An Interview with Bancroft Global Development’s Strategic Advisor for Education and Civil Society
Bancroft consists of Bancroft Global Development, a nonprofit mentoring organization, and Bancroft Global Investments, a venture capital partnership. The two work together to foster stability in conflict zones though a combination of capacity building and economic development. Their unique approach, formally linking the for-profit and nonprofit organizations, has proven to be an effective model to create stability and durable peace.
Whitney Shinkle, who has worked with Bancroft since 2011, shared her views on the company’s approach and impact with our editor, Alicia Bonner Ness.
Alicia Bonner Ness (ABN): What inspired the two-organization model?
Whitney Shinkle (WS): The new approach was driven by both need and benefit. Our team agreed that established approaches to humanitarian and development work needed to change and that the private sector engagement needed to be more authentic. Bancroft’s task is to make that vision a reality. By conjoining the two organizations, Bancroft is trying to model an approach that both leverages and improves non-profit and for-profit approaches. It is conceptually based on pre-WWII models familiar to our founder, in which private investment banks were productively involved in lending to and advising developing countries of the day and humanitarian initiatives like the Commission for Relief in Belgium incorporated public and private resources and methods.
ABN: What are some of the challenges you’re trying to address with this new approach?
WS: One of the major problems for conventional development and humanitarian efforts today is the perverse incentive structure. Most NGOs receive continued funding because of the continuance of conflict and human misery rather than because they improve the human condition. Empirically, the past 60 years demonstrate this funding model does not encourage NGOs to pursue transformational change. Businesses acting solely for profit raise their own issues, wholly aside from the fact that few are prepared to operate in risky conflict environments. Bancroft’s structure was designed explicitly to divorce development and conflict interventions from that perverse funding model and to incorporate business in a productive way.
By starting up local businesses in these conflict zones, Bancroft Investments takes on substantial risk, effectively gambling that Bancroft Development can help local leaders bring about the necessary stability and rule of law to enable the investment to thrive. Since some of Bancroft Development’s money is used in the initial investments, both sides of the organization become “vested” in achieving such a positive outcome. In that sense, each side of Bancroft needs the other to succeed in order to succeed itself. But another reason it works is that the two sides actually benefit each other. Bancroft Investments is often the sole funder of new or growing Bancroft Development programs at first, allowing us to work in places too risky or not a priority for typical donors. In return, Bancroft Development staff, being embedded in the local community, get a strong sense of gaps in the local markets and can advise Bancroft Investments on what types of businesses are needed, wanted, impactful, and culturally appropriate. It creates a virtuous cycle.
ABN: How do you decide where to intervene?
WS: Bancroft looks at a number of different factors but the key drivers are that both sides of the organization have to go, and Bancroft Development has to be invited by a local host organization. Mentoring is capacity development that is inherently consumer driven at a local level, so you have to start with a local organization or individual decision-maker that wants to participate in the process, and that partner has to have legitimacy within the domestic and international communities. It’s essential to have opportunities for both the nonprofit and commercial sides of the organization because their interaction is what creates the positive incentive structure that makes Bancroft’s model work.
We also look at aspects of the operating environment. For example, if a crisis is really crowded—with a lot of agencies and organizations already working there—our additional added value may be very marginal. We tend to work in overlooked, orphaned, or intractable conflicts where we can have an outsized impact because of our ability to go places other organizations can’t. We can work quietly with local leadership, and at times act as a liaison to the international community to engage critical, targeted funding or resources in a way that avoids the agenda-warping and market distortions that occur when that support comes as part of a huge international entourage.
ABN: Why is Bancroft’s approach significant in today’s environment?
WS: There are a lot of competing objectives and tensions in conflict management, peacekeeping, and humanitarian work right now that are often difficult to reconcile. Globally, there seems to be a growing popular sentiment for intervening in conflicts on behalf of vulnerable populations, but less willingness to risk the actual resources—human and material—needed to do so.
In principle, everyone agrees that conflict interventions need to be more locally led, and everyone wants programs to run at maximum efficiency, but donors still want to enforce their own priorities. There are ongoing debates about who gets to define efficiency and how we collectively strike a balance between (whose) dollars, (whose) lives, and (whose) other priorities.
We consider mentoring to be one of the most effective ways to address and align these competing desires. It is generally orders of magnitude less expensive to mentor local organizations than to fund outside organizations to set up direct service programs, many of which end up duplicating or even supplanting local activities. It also ensures that the home-grown organizations responsible for providing services in the long run are actively improving their capabilities. Critically, it also helps ensure that there is a plurality of credible local voices participating in the conversations about their own future.
On an industry level, Bancroft is an important demonstration that the traditional NGO model is not the only viable model. Hybrid approaches can work and need to be explored more as a way of bringing additional capital, new ideas, and new players into humanitarian, development, and peace-building work.
ABN: How do you manage accountability and risk?
