Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Seeking a Research Location

Currently Christine and I are enrolled as PhD (Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies) students at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan) and are beginning to pursue conversations with organizations that may be interested in collaborating with us in our research. Specifically we are seeking an organization that is demonstrating excellence in community engagement for social justice. Our objective at this time is to identify an organization that would be willing to partner with us to better understand the significant role that leaders play in engaging organizations and communities in collective and positive action.

The recent financial recession and the high visibility of the “Occupy” movement has brought to the forefront the significant global role that business organizations play in the economic and social fabric of society. In the late 1990’s a view began to emerge that was counter to the prevalent western belief that the sole purpose of businesses should be profit at any expense. Commonly referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR) this view highlights the social and environmental impact of business in both developed and developing countries when a profit motive is the sole pursuit.

This increased attention to the social and environmental impact of organizations highlights that while organizations may have the capacity to `do good’, and may even have the appearance of `being good’, they too often cause harm. Numerous case studies have documented these harms and highlighted that they include human rights violations and environmental destruction. Frequently the harm results when companies outsource or establish parts of their business in developing countries where labour and environmental regulation is minimal and where the organization’s understanding of diverse cultural perspectives may be low.

Our research interests are twofold:

1. We are interested in studying leaders who want to improve their skill at working with diverse groups of people, specifically those of another culture. This may involve our observations of them in their current interactions and collaboratively building skills to achieve better community outcomes; and,

2. We are interested in studying in communities where interactions between the organization and the community leaders are recognized for resulting in outcomes that further social justice.

We are optimistic that many organizations are beginning to engage with communities and their leaders in ways that recognize mutuality and the importance of learning from and being changed by each other. For the purposes of our PhD. research we are looking for an organization and community where social good and social justice are identified as critical success indicators for the manner in which business is conducted. As researchers we are, through qualitative research approaches, seeking to understand the thought processes of both organizational and community leaders as they work together to create win/win outcomes. Geographically, we are interested in Latin/ Central America.

We appreciate that what we have outlined in this brief overview may raise more questions for you than we are able to address. We would be pleased to talk further with you about our research focus and the type of setting that we think would be a fit for our research interest. We envision working with you and your organization in the time leading up to the on-site research to better understand your organizations culture, your philosophy of leadership, your community partners as well as the benefits that our research may hold for you.

Attached you will find a brief overview of our professional and consulting work that we hope will provide an added sense of the work we do and how we approach it.

If you are interested in discussing our research further or you would like to connect us with others who may be interested in collaborating with us, we can be contacted at or

Friday, February 4, 2011

Moving On - Check Us Out

To all interested readers and subscribers - in order to align our messages and to make navigation easier we have changed our blog profile and now have combined it within our standard web pages. Check us out at . All archived blogs will be there and we will be posting more frequently on the interface between CSR, Leadership and Community Engagement.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Discovering my Leadership Blind Spots in Guatemala

Submitted by Penny Lane

Tomorrow morning I will be landing very early at the airport in Guatemala City.  This is my first time to Guatemala and I am eagerly anticipating the opportunity to explore this beautiful country.  My time there will also be an opportunity to explore my own internal leadership territory.  Despite having spent many years being a leader and learning about leadership, at this point in my life I am even more aware that the quality of my leadership is directly related to my awareness of what behaviors and biases I personally bring to my leadership.

  At times I bring many strengths.  I have been intentional in learning to listen, to ask questions, to be curious, to look for the common ground, to reflect on my on intent in regards to the work at hand and to clarify what the intent of the group or organization is.  And yet I know that I have my blind spots - the assumptions about the world and how things work, my cultural mindset and values and my unintentional influences on those around me.  Lately I have been reflecting on my tendency to want to give advice and my ability to articulate what I am seeing in the systems and networks around me that  might lead to creative solutions.  While I am in Guatemala these are the aspects of my internal landscape that I want to explore and learn the skills that I want to incorporate into my way of being as a leader.

I am travelling to Guatemala with my colleague and friend Christine Bonney.  Over this next week we will be applying the road map for The Acacia Group's Socially Responsible Leadership experiences.  We will be coaching each other as we apply leadership theory and intentionally begin to practice new and emergent skills and ways of being.  We will be travelling to Nebaj with our community partners Social Entrepreneur Corp (SEC) and participating in community work - helping at the Centro Explorativo as well as helping local entrepreneurs bring their goods to markets in the surrounding communities.  Walking into a new environment is a powerful opportunity to think and reflect upon what I see, how I interpret it, and how I choose to respond and interact in a positive and generative way.  This is what I want to be able to bring back to my way of leading in my life - the practice of reflection, the choices I make in interpreting what I experience, and the behaviors that I want to express.

On a contextual note, I have noticed recently that the Extractive Sector (i.e., mining sector) in Canada is coming under increasing scrutiny for their lack of CSR practices.  Amnesty International and other organizations are drawing attention to the negative impact Canadian Companies are having in their off shore development - particularly in developing countries.  Guatemala is one of the countries where Canadian companies are being called to account for their lack of attention to social justice and human rights, and environmental damage.  Perhaps one day executives from the Extractive Sector will experience this type of leadership development experience and bring back to their organizations the awareness and skills to lead in a way that addresses all three priorities - people - planet - profit.

The Acacia Group’s purpose and passion is transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for leadership excellence for our clients

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Forward Focused Thinking and CSR

I was struck by a recent article by Aman Singh that referenced the multi-modal skill set that today’s CSR manager must have. They must be focused on diversity, HR, communications, stakeholder engagement and to an extent, reputation management. The ability to manage a complex and shifting agenda often creates such large and varied challenges that the manager has to shift into firefighter mode, dousing the flames of a crisis before they get too big. This broad approach focuses on “after-the-fact” interventions rather than future oriented, planful and systemic thinking required by corporate leaders.

A study conducted by Ashbridge Business School in the UK and reported to the European Academy of Business in Society, indicates several interesting factors that can assist an organization be truly responsible. First, the study lays out the need for the need for integration of social and environmental issues in to the day-to-day decision making processes. While corporate culture can play a role in this, the study goes further and outlines five competencies or “reflexive abilities” of leaders which they believe can be taught and developed.

1. Systemic thinking
2. Embracing diversity and managing risk
3. Balancing global and local perspectives
4. Meaningful dialogue and developing a new language
5. Emotional awareness

An excerpt from the reports states that competencies “…describe the more fundamental features of an individual’s character and personality. Giving people the opportunity to question, explore and make meaning of the values and assumptions that inform their decision-making process requires a carefully structured process of analysis and reflection”

A second recommendation suggests that such learning has to be taken out of the classroom and should be the product of experiential learning, exposing people to a new experience and then allowing them the opportunity to reflect and adjust their behavior and thinking.

Finally, through cultural diversity and respect it is essential that the participant rid themselves (as best they can) of their cultural bias of their Anglo-American lens and the associated notions of “I have the solution” and replace this with an openness to understanding not only different ways of functioning but expanding their view of how businesses can be operated.

These competencies are a departure from the traditional content heavy emphasis of most MBA programs as they focus on process, discovery, and insight; and focus instead on the creation of leadership leading to transformative change. Managing the list of portfolios previously outlined is a big ask, so why don’t we focus on the creation of leaders who can convey the fundamental competencies outlined above, and who have character and personality that aligns with their mission?

Do organizations increasingly care less about what you know and more about problems are solved and information processed?

Are these the right competencies?

Which schools or programs are promoting this kind of thinking? – Let us know.

The Acacia Group provides services to organizations who are serious about growing their CSR and who recognize that leadership development is the lever to their success. For more information contact , call 1-877-313-8822 or join us at the end of November on our next international residency in Guatemala.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Passion, Purpose, and Profit....

Many of you, who have happened upon this blog, will have seen Daniel Pink’s YouTube video on motivation . It is cleverly rendered and designed to appeal to those of us who predominantly think with the right side of our brain. After reading a little more of Pink, I learned that there’s no neurobiological evidence of the right/left brain concept but, as he would say, “it’s a catchy metaphor.” What’s even catchier is his contention that employees work for much more than money and that understanding this motivation is the way to work in a complex world.
Dan Pink’s fundamental thesis is that incentives, particularly monetary, only work for rudimentary tasks. The kind of tasks that are routinely outsourced. The incentive works to focus the energy of the individual on the completion of a task that requires little cognitive energy and almost no creativity. When it comes to tasks that require complexity of thought and innovation narrowing the field with an incentive actually weakens performance. This focus on a single goal often prohibits seeing a much richer, more creative, response. In a world where we are frequently looking for multiple right answers and where the goalposts are continuously changing a focus on the one right answer may seriously stunt our growth. Today’s business environments require much more than simple behavior modification principles to engage people. Yet, most human resource departments are set up to “compensate” performance not to enliven and inspire people.

