The Thank You Economy – a development review, part 2/2

This is the shorter and more practical second part of my take on the Thank You Economy (TYE) and its value for discussing some of the current and future developments of aid, especially around the ‘social’ aspects and ‘development 2.0’. The first part focussed on the actual book review and some general observations. Just a brief reminder of what Gary Vaynerchuk means by TYE:
In short, [companies] are going to have to relearn and employ the ethics and skills our great-grandparents' generation took for granted, and that many of them put into building their own businesses. We're living in what I like to call the Thank You Economy, because only the companies that can figure out how to mind their manners in a very old-fashioned way and do it authentically are going to have a prayer of competing. Note that I said you have to do it authentically. I am wired like a CEO and care a great deal about the bottom line, but I care about my customers even more than that. That's always been my competitive advantage. I approach business the same way I
approach every talk I present I bring this attitude whether I have an audience of ten or ten thousand. Everybody counts, and gets the best I have to give. A lot of the time, we call people who do a consistently great job 'a professional' or a 'real pro'. I try to be a pro at all times, and I demand that everyone I hire or work with try to be one, too. All my employees have to have as much of that caring in their DNA as I do.

So what examples for the emergence and applicability of TYE as well as its limitations for international development have I come across in the weeks I started to read and think about Gary book?

Large aid organisations do not have or need customers
Let’s be honest: Large aid organisations, no matter whether they are NGOs, bilateral donors or international organisations do not really benefit from engaging with ‘ordinary’ people; they are attractive employers, have an established reputation or brand imagine and can still engage with the community in old-fashioned ways such as conferences, more academic debates or traditional advocacy or outreach work, via a normal website or a supporters group at your university. In the serious and professional world of aid there is also no space for irony or human qualities as Brewis et al. explore in a wonderful book:

Where are the passion, the joy and the pain, the tears, the laughter, the suffering, the tedium and the irony, the delight, the horror and terror, oppression and death, the friendships and the hatreds? Where, in short, are all the experiences and qualities that, to paraphrase Nietzsche, make us human, all too human? (p.13)
– maybe this is best left to (anonymous) bloggers?! 

You better have a day job if you want to work in the development TYE
Two of my favourite aid bloggers, Jennifer Lentfer and Saundra Schimmelpfennig and their work is an excellent example of the TYE – except for the fact that they don’t run a restaurant, dental practice or a wine shop (these are successful examples from the book); right now there is still a gap between embracing social media, being active, proactive and available and translating it into sustainable paid employment; or, to put it the other way round: Bill Easterly or Edward Carr, two interesting academic bloggers, just happen to have full-time jobs-if the stopped blogging tomorrow, they would still be professors. 

Those who can, consult – and keep a low profile
Freelance work and networking have always been part of development, but interestingly, those who prefer flexible engagements are often those who keep a low or even no virtual profile. The tendency to be a closed shop and the lack of sharing insights with the public is a trend Gary criticises in today’s economy and he predicts that transparency will become a vital commodity in the TYE – also for large aid organisations?

‘Keep the conversation going’ – at the next aid summit
Gary argues that ‘keeping the conversation going (p.88) is an essential feature of the TYE. Right now, there is no conversation that is just taking place in the virtual space or primarily discussed ‘online’. The OpenAid/Aid transparency debate is a great example of how various parts of the community can contribute to an exciting new topic from a policy, technology or academic background – but in the end there is still a high-level OECD meeting somewhere. Although knowledge is a virtual good it is still a commodity that is dealt within the ‘1.0’ infrastructure.
The wisdom of crowds – for free, please!
Jennifer Lentfer’s Would YOU fund this organization?, Lawrence Haddad’s Millions, not Billions or Erin Antcliffe’s Strategy development in small-meal-sized chunks recent posts to mobilise the wisdom of crowds is interesting and a unique ‘2.0’ phenomenon. It is still in its infancy, but the question arises how those who read, think and comment can or should be ‘rewarded’. If you get paid for exactly these things how can the TYE work for you, how can you be rewarded? Maybe there will be chance to be hired at a later stage of a project as a consultant, but is there space for a different level of cooperation, exchange and also remuneration other than ‘the consultancy’?
How can the TYE work in development?
Alanna Shaikh offers an interesting model of having a diverse product portfolio, ranging from paid one-on-one sessions on career planning to virtual engagement via TED and a ‘real’ job inside the aid industry; diversity seems to be a key ingredient of TYE success. Also, a lot is still about the right person at the right place, e.g. Ian Thorpe’s work with UNICEF. But these examples are no indication of how large organisations are really changing.
And what about the demand side? Organisational culture will be slow to adapt and change in bureaucratic organisations, because TYE organisations will not become a threat any time soon. More innovative NGOs, more philantrocapitalism and alternative ways of funding development will appear-but that doesn’t change the relationship between the taxpayer and her government. In the near future these organisations will start to look and behave like the music industry when Napster appeared a few years ago or like the publishing industry today where newspapers and book publishers cling to old revenue models. The interesting story of Scott Gilmore’s Peace Dividend Trust is one example how different and innovative organisations who embrace the TYE (maybe Scott has a similar attitude than Gary) and will have a positive impact.

The big elephant in the room will be how all of this will affect the ‘real customers’ in those countries where development is implemented. This could be another post, but I guess I’d need some input from the dear readers to formulate a clearer argument around this issue.
It seems to me that the positive old-fashioned values that Gary wants to employ in next generation's successful businesses to form the foundation of a TYE are not exactly the same values on which large aid organisations have been banking on for the last decades. Cultural change will be slow and TYE-aid-entrepreneurs probably need to rely for a while on employment or funding from the 'old economy'. But Gary's book reminds me that social media will play a more important role and that it eventually will change how people perceive aid and employment in the 'industry' and offering traditional packages like most international organisations do at the moment may not be enough in the future to attrack the 'best' people.


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