As we’ve been working to bring about significant social change, alleviate poverty, and face other challenges over the past few decades, we’ve separated ourselves into silos.  We refer to:

  1. Non-governmental organizations or NGOs (also called by a whole host of other names),
  2. International development  practitioners (aid providers, not beneficiaries who have only recently been ‘asked to the [decision-making] table’);
  3. Social entrepreneurs, a term with many different definitions (See Alison Rapping’s blog for some of these)
  4. Corporate representatives (focusing on another broad concept, that of ‘corporate social responsibility’ or CSR)
  5. Academics who also play roles as international development consultants, and so forth

We’ve looked at these sectors as having different interests and as functioning in significantly different ways. Sometimes out in the world, addressing challenges, practitioners from these different sectors might ‘bump into each other’ and might even decide to collaborate, but it was usually done in an ad hoc way, involving specific individuals or organizations working on a specific project.

More recently there has been a growing cadre of people who have begun to look at how the sectors can work together in more systematic ways; we have also begun to consider whether some of these sector boundaries and the sectors the way they currently exist might be becoming obsolete. This, of course, will not happen quickly, and we can expect a lot of resistance, but the discussion is beginning to take place in significant ways. Here is one very simple graph of where some of the linkage can be found, and some differences in perspectives that we may need to overcome:

Social entrepreneurs and NGO practitioners have in common the goal of ‘social change’ or ‘social good,’ but have traditionally come at this goal from different perspectives: social entrepreneurs from the private sector world’s return on investment, and the NGO sector from a focus on mission. Due to these different perspectives and years of working and being trained in different ‘silos,’ the different sectors are often speaking different ‘languages,’ and outside of the small cadre of those who are seeing the linkages, have often been distrustful or even disdainful of each other.

A number of different factors are bringing us to a key juncture of revisiting these silos.  They include: (1) After decades of focus on international development the pace of progress is being questioned, bringing attention to whether there are better ways of doing things that should be explored; (2) There is discussion in a number of sectors about looking more at impact than just output and how best to do this; and (3) Traditional boundaries are coming down –  the increase in information technology and social media, capacity building in developing countries, etc. are all helping to bring practitioners from different sectors together. Differences between the sectors are now often seen as “gaps between the sectors” rather than just differences in the way they do business.

Here is a sample discussion of how a group of social entrepreneurs and NGO practitioners are discussing how the two groups may be moving closer together:

Think of how much smarter our aid and international development efforts could potentially be if we increased our collaboration and took the effective practices from wherever they reside, no matter what the sector label.

What are some of the next steps we might consider taking?

  1. Find common language that can encourage more members of both sectors to become involved in meaningful dialogue, and work together towards addressing major global challenges.
  2. Encourage more cross-sector forums to stimulate discussion among the different sectors.

How else might we encourage the breaking down of silos?

Cross-posted at Peace Dividend Trust