Grameen Foundation and partnerships

Last week during the 2013 ASAP Global Summit I was asked on Twitter what my favorite topic or presenter was and without hesitation I answered “presenter: Alex Counts, very interesting to hear how Grameen Foundation is built on alliances and collaboration”.

Alex Counts is the President and CEO of the Grameen Foundation and was the first keynote speaker to talk to over 340 attendees of the 2013 ASAP Global Summit in Orlando. In a very open way Alex spoke about how he opportunistically approached Muhammad Yunus in the late ‘80s to jointly end poverty. As a result Yunus invited Alex to join him in Bangladesh, where he spent 10 years working in microfinance and poverty reduction. In 1997 Alex founded the Grameen Foundation with a seed grant of $6000 from Professor Muhammad Yunus. Over the years the Grameen Foundation has grown to a leading international humanitarian organization with an annual budget of approximately $25 million.

In his keynote Alex talked about how the growth has been built upon partnerships with commercial companies like Google, Citybank and Qualcomm but also with organizations like the Gates Foundation, the Ghana Health Service and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. With the latter three Grameen created the MOTECH partnership with the purpose to determine how mobile phones can be used to increase the level of prenatal and neonatal care in rural Ghana. It was in this partnership that was decided to document the lessons learned in the project and publicize them on the Internet. Alex explained that this decision was at first met with a lot of criticism and doubt. Would it be wise to be so transparent about the things that went wrong? It turned out that the complete transparency in the project and the partnership turned for the good and accelerated the project.

On page 40 of the 2012 lessons document is being spoken specifically about the lessons learned in the partnership. When you read them you can see how the first three of the lessons are equally applicable to business alliances:

    1. Develop – and document – clear agreements.
    2. Educate each other.
    3. Create clear accountability.

The better this foundation is established early on, the clearer expectations will be set and can be managed.

Alex indicated in his talk that the many partnerships were essential to create the success of Grameen Foundation but equally led to many failures and challenges. Among the lessons learned is the importance of establishing trust early on, like in business alliances.

Alex Counts delivered a speech that was clearly focused on the audience where he explained how Grameen Foundation’s growth was enabled by partnerships. At the same time Alex knew to bridge the experiences in the non-profit world towards the world of business alliances, in which most of the conference attendees are working. Alex managed to infuse his speech with many joyful anecdotes, like the one about a phone project to enable women to build a business with a mobile phone. It seems that in this project Professor Yunus asked one of the attendees, who never worked with a phone before, how many hours it took here to learn to operate the phone. As Alex told the anecdote the woman responded to Professor Yunus that he must be used to very difficult phones that require hours to operate. Hers only had 10 numbers and she was working with it within a few minutes.

Read more about the Grameen Foundation, Alex Counts’ profile and on the ASAP website about Alex’ speech.