Gayle Peterson and Hilda Vega—Pairing “wicked problems” with partnerships

“The idea of compassion is putting yourself in the position of the people you’re trying to help. It’s not about you, it’s not about ego.”

photo: Mark Luinenburg

Gayle Peterson is Senior Managing Director at Partners for Change, a dynamic international consulting firm that provides strategic counsel to help institutional and individual donors more effectively address society’s most challenging problems. Peterson holds a deep understanding of the leadership strategies that are most effective in tackling our planet’s wickedest problems, and through a partnership with the Said Business School at Oxford University offers training and coaching to NGO and corporate executives. Hilda Vega, Senior Program Associate at Partners for Change, is a philanthropic advisor with 10+ years of experience working with civil society and philanthropic organisations to advance their organisational goals.

Peterson and Vega are leading a broad spectrum of collaborations for the forthcoming book, Good, Evil Wicked: The Art, Science, and Business of Giving, published by Stanford University Press. The book will capture an emerging culture of global giving trends and practices in the 21st Century as the business sector takes a more prominent role in addressing global social change challenges. Peterson and Vega laid out the ambitious project during a recent call with WINGS Managing Editor Chris de la Torre, emphasising the importance of building unlikely partnerships and keeping a realistic perspective on what Peterson calls “intractable issues.”

WINGS: Your methodology includes 1,000 interviews with social investors from BRICS and beyond, 20 in-depth case studies, a systemic impact assessment for women and children using the UN Human Security frame, and more. That’s massive.

Gayle Peterson: The book is a labor of love and we’ve been working on it for almost a year. We’re getting our research finished by mid-summer and we’ll get the final manuscript to the publisher this fall. We have about 700 interviews done. It’s a lot but if you think of all the vibrant organisations involved in the sector, in the social investing space—corporate, community, family foundations, individuals—it’s not that many. In Brazil, for instance, we worked with a variety of consultants. Hilda attended a Global Philanthropy Forum meeting on the heels of doing a fairly significant research project on partnerships (philanthropy and private sector) that enabled us to do a series of interviews, and to really get a sense of social investing and partnership in Brazil, particularly in Northeastern Brazil. We have a team of seasoned people and we’re asking some important questions. You need to have an honest conversation and sometimes you have to build a trusted relationship before you can get those types of open responses. The case studies and vignettes allow us to dive deeper into organisations and to really examine so we can offer strategies to the reader about what’s being tried in different countries and by whom.

WINGS: What main questions does the book ask?

GP: The book focuses on the concept of deliberate leadership. We use the wicked problems construct because wicked problems have no solutions. There are intractable issues, social challenges—whether it’s prostitution or child slavery or poverty—those issues will be with us because they’re really intractable, difficult issues. That’s not to say that we can’t mitigate them. But if we come at it from a perspective where we recognize their high risk, it requires us to act differently than a command-and-control technical leader—someone that will come in and say I’ve got the solution, I’ve got the answer, this is what you must do to solve this problem. Very often, people who come in to the space from technology or business may have a very different perspective, so what we’re trying to do is reframe the problem, recognizing that you can have an impact but you need to constantly iterate and innovate the ways you address the problems and test the solutions.

The wicked problems construct actually comes out of business and social sector—and the strategies we’re proposing are a blending of business and social sector strategies—the intersection of those that make the most sense when you’re trying to address complex issues. Leadership is the tool you need to maximise your ability to succeed. With wicked problems you need to stand on the balcony and look at all of the different perspectives, whether it’s public sector, private sector, or the arts—bringing in these different disciplines to think about innovative solutions. You often have to reflect and re-examine whether it is working or not. What are the things that are getting in our way? How do we recalibrate in a way that keeps us fresh and current, and being as effective as possible?

The idea of compassion is putting yourself in the position of the people you’re trying to help. It’s not about you, it’s not about ego, it’s actually about putting the woman and child first. We use the UN’s Human Security Framework as an analytical tool to discuss how complex factors affect the most vulnerable people in society across multiple dimensions of wellbeing. For this reason, we place women and children at the center of analysis for all of the interviews and research for the book. We look at what the most effective strategies are for creating opportunity for the most vulnerable. So, are you able to detach in terms of your own ego and actually empathise with the people you’re trying to help? This opens the door for a different type of partnership building and a relationship with community. Solutions can come from within community where you’re allowing them to build those solutions, as opposed to imposing them. It’s the idea of looking at capital not just as financial capital but human capital and social capital and environmental capital. It’s a multiple bottom-line approach. You need courage to accept the risk that you’re taking. You’re moving into a space of the unknown.

