Seattle NGOs asked to do something incredible: work together

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, addresses a Global Washington conference last week. GlobalWA hopes to bring NGOs out of their “silos” and collaborate with our organizations. (Photo courtesy of GlobalWA)

I’m an amateur choir geek and a professional international development wonk.

Those things might seem unrelated, but they do have one thing common: when talented and creative people come together, beautiful harmonies are made.

In a choir, it’s obvious how making great music works. But in the struggle to reduce poverty around the world, it’s a little harder to harmonize. We call it a “silo.”

Seattle is home to all kinds of development work:  an NGO that builds wells in rural Guatemala; an institute for Afghan women’s rights; a chocolate factory working with a famous actor to benefit Eastern Congo, to name just a few.

Last week, Global Washington brought many of these groups together at an annual conference, encouraging international organizations to move out of their silos and towards “collective impact.”


Consider a nonprofit building a well in a rural village in Guatemala. They likely work with just one or a few villages to provide clean water sources.

But that organization could team up with private-sector water engineers to expand access to ten more villages, leverage funding from a foundation to set up water for an entire region and then partner with another NGO that is providing complementary sanitation services. That’s beautiful music.

I work with Global Washington and had the pleasure of assisting with the conference. I greatly admire GlobalWA’s work not just to help organizations reach their full potential, but to facilitate collaboration so members can maximize impact in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Botswana and beyond.

Mayor Mike McGinn addresses the room of Washington-based global aid and development organizations. (Photo courtesy of GlobalWA)

GlobalWA Executive Director Bookda Gheisar addressed the conference and the need to combine Washington’s international efforts.

“Our community has lots of creative energy. We understand that prosperity there affects prosperity here,” she said. “We are a state of concerned companies, innovative nonprofits, and scientists and engineers who are always coming up with things to make life better.”

The conference featured star talent of the international development community: Canadian youth activist Craig Kielburger, Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser, and Founder and Chairman of the UN’s Global Partnerships Forum Amir Dossal.

Perhaps the most resonant voice was that of Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder and executive director of the Afghan Learning Institute and a powerful force for girls and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

“I am tired of war and seeing innocent women and children killed. It’s their right to be safe and secure, to have a job and a different style of life, and not to live in poverty,” Dr. Yacoobi said. “The problems of Afghanistan will be solved by Afghan women.”

Some of the most interesting thoughts of the day came from unlikely voices. Businesspeople, who are often known as profit-makers rather than do-gooders, talked about the vital role the private sector plays in making positive global change.

Theo Chocolate, for example, recently launched a new chocolate bar in partnership with the Ben Affleck-founded Eastern Congo Initiative.

Their business depends on the production of high-quality cocoa, a crop that is too often synonymous with cheap labor and poor conditions – even slavery – of farm workers in the developing world.

Theo Chocolate owner Joe Whinney teamed up with Ben Affleck-founded Eastern Congo Initiative to launch a new chocolate bar made from cocoa beans harvested by Congolese farmers. (Photo courtesy of GlobalWA)

Theo only sells fair-trade chocolate that provides farmers with fair wages, and promotes positive change and social benefits. Theo sources cocoa from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries.

To hear Theo Chocolate CEO and Founder Joe Whinney talk about his business is to realize that achieving a double or triple bottom line is not easy. Whinney says that a whole new consumer approach that moves away from old-school guilt is required to make it work

“We want you to buy our chocolate because you love it – because it’s high quality, it tastes better, and you value how it is made,” Whinney said. “Not because you think the sky is going to fall if you don’t buy it. Consumer education is critical.”

The new bar will benefit Congolese farmers in the war-torn eastern part of the country. Like several of the corporate voices at last week’s conference, Whinney explained that NGO involvement is critical to jumpstart businesses in communities in the developing world.

Like the best choral music, collaboration in international development takes practice. Groups from the nonprofit, private and public sectors have different agendas, cultures, and styles.

That can make collaboration complicated and difficult, and sometimes mistakes happen. But as last week’s conference made clear: while it’s always simpler to perform solo, the music’s not half as good.