22nd August 2022
We chat with Nicola Banks from the University of Manchester about her venture One World Together, which aims to achieve a fairer and more impactful form of giving for the UK public. This project is part of the Aspect Research Commercialisation (ARC) Accelerator 2022 Cohort.
Q: What is your academic background? And what are you currently working on?
I have a variety of academic expertise, and the one that led me here is my interest in the world of development NGO. The comparative advantage that development NGOs offer as development actors as opposed to state and market interests, and whether or not they can live up to their transformative potential as real civil society organisations pursuing more socially-just forms of development. This is a theoretical literature, but one that is increasingly policy-relevant as well. There is a lot of discussion, debate and movement towards more locally-led development, with three decades of academic critique in the background saying that existing systems of international aid have really constrained the ability of NGOs to live up to their comparative advantages.
I have been trying to actively use my academic knowledge to get into this more practice and policy oriented field. It’s a seismic shift, really, because these systems of international aid and development cooperation are very, very deeply rooted. They are very, very unequal. They concentrate power and resources in the Global North. Doing things differently means completely disrupting those systems and how they operate, but this is the direction that most actors in the sector recognise is the way we need to go.
Q: How did you come up with your venture idea? Why did you decide to focus on this idea?
Last year, I was selected as the only academic in the Reimagining the International NGO (RINGO) Social Lab. It’s an initiative hosted by Rights CoLAB in London and it brought together around 50 participants, from donors, big international organisations and civil society organisations, to brainstorm ways to shift more power and resources to civil society organisations in the Global South. While I have always been impact-focused in my research – I care about having an impact with my research and don’t want to do research for the sake of research – getting involved with the RINGO lab illustrated how my position as an academic might actually position me really usefully in a way to do something innovative and genuinely transformative. Those discussions with RINGO connected me with a wide variety of people throughout the sector and I found myself quite quickly realising that the discussions are limited by the fact that we are trying to make adaptations to a system that is fundamentally unequal. Then I realised that as academics, outside the system, we can start with something completely afresh. So that’s really what I got most enthusiastic about.
When I mapped the sector of NGOs that support global development causes within the UK, one of the main findings that just absolutely flabbergasted us was the sheer support of the UK public for global development causes. Over a five year period, the UK giving public gave nearly 10 billion pounds to development NGOs, which is way more than the UK Government or businesses. I took that as another reason to create an alternative system, because there is that funding from a giving public that, I think, is philosophically driven towards a fairer, more just and effective system. That funding also doesn’t have the traditional constraints of other forms of finance, so you don’t have to operate in ways that please bilateral or UK donors or big international NGOs. This is how we have come to the idea of building a new social movement to build on that strong UK support for giving to global development causes, but to do so in an entirely different way, in a way that puts the power in the hands of local organisations in the first place.
What we want to do is collect funds from the UK public and deliver them on a long-term predictable and unrestricted basis to community-based organisations and social movements in the UK and globally. One thing that makes us unique is that we are global. I’m with the Global Development Institute and we tend to do work internationally rather than in the UK, despite recognising that the whole shift from international to global is to recognise that we have very similar problems socially and economically here in the UK. We are supporting organisations in both the UK and internationally, because people’s conceptions of development and what they’re looking for, such as safety and security, housing, foods and access to finance, are very similar.
Q: What does your venture aim to achieve and how does it tackle the issue?
What we aim to achieve is a fairer, more effective and impactful form of giving for the UK public. We want to offer them a mechanism through which they can give 100% of the funds that they donate, directly to the hands of more locally rooted organisations pursuing broad-based community development. Then, we will put their money directly into the hands of the most local actors who are very well-placed to spend those funds.
There is also a big objective within the UK giving public. We want to see a fundamental shift away from perspectives of charity as something transactional to a much more deeply rooted form of solidarity. To do that, we are working with The Mesa on a bespoke community space to generate discussions, relationships and direct engagements with One World Together’s partner organisations. We are also working with On Our Radar, who work with communities to give them journalistic skills, so as to empower them to use their own voices and tell their stories in ways that are meaningful for them. We are providing the space and the skills, and we are providing the UK public with a much more nuanced understanding of the ways we can make a difference.
Our third aim is to build upon a new generation of giving. Part of our focus on solidarity is that we want people to understand that it’s not the value of your donation that is so important, but it’s your continued solidarity, it’s your continued support. We want a situation in which donors can give us as little as a pound a month, but commit to us for the long-term, because it’s only through us having a predictable income that we can pass that on to our organisations. We really want to build a broad-based movement of supporters by emphasising that it’s the length of your support, not the value of your donation.
Q: How is the ARC Accelerator supporting you in bringing your venture to life?
ARC has given me three main things. One is the confidence that having an idea like this, which is so big and so out of my safety zone and my day-to-day, it’s not something I would ever know how to do or have the confidence to do, but the structure, support and content of the programme all make it achievable.
The other thing that ARC has given me is solidarity, which is central to the values underpinning my movement. Seeing other academics also asking the same questions while having completely different ideas, makes you realise that the nuts and bolts of commercialisation, whether social or otherwise, are similar.
The third thing, which flows on from that, is that ARC gives you the knowledge around what tangible things you need to do to move from idea to impact. I think naturally, I would have been having some of these conversations anyway, but ARC has definitely pushed me to have more conversations with more focused, targeted stakeholders to make sure that the idea is valid, and that there is space for what we are trying to do.
Q: What has been the most useful part of the ARC programme so far?
For me, the most important part is the solidarity aspect. I have really liked the coffee sessions that Chris has set up. I think it is one of the most important things for us to have conversations with other academics, because it is such a difficult and demanding space to be in as an academic. ARC is great, but it can’t afford you the time that you need to do it against everything else. The solidarity aspect is key to commitment for me, and I think that has been great. And some of the guest speakers and the content have been great. Listening to the case studies of successful enterprises that have gone before us, is quite inspiring. It has been really good.
Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your work or research?
I think there is space for me as an academic to share the story, to share the journey in ways that can have an impact beyond my own individual case study. I will definitely try and do that internally. And I think, for me, there is hopefully an academic paper in it in terms of bridging research and practice. So yeah, the programme has many contributions beyond setting up the organisation, I just haven’t quite worked out how to make the most of it yet.
Photo credit: Nicola Banks