In this podcast episode of Our Mergon Journey series, Pieter Faure interviews Lauren Cloete-Henning and Keri-Leigh Paschal about the origins of Muthobi, Nation Builder and Ziwani. Within the context of a global shift in thinking about corporate social responsibility, these different Mergon initiatives have been serving as a bridge between business and positive social impact, for more than a decade. Read this summary article highlighting Nation Builder’s journey – a call to collaboration and reminder that our strength is in the power of the collective.
Muthobi: laying good foundations
The conversation kicked off with Keri and Lauren recalling their journeys of getting involved with Mergon and their shared passion for socially responsible investment, which eventually led to the development of Mergon’s first social impact initiative, Muthobi. ‘At that time,’ Keri explained, ‘Mergon was in the process of developing solid relationships with Kingdom-driven not-for-profit organisations. With one foot in the business world and another in the not-for-profit world, we felt we had a unique opportunity to bring those two worlds together.’
Like the shepherd tree from which it was named, Muthobi was created to be ‘a gathering space’ and platform for engagement between the business and non profit sectors. Pieter shared, ‘We started off as a connector, trying to bring these two sectors together to make a difference and to see greater impact come from the funds that are released through these partnerships. But we quickly realised that there were other challenges that needed to be solved and it led us in a different direction’ – a direction that would eventually lead Muthobi to transition into becoming Nation Builder.
Nation Builder: bridging a siloed sector
Lauren elaborated on the story: ‘We found that the industry was siloed. People were disconnected, and thinking was disjointed. The business world and the not-for-profit world had so much to learn from each other and yet were working separately. A big part of our role was in bridging these siloed sectors.’
Initially, they brought all stakeholders together in the same room, but soon realised the importance of establishing strong relationships beforehand, leading them to keep the gatherings separate. In the meantime, they focused on acting as a knowledge transfer between the NPO and business leaders. Keri shared, ‘We’d hear about all the challenges and successes, and then transfer a lot of that knowledge between the two. But over time, we built trust, which enabled people to step out of their comfort zones and be vulnerable with one another.’ Acknowledging the ‘weighty responsibility’ and often ‘lonely place’ that working in the development sector could be, she highlighted how valuable Nation Builder became over time as a supportive and interactive community. It was a ‘safe space’, where individuals could openly discuss challenges, engage in collective learning, and celebrate the victories, big and small, along the way.
Learning from the collective
According to Pieter, the growth in trust was largely influenced by the attitude they brought to the table. ‘We were not driving our own agenda,’ he shared, ‘but we were coming to serve and discern where and how we could get behind the momentum we were experiencing.’
Lauren pointed out that not being the experts in the room actually worked to their advantage. It allowed them to gain an unbiased ‘bird’s-eye view’ on what they saw within the industry. Rather than being rigid in their own perspective, they actively sought to listen and grasp the needs and dynamics at play. ‘Our role was in facilitating dialogue, but the learning and the problem solving had to come from the collective,’ she explained.
To leverage this rich knowledge and experience, Nation Builder invited both non profits and businesses to come together in what they called ‘think tanks’, practically wrestling through some of the relevant issues and challenges facing the sector. Keri shared, ‘We started with the not-for-profit leaders and asked them to identify one critical challenge they’re facing. Through a strongly facilitated process, the business leaders were then asked to propose solutions to the problem. Then we switched it around, and invited the business leaders to pose their question for the non profits to problem solve,’ said Keri.
Through these engagements, partnerships, unity and greater insights emerged, along with the development of homegrown resources to strengthen the sector. ‘Something that started off small, by us using our influence and seeking connections, transformed into an initiative with really big vision,’ said Pieter. ‘We believed, perhaps a little bit naively, that through this initiative we could fundamentally reshape the relationship between the business sector and the NPO sector.’
The power of substantiated hope
Pieter noted that in time a very small team had successfully mobilised an army of volunteers, all driven by a shared passion to contribute to the strengthening of South Africa’s social fabric. ‘We went from being a place of gathering for sector experts to becoming quite a loud brand in the organisation,’ Pieter recalled. He explained this growth was due in part to the launch of the In Good Company conference – an annual event calling leaders around the country to come together and make a meaningful impact on South Africa’s social development. ‘The communication around these conferences went far and wide,’ said Pieter, ‘and we were quite vocal in the media – inspired that our voice held the power of substantiated hope.’
Keri added, ‘To be clear, a substantiated hope is not a naïve hope. There are real challenges we face every day in South Africa. But there’s a hope that we can have through Christ amidst these challenges.’ Pieter suggested that hope is just beneath the surface of every situation if we are willing to go digging for it. ‘It’s so easy to see the negative and be overwhelmed by the challenges,’ he said, ‘but if you drill down, there are so many inspiring stories of people doing amazing things and changing lives on a daily basis in our country.’
Indeed this has been proven to be true, as Nation Builder, a community of active volunteers, continues to grow and serve the social impact sector of South Africa. Today Nation Builder is recognised as a key voice in the social development sector – championing partnerships that lead to measurable change and positive storytelling around South Africa’s future.