Nathan Wyeth

After the Dust Has Settled… Enduring Hybrid Value at CGI

For the second year in a row, I’ve found myself in the frenetic crowd at the Sheraton in midtown Manhattan during the third week of September, swept up in the hype and occasional motorcade-induced street closure that is the Clinton Global Initiative.

This year I was on hand for the launch of an organization I’ve had a hand in starting to be recognized as a CGI “Commitment to Action.” After five years, is CGI living up to its story of creating action, not just conversation, and sparking new collaborations between industry and the NGO sector? At the suggestion of Julia Novy-Hildesley of the Lemelson Foundation, who led CGI’s “Strengthening Market Based Solutions track,” of sessions, I let the dust settle and then spoke with a few of this year’s attendees.

I’m among those who have wondered about how many of the “commitments to action” announced each year are truly new – or just repackaged for presentation. I’ve also wondered how valuable the collaborations sparked by CGI can be if it’s a matter of Ashton Kutcher meeting Madeleine Albright (OK, I have no idea if they met, but I saw them both in the Sheraton lobby).

Sustainable Harvest, the National Collegiate Innovators and Inventors Alliance (NCIIA), and Integrated Sustainable Development Partners, based in Western China, are three attendees from this year’s CGI. Representatives from each shared different experiences, which highlighted the value that this conference and others like it actually do facilitate cross-sectoral interaction.

Skimming through the attendee list for CGI – below the headliners – there is a wide-ranging assortment of CEOs of large and mid-size companies, small and large NGOs, a smattering of family and corporate foundations, and then the odd government official – from the White House down to members of state legislatures.

For each of the above organizations, CGI specifically provided a forum to interact with a counterpart in a different sector – specifically, the corporations and corporate foundations, and the federal government – which did not result in a new “commitment to action” this year, but created either a tangible outcome or new relationship which may become a 2011 CGI Commitment to Action, as I believe many such commitments typically happen.

In NCIIA’s case, it was a conversation with a member of the Obama administration regarding scaling up its programs for engineers in line with the White House’s focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

For Sustainable Harvest and ISDP, it was about reaching the heads of industry that, with continents separating their work, they might never otherwise come across. In one case, Sustainable Harvest encountered a corporate foundation, which can be reliable funders once an NGO secures their support, but can be very difficult to reach in the first place. For ISDP, operating in Tibet and remote Western China, an invitation to CGI became a unique chance to try to tap into expertise in global firms with experience relevant to their work. Even if it was just an individual person from a global construction firm who was referred to ISDP to provide one-time advice on their agro-industrial work in Tibet, it could end up being quite helpful.

In ISDP’s case, even proximity to Fortune 500 CEO’s was not enough, because without several weeks of advance work attempting to set up meetings (precluded by lack of Internet access in Tibet), it would be near impossible track down their intended new partners.

When ’collaboration’ happens on an ad hoc basis, once a year, aimed at public relations and through the lens of corporate social responsibility, I have to be honest, I find it pretty depressing. I just think about the remainder of any given problem that still remains unsolved minus all of the attention that a one-off cooperative project just sucked up. However, what I think this pattern of collaboration at CGI highlights is something more interesting.

Ashoka has coined a phrase – hybrid value chains – which I think has not gotten enough play given how much potential these structures have. I think they are already quite widespread, but not understood as such – and so their full potential is not being examined and realized.

Hybrid value chains are, quite simply, those that combine both for-profit and nonprofit entities. Sustainable Harvest and agricultural supply chains in general can stand out clearly in this realm wherever there is a farmer cooperative or a fair trade certified anywhere between a smallholder farmer and your local coffee shop.

Taking any of what I would consider to be the three central challenges of economic development at the base of the pyramid – infrastructure, financing, and distribution – and there are both for-profit and non-profit organizations working on the same ground if not stepping on each others toes. There is no inherent reason why for-profit and non-profit organizations cannot fully interact within the bounds of their existing missions in these respective value chains.

For-profit entities can often gain local supplier or market access through cooperation with community organizations, while non-profits can grow their important work if they can monetize their relationships in a community, in line with their mission, to deliver a product or service of a for-profit organization. So whether it is using Coke distribution channels in Africa to deliver medical supplies or a community association facilitating intelligent housing redevelopment, there are hybrid value chains to be found in any sector.

So taken this way, rather than looking at CGI as an event that’s unique because it has representatives of different sectors mingling together, one could simply look at it as an example of a nascent kind of conference – a hybrid value chain conference where industry and the NGO sector purposefully get to know each other. Certainly it helps that this is a mix of CEOs and Executive Directors who come at the invitation of a former U.S. President – but in a world where hybrid value chain opportunities were fully realized, it wouldn’t require C-level meetings to make them happen. And more importantly, it wouldn’t be a select few who get to participate.