Getting real: introducing Blue Dragon

Urban Care Active got real. Since last July, we have started a long-term collaboration with Blue Dragon.

About Blue Dragon

Blue Dragon is an Australian NGO working exclusively in Vietnam. It is based in Hanoi, and has been in operation since 2003. It works with street-kids, trafficked children, and disabled youth. It offers inclusive education programs, long-term shelter solutions, and anti-trafficking activities with the active support of the Vietnamese police forces. They are active in Hanoi, Hue, Bac Ninh, and now in Dien Bien.

I sort of love this NGO. They work at the grassroots level, for real, and engage in direct implementation, a bit old-school yes, but so concrete. Its founder, Michael Brosowski, is a strong leader with a long-term vision, and a practical sense of realities.

Blue Dragon is funded through multiple channels, direct individual donations, corporate support, and international donors. It had a stupendous growth over the last 5 years and is now considering options to sustain its action and structure in this new decade.

How we chose Blue Dragon

I’ve known about this NGO for a while now. My first encounter with them took place about 4 years ago, when I was working with Médecins du Monde. We had a program dedicated at kids at risk of getting infected by HIV. At that time, I met an operational manager of theirs, and introduced our activities. We offered a collaboration and possible funding. And they turned down our proposition, because it was not clearly a part of their strategy and felt they didn’t have the means to give us the level of action we were expecting at that time. MdM was a very strong public health operator in Vietnam, and they knew they had too little expertise in that domain to be a fair partner. In short, they said no, because of their work ethic, despite funding opportunities. I was so impressed. If you had any experience with NGOs, you would admit there are just so many “paper”-CBOs and grassroots NGOs chasing funds with a strategy limited to “getting money”, regardless of the line of work. Clearly, Blue Dragon was not one of those.

Later, after Urban Care was created, I continued keeping an eye on this NGO, and others in the city. The plan was at some point to give long-term support to an NGO meeting the following criteria:

▪   Most of the operations have to be carried out in urban settings;

▪   Programs have to be dealing with youth OR the elderly;

▪   Programs have to touch on health, education or nutrition;

▪   The NGO has to have a good reputation in our professional community;

▪   The NGO recognizes a need in terms of technical assistance;

▪   The NGO has to be in a growing phase OR has strong potential;

▪   The NGO operates in South-East Asia.

Well, as a matter of fact, Blue Dragon meets all those criteria, and after we finalized our investigation, we contacted them and offered some help, which was accepted on the spot. They have great programs, steady funding, yet not enough resources to build and maintain a solid information system. So we’ll take on a role in that story.

What we are doing with Blue Dragon

We started 2 months ago by offering a long-term support of at least 2 years. We are going to build for them an advanced M&E system, including information systems, electronic reporting mechanisms, live costing functions, and a web-based knowledge management solution. The first phase of that process has been the initial assessment of their M&E system, a 2-month long task. We will then discuss with their team what to start with, and how to start it.

We want to do that slowly as we want it to be organic, so, well-adapted to their needs and constraints, practical, real, and accepted. Hence the long-term perspective.

More news on that process in the coming months.

In the meantime, if you are interested in Blue Dragon, you can visit their website. If you want to donate, just go there. They even have tax-deductible mechanisms. They are pretty good.


Introducing Urban Care Active

We have started the social part of our work. This is great news. We are pretty proud of it, and we hope that through this first baby step, we will do our share in building and renovating our broken social system.

We are many.

The social enterprises movement is wide, growing and complex. There are so many of us, cooperatives, non-profits, mutuals, private business working for the society. Urban Care is just a droplet in that ocean. And we want to be a significant droplet. As we want to work with the financial means and the human power we generate, we have to accept that it will be slow, yet steady.

After 2 years of work, our company is now generating just enough profit to allow us to allocate a part of our resources supporting others. Our big plan remains to set up low-cost, high-quality family care clinics. It will probably take an extra 2 years before we accumulate the necessary capital to start it up. We need 200,000 USD. So, we have decided not to wait. Hence, the social work of Urban Care, under the label Urban Care Active, is starting now. We have identified a first NGO that we will support. We will let you know more about this excellent organization in a few days. As well, we will soon have a dedicated section to this work, under . Stay tuned.

You can’t imagine how happy we are getting real, at last. Setting up a social enterprise is a long-term job. And now, we can start harvesting.

Management per objective: the art of stupid

Here is a video I’d like to share with you. It is a splendid introduction to new ways of managing companies by Daniel Pink at a Ted conference. It sheds a positive light to how to change – may be not the world – but at least the place where we all spend 70% of our awaken time, the office. It applies wonderfully to the little sector we speak from, social enterprises.

What’s the pitch? Basically that management per objectives and incentives are making people dumber, less productive, because it inhibits their creativity. What sort of statement is that? Some pinky wishful thinking? Not at all. It is actually based on science, and a new specific branch to economics, the first real scientific one to my opinion, behavioral economics, a discipline in which economic assumptions are actually being tested, quite a blow in the economic world where ideologies are hidden behind non-experimented complex equations on how economic agents should behave and react, and where prizes are given to authors that would explain of human nature should be changed to comply with their obnoxious theories. And by the way, it is the MIT that is the leader in that new exciting domain.

Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 1

It’s been over 5 years I have been working in Vietnam. And what I can tell is that it is not an easy fit, at least at the beginning, and especially for Westerners. I saw so many people from Europe or the USA coming over to find opportunities, develop new things or join already existing organizations and businesses. And I can guarantee you that quite a few of those would have crashed their dreams on what I would call the smiley-yesy-barrier.

In Vietnam, people smile. They do smile. Pretty much all the time as compared to the West. I would eventually go back about twice a year to France (we have a kid, and she has grand-parents), where I would got hit in the face whenever I would try to smile at people for no good reason (meaning outside a customer relationship involving money transfer). One can tell the difference…

In Vietnam, people say yes. They do say yes all the time. “No” is pretty much a forbidden word. For this reason, foreigners would tend to believe that Vietnamese are downright hypocritical, spending their time lying to their face. This is just so wrong. But it takes a bit of a pain to realize it and to understand that they are a few degrees of yeses in normal social interactions. And it matters a great deal on the workplace.

So why do we have that? Because in Vietnam, preserving your social relationship with your family and network is fundamental. Saying no might alter that future. Looking grim might hamper future opportunities. This is why if you would ask to a pineapple street-seller if she could code for you an online C++ video game retracing the life and tale of King Arthur, she might just say yes, and would smile back very hard at you. And there kicks in the nuance of the yesses you would hear across your journey in Vietnam. And to get those right, you would need patience, multiple failures, a good ear, and to pay a great deal of attention to body language:

  1. The it-will-happen-as-planned-and-in-time-no-problem-it’s-all-good yes: this is what most of us would call… yes. Although it is always a bit of a bet, you can be pretty sure that unless a tropical thunder would just happen just right in your office this very minute, things would be delivered as expected, and on time. In that case the person you’re dealing with would look at you for good, and would establish eye-contact. Yet, you would always need to understand that this person might be subject to uncertainties if his or her yes includes yeses  from other teams members, members from the administration or partners. This is why divination is such a respected art in this country;
  2. The yes-I-guarantee-everything-and-I-make-it-a-matter-of-life-and-death-but…: your counterpart clearly sees that his/her action would necessitate interactions with other persons he/she trusts, BUT that those persons would be confronted to less dependable human beings OR that clearly dark clouds are gathering in your open space, and frankly… How could you get this one right? Well, when this person would give you this yes, you would feel in her eyes and body a sudden mobilization of mental energy as if you were asking him or her to swim across an acid lake to fetch that one medicinal plant that would save the life of a child. She or he will do it for sure, but at a great personal expense.
  3. The yes-I-hear-you-but-I-am-not-so-sure-on-how-to-do-it: here your counterpart definitely wants to please you, because, let’s be honest, you would find plenty of good willing persons in Vietnam. Yet, may be you are asking to a street-based pineapple seller to code a database in Ajax, and that could be a tiny bit of a problem… and REMEMBER? People just don’t want to say no to you. So, it is important to bear in mind that when you ask something to someone, you would make sure that it is feasible and realistic. Otherwise, you might spend a lot of time on that street in Hanoi waiting for your pineapple seller to take out her laptop and start coding your system. How you would spot you are asking something impossible and that you’re making your interlocutor uncomfortable? Well, look at body language: the person would not establish eye contact, might look away or at her/his feet when saying yes, and might be agitated with some minors pre-seizure tremors, and/or look at her/his cellphone wondering who to call to get some help to get ride of this crazy foreigner.
  4. The yes-sure-next-week-or-after-Tet yes: this one is the nastiest one. It will have you waiting for months to have that one thing done and delivered. This one is really easy to recognize. Yet, most people believe in it because when they hear next week, they quite candidly and stupidly hear “next week”, whereas it is a very strict and accepted social code for “well mate, you’re asking for a work that would involve to build consensus among 18 persons from 3 partners and 2 administrations plus a lawyer, you are pretty much screwed if you take it this way, I know you’re a foreigner and don’t get a thing on how to get things done here, so let’s be honest for a second, I’ll try, but let’s face it, you’re just asking me to climb the Everest in pink flip-flops…feasible… yeah… yet might need some preparation”. Or you’re just simply asking someone to do something 2 weeks before or 4 weeks after Tet. Shame on you. How to spot this one? Well it’s pretty plain, just listen.
  5. The yes-but-you-know… yes: if persons are  just kind enough  to use this one with you,  know that you are an inch near to getting a real no. Leave it there and try to figure out where you screwed up and go back to it later. Very important one this one. It’s actually the sort of yes that transformed a one-month registration to a 7-month procedure for the registration of our company.
  6. No: you are dead. This is the one thing you never want to hear. If you feel you’re getting there, then leave a way out to your partner, interlocutor, boss, employee, and throw a clever “may be next week?“. And you’ll see that next time you interact with that person, this one would have thought about your problem and might suggest an appropriate solution. You remember? Preserve the future. The Vietnamese way is way smarter that you would have thought. Use it for yourself, you’ll see, after a while it becomes addictive and fantastic. You’ll be able to next-week away most of your problems and would have time to figure them out. Clever stuff.

