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Listening To Learn: Best Practices for Social Purpose Strategy

By 3p Contributor
Haitian recyclers take a break from a quarterly meeting in Port-au-Prince.

By Kelsey Halling

A couple of years ago, a graduate student and I sat down to enjoy a cold beverage in an oppressively hot Haitian bar. The topic? The importance of listening to feedback over prescribing solutions.

“But how do you go about getting that information?” she asked.

“It’s simple,” I responded. “You pick a neighborhood and get an introduction to someone who lives there. Then pay them to join you for a day of walking from house to house, meeting their neighbors, and asking if you can talk to them about garbage. When a neighbor says yes, survey them.”

“But, that would take so much time!” she exclaimed.

It does.

And it’s worth it. And a lot of organizations don’t do it.


One of the things I am most proud of when it comes to the way that our company, Thread, conducts business, is that we have spent the past five years asking good questions as opposed to prescribing answers. Asking good questions is one of the most important skills a person, or a team, can develop. It’s also a skill attributed to successful high-performers, so it stands to reason that it translates as an indicator of a successful company.

Good questions require listening, synthesizing data, seeing the gaps in your own understanding or planning, and then finding the right information to make the best decision. Questioning, rather than prescribing is what leads to innovative, collaborative, sustainable solutions. I believe that this is why Thread has been successful in Haiti -- an environment where we have watched many organizations fail.

When we fail to listen

It happens often in economic development. People/governments/companies travel to a poor community and tell the people there what they need. Because we know better, right? Often times, they bring them stuff they think is needed. Water filtration systems are put in place, schools are built, and a bunch of kids are given shoes. These are all good things, right?

Except that, the water filtration system is made of expensive parts that need to be imported from far away. After a few months, something breaks and no one can replace it. Then the system sits and rusts. Schools are built and sit empty because there are no teachers to run them. Local shoe makers are put out of business. 

All of this happens because people arrive thinking they are doing a good thing, and no one takes the time to first check their hypothesis with the communities they are trying to help.

First step: Talk to people

Thread was built on the idea that “If Haiti can turn trash into money, that's good.” We spent months testing this theory. We asked more people than I can remember (which is why we keep meticulous records) about jobs and waste, family life and neighborhood resources.

It’s easier to overthink than it is to hit the pavement and start asking things like:

  • What do you do with your waste?

  • What do you think about plastic bottles?

  • Are you interested in collecting these bottles if we pay you for them?

  • Would this be a good thing for your neighborhood?

  • Is there something else more important for your community?

  • What do you need? What do you want? How can we work with you to be useful?

It’s only through asking that we were able to adjust our methods and approach based on constantly gathered feedback. Quickly, we started to learn and adjust.

Listening to improve

We recently hosted our second quarterly meeting of this year with our Haitian suppliers in Port-au-Prince. Historically, these meetings have been led by Thread or a partner organization. This time, we experimented with a supplier-run meeting. We talked to our suppliers and elected two leaders, Manniqe and Equel. Thread’s Haiti Field Manager, Richardson, coached them on how to build an agenda and facilitate a meeting. 

Manique and Equel did a great job. The goal in this new format is to make these meetings a habit that happens whether or not Thread is there. I like problem-solving and sometimes I have good ideas, but I’m not hubristic enough to think that I should be standing in front of more than 40 entrepreneurs telling them how to run their businesses in Haiti.

I’m there to listen, to support, and occasionally bring access to financing. I believe that the answers to all of the challenges these entrepreneurs face are in that room in their collective expertise. If we can facilitate good discussion and ask the right questions, they will learn so much more from one another than I could ever teach them. Again, the solutions are only found through listening.

The impact: It’s about lasting change

We spend a lot of time at Thread talking about the transparency in our supply chain, the impact stats behind our fabric, and the income being generated in poor communities through the recycling of plastic. Sometimes this overshadows what we really consider to be our responsibility to the places and people we work with.

We don’t just know where our raw materials come from and visit once a year to satisfy a compliance requirement. We go beyond auditing to focus on coaching. We prefer lasting development to compliance. We don’t just generate income opportunities, we teach people how to run and grow businesses. That’s how we measure responsibility.

I’ve had the privilege of watching entrepreneurs like Manique and Nadine grow from learning to run a business into successful entrepreneurs. Now, they are becoming leaders in their industry.

This is what we’re talking about when we say things like “where your stuff comes from is just as important as where you take it.” This is what we mean by the phrase "Ground to Good." It’s beyond ensuring that labor laws are met, that minimum wage is being paid, that the material is certified recycled content. It’s the belief that we can leave some part of this world better and help people develop the skills they need to keep improving it.

Follow Thread to learn more about how entrepreneurs in Haiti are growing their businesses and making their communities better places to live and work. T-shirt made from the plastic collected by people like Manique and Nadine are available on the Thread website.

Images courtesy of Thread

Kelsey Halling is director of impact for Thread. She measures, manages, and improves the impact Thread has on people, planet, and profit along every step of the journey from a plastic bottle to the most responsible fabric on the planet. Follow Thread on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to learn more.

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