Drew Yukelson, Guest Contributor
My decision to leave the private sector was deliberate and intentional. The disillusionment I felt was grounded in the profit driven motives that guided decision-making, often times not in the direction of Moral North, and the false promises and narratives perpetuated through brand marketing. However, as an emerging development practitioner, I now see the true value of public-private partnerships (PPP). The development sector needs to become more open to working along side the private sector because PPPs can replace the need for individual donor pools that often restrict how funds can be used.
Nowhere else is importance of PPPs more evident than in humanitarian relief and efforts. According to a July 2014 UKAid report, “Many future crises will require responses that go beyond conventional aid agency approaches, and will require growing levels of technical expertise. The private sector is seen as the best possible solution […] to adapt to new types of crises.” If PPPs are emerging as vital to humanitarian work, why is the same not true for development work as well?
Social media offers a voice to anyone with an Internet connection today, thus creating a platform for ‘slacktavism’, in which people claim to take a stand on social issues online without ever having to follow through with a commitment or tangible action. Once in a while, these movements can make a meaningful impact, such as the ALS bucket challenge, yet more often it amounts to little more than lip service for a vast majority of people (police brutality). The combination of brand marketing and the ‘slacktavism’ movement is manifesting itself in new business models, such as those that feature a one-for-one giving system.
TOMS is the pioneer for this model, promising to provide one pair of shoes for a person in need for every pair bought. These shoes are more than just a fashion statement in America; conveying the notion that their wearer cares about making the world a better place- an easy sell for any marketer. TOMS first appeared on the scene as I was transitioning from the private to public sector. Their brand promoted empathy and the promise of helping others, and I bought into the idea that this would an ideal organization for me to transition to.
However, not until I got to graduate school did I become educated on how the one-for-one models typically provide unneeded services and does more to undermine local economies than actual good for intended beneficiaries. Once again the private sector had let me down; and worst of all, I could not bring myself to relay this to my family who had each gotten a pair of TOMS as show of solidarity with my career change to public service.
Nevertheless, the proof that everyday people want to have a meaningful impact on the world is evident by the success of these companies. So why is the development sector reluctant to engage in PPPs and improve upon the one-for-one model to the point where companies can sell a product in which the public sector can advance for real good? PPPs solve many financial barriers public organizations face when dealing with the standard donation model. Challenging ourselves to expand our array of donors can help to increase budgets and decrease the amount of time spent pleasing individual funders, which can ultimately sacrifice the needs of those on the ground.
Detractors from PPPs claim that the private sector places lofty expectations for returns on investments and do not fully understand social and political constraints or implications of projects. However, the latter risks are inherently mitigated through the partnership and a negative return on investment is unlikely based on past successes of products tied to social causes such as, the RED Campaign, Warby Parker, and TOMS. As a former member of marketing teams for ESPN and Nike, two of the largest brands in the world, I know first-hand how far companies will go to position themselves favorably with the public.
There are a growing number of people today that are aware of and care about people in need around the world. It will take creativity and PPPs to capture this energy and channel it towards sustainable solutions. With NGOs’ specialized knowledge and private companies’ abundant recourses, lives of marginalized individuals can be improved through tangible change. In a future where the public and private sectors work together, organizations become stronger, and, to borrow TOMS’ new tagline, “heroes don’t look like they used to”.
Drew Yukelson worked for ESPN and interned at Nike before attending the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU where he is currently an MPA candidate.