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Over the past two decades, Robert Goodwin (GMP 3, 2007) has made a career of getting involved in complex and intractable global crises, from helping to rebuild the Iraqi Ministry of Health to directing humanitarian efforts and peace negotiations in southern Sudan. Now, the former Air Force officer is drawing on his military, White House, State Department, and humanitarian aid experience as cofounder and CEO of Executives Without Borders, an organization that matches business leaders who volunteer their time with humanitarian organizations in need of assistance in developing countries.

The nonprofit’s inspiration came from Goodwin’s HBS classmate Sam MacHour, whose experiences in Liberia and Burundi convinced him of the need to confront the underlying causes of poverty. While at HBS, MacHour made a passionate plea for launching Executives Without Borders, and Goodwin led a group of his classmates to make the dream a reality.

Why did you decide to become the CEO of Executives Without Borders?

In my time overseas, I witnessed extreme poverty but saw few working on solutions that addressed its root causes. Everywhere I went — from Iraq to Cambodia to Colombia — I found that people share similar goals: security, a good job, and a better life for their families. What they struggle with is how to get there. Helping these people requires focused assistance in the form of knowledge, capital, and implementation skills. At its core, that is what Executives Without Borders is about. We make sustainable, knowledge-based investments that help to stabilize communities and, over time, make the world a better place.

How do you choose which NGOs to help?

We get involved with projects that answer three criteria: They are aligned with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals which range from halving extreme poverty to providing universal primary education, they provide sustainable benefits to a developing community for multiple generations, and they have the ability to impart the skills learned from our executives to others long after the initial project is completed.

What are your current projects?

We have three formal projects in Rwanda, India, and Honduras. In Rwanda, we’re helping Mission Schools International, founded by Brendan Kennealey (MBA ’06), establish a network of secondary schools that offer education, health care, and proper nutrition. The project in India is Nanhi Kali, an organization dedicated to keeping underprivileged girls in school by providing academic and direct material support. Our Honduras project is focused on Central American Medical Outreach, which strengthens health-care systems and promotes sustainable community development. We also work informally with a number of other groups, but project work is really only half of what we do.

What is your other focus?

Our other focus is advocacy — essentially influencing the behavior of executives and companies. We coach executives to help them understand how best to utilize their talents to make a difference. We help companies find ways to become more profitable in socially responsible ways. If a company is seeking ways to invest in a community it operates in, we can find specific projects and NGOs to help maximize results and build better relationships with the community. These investments can be modest. Just providing safe drinking water can lead to greater productivity and more profit, one of many instances where philanthropy makes good business sense.

I get excited by the journey that executives go through when they figure out that the skills they’ve honed in business can fill critical needs in the not-for-profit world. For many, it’s a life-changing shift from having success to having success plus significance.

How long do the executives in your program stay away from their companies?

It varies, but one key advantage of our approach is that we don’t need individuals on a full-immersion basis for long periods of time. So instead of asking a company to give us a person for six months, we might ask for a half a year that can be spread out to several individuals: twenty days from your EVP, nine hours from your director of marketing, five days from your head IT person, and so on.

Why is this approach an advantage?

Three reasons: First, the organizations we partner with get more diverse expertise targeted at their specific needs. Second, for individual executives, we offer the opportunity to engage in social enterprise work without asking them to leave their families and companies for extended periods. We actually prefer for them to stay working at their jobs so they can leverage their networks and influence in the company to assist our partner organizations. Finally, for companies, which now use opportunities for social enterprise work as a recruiting tool to attract the best young talent, our approach is much more sustainable in the long run because it avoids the reintegration issues that often arise when executives spend months away.

What are some of these reintegration issues?

If you’re away from home for months, totally immersed in a humanitarian project in someplace like Africa or India, it engages you in ways that are difficult to replicate when you come back to a corporate context. That can make reentry pretty challenging for everyone involved.

With shorter, more targeted engagements, the excitement and creativity of these assignments tend to spread throughout the company. For instance, think about having a watercooler conversation with a colleague who is actually working on a project that will bring clean drinking water to a small village in Cambodia. If she is struggling with the logistics challenge of getting supplies into the country, you may be able to refer her to someone with relevant experience shipping your own company’s products around the world. The best thing is if companies stucture these types of opportunities, but experienced executives are no strangers to leveraging their friendships and networks informally in creative and productive ways.

As CEO of a relatively new nonprofit, how do you spend most of your time?

Fundraising. We’ve been running on a shoestring, and we currently have more volunteers than we can staff on our projects and more projects requesting our services than we can take on. Organizationally, we’ve taken this from concept to reality in just about two years’ time. We need about $250,000 to meet our annual budget, but if someone gave us $5 million tomorrow we could easily scale up, and the impact would be phenomenal.

What kind of impact are you talking about?

Africa, for example, is littered with good intentions and strategic plans for what needs to happen. But there aren’t a lot of people on the ground who have the knowledge to follow through with implementation. A huge lesson I learned from my government and not-for-profit experience is that to be effective, you need a mission heart and a business mind. There are many committed organizations in the poorest, most austere, and dangerous places in the world that are led by individuals who know what needs to be done, but lack the business acumen to make it happen. We are leveraging our network and our talent to help the best not-for-profits turn commitment into results.

Do companies have the mindset to become involved in global social enterprise initiatives to the degree that you would like to see?

Companies have the talent and resources to help solve global challenges. It’s just that currently the market drives more resources toward treating male pattern baldness than toward malaria prevention. We’re way behind on achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. In my opinion, a major reason is that we haven’t effectively found the right platforms and incentives to leverage the power of the private sector.

In some developing countries, people are spending up to 40 percent of their meager incomes on cell phones, which proves that corporations are pretty good at figuring out how to build a market for commercial products. My dream is to focus that same talent on finding solutions to complex challenges.

If companies decide it is in their best interest to include humanitarian activities in their core branding and human capital strategies, the same business skills that bring cell phones to Sudan, for example, will improve access to drinking water and sanitation. I think that can happen, and with more executives from HBS and elsewhere pushing for social enterprise opportunities within their for-profit careers, I believe it will happen.

— Deborah Blagg

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