trading with Asia, and involved globally, but I definitely had a sense of just being further away from everything in Australia. That's one key difference. I'd say in the pro bono space, having worked now with the Australian Pro Bono Network, and being a part of the Global Pro Bono Network, and pro bono networks in the UK and North America, what's really exciting about Australia is it's being led by companies.
The corporates are really owning it and driving the pro bono agenda. For example, just last week I was on a call with 17 people from different companies leading the working group to drive 2019, how we want to grow a network of pro bono professionals in Australia. That's really exciting. What I observe in the UK, and globally, is that network is being driven by intermediaries like Resonate.
It's people who sit between the corporate and the NGO, who gather at conferences and talk about how to do pro bono, and a big point of their conversation is how do we get more companies to do this? How do we persuade companies that this is good? How do we get them to see the business benefit or to think about employee engagement, or think about the SDGs?
It's almost like it's our role to persuade companies to do this, whereas in Australia, it's the companies leading it, and they're saying, "How do we encourage more companies to do this?"
That's a real pat on the back to Australia, because it's a different culture there, and I think that's a really exciting thing.
Some great perspective there, Jennifer.
In working with a range of different projects then, would you like to share with our listeners a few inspiring projects or initiatives that you've come across recently that you believe are creating some great, positive social change?
Now I've been working with VSO, I've seen some amazing projects done through pro bono and skilled volunteering, just on a scale that I have never seen before. It's really blown my mind. Like the intro said, VSO is a leading global NGO that works entirely through volunteers. It does international development entirely through volunteering.
The business volunteering component is only a part of that, but when business volunteers do engage, they're creating really interesting projects. I think a case study to share would be there's a global HR firm, Randstad. I believe they're actually now the leading global HR firm in the world, and they send every year, probably 50 volunteers globally to VSO programs, particularly India and East Africa.
Randstad is a HR company who've identified that employment, particularly youth employment and employability, is something that they've selected as their SDG, as their goal, as their mission. Because all of their staff in their day job are thinking about HR sourcing and employment, and getting people into jobs, part of their missional impact of that is sending people on secondments into some of our vocational training programs in East Africa and in India, to do HR and employment training initiatives, both with young people, so directly with beneficiaries, social entrepreneurs, and micro entrepreneurs in East Africa.
But also then with the vocational training institute staff, so it's capacity building, like train the trainer, basically. That's a really impactful program, where the company's using their unique business proposition and their staff to create change directly in the community, and that's a longstanding (about 15 years) partnership between VSO and Randstad.
There's multiple other projects I could list. An agri-based firm working with farmers in Bangladesh to create sustainable farming practises, or London bankers going and working with social entrepreneurs in Kenya. Consulting firms going and doing amazing consulting projects in India and Southeast Asia. What I'm seeing now is not just pro bono and corporates connecting with the community, but corporates creating development impact in the community. That's what's really exciting, the next level of learning for me.
They sound like some excellent initiatives, and it's great to hear these large companies are sending some resources over there and doing their bit to help out with a few projects. Jennifer, do you have any events coming up that our audiences might be able to attend?
The Australian Pro Bono Network is gearing up to host another event this year, probably in September. I might share that with you a little bit down the track, when we've got a date, so Australian corporates who are listening might be interested could definitely attend. That'll be in Sydney.
In London, VSO has partnered with a group called IAVE, the International Association Volunteering Effort, who are global volunteer peak body. We're co-hosting a corporate volunteering forum in London in April, on April the 10th and the 11th, at Canary Wharf, so right in the corporate heartland of London, and Credit Suisse.
It's a two day forum, gathering of corporates. It's by corporates, for corporates, to talk about case studies and best practise and all the tricky things like impact measurement and gauging HR and using the SDGs and how to overcome challenges and failures.
If anybody's listening from the UK and would like to attend a corporate forum in London, that would be a really excellent opportunity to connect. I think we'll share a link or something to that if people want to know more about that.
To finish off then, Jennifer, what books would you recommend to our listeners?
Oh, there's so many books I could recommend. One I'm reading right now which is at the top of my mind, is a book called Why Nations Fail. The author is a guy called James Robinson, and a gentleman, Daron Acemoglu. It's a really amazing, quite in depth book around systems change and poverty in nations.
I think working in international development, you can just see so much goodwill and money and investment going into projects and countries and feel a sense of frustration of why things don't change. This book is really helping me understand how political structures, social structures, all contribute to the freedom or the oppression of people. It really just comes down to leadership within nations, systems.
I think what's really helping me is thinking around, "Okay, it's not just top-down", so it's not just government having good policies that look after the people, but often political change comes through the power of people, almost like social engagement from the grassroots as well, of people being able to ask for that change, and being empowered to have a voice and create change within their country.
I think when you're really working in community, helping people be empowered to find their voice as well, is so critical.
I'd recommend that book to everyone, it's really amazing.
Why Nations Fail by James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu.