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On Giving Tuesday, Rethink Social Impact and Responsibility

Giving Tuesday came early for some of us wrapped up in a partial evening of Q & A with Katie Hunt-Morr, Director of Community for Virgin Unite, the entrepreneurial foundation for the Virgin Group. The introduction came in the form of Nate Hensley's inaugural All Good Work (AGW) speaker series, held in a cozy corner of one of the cavernous work spaces that make up the growing AGW flexible workspace network.

Hunt-Morr is this week’s paradigm buster for her part in modeling ways in which philanthropy, corporate, and individual responsibility have evolved and need to continue to change in order to meet the needs of an increasingly fragile planet, its inhabitants, and our changing economies.

The takeaways from Hunt-Morr’s story center on how she applies her skills in new situations and her tremendous capacity for problem solving and relationship building in ever-changing environments.

Merge Interests

Perhaps our interest with Hunt-Morr should begin with her career at Reuters, where, starting in 2008, she managed and grew the media business over a total of four years. Not a bad start. However, it may be her training in marine biology, her degree in biology, or childhood in the Colorado Rockies that drove her to support Thomson Reuters’ first sustainability initiative, committing the organization to non-disposables during her time there, and jump-starting their social impact and global diversity programs as well.

Hunt-Morr looks at her early days in social responsibility as fortunate ones, where she was given a great deal of freedom to do the work she wanted to do. The challenge she observed at the time was to connect social impact efforts with the business side of things.

This is one thing that has been changing for the better, but Hunt-Morr remains passionate about social responsibility being an even more seamless component of the workplace and about changing the model for non-profits, about making the model more efficient and less siloed.

Truly connect donors and recipients

While still at Reuters, in 2007, Hunt-Moor and two friends visited a friend already living in Tanzania and met a few students who were in danger of being expelled because they did not have the money to pay school fees. The friends decided to sponsor a group of 12 students, and as a result founded the non-profit, Jiamini. To date, the organization has supported 150 students and has expanded its work to include infrastructure projects across the Mtwara region.

One of the hallmarks of the organization is its relationship-building capacity:

  • Between the founders and the children (“To this day, we still know each and every child.”)

  • Between the children themselves (“Older children are now tutoring younger children,” passing on their newly gained knowledge and skills.)

  • Between donors and recipients. (“We actually believe donors should get to know our kids; it’s not a gimmick,” explains Hunt-Morr.) Ten years ago, the region had power for two hours in 24 (from 2am to 4am). Now with solar power and improved communications, donors and the children are able to communicate via Skype.

  • This reinforces another of Hunt-Morr’s recommendations, that non-profits really need to understand the culture of the people they are working with. It will improve relations, decrease distance, and drive success.

Hunt-Morr volunteers her own time to the organization, traveling to Tanzania once a year in addition to the other time spent as Chief of Operations. There are two people full-time on-site, which she counsels is essential for running an operation such as this.

The individual story is what does it.

Hunt-Morr dove into new territory again when she became involved in the Values & Impact team at Etsy in 2012 and the company’s successful B-Corps re-certification effort. As Etsy ramped up their social responsibility efforts, Hunt-Morr says they worked their way through several economic models, focusing first on the more theoretical before arriving at the more practical approach in play today.

In talking with Heasley about the Etsy brand and how people connect to it, Hunt-Morr explains that our fondness for handcrafted goods is tied to the connection we form with the who has made the product.

If you know the person who made the goods, if there is a story behind it, there is a longer lasting effect. There is a relationship. It’s all about storytelling.

Hunt-Morr’s story is a great model for illustrating the evolution of social responsibility not just as pertains to an individual career, but really for the way we should be looking at the overall concept. It's a complex system of factors leading up to positive impact, including science, technology, and good old people skills.

Build Community

In her latest incarnation as problem solver as Director of Community at Virgin Unite, Hunt-Morr is applying a model of problem solving and decision making and problem solving across a wide range of problem sets. A large part of the model, of course, is connecting and convening people.

We’re essentially a connection engine.

Referring to the Virgin Group’s, or the ethos of entrepreneurship in general, “If it’s broken, let’s fix it,” Virgin Unite serves as an incubator for a wide range of projects ranging from the distinguished Elders tackling human rights issues to battling drug policy reform, to the B-Team focused on more humane business practices.

Many of these, Hunt-Morr admits, are driven by Richard Branson himself. If you've read either of his two biographies or heard him speak, you understand the drive and the passion that he brings to this focus on Virgin Unite. There are a lot of causes and a lot of people to organize around many moving parts.

Branson is hands-on involved in many of these projects, as are other members of his family. His speaking engagements fund the operating costs of the organization so that all donations go directly to the targeted causes.

And while all of this is undoubtedly true, we have also heard Branson's frequent counsel around delegation and the need to surround yourself with capable people to help drive success in these endeavors.

Looking back at Hunt-Morr’s background and looking ahead to what she can accomplish for Virgin Unite and ultimately within the realm of social impact, the potential is huge. She says the traditional non-profit means of doing business, with its costly galas, very small teams, and wasted resources, needs to be fixed. The Virgin United Constellation model that is in place is meant to address a great deal of that, by identifying those causes that fit the problem set targeted by the organization and building cross-disciplinary teams of solvers.

A specific example Hunt-Morr gave of this was an effort to address rhino poaching in South Africa. The interdisciplinary team comprised of supporters and donors is approaching a set of confounding problems to reduce the occurrence of poaching in both the short term and into the future. Part of the effort is centered on training dogs to protect the patrols currently protecting the rhinos. Part of that included the skills required to develop an algorithm to determine the pattern of poaching. But also on the team was a video game developer who is planning on designing a game to help educate youth in countries that sell products that result from poaching.

This is definitely a new paradigm for tackling an issue such as animal rights, and in some ways may seem a luxury today. That being said, you can sense an organization like this growing as new technology develops, and keeping pace with changing economic models, perhaps even becoming more commonplace. Hopefully, they'd continue to rely on and strengthen those core concepts of connectivity and communication.

In time, Hunt-Morr says, a North Star council will be developing a selection and nominating process, whereby they reach out to other organizations that might benefit.

The idea reminds me of something I read in a 2014 interview when Hunt-Morr was at Etsy when she described the way that she saw the Values & Impact Team succeeding. At that time, she said, “Eventually, if everyone is accounting for both people and planet in their work attaining profit for the business, then we’ve succeeded and there will be no need for the team.”

I wonder if there will be a time when the community at Virgin Unite will be able to run itself? It’s really too early to tell. But if that were to happen? I sense Katie Hunt-Morr would find something new to tackle and that she would do a very good job at it.

Special thanks to Nate Heasley, All Good Work, and Blender Workspace. All Good Work connects social impact organizations with workspaces that are interested in donating available space.

Updated November 30, 2017

Link(s) 4 Further Thought

Just one link in addition to those mentioned above, an example of a problem requiring radical problem solving right now.

A sad update on the below. My dear friend Sara Coleman passed away on December 3, 2017, but not before executing two radical fundraising efforts to fight for her cause ALK-Positive Lung Cancer. She would have been 54-years-old today, and was a great role model to all who knew, loved, and fought with her. Read it and learn!


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