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Banks, Brilliant Innovation and the Evolution of NGOs


A few years back, I met Audette Exel at a Conscious Capitalism innovation conference.

Exel, an extremely successful banker in her own right, pioneered a new model of social innovation: She connected investment bankers and not-for-profits under the same roof. The bankers could make a meaningful contribution to social causes they believed in while doing what they did best – make money. The not-for-profits, receiving a direct cut of the bankers’ earnings, didn’t carry the perennial cloud of insolvency over their heads.

The success of Exel’s Adara Group is testament to the fact this model works.

Wanting to catch up on the latest, I invited her to a podcast interview.  It went so well, I transcribed the highlights of the radio show for readers.


Marc Stoiber: Audette, before we launch into Adara and the innovative work you’re doing, give us a bit of background.

Audette Exel: I began my career as a lawyer doing project finance work, then went into corporate finance advisory work, and finally ran one of three publicly traded banks in Bermuda. Through that I chaired the Bermuda Stock Exchange. I actually signed the $5 note in Bermuda, which my social activist family found quite hilarious.

From my earliest times as a thinking adult, I was always thinking about disparity, injustice and social justice. I kept that passion as my career wound along a path through business, law and banking.
MS: In 1995, you were elected a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum. A big deal. Tell us about that.

AE: Actually, there is a funny story connected to that. I got a letter by fax back in those days from Yehudi Menuhin. It was over Christmas and it said that the World Economic Forum was going to bestow this honor on me.

I actually thought it was a bunch of my friends playing a joke on me as sort of a Christmas joke.

It was because I was very young and at the helm of a bank, and I guess maybe because I had always tried to talk about reconciling disparity with the power of business. It was an enormous honor.

Actually, as it turns out, the World Economic Forum and being invited to WEF for a few years and getting that award actually led to my connection with Uganda and the First Lady of Uganda, so a lot has unfolded from that.

MS: From what I understand, your connections in Uganda inspired Adara. Now let’s dig into this great organization you’ve created. Describe the two halves of Adara. You've got the for-profit and the not-for-profit.

AE: Absolutely. The Adara group is made up of two parts.

The first part is the business engine. That's the corporate finance team. They're investment banker types, and people that come out of that part of the world.

Their job is to relentlessly make money using their corporate finance skills, knowing that that money will be donated across the desk – both in real terms, as they literally sit across the desk from their not-for-profit team mates - but also across to our international development organization, Adara Development, which is now a truly global organization touching tens of thousands of people a year in poverty.

That organization is staffed by amazing development specialists all over the world.

People on the not-for-profit side of the desk know that their job is to relentlessly think about how to provide evidence-based, best practice service to people in poverty. We've all got one mission, but we have different skills that we bring to the party.

MS: On the one side are people making so much money they often feel a void in their soul that they don't know how to fill. Then the folks in the not-for-profit sector are constantly living with the fear of having their last paycheck. That’s a terrifically complementary group to bring together.

AE: Absolutely. When you're running a bank, you're thinking all the time about matching your assets and your liabilities. With those eyes, I started to look at the nonprofit world and it really struck me like a bolt out of the blue that that was one of the really big problems and struggles that nonprofits had.

For me, that's what really was the genesis of the idea to try a new model.

Once I got into the banking world, I found out it was full of people who were absolutely brilliant, many of whom had really deep values but who felt the similar emptiness. They loved their work. It was intellectual chess, but what was it all about?

I tried to find a marriage of those two needs.

I guess we're trying to bring mastery, purpose and autonomy in our own small way to the NGO and banking community.
MS: If you think about it, the largest group of people in the workforce today is millennials, and they aren't working just for the money anymore. They want a company that makes meaning.

AE: I'm a huge fan of millennials because they're coming to the equation with a completely different definition of what success is in their lives.

We have a lot of millenials who come to us trying to crack that nut of how you can have a life where you can use your skills to build security, but at the same time do something great for the world.

MS: Right now, you're working on a new model, harnessing some of the most powerful bankers in Australia.

AE: That's right. We just launched the Adara Playground. It’s a panel corporate finance, business and very senior investment bankers can join for two years.

If they join, they agree that they will work for our corporate finance business at the same time they're running their own big banks or whatever they're doing. They'll work for us on at least one mandate per year - entirely for free.

MS: That's fantastic.

AE: You can imagine if every bank in the world had a panel structure or a playground where they said to their new employees and their senior leaders, "You can run deals through the playground and the money that's made on those deals will all go to great causes." Imagine how powerful that would be in effecting change. It has great potential.

We're going to change the meme so people can see how easy it is to use skills for good and how great it is to use skills for good.

Probably the ten most famous bankers in Australia have lined up to join us, including chairs of the largest publicly traded banks, the CEO of the biggest integrated investment bank, the chair of the largest independent investment bank and senior non-executive directors.

MS: Let's look at the other side of the table, the not-for-profit side. Working for Adara must be a very attractive to people who are saying, "I want to go into the not-for-profit side of things, but I want to work with a group where I know that I'm going to have security."