What’s even more compelling in Pink’s view is the notion that motivation and purpose must be strongly linked to attract and engage talented high performing employees. The desire to contribute is a powerful motivator for most people. It therefore makes great sense for businesses to truly contemplate the ways in which they can contribute to a purpose higher than the bottom-line. What’s your organization’s purpose? Your raison d’ĂȘtre? If you have a hard time conceptualizing this perhaps your purpose and motivation are untethered. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods suggests that, “Virtually all of our societal organizations seem to have either forgotten or have never really known why they exist and what their higher purposes are. Instead, they have often elevated narrow individual and institutional self-interest into the only purposes that they recognize as valid.”
At Whole foods their “green and healthy” purpose is central to their business. They need to make profit in order to fulfill their mission. It’s making money to serve the greater mission of doing good and being good in the world. When people buy Whole Foods, they’re buying into something that is more significant than simply food.

The connecting of purpose and passion with profit is not new. Small and large organizations alike are beginning to realize that talented people have choices and unless an organization is offering something more than a competitive salary few truly original thinkers will be attracted. Connecting with your purpose as an organization can, quite honestly, be gut wrenching work. It requires a deep level of introspection, a dedication to ruthlessly understanding environmental and social impacts, and a commitment to creating value for all shareholders up and down the value chain. Great missions are not made in a weekend retreat. They are the product of deep thought and inquiry. This process of inquiry is, in itself, an amazing tool for engagement. Who are your employees? Why do they want to work for you? What’s gets them out of bed on Monday morning? What purpose do they seek to serve by working for you? You may be surprised and inspired by their answers…

The Acacia Group’s purpose and passion is transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for leadership excellence for our clients.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Culture Change 101 - Take a deep breath

Culture 101

I have recently been following a Globe and Mail series entitled, “Preparing for a cultural sea change? Take a deep breath”. (August 17, 2010).

It is the story of a young corporate president, Will Andrew, from Trimark Sportswear Group who believes that, “Our culture could, in fact, be a competitive advantage in our industry.” Mr. Andrew is partnering with the Globe and Mail as Trimark sets out on the path of cultural change...Andrew to blog his successes and failures, the Globe to cover it for all of Canada’s benefit. His beginning activities have been to institute a company newsletter and to redesign the office space to be more inclusive. As I read the first instalment and watched the video I could see the enthusiasm, the can do attitude, the belief in leadership, and frankly, I wondered if that will be enough.

My more than two decades in the business of changing culture tells me that there is more to it than simple structural fixes. Viewing culture as a means to an end, in this case to greater economic viability, often leads to a premature analysis of this deeply complex phenomenon, and most frequently, to the conclusion that culture is good or bad. When, in fact, it just is. Organizational culture is comprised of deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour, attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values and has elements that can be deemed both good and bad. It all depends on your perspective and what you’re trying to change.

Mr Andrew believes that cultural change begins at the top...“I believe that culture starts at the top, and therefore I need to communicate as much as possible about what I am doing, thinking and implementing – and why. Culture change moves slowly, but I think we can make notable improvements by early in 2011.”

Implicit in this statement is the notion that organizational culture is something that can be created in a planning retreat and “rolled out” to an organization. There is a significant difference between organizational vision and culture although a deep connection exists between them. To be truly integrated an organization’s vision must be assimilated into the culture. This typically doesn’t happen by “driving organizational change” from the top or by quarterly reviewing key result areas. Most frequently it happens when executives speak and model aspirations that have meaning for the people of the organization. Understanding an organization’s culture is important, even critical to business success, but what is more important is what an organization stands for and believes in. An organizational vision that exists solely to improve the bottom line and shareholder profit is unlikely to rouse great passion in the hearts of most employees.

A more profitable initiative might be to ask, why do we exist as a business? What is the greater good that is achieved by our work? How do we serve the communities in which we live and work? The answer to such questions provides the greater context for employees. It is the overarching meta narrative that people care about. So what’s your business’ story? Who do you serve? What gets you up and out to work every morning? I’m willing to bet it’s not the pay cheque...that’s not enough. It’s much more likely to be the story that you tell yourself about why your work has meaning.

Culture change rarely occurs close to the immutable law in organizations is that the further you move up the food chain the less likely it is that you’ll hear truth. If you are a leader in your organizations - try three simple questions. What do you want me to keep doing? What do you want me to start doing? What do you want me to stop doing? A leader who is truly interested in culture and people, a leader who has inspired enough trust to get truth, will hear everything they need to know about their culture in the answers. Culture changes when leaders show up, ask questions and make meaningful change based on the responses they hear. Changing culture is not to be tampered with lightly, it is wide and deep. It is as unique as the human personality and is as fundamentally unknowable. It is not a “tool” to “drive” business. It is, as Aristotle eloquently suggests, much greater than the sum of its parts.

