Feeling frustrated by your job in development? Become an extrapreneur

Find the people who share your commitment – even if they work for different companies – and that can be your fantasy development team

I recently found myself talking to a Nigerian development professional. He was finishing his master’s degree in New York and I shared the anxiety he felt about returning home to work in the development sector. He cares deeply about social progress in his country, but sees too many constraints on effectiveness and too many perverse incentives. Worst of all: too many professionals who have become complacent about it.

His skepticism is understandable, but the best advice I could offer is that there are always pockets of opportunity where impact possible. Sometimes those pockets cut across organisations. Find the people who share your commitment – even if they sit in a different office with a different logo on their business cards – and that can be your team.

Think of this as working extra-organisationally. It encompasses working beyond agency walls or as an independent development professional. In this way, it dovetails with the rise of freelancers known as digital nomads and small, nimble organisations across all sectors of the economy. The development sector has actually been ahead of many others in its use of short-term consultants, though often this has been done reluctantly, due to project-based and term-limited funding or bureaucratic restrictions against adding new full-time positions.

Today, the enabling environment and positive reasons to work this way are greater than ever. Four factors are driving this shift.

Open networking

It used to be the case that organisational roles provided entry into conversations. There were few ways to make connections and build relationships without the legitimacy of an agency brand. The rise of social media has changed that for all sectors, including ours. Far-flung development professionals use LinkedIn groups, Twitter conversations and personal blogs to build relationships across boundaries. Finding like-minded partners and building a community has never been easier.

Shared physical infrastructure

The boom in social impact co-working spaces has contributed to open networking, but it goes further than building connections. Having an office creates legitimacy and enhances productivity. It now takes little more than purchasing a laptop and paying a membership fee.

These spaces range from those with specific missions, such as the Open Gov Hubs in Washington DC and Kathmandu, to the general-purpose Impact Hub network. Others are more oriented toward business and technology in previously underserved areas, such as Nairobi’s iHub or Kampala’s Hive Colab.

Lightweight technological infrastructure

The backend of an organisation can be challenging to manage, especially for those more focused on developing new programmes or delivering services. Fortunately, a diverse field of tools makes lightweight operations possible: Google Apps provides the backbone of collaboration for many small organisations, with Slack smoothing internal communications for many; Squarespace and Wordpress lead the pack in website development for non-designers and non-coders; project management tools such as Trello or Basecamp keep tasks on track; and accounting becomes easier through the likes of Freshbooks and Wave.

Such tools are created for small businesses in the private sector, but their relevance to small or cross-organisational teams in international development is hard to miss. Often, the hardest part of establishing this backend is determining which tools work best with irregular or low-bandwidth internet access.

Access to financing

Innovation and seed funding has become increasingly available in global development, as donors mirror the private sector practices of making small bets to spur new approaches. Traditional aid donors often fund these efforts, while giving them new institutional homes to provide greater flexibility (such as the Global Innovation Fund or Making All Voices Count). This frees applicants from many of the proposal and reporting mechanisms needed to access larger sums.

Unfortunately, many of these financing channels still struggle to reach the local innovators who are best positioned to meet their communities’ needs.


What this all means: extrapreneurs in development

These factors lower the barriers to starting new initiatives and organisations, as well as to collaboration across organisational boundaries. Joint initiatives find it easier to establish brands and web presences separate from parent institutions; innovation funding creates organisational space and legitimacy for new efforts within older organisations; and even large development implementers have found it useful to place staff in co-working spaces.

The development sector needs to recognise the rise of the extrapreneur. If entrepreneurs build new organisations and intrapreneurs make change from within, then extrapreneurs create things in a space that transcends any one agency. Extrapreneurship is a partnership approach that goes beyond co-ordination or co-branding. It starts with the network and leverages the factors above to create a disproportionately greater development impact.

If you are worried that development agencies are stuck in their old ways, reach beyond their walls to find your team and build something new.


Author: Dave Algoso is an international development consultant. Follow @dalgoso on Twitter.

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