AE: I think we have amazing people working with us. It takes my breath away the quality of people that have joined this journey. In terms of what grabs them about Adara, I think there are a few things, but I think the model underpinning not only the financial viability but also their own security is one.

I think it's also that we're quite contrarian, and we do what our communities think and tell us is right on the ground. We're not subject to political whim.

Because the financial viability is underpinned by the businesses, our people know that they're not going to be caught in the middle between donors and people we’re helping.

MS: How have the projects changed? I remember when we first spoke years ago it was all about Africa. You were building roads and schools in Africa. How have your projects evolved and what have you learned from the way they've evolved?

AE: We've made a lot of mistakes. We moved too quickly in the earlier days and intervened in communities doing stuff that wasn't right for that community. I think, of the first 1,000 latrines we built, 970 of them turned into goat sheds, so it's been quite a journey.

The work has evolved over the years. We've lived 17 years through three Ebola outbreaks. We've lived through a 10-year Maoist civil war in Nepal. However, in terms of where it's evolved now, one of the great things about having a cornerstone funder, is we have relentlessly stared down our mistakes and funded really good research all the way through to see where we're messing it up and fixed it.

Where are we now? We're very well known particularly for our work with neonatal intensive care for babies at risk in very remote settings.

We're very connected now to some of the big global leaders in health, trying to help showcase and train how you run maternal-infant support facilities at a tertiary level in very remote places. We're also pretty well known for the rescue of kids from traffickers. We got involved in that work and learned our way through it.

The final thing we're pretty well known for is very remote health and education. To give you a sense of that, our most remote project when I first went there is a 25-day walk from the nearest road.

MS: Are we looking at the future NGO model here?

AE: I think this contributes to what's going to come.

I think that the NGO sector will continue to look for partners in the business community, and the business community will need to figure out how they can use their businesses and their skills for purpose.

MS: Do you think Adara could become a broker between people who are looking to do good and people who need the backing so that they can do good? Do you see yourself sharing this learning as some sort of a creative commons or creating an app for that?

AE: There's no question. We share knowledge locally, regionally, nationally and globally. How do we do that to touch as many lives as we can?

I love your idea of the commons. Technology opens up huge opportunities for us to be able to share.

I don't believe that it's so much about replicating. I think it's about modeling, showcasing and then supporting others to find their own way to achieve the same ends. Yes, you're going to see a lot of us in that space in the next five to ten years trying to help as much as we can.

MS: I look at things like the Occupy movement. This could become a brand pillar in the rehabilitation of banking.

AE: I agree with that. Brand is such a powerful thing. You know so much more about this than me, but I think the trick is it's got to be real.

When you run a for-purpose business or you run a business that has a purpose deeply embedded in it, it's got to be very real because people know what authentic is. They can sniff out something that’s a marketing ploy, as opposed to something that’s actually real.

I think the divide that we're seeing, the disparity and that terrible statistic that the 85 richest people in the world have the combined wealth of the bottom three and a half billion is unsustainable at every level.

We need to find ways to effect significant change.

MS: You talked about authentic brand. What are the hallmarks to the authentic brand to you?

AE: Integrity. That's the thing we talked about at the start. It's very easy to be pushed into becoming an icon, and I believe that speaking with honesty about the journey is incredibly important, even the parts where you've made terrible mistakes. In fact, weirdly, sometimes making mistakes is the greatest contribution you can make because others learn from them.

There's clearly living the actions rather than the words. It's one thing to be a thought leader, as they say, and it's another thing get out there, give it a go and do it.

I think humility stands a bit with truthfulness for me, but the minute that you fall into arrogance, you stop listening. I think really deep authenticity comes from always learning and listening.

Then you have to model it. It's not about telling people what to do. It's about inspiring them by being the best model you can be.

MS: Do you think that going forward brands that embrace authenticity might actually have an easier go of it?

AE: Yes. You're touching on a strong point. It's really hard work to be an image. It's like they tell you when you're little and they say, "Don't lie because you can never remember what your lies are."

I decided very early in my adult life that I could only be myself.

Actually, I think there's another very interesting topic of discussion around this. What does it say about leadership today, that simply being authentic or simply being yourself is somehow a huge badge of honor?

MS: Isn't that crazy?

AE: People have great instincts about who is real and who is not. When you hear someone speaking on-point and spinning, every bone in your body says that's just…

MS: Crap.

AE: I was just trying to look for another word that wasn't a swear word. I was having trouble.

MS: You're Australian. You've done extremely well, half an hour without swearing. That's fantastic.

AE: That's because my mother is in the next room.

MS: Here's the final question. Five years from now, you're standing on a stone and looking backwards at this magical thing you've created. What is it? What does the next five years look like?

AE: The next five years are about bringing home everything that we've tried to do in the last seventeen years. To not only do deeper and better service to more people in need, but to have really proved out that anybody can do the same as we've done and help people do that.

MS: It also strikes me that part of humility is saying, "I don't have a clue where this is going to go." The world is just shifting and you'd be arrogant to say, "This is exactly where we're going to go," because things do shift so quickly.

AE: Yes, life does kind of blow back your hair sometimes and there are things that happen that you don't see coming.

MS: Audette, thank you.

AE: My pleasure.

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