The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.

Posted by Christine Bonney, Managing Partner, The Acacia Group

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gender Bias in CSR - Where Are All the Men?

Over the last several weeks our company has engaged in a series of social media notices leading up to a webinar on FAQs regarding our leadership development experience in Guatemala. Of those who showed an interest and signed up for the webinar - entirely 100% were women. Now, our numbers would certainly show a limiting and therefore non-valid sample size. But there is a reality that of the people that we have engaged with over the last several months the disproportionate majority are women. Leading me to ask….Where have all the men gone? – and, given the equally disproportionate number of men in the C-Suite –is the gender difference an issue to be reconciled in order to have corporate social responsibility move to the strategic front burner?

Aman Singh at Vault CSR did a nice job of summarizing the Boston College Centre for Corporate Citizenship report on the Profile of the Profession – In her blog Aman pointed out the ten leading characteristics/identifiers of a CSR professional – but for the purpose of this discussion let’s stick to the top four –

1. They hold a bachelors degree
2. They are a women
3. They are white
4. They are more than 35 years old.

I can safely say that these descriptors definitely correspond to those who showed an interest in our work. So of course we need to understand the Why?

A quick search discovered an intriguing diploma thesis argument by Elena Bueble that addresses CSR from a communications and consumer alignment perspective. She illustrates that the connectedness that consumers feel with a company’s CSR activities (and therefore contributing to their purchasing behavior) has a lot to do with the alignment of ethics between the individual and the company. She then cites references that illustrate that women are more ethically sensitive than men and in a philanthropic arena are more likely to donate money and their own time via volunteerism than men.

The Guatemala experience focuses on development of insight related to leadership skills, intense application of those insights and skills and in social enterprise in a small village and then with accredited coaching support, taking away those lessons and applying them to various components such as career, community and family over a period of several months.
This combination of learning, leadership development and “hands-on” CSR – would of course appeal to those with a strong ethical base, and those who are curious about the world and their place in it. But I do not believe that this is the sole (or soul) domain of women. Gender differences are rarely black and white, so I do imagine that CSR, leadership and learning are of interest to many men too – yet there is clearly a difference in how this is pursued by men.
So…some questions.

1. Is social and environmental good still seen as a “soft” benefit versus that resides outside the traditional profit and loss statement that is “hard” evidence of success pursued by men?

2. Is CSR seen as a skill of nurturance – that can be performed by men, but more comfortably by women?

3. Our program focuses on leadership development alongside CSR – would more men consider leadership innate whereas women would place value on the introspection, and analysis required to be more effective?

4. These questions lead to a black and white orientation that is overly simplistic to say the least and only supports the maintenance of stereotypes. However, they do play at the corners of a more troubling scenario. If one assumes that promoting a CSR/leadership agenda is a good thing, then it should be of equal importance to both men and women. Women are the typical CSR practitioner but are underrepresented at the most senior levels – aside from trying to achieve parity in this regard; does it also make sense for us to rethink the communications context to engage men at a senior level in this dialogue. Or…..

5. Is this all nonsense and can concerns be safely dismissed simply by what we see in the relatively egalitarian social media world, i.e. witness the work and ideas of Fabian Pattberg, Elaine Cohen, Aman Singh, David Connor, Chris Jarvis, Christine Arena, Julie Urlaub, Jeffrey Hollender, or Lavinia Weissman and many others.

What do you think? Do you have answers or opinions on the above questions? Is this all a red herring? Let us know your thoughts.

The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Taking a Bite out of the Millennium Development Goals – We can END Poverty 2015

The first of a series of blogs on the MDGs and how they inform CSR, community development, and leadership and learning.

`With only five years left until the 2015 deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs], UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on world leaders to attend a summit in New York on 20 – 22 September 2010 to accelerate progress towards the MDGs’ – The Call to action on the UN Website for the MDGs

The MDGs – adopted in 2000 as the United Nations Millennium Declaration – were the culmination of a decade of UN conferences and summits and demonstrated a global commitment to reduce extreme poverty. A series of time bound targets were established with a deadline of 2015 and the MDGs became eight simple statements with the potential to change the world:

- End Poverty and Hunger (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger)

- Universal Education (achieve universal primary education)

- Gender Equality (promote gender equality and empower women)

- Child Health (reduce child mortality)

- Maternal Health (improve maternal health)

- Combat HIV/AIDs (combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other Diseases)

- Environmental Sustainability (ensure environmental sustainability)

- Global Partnership (develop a global partnership for development)

In the past 10 years the world’s awareness of these eight key global challenges has increased dramatically. Who has not seen or heard news and profiles on micro-financing, malaria nets, accessible anti retroviral drugs, funding for maternal health, and the environment. These simple eight goals have shaped our local (think your local coffee shop and fair trade coffee), national (recent debates on maternal health funding at the G20), and international conversations. Eight simple goals that just might change the world.

