Partner Profile: The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group has a record of public-spirited action. Its pro bono engagement is helping the World Food Programme (WFP) fulfil its mission. 

“Humans don’t say to themselves, I’ll go to work today and do something bad to the world. Then in my spare time, I’ll do something good.”

As Heino Meerkatt, Senior Advisor to The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) sees it, business and humanitarian action are intertwined – not binary tracks, not competing principles, but a bundle of positive energy that’s hard to disentangle. Nor is it exactly Corporate Social Responsibility that Mr Meerkatt has in mind. “CSR can be a fine thing,” he says. “But often it just ticks a box to keep shareholders happy. It’s about small inputs and big claims. With BCG, it’s the opposite: we invest a lot, we want to make a difference – and worry less about blowing our own trumpet.”

"We want to change the world." Bruce Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG)


Executive Director Ertharin Cousin with Ms. Wendy Woods, Global Social Impact Leader and Heino Meerkatt.(Photo:WFP/Giulio d'Adamo)

BCG is a leading strategy consultancy. Among business graduates, its growth-share matrix – which founder Bruce Henderson summed up as a vintage pictogram of dog, cow, star and question mark – has cultish status. Today, BCG is present in 48 countries; its roster of clients includes many of the largest enterprises in each of these economies. Yet BCG’s brand of idealism still harks back to the 1960s (coincidentally, also the era when WFP was founded): it suggests a development agency wrapped inside a corporate giant.

“We want to change the world," Henderson said early on. And with Partners still committed to his vision, this ambition has endured and grown. Every year, BCG donates thousands of hours’ work to WFP – as well as to other global or local non-profits and social sector organizations.

Shifting development perspectives

The firm’s business model aims to uphold a continuum between the private and the public good. BCG treats its pro bono partners much as it does any heavyweight client. Effecting change is what BCG is about, Mr. Meerkatt explains, so that – variation in scale aside – transforming a company is no different from transforming the world. This is also why BCG staff rotate freely through the group’s portfolio of paying and non-paying clients: there is no internal wall to separate the two, and no hierarchy in the company culture that makes the former more desirable than the latter. As Mr Meerkatt tells it, a client is a client – and the first step is understanding the needs of that client’s clients.

“I’ve visited WFP beneficiaries in Malawi – a remote area where four out of 10 children were stunted from chronic malnutrition. We met with the local chief and village council to share thoughts about aid. They were very clear about what they wanted: a sustained approach; long-term engagement. If you’re only going to be here for three or six months, they said, you might as well go back. Others have tried it. It doesn’t work.”

This, too, is indicative of an optical shift, a case of reading humanitarian situations through a lens borrowed from commercial settings. The talk is of informed end-users, customers with conscious needs rather than multitudes armed with begging bowls. Poor they may be, the thinking goes, but communities have specific expectations. Poverty does not preclude a sophisticated understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses, obstacles and objectives.

If the language of business and that of humanitarian action are converging, it’s for a reason – or, rather, a whole set of them. For one thing, the relationship between donors/implementers on one side, and beneficiaries on the other, is becoming less unidirectional, more equally calibrated. Increasingly, humanitarianism as a doctrine of top-down intervention is giving way to the logic of empowerment and economic opportunity. It’s also the case that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their complex targets and 15-year timeframe, will require research, planning, policy choices, pilot testing, measuring tools and data crunching more commonly found in long-term marketing and investment strategies. Meanwhile, proliferating crises are squeezing public spending in rich countries; international aid budgets are under pressure. As it seeks to boost impact and unlock innovation, the humanitarian and development community is courting the private sector.

Innovating against hunger

In WFP’s case, donor confidence is solid enough; with an annual budget of around 5 billion dollars, the organization is on a comparatively strong footing. Even so, this is an agency that’s constantly battling emergencies, and the money has not always been there when most needed: once funds are pledged, it may be weeks before they turn into ready cash. With this in mind, in their first joint project in 2003, BCG and WFP created a mechanism known as Internal Project Landing (IPL). This allowed WFP to start work at short notice on projects with high funding probability – something the previous model made impossible.

“When the money has been pledged but won’t arrive for two or three months, why should beneficiaries suffer?” Mr Meerkatt asks. “There’s money in the bank account that can be borrowed in the meantime. Do the moral thing. Use it.”

Now 13 years old, the partnership with BCG has involved dozens of such initiatives. In an era of multiplying development actors; interlocked development goals; tighter national scrutiny; and shrinking aid budgets, the gift of time and expertise by the likes of BCG is clearly boosting WFP’s capacity to fulfil its humanistic mandate.

“Achieving Zero Hunger is a difficult, ambitious job,” says Private Partnerships Director Jay Aldous. “WFP needs to be operationally excellent, and BCG are helping get us to that point. Their solutions have allowed us to innovate and use technology to do what we do best: feed the greatest number in need today, and sow the seeds of sustainability for tomorrow.”