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Summit Begins with Keynote by Grameen Foundation’s Alex Counts

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/5/2013

The 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit kicked off this morning with rousing music and a full house at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. After opening remarks by ASAP president and CEO Art Canter, board chair Russ Buchanan, CSAP, and program chair Jan Twombly, CSAP, the stage was set for the first keynote speaker, Alex Counts, head of the Grameen Foundation, a global microfinance organization that works to alleviate poverty in developing nations by partnering with corporations, governments, NGOs, villages, and various local entities.

Counts spoke about the history of Grameen Foundation, its work, its partnerships around the world, and some of the challenges it faces in forming and managing its own brand of alliances. Founded in 1987 by Counts with $6,000 in seed money from Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, Grameen Foundation has grown to a $20 million international organization. Running projects from Bangladesh to Ghana and Uganda to Indonesia and beyond, Grameen seeks to alleviate poverty by providing economic opportunity and access to information and health care to poor people in developing nations.

“We often see the poor through their disabilities, from what they lack,” Counts explained. “But another lens is to look at them through what they have—their skills, especially their ability to stay alive. That is a skill that can be capitalized.”

Among its many projects, Grameen Foundation has provided microcredit in Bangladesh, mobile phones to village women to use in business in Bangladesh and Uganda, mobile health care in Ghana, and women’s empowerment programs in the Arab world. To succeed in these efforts, Grameen works through partnerships with companies such as Google, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and Qualcomm, plus organizations like the Gates Foundation and the World Bank, and local companies and entities—all the way down to the village level.

Grameen's complex alliances experience many of the same successes, failures, and challenges as alliances that operate purely in the business realm. Counts said that the lessons learned from his years of partnering experience include the importance of establishing trusting relationships (while not becoming overly reliant on them), surfacing and acknowledging stereotypes about partners and transcending them, developing champions of the alliance while also anticipating the consequences when those champions inevitably leave, and measuring “the right things” to show how an alliance is delivering value for an organization—and where it is falling short.

Maintaining openness to ambiguity and informality across cultures is also key to Grameen’s partnering successes, as is assuming good intentions on others’ part until convinced otherwise. And in closing, Counts related his “single biggest insight”: “how incredibly important it is to try to see the world through the eyes of the people you’re working with, and other people generally. What does it look like from where they sit? What does their private conversation about you look like?” As Counts noted, taking this approach doesn’t mean you have to agree with your partners’ perceptions, but being honest about differences and even stereotypes “gives deep insight” and can help avoid misunderstandings, reroute alliances that are going “off the rails,” and propel partnerships—whether for-profit or non-profit—to greater maturity and success.

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