This past month a report was released entitled `What will it take to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals? – An International Assessment’ – June 2010. It is an encouraging read. Based on a review of 50 country studies the authors conclude that the resources and the know-how necessary to achieve the MDGs exist – and some changes in approach may be needed.

A key message from the report is that the Goals have synergies and improvements in that one can speed up progress in others. Women and young girls are key. `Ensuring girls have unfettered access to health, education and productive assets helps progress across the MDGs’ is just one statement made in the report. A key strategy identified to accelerate progress on the MDGs lies with investing in expanded opportunities for women and girls and advancing their economic, legal and political empowerment.

With five years left to achieve the goals laid out in 2000, it is not just the global leaders who have a role to play in accelerating progress. Each of us as a global citizen, a national citizen, and as a corporate citizen carry a responsibility to become knowledgeable about the goals, to understand why they matter, to know the questions we need to ask, and to consider the actions we can take. The global leaders cannot do it alone.

The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Leadership, Learning and the Millennial Generation

It was Isaac Newton who said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This article concludes an interview with Greg Van Kirk, a giant in the field of social entrepreneurship and a leader who has contributed immensely to our vision of community development.

Two previous segments of the interview with Greg have run on this blog space, and first time readers are encouraged to read these in order to get the full grasp of Greg’s work and to also watch the brief video that puts a face to the efforts.

If we, as The Acacia Group build something new or orient our approach to international community development in a slightly different way it is because of people like Greg and organizations like Social Entrepreneur Corps who have gone out and charted a course on what successful community programs can look like; programs that are sustainable, and that are locally run and operated.

Greg’s work is also informed by input and leadership by engaged student interns, who in turn benefit from those who have gone before. I asked him about working with this group of learners and contributors.

Greg, in a simplistic way – that is in many ways too limiting, the millennial generation has been described as fitting in between two poles. One, they are quite entitled, they want what they want and when they want it and; two, they are very plugged in to the issues around globalization and the need for full engagement in social responsibility to help others and the planet. What have you observed as you watch these young people engage?

While the bulk of the students who show up would naturally fall into the latter group of seeking to help, there are still vestiges of the former group too, who just want things to go easy. This falls away fairly quickly. The experience of working with local villagers is enhanced for participants who go in with an open hand, and open mind and are prepared to get their hands dirty. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option and the act of “doing” erodes the sense of entitlement very quickly. During the volcano in June, while it did not directly impact our program, it did have an effect on communities close by – we had a team meeting and the response was unequivocal “We are fine, this event has happened to us, now let’s get out there and go help”. These guys are inspirational, they did this independent of direction from our program. These are the leaders of tomorrow who are showing their skills right now.

From a corporate social responsibility perspective (CSR) - it is really quite fascinating. Established leaders in business or the social arena may do “battle” as to the appropriateness of interactions and the place on the continuum of certain efforts. Young leaders see no such dichotomy – there is no best approach – they simply live the concept of do well by doing good. Social is not a bad word, business is not either.

Voluntourism is growing and becoming more popular. Critics are concerned about what can be a transactional and surface level approach to change. What are your thoughts on this?
If it is about sampling of a culture then I would argue that it is not effective for either the participant or the local villager. If it is about true learning and making a true impact then that is another. It should always be about supporting the end needs of the beneficiaries and supporting those organizations that support the beneficiaries. (We had previously established that Greg and SEC are a development organization versus a volunteer organization) One of things we have to guard against is students saying “I will help in this way” i.e. their way. Instead they should be asking “What do you want” – often this is not sexy stuff, but it can create a huge impact.

What does the future hold for Greg Van Kirk?

