Calling out unsustainable development at your internship

A sustainable development internship brings up an important question around sustainability of philanthropic efforts, such as supplying vitamins to NGOs: What happens when they run out of money? And, more importantly, how can we work more sustainably to avoid that? (Creative Commons)

As undergraduates living in Washington, D.C, our internships are very important to us. So when we finally get that paid internship at an interesting company doing really important work, it’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment. But what happens when you notice that the company you intern for is doing something wrong? In this case, that their clients are implementing unsustainable development practices, and your job is to promote them? 

I was recently challenged by this problem at my internship. A new client of ours, a businessman turned philanthropist, had recently started his own foundation that manufactures vitamins in the U.S. and ships them to NGOs in Sub Saharan Africa. His intentions are virtuous, generous, and humanitarian in nature. This philanthropist is committed to doing sincere and honest good. But at some point in the near future his money will run out, and hence the supply of vitamins. As a student studying international affairs, global public health, and sustainability, every internal red siren is going off in my head. This philanthropist wants to do good, but the good he is doing is completely unsustainable. What will happen to the NGOs that become reliant on his vitamins when he runs out of money? For the vitamin manufacturers that are based in-country or in India, his “Made in America” product is inevitably going to hurt the local economies, and it perpetuates the notion that American products are better because they’re American. 

While I was involved in the work we did for this client, there was no clear opportunity for me to voice my thoughts. During a routine check-in with my supervisor, and after a lot of psyching myself up, I decided to share my opinion. I said to her that studying global health and sustainability, I can’t help but express my concerns about this client and the lack of sustainability in his foundation’s model. I continued by adding that I was concerned about him shipping his own product to Sub-Saharan Africa and once he runs out of money, so will the vitamins. After feeling proud of myself for bringing this issue into light, for taking what I’ve learned in the classroom and applying it to my work, I was ready to hear that I was right. Instead, my supervisor looked at me, smiled, and replied “Oh we know, it’s not meant to be sustainable.”

Let’s pause for a moment and delve into what the this foundation could be doing differently that would be more sustainable. One solution that would combine sustainability with his desire to do social good is impact investing. The Council on Foundations promotes this type of investment-for-good, and defines it as, “Any investment activity that intends to generate positive social and financial returns. Whether called impact investing… or sustainable and responsible investing, the practice focuses on activating new financial resources to solve social and environmental problems.”[1]

James Lee Sorenson, a business leader turned philanthropist, personally advocates for the shift from giving to impact investing. In an article he wrote to advocate for the importance of impact investing, he wrote, “Impact investors are motivated by double or even triple bottom-line opportunities to earn a financial return while also doing something good for society. Securing a financial return helps ensure that the organization generates measurable impact that is scalable and self-sustaining over time.”[2]To generate more funds, stimulate a struggling economy, and ensure that the impact is measurable is why impact investing is such a valuable component of sustainable development.

Impact investing in this particular context could play out in a few different ways. One option is that the client could financially support a vitamin manufacturer in a county he wants his vitamins to go. In doing so, he could provide jobs to people in a struggling economy, and ensure that the vitamins are up to the standard he has now. Another option would be to partner with a medical school, and use his millions to start an endowment for a pharmaceutical lab that would focus on vitamins. If the foundation were to go with one of these solutions, or something along similar lines, the good that he’d accomplish would be far greater and self-sustained.

Even though the response from my supervisor left me discouraged and gave me no room to further discuss my ideas, this interaction was an important learning experience for me. As an advocate for sustainable development, I am still figuring out the best way to bring up sustainability when it comes to individuals who want to make a difference. Because sustainable development is such a broad concept, the way we talk about it and apply it will always be dependent on the context. As sustainability minors, it is up to us to keep bringing sustainability into the conversation, no matter where it is or who it involves, and to never give up on making international development as impactful and responsible as it can be. 


[1]"Impact Investing." Council on Foundations. February 02, 2018. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.cof.org/content/impact-investing.

[2]Dolan, Kerry A. "Rethinking Philanthropy: Why Impact Investing Makes Giving Sustainable." Forbes. April 19, 2016. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kerryadolan/2016/01/11/rethinking-philanthr....

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