That’s it for this one. Oh yes, just one thing, it me took 10 months to figure out the basics… I’m pretty slow.

Next post on the topic: How I’ve got yelled at by a 55-year old health official my first year of stay in Vietnam, and how she completely saved my job. A fair lesson on management in Vietnam and interaction with partners.

To fellow social entrepreneurs

As our reputation is slowly growing up, I am getting more and more questions from social-entrepreneurs-to-be and friends from the NGO and the private sectors on the implications of operating a social enterprise, on how we can factor in primary business rules and our objectives. Hence, I would like to start sharing a bit of what I had to learn since I created our company. And I’d like to start with the concept of values, because, well, you know, we are a SOCIAL enterprise. So values are somehow important, right? Yes, but mere pragmatism too.

Urban Care is, indeed, a social enterprise. What does that mean practically? That we are at the crossroads between classic business management and an “NGO-orientated” way of thinking in term of values and objectives. And this requires a fair dose of flexibility and pragmatism, especially as our primary market, Vietnam and South-East Asia, is now subject to consequent macro-economic pressures… The current inflation rate in Vietnam is close to 21% on an annual rate, with little evidence it would slow down the next few months. The national Vietnamese debt is rated at junk level with 5-year CDS soaring way above 300 points, international investment is plummeting in the region, and business creation is down 50% from its 2010 level in the country. And now even China is promised by some analysts a hard-landing within 3 years… let alone the current situation in Europe and in the US… it’s all good.

So what does it mean for our operations here? What does it mean to a young company like ours? Would our values shield us from the bad weather? Do values give us business? Is that scary out there? How does it feel just right now?

Oddly enough, it feels good. Real good. Yet, may be not the way one might expect. And I trust it all lies within a strange mix of values and business thinking.

Because this environment pushes us to be fit and flexible, to pay an even greater attention to our clients and our internal functioning. It is the best remedy for self-leniency, and it teaches you the hard way that having “nice values” is just not enough to build a sustainable and efficient structure.

Unlike for most INGOs, our “funding” cycles are short. Whereas a development program sponsored by an international donor would typically be funded for a 3-year period, we mostly rely on short-term contracts – with an average duration of 4 months – although we are luckily moving into developing long-term relations with our biggest clients. Hence we have to be cost-effective. Always. And you can be sure that we are our first customers in term of allocation-resources optimization.

I guess this is the most challenging aspect of running a social enterprise. You have to be consistent, and analyze your environment very pragmatically as a private, for-profit business would. There are excellent lessons to draw from the private sector. I guess it relates to self-reliance, paying real attention to the needs of your clients, and having a strong and adaptive business-model. The bottom line there? Core values. But too often well-intended organizations might fail because of a lack of realism.

As a matter of fact, we are driven by an ideology. To make it short, I would say “earning a decent salary doing a decent job”. Obviously, decent is the operative word here. Yet, what you quickly realize is that your clients simply expect a service, a good service. They need a return on their investment. And your values are just not what they are buying. They might not even pay attention to your greater plan, whether it is making health care more accessible, or clean water, or education. Of course, they might share your values. And practically, all our clients do. Yet, when they contract you to perform a task, they just want your company to deliver something they need. And do not expect any indulgence from them because at some point you trust you are Mr Nice Guy. They need professionals, because they are.

Initially, when setting up our company, I was expecting our values would give us a hedge in term of publicity. I was even considering they could be a component of our marketing plan. And you know what? We have clients because we offer a suit of advanced analysis and M&E services we are the only ones to provide. And we do it well. I quickly realized that, at best, our model was anecdotical to our clients. What they appreciated was the analysis we provided them with. So, we dropped entirely the idea to market our values.

Values are your driving force, they make your ethos concrete. Values translates into the way your team is operating, values infuse into the quality of your work. And this is fair enough. If you uphold those values and put them at work, if your team share them, why would you need any further endorsements from others?

I strongly believe in the development of alternative forms of capitalism. I trust there is out there a place for companies like ours, companies for which the community they live in is the objective, not the mean. Yet, if we want this movement of social companies, coop, and non-for-profit businesses to gather speed and gains for itself a fair place in our greater social system, we have at some point to accept the inner darwinian nature of our daily environment, and be fit.

And let’s rejoice, our values can make us the fittest.