The connection to Ashoka and the Ashoka Lemolson Fellowship has been huge. While we have been encouraged to develop our model of microconsignment elsewhere, to be done well it takes a lot of time. You have to create a relationship of trust and integrity. This cannot be transactional and quick. The Fellowship has opened lots of doors to share information with brilliant leaders in the field, and as a result we can share and combine ideas that can have an impact in different places. We don’t always have to use any one program but can constantly adapt and learn based on the application and location.
The truth of the matter is that our model and other Ashoka programs work and can work all over the world. We have an obligation to make this happen. So we work with our own internal leadership team and try to find ways to create replication, working with good partners elsewhere to leverage their connections into an area.
We are also working with the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Centre at Columbia University where we are focused on the creation of centre of excellence for studying and improving microconsignment – we can create obsolescence for ourselves by housing the knowledge at an accessible connection point.

Thoughts on engaging leaders…?

We have unintentionally created a culture of effective leadership – we attract people who are drawn into a certain way of being – we help them shape their thinking, you know, fundamentals – begin with the end in mind – provide servant leadership –don’t manage, don’t tell – learn to trust. Trust your team implicitly- have total faith that even when they make mistakes they are just learning and that they will be fine.

The generosity and openness of Greg’s vision is truly remarkable and allows for a cocreation of programs and services that can have a profound effect on the lives of all who participate. Many thanks go to him for giving us the time for this conversation, for the partnership and for allowing us to stand on his shoulders.

The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.

Greg Van Kirk and SEC has generously agreed to a partnership with The Acacia Group in the development of effective leadership through work in Guatemala. We are currently offering a unique opportunity for a smaller group to join us in late November 2010 and to learn and help shape our progam. Contact us for more information or to join our upcoming webinar on July 7th at 12:00 noon PDT.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bikes without Borders

As I was doing my weekend thing this Saturday (groceries, kid stuff, Father’s Day shopping) I tuned into CBC Radio One’s Definitely Not the Opera (DNTO). This week’s program was dedicated to bikes and stories about bikes. I enjoyed snippets as I did my errands but I was captivated by a story about a Canadian non-profit organization called Bikes without Borders ( DNTO interviewed its founder, Mike Brcic, and heard his compelling story. What really struck me was how they moved from identifying a need to the development of an organization that is impacting hundreds of HIV/Aids victims, and is providing sustainable employment for communities in Malawi.

Mike was in Nicaragua with the Canadian NGO, Casa Canadiense, when he met a small girl buying supplies for her family in a local village. Mike describes this as a “defining moment”. In conversation with this girl he learned that she had to walk for two hours a day just to get to school. He immediately recognized that her ten hour days were exhausting and that it was likely to impact her ability to finish school. As he reflected on her story, he was reminded of his childhood in Toronto, where the best ten minutes of his day were the ones he spent riding his bike to school. It was in that moment that Bikes without Borders (BWB) was conceived.

BWB uses bikes and bike-related solutions as a tool for development in marginalized communities. The initiative under discussion on DNTO was Pedal Powered Hope for Malawi. Each bike is used by community health workers who pedal out to rural communities and dispense anti retroviral drugs, take blood samples, and give guidance on medication. In addition, they provide education to the communities as well as support for orphans and palliative care. Amazing stuff...but back to the bikes.

BWB works with an engineer who designed the bike ambulances which are then solidly built by Malawians. This venture has created sustainable work for Malawi, support for a community model of healthcare, as well as bringing needed medication, education, and practical support to HIV/Aids victims. We are encouraged to participate by buying a bike ($100) or a bike ambulance ($400). For more a more complete picture of this amazing social enterprise please visit their website.

In deconstructing why this story impacted me so profoundly I realized that often our impulse to be good and to do good in the world is hampered by our lack of understanding of community. It seems like a win/win to collect our old bikes and to send them to the developing world...this, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, it’s just not enough. What Bikes without Borders demonstrates so beautifully is the building of community through understanding the need and providing the right support rather than the right answer.

The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.
This Blog was written by Christine Bonney, Managing Partner, The Acacia Group

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Smart Business - “Baskets of Solutions” and the Millennium Development Goals

This blog is the second in a series that captures a conversation I had with Greg Van Kirk, Ashoka-Lemolson Fellow and author of “The Microconsignment Model – Bridging the “Last Mile” of Access to Products and Services for the Rural Poor. You are encouraged to click the previous hyperlink to get a sense of the profound difference Greg makes in his work. As a teaser, consider the following excerpt that begins to portray the value of the MicroConsignment model.

