Let’s say that in the near term, your goal is to raise money for your local food bank. If you elevate your objective to: “I want to eliminate hunger and find solutions to some of its underlying causes, such as food deserts, poverty, and homelessness,” you can see how this not only might inspire you in your outreach to prospective donors, but it may also serve to create the types of meaningful connections that will be beneficial in the long term. This objective elevation is exactly what Paul van Zyl had in mind when in 2018 he cofounded The Conduit, a collaborative community for those committed to improving the world by harnessing the power of creativity and entrepreneurship.
The essential problem Van Zyl wanted to solve was, how to create a permanent community in which members work together using entrepreneurial solutions to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. The native South African had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement, designed the structure and methodology of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and also set up The International Center for Transitional Justice, helping nations deal with the legacy of human rights abuse.
Van Zyl was chosen as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2008, after which he won the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and started going to Davos and the World Economic Forum. He realized that these episodic