June 2, 2014

Our Story

Looking around our offices today, it’s hard to believe how much Reboot has changed in more than three years of practice. From our beginning—two people, a home office, and a quixotic quest—we’ve grown to a 20-person collective of “practicing theorists”, with 34 projects in 17 countries under our belts. We’ve helped leading global institutions and grassroots community groups alike set policies, develop processes, and deliver services to alleviate human suffering and advance social justice.

This week, as we celebrate the launch of our new website, we’re proud to highlight our growing capabilities, and keen to contribute our theories and models to the wider community of practice. So to that end—as well as to show our appreciation for our brilliant staff and the inspired partners who have trusted us with their missions—we’re taking this opportunity to look back at Reboot’s growth, offer a glimpse of where we’re going, and pass on a few of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

This post marks the first of a three-part series and starts at the beginning: how we came to be, why we exist, and what our model for change is.

Our Mission

Reboot officially opened its doors in 2011. But the seeds for Reboot were planted a year earlier, when Panthea and I met at a geeky, weekend barcamp on government transparency.

I was working at the Center for American Progress, Panthea at the UN. We found a common frustration with our field; we had seen firsthand how many government and development organizations, despite significant resources invested, were not always effective at meeting the needs of the communities they sought to serve.

It was not for lack of effort. We knew how deeply our colleagues were invested in their work and committed to their missions. It was the tools, theories, and ways of working that we believed were too often ineffective. And we joined many others in  hypothesizing that our basic model of democratic governance needed significant rework.

We felt that the deepest challenge was in the public sector’s indirect accountability chain. Private corporations face a straightforward litmus test: do consumers believe a company’s offerings add value to their lives? If the answer is “no,” then consumers simply go with another company and offering.

But in the public sector, there’s rarely another option when critical social services don’t deliver. When stakes are highest—usually for citizens of certain income brackets, ethnic backgrounds, and geographies—the choices are often most thin, and the failure of a public service has dire consequences. When an infant in rural Nigeria dies because she lacks access to clean water, where can her grieving parents turn?

Private companies, which live or die by the quality of the services they provide, have long employed a variety of means for understanding and serving people’s needs. Our mission was to find a way to bring these tools and techniques to the service of those delivering public benefit, and to design services and interventions that effectively met people’s needs. Similarly, just as companies are constantly learning to optimize their infrastructure and internal processes around consumer satisfaction, we wanted to help governments and development institutions optimize their policies and practices around improving human well-being.

Our Model

When people ask, “What does Reboot do?” the answer is long, because, depending on the engagement, we may act as a management consultancy, grant maker, research and design shop, program implementer, and/or strategic communications firm. In short, we have done a great many things in a variety of different places, but broadly we can say our work falls into three core areas:

  1. Research and Design: We draw upon time-tested approaches from diverse disciplines, including economics, anthropology, design, and engineering, to understand challenges and design interventions that improve public service delivery or advance accountability in public institutions.
  2. Implementation: We stand by our designs by working with our clients and partners, including civil society organizations, private sector, and target communities, to implement programs that promote human development.

  3. Evaluation, Learning, and Advocacy: We examine the lessons and results of our programs, and those of others, to refine our theory of change, and to share and advocate for effective, evidence-based approaches to advancing global development.

It’s a model that has been fulfilling in terms of our mission and values,  although it’s not always operationally easy. Each of our three areas of work requires different operational models, and we adapt staffing, financial structures, and logistics management as necessary. This is also one of the reasons why many organizations focus only on one of these three elements. And, indeed, our advisors and many business books have counseled against this approach. Specialization is a safer business model.

But we started Reboot to create change, not run a business. We saw that operating across these distinct but overlapping realms makes us more thoughtful, more well-rounded practitioners. We’re able to design better programs, manage their effective implementations, and contribute back to global conversations because we are invested throughout the process.

We also made the choice to operate as a consultancy because we saw that our impact could be greater by assisting major public sector and development organizations in achieving their missions. We knew these institutions’ strengths, and saw opportunities where they could operate better. By working with them as advisors and implementers, we saw a more effective and sustainable path to influence global development practice.

Additionally, we are proud to be a for-profit social enterprise. Working under contract with our partners means we have direct accountability for the success or failure of our ideas. The global development space is prone to lively debates and constant experimentation around how to better deliver on its promise. If our results can’t withstand this competitive market of ideas, then we might as well all go home.

Thus far we’ve been fortunate in this regard, which has allowed us to be able to invest 100% of what (relatively little) profit we’ve gleaned back into our mission. As soon as we were able, we began providing pro-bono services to mission-oriented organizations and have recently expanded our charitable activities to include offering catalytic grants to early stage social enterprises. We’ve also used our profit as working capital to finance a staff that works without the constraints of being tied to specific project funding and as the resources to advance our advocacy.  So we think our case demonstrates how for-profit can easily be for-good.

Drivers of Growth

Thankfully, the market response we’ve seen in the past few years suggests that we may be on to something.

Our consulting projects and pro-bono engagements are allowing us to explore approaches to fulfilling what we call a “21st century social contract”.  We are humbled and amazed by the incredible opportunities and lessons offered along the way.

We started an organization—as most founders probably do—because we were frustrated about the way the world worked, and because we thought (perhaps naively) that we could do something to change things for the better.

Today—well, we remain frustrated and still naïve, though hopefully less so—we are channeling our frustration more constructively. Through our work, we have been able to translate our vision and theory of change into actionable practice. In the process, we have played a part and taken steps, however small, toward creating the world we want.

From our very first project, conducting research on financial inclusion for an academic institution, our capabilities have grown: We’ve brought the perspectives of marginalized populations to design policies and programs in Tunisia, Pakistan, and Nicaragua. We’ve worked on human trafficking, public sector governance, media development, civic innovation and other diverse issues. We’ve established an office and discovered a wonderful community of partners in the Niger Delta. And we’ve helped advance inclusive development in several troubled and post-conflict states; this includes supporting a transitional government to administer legitimate elections in a newly democratic state still plagued by unrest.

None of this would be possible without the commitment and passion of our team—the more than 20 brilliant, talented thinkers and doers in our ranks (and we’re looking for more), as well as 20-plus collaborators and partners who have contributed in generous and insightful ways, both large and small.

Equally important are those who entrust us with their important challenges. We are thankful for our clients, whose values and perspectives align with that of our work, and who welcome moving beyond a traditional client-vendor modality towards deeper partnerships to achieve collective goals. They have come to us with some of their most difficult issues and important initiatives, and given us the space to ask tough questions and experiment with approaches in our joint pursuit for better answers. We are deeply grateful for their trust and for the opportunities they have provided.

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The most important part of all this is how we do it. So up next, we’ll talk about our model and the important lessons we’ve learned to date. Stay tuned part two!

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