Until recently, Carolina Amesquita, the principal at La Escuela Ramona Jil primary school in Chimeltenango, Guatemala lamented daily the her students were drinking contaminated water directly from the tap, often contracting gastrointestinal illnesses that kept them out of school. Others in the community were suffering too. Juana Ramirez, an expert weaver in the village of San Mateo, could no longer see well enough to sort her threads by color. Her productivity had plummeted, further stressing her already struggling family. While preparing meals over an open-pit fire in her home, as Guatemalan women had done for generations, Alva Rios was inhaling harmful smoke for hours each day. Julia Garcia was spending more and more of her family income on electricity bills, while Benito Ramirez had no electricity in his home and at night had to study by candlelight.

These and similar problems confronting thousands of rural Guatemalans have now been solved through the hard work of two Guatemalan women. Yoly Acajabon and Clara Luz de Montezuma, local homemakers in their mid-40’s, started their own enterprises in 2004 with no entrepreneurial experience of start-up capital. Working within the MicroConsignment Model (MCM), these extraordinary women are providing low –income villagers with essential products and services that help improve their health, nutrition and economic situations – and they are earning incomes for their own families while they doing so.

La Escuela Ramona now owns a water-purification device. Juan Ramirez got a free eye-exam and bought low-cost reading glasses. Alva Rios now cooks on fuel-efficient stove with a chimney. Julia Garcia has installed energy-efficient light bulbs in her home, and Benito Ramirez owns a solar panel and LED light that brightens and entire room.

By providing access to needed but previously unavailable products, Yoly and Clara are “bridging the last mile” in the supply chain of products needed by the rural poor in an appropriate and sustainable way. In the beginning they simply sold reading glasses, but over time their “basket of solutions” has become a growing enterprise…….

With support from university students, recent graduates and a permanent field staff, Social Entrepreneur Corps ( SEC) provides training in business skills, access to products and seed funding. To date they have provided training to over 200 women entrepreneurs and broker organizations such as community libraries who can also then provide business support and skills to the ranks of entrepreneurs.

DH - Greg, you have indicated that you don’t see yourself as a volunteer program per se, but as a development program.

GVK – That’s right. We see our role as creating something that is sustainable, that creates a scenario whereby if Social Entrepreneur Corps were to disappear overnight that the program could still run. Skills and resources are created that we contribute to but we don’t own them. They would still survive. It is just smart business to create sustainable infrastructure – to create strong development work.

DH – I know we are all guarding against the creation of dependency and a neo-colonial approach to development, how do you avoid this?

GVK - We work best when we all work together – we bring strengths and weaknesses, and we are constantly curious about our role and we interact with beneficiaries. Ultimately we will leave when we don’t add value anymore. We want to create self-sustainability, we are constantly looking at driving costs out of the equation, but having said that we need to do everything from development to departure at the right pace, a timing agenda creates an urgency and – velocity of our interaction should introduced as a factor. We build trust – this takes time, but creates a sense of cooperation and achievement. If we insist on a transactional relationship only, then there will be no trust and true sustainability becomes elusive if not impossible.

The final section of the interview will run next week and Greg will discuss how young learners experience the program as interns, and what the future holds for him and this model.

As the subtitle of this blog indicates, there is a real connection to Greg’s work, the work of Yoly and Clara and the Millennium Development Goals. This week and next the G8 and G20 will meet in Ontario, Canada to discuss their way in the world and featured on the agenda are the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). While leaders and bureaucrats pontificate and navel gaze about actions to support already agreed upon commitments, now and again in September in New York, Greg, his team of interns and Yoly and Clara using their “basket of solutions” are already taking a bite out the MDG. Moving to eliminate poverty, creating a better, cleaner and sustainable environment, achieving primary universal education, and promoting gender equality and empowering women are tangible products of the work being done in Guatemala. One can assume that success in these goals will also impact the remaining goals through true systemic shifts. It is curious to note that this is not being done via aid or hand outs but rather smart and effective business leadership built upon the back bone of trust, leading to sustainability.

The Acacia Group is proud to be working with Greg and Social Entrepreneur Corps in Nebaj, and is offering an opportunity for individuals or groups to participate in, observe and learn from SEC and the citizens of Nebaj. This experience is combined with personal and group leadership development coaching before, during and after the trip for up to three months. Interest is building, so book soon at or join us on one of our upcoming webinars to get more information.

Webinar: Months of Leadership and Development Coaching + 1 Week in Nebaj, Guatemala = 1 Golden Opportunity

The Acacia Group will be hosting a second webinar to provide information regarding their transformative learning opportunity in Guatemala –departing in late November, where special pricing is in effect.