WS: Aside from typical measures, what may distinguish Bancroft from others is that we engage in calculated risk taking based on intense coordination with our team and partners. Conflict environments are never going to be risk-free. The rise of the zero-risk-tolerance attitude has done some damage to both the diplomatic and humanitarian fields. We never advocate taking unnecessary risk, but a program dominated by ‘eliminating risk to undertake X’ will never fully account for local risk, will be impossible for local parties to undertake independently, and will not build much trust with local counterparts. Instead, we advocate ‘undertaking Y in a way that is safe.’ So instead of trying to change negative conditions in order to undertake a preset program, we assess and utilize available assets, tactics, and capabilities in order to design programs that can function under the existing conditions and, importantly, change the negative aspects of those conditions. This entails significant benefits such as keeping programs in check with local
resource and budget limitations. It also imposes an adaptive approach from the outset, building in an essential flexibility that allows programs to iterate and mature in line with evolving conditions so they are continually fit-for-purpose. That kind of holistic risk management is important whether you work on humanitarian programs or commercial products.
The mentoring approach lessens risk somewhat by virtue of scale and shared risk. A team of mentors is much smaller than a team of operators. In tandem, by virtue of working side by side, our mentors may be exposed to many of the same risks as their protégés—physical, political, or otherwise—but the protégés are likewise taking the same risk as their mentor. In such a symbiotic relationship, all parties consider risk jointly as they would unto themselves which makes for a much more realistic and nuanced risk calculation.
In terms of accountability, I would point, again, to Bancroft’s mentoring structure. In a typical, direct-service development program, accountability goes one way: from implementing partner to donor. In a mentoring program, the protégé initiates and approves the programming. The protégé is, in intent and fact, the customer. When there is a third party donor, they are generally participating in a cooperative agreement wherein the parties are openly accountable to each other, rather than a conventional one-way responsibility. This is a much more balanced mechanism for establishing accountability.
ABN: How does the political climate affect your work?
WS: Like all humanitarian and development actors, we are affected by a diversity of political climates–climates in the specific locations where we work, and in the U.S., where we are headquartered, as well as more broadly internationally. At the macro level, the debate between interventionism and isolationism influences us, and NGOs in general, in terms of how many foreign commitments government partners will make, how big or small they want their own footprint to be, and what kind of role they want to play. At a micro level, the political climate in the host country affects our operations on a daily basis. In some cases, because our programs are so locally-driven, they are more affected by host-country politics than wholly international programs, but by the same token, that local ownership entails local investment– intellectual, financial, or in-kind– so there is a lot more local accountability to see that the programs deliver.
At the industry level, one of the more interesting current political influences is the focus on technology and efficiency. Both are a good thing and have a lot to contribute to aid and development, though I fear the obsession with finding a technological solution to what is at root political problems has pushed the pendulum a bit too far on the tech side. However, the cross-fertilization of ideas across sectors is really important. It would be useful for some of the tech industry processes to become more mainstream in development work. A good example is iterative design, where you test a basic product, service, or principle and keep it, modify it, or drop it quickly, based on user feedback. That kind of approach is very common in tech entrepreneurs and is much better suited to conflict work than the sort of conventional grand plans that are conceived in Washington, DC or London and then plunked down wholesale in Mogadishu or Kabul. Still, conflicts are about people and power so even achieving the most efficient development programs is not necessarily going to end conflicts. Bancroft’s work is about using public, private, and civil society levers to nudge the political climate in a direction that promotes fundamental stability and economic opportunity.
ABN: Bancroft’s work in conflict zones is somewhat unique, but what lessons does the collaborative approach offer other companies looking to have an impact on the development landscape?
WS: For starters, Bancroft’s experience reinforces the fallacy of the idea that any one sector can solve development challenges alone. More specifically it shows how essential it is for an organization to critically analyze its strengths, weaknesses, and comparable capabilities as a specific entity. Partnerships will be an important way forward, but stereotypical characteristics and expectations of “nonprofits” and “for-profits” no longer apply consistently–if they ever did–and certainly not to some of today’s hybrid organizations. Generic thinking is not helpful for designing partnerships. While understanding how regulatory requirements affect different types of organizations, we try to avoid broad assumptions about who does what. In addition, while respecting good principles of practice and past lessons learned, we also don’t try to replicate, or even modify, imported programs for development challenges. This puts the cart before the horse by starting with the solution rather than analysis of the situation.
In our experience, effective and efficient programs look for ways to address a gap by leveraging existing local resources, supplemented or enhanced by targeted external support. In many cases, this means organizations used to executing work redirect their focus to a support role, or organizations used to going it alone will need to learn to work collaboratively. This is more complicated than most current efforts, where individual programs and vertical authority allow for easy control, but often lessen overall benefit. Furthermore, meaningful partnerships combine specific skills, attributes, and capabilities in a way that maximizes the impact of local assets, regardless of whether they come from a public, private, or nonprofit source. Critically, in the most effective partnerships, each partner’s contribution emerges from its core operations, which means each organization is working in line with its key objectives and incentives. This type of alliance has the potential to affect how NGOs and companies fundamentally approach their core operations because the collective approach forces them to recognize how they impact one another and consider the overall impacts of their work more carefully. That shift in mindset is probably the most critical change to more effective development work.
All images are supplied from Bancroft.