WINGS: It seems a bit like chaos theory, where the future is highly unpredictable and you need to constantly adjust. It’s a challenge because you’re not operating in a vacuum; you’re dealing with emerging economies and you’re tracking a tremendous amount of output. What kinds of skills do you need for a project like this?

GP: We have a really good series of complementary skills. First, we have a big vision—the big thinkers, the visionaries. Unless we gather a huge amount of data together we’re missing an opportunity. That’s me. And then we have the Hildas who are very specific and concrete who ask, how do we get it done?

photo courtesy Hilda Vega

“It would be great to have more connections, to talk to more people so we can be as accurate and as representative as possible.”

Hilda Vega: It does take two ends of the spectrum of having the vision and the creativity and the big picture as well as having the implementation applied to keep everything on track and on task and keep all of the pieces together. But I think what we as a firm share is experience working with grantmakers around the world and having conversations with people from different cultures who experience things differently, including the definition of philanthropy.

WINGS: Tell us about your ecosystem assessment.

GP: It’s a stop-in-your-tracks tool which says when you’re thinking about your own organisation, your own needs, your own ability to do a good job in the world, to create change, you’re so focused on the systems within your own organisations and meeting your grant deadlines and achieving outcomes that sometimes you forget to develop a strategy. The systems map we use is a UN human security frame which puts the woman and child at the center and then we build out. The map allows you to see who your potential partners are. So it’s also about looking at where you fit into your system—are there partners, are there demands being made, are we as a community of social investors actually giving these families an opportunity to speak about what they need, as opposed to us directing their lives? It allows us to work in community in an informed way, as opposed to working in silos. It’s an educational tool we use to begin to have a conversation about inclusion and partnership.

WINGS: How can WINGS members in the Global South contribute to your research?

HV: It would be great to have more connections, to talk to more people so we can be as accurate and as representative as possible.

GP: First there’s the interviews. We would love to interview people who are interested and receptive. And then there are cases. If there are organisations that really believe they have an interest in sharing their approach with their colleagues around the world then that’s fantastic. We’re open to sharing knowledge and our research. I want to go back to your idea of ‘partnership’ as buzzword. It’s important to say ‘you’re not alone in this world’. You need to look beyond your own group of colleagues, people that you feel comfortable with, to understand that the most innovative solution may come from that diversity of opinion that you may not even know exists. And the mapping allows you to see who those diverse people are that you should reach out to and have conversations with. It’s going beyond the people that we feel comfortable with and that we know to people who might be in the space who are offering different opinions.

Business schools are becoming portals for social change.  We’re seeing more people from emerging economies with business backgrounds looking at ways to do social change who need a new language, something that resonates with them. It’s the interconnectedness of where do we go to find game-changing strategies. That’s what we’re looking for because that’s where the field is, and that’s why this book is so important. That’s why we took on the depth and breadth of doing it globally.

WINGS: Who specifically is the book meant for?

GP: It’s for anyone involved in social investing—grantmakers, policymakers, philanthropists, corporations—money, time and people for social change. The book looks at the best practices that are emerging globally and what the implications are for social change. We did an interview with a leader in the tech industry who came into a situation where he thought he had the answer but realized two years into it he didn’t. We asked him what he wanted us to include in the book. He said humility and partnership with community and candor—that after doing deals and imposing solutions, at the end of the day these core elements are essential. The interviews are amazing. There’s a real sense of commitment to values and people and honesty. It’s refreshing. The book offers a lot in terms of soul searching, as well as concrete strategies for change.

More WINGS interviews here.

2 thoughts on “Gayle Peterson and Hilda Vega—Pairing “wicked problems” with partnerships

  1. Pingback: A critical scan of four key topics for the sector « Philanthropy In Focus

  2. Pingback: The Power of Networks—Building connected global philanthropy | Philanthropy In Focus

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