ALTRUISM AND INNOVATION: A FINE BALANCE
My career thus far has always been in pursuit of mission-driven work in an innovative, effective environment. As a senior research analyst on the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World’s Agriculture and Livelihoods team, I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for.
I began my career in the private sector as a financial analyst for a major bank. We embraced technology as the future of banking, and resources were poured into innovation and design teams to create revolutionary products and features. We thought of ourselves as a “well-funded start-up” – we had the financial freedom to innovate, experiment, and even fail occasionally. It allowed us to quickly respond to competitors’ moves, and pursue opportunities as needed to compete and thrive in a saturated market.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel my work was having the impact I craved. I was on the right path – access to financial services remains a major barrier for the world’s poor to escape poverty – but as a private sector company, the organization was fundamentally limited by its own bottom line. At the end of the day, and even for companies with strong social missions or corporate social responsibility arms, profit remains king. And that means that, ultimately, products and services may never reach the poorest, the ones who could benefit most.
(It should be noted that, of course, this is a simplification. In recent years, many companies have signed onto the Shared Value concept, in which business practices are more closely linked with CSR. This work is commendable and should be encouraged. In general, however, my point stands.)
I wanted something more. I wanted my work to help those who needed it most, wherever they may be, so I transitioned away from the private sector and into international development. I was immediately struck by the passion of people working in development, of their inspiring sense of altruism and mission, and to some degree self-sacrifice. I was exposed to people and organizations completely focused on addressing the needs of all types of disadvantaged groups.
But the public sector often isn’t nimble. Since most public organizations are beholden to their financers (be it donors or taxpayers), they simply can’t afford the risk of trying something new. Thus, organizations tend to become set in their methods, programs, and bureaucracies. To make matters worse, we live in an age of increasing volatility as it pertains to funding for international development work, and organizations are finding it more difficult to rely on donations alone to effect change.
I came to work for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World because I saw in it an organization with both the absolute mission focus of the public sector and the dynamism of the private sector. The recent launch of the Agricultural Transformation Initiative (ATI) makes this clear. The mission: to support efforts to diversify tobacco economies and lessen the reliance of smallholder farmers on the tobacco sector. In our first phase of work in Malawi, we’re combining aspects of science, technology, innovation, and commercialization to help solve what would otherwise become an existential problem for the small, agrarian country.
What makes us dynamic? What sets the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World apart from other actors in the agricultural development space?
We’re driven by mission, not agenda. Our goal is to transform economies, regardless of what it takes to get there. We’re not tied to a specific set of interventions; we’re flexible in our approach to assess each opportunity as it comes and integrate them into a systems approach to agricultural transformation.
We emphasize investment-led strategies. We understand that our funds alone are just a drop in the bucket of what is needed to help transform an economy in any country. We leverage our funds by focusing on public private partnerships and private sector solutions by answering a fundamental question – why aren’t businesses investing? By addressing these gaps, we catalyze investment and change.
We have great people who understand all sides of the paradigm. We come from academia, development, government, the private sector, and have focused on these problems from many different perspectives. We understand what’s missing in the status quo and we’re not afraid to think outside of the box to effect real change.
The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World’s Agriculture and Livelihoods work embodies the best of both worlds: the innovation, dynamism, and opportunistic drive often found in the private sector, and a singular mission-driven focus as found in the public sector. The issues facing farmers are incredibly complex, and require this sort of thinking to solve age-old problems. We’re only in the first year of our work, but it’s shaping up to be something big – stay tuned.