The call and the experience are intended for:
• Individuals who wish to move out of their comfort zone and be different in the world they see
• Individuals and organizations who recognize the value of experiential learning and who want to take their learning outside of the office or classroom
• Individuals and organizations who have tasted success, and are now seeking a way to “make a difference” in the world around them.
• Organizations that are looking for distinct ways to engage in meaningful, longer-term corporate social responsibility and see that growing leadership is the way to truly embed sustainablity into their corporate DNA.

Discover, Experience, Grow – these are the core elements of The Acacia Group and their socially responsible leadership experiences. Join us on this week's webinar to understand how you or your company can access a unique experience in social responsibility and an investment in learning.

July 7th at 12:00 noon Pacific

The webinar is free – just send an email to indicating which date you would like to attend and we will send you personal dial in info. For more information visit and click the link for Guatemala.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship and Leadership by Example in Guatemala- Part I

Earlier this week I had the good fortune to meet again with Greg Van Kirk, Ashoka Lemolson Fellow, and Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Columbia University. Greg is an open, engaging and skilled social entrepreneur who has demonstrated that with passion, intelligence and integrity – communities can be made stronger.

The discussion was rich with information and as a result, over the next week or so this blogspace will contain excerpts from that conversation. Further information on Greg’s work can also be found at . His worked is also featured in the video found on this site.

Some brief background first: Greg runs a variety of programs- including Social Entrepreneur Corps, (SEC). This program provides development programs in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Working with local agencies, interested local entrepreneurs and with input from seventy-five university students and recent graduates interns from the US – Greg has supported the development of a variety of programs that benefit local villagers in these three countries.

Can you describe your program?

Well we looked at the various programs that existed such as academic programs that focused on the learner’s academic needs, or even volunteer programs that tend to be more relief focus and realized that that would not work for our vision. We don’t see our program as a volunteering program, we are a development organization that focuses year round on developing local people. We have been able to create a structure whereby people can, on a short term basis – focusing as apprentices or interns – share their skills in a manner that adds capacity to the local community; the focus is always on the beneficiaries and the work flows from there. 80% of our current permanent workforce are former interns of the Social Entrepreneur Corps.

I know that you started with the Centro Exlprativo, can you tell me more about that and how that has evolved and benefitted from some of the “incubator” work of SEC?

Centro Explorativo, in Nebaj is an education centre that started as a literacy program, but now has over 2000 books, free computer classes, after school classes on math and literacy, along with sports programs – all these services are free up and running since 2003. The program now boasts three teachers, and is owned and administered by a local organization of Guatemalan’s and has had thousands of participants.

I know that a logical spin-off was combining the computer skills with supporting the needs of tourists via an internet café?

That’s right, from education there has also been a focus on tourism- a site that started as a restaurant, has evolved and created spin- offs such as a guiding business, a coffee shop, a hostel, internet centre, language school – that have now be owned by local folks since 2004. SEC provided $25,000 of program support resulting in total revenues of $750,000.

These are concrete examples of creating a tangible presence in the community, but these locations are backed up the creation of skills that are portable. SEC is a driver of the micro-consignment model . The purpose of which is to create access to products and services that ordinarily would not exist or are donated. We stared with the distribution of wood burning stoves, and now distribute eye glasses, energy efficient bulbs, lamps, and now water treatment programs. These are just the products but SEC has trained and supported – over 200 women entrepreneurs and also work with broker community organizations like libraries, who can in turn provide training. We help create village campaigns, where we assist entrepreneurs do the marketing, advertising etc to a village, building anticipation and then they show up with their goods – so far we have executed over 2000 of these campaigns, sold over 60,000 products. Earned net income in aggregate around $75,000. Now, a social enterprise has been created to allow this activity to continue and to be sustained– it is share based company model owned by Guatemalan men and women, homemakers with no experience, now own a company that generates $80,000 annually in revenue. We estimate that the economic productivity benefit from this i.e. health issues with a stove, savings from not having to buy water or consume contaminated water, increased productivity due to being able to see because of glasses is around $1.4 million in Guatemala alone. We have now taken this model to Ecudaor and Nicargaua – and all sales are even across the board and consistent with the beta work we have done in Guatemala

Greg’s work has captured the attention of the social entrepreneur community and there is a desire to determine how this can be duplicated in other sites. More information on this issue, and the notion of engagement will be discussed in blogs posted later this week. Stay tuned, or subscribe!

The Acacia Group works with Greg and Social Entrepreneur Corps in Nebaj, and is offering an opportunity for individuals or groups to participate in, observe and learn from SEC and the citizens of Nebaj. This experience is combined with personal and group leadership development coaching before, during and after the trip for up to three months. Interest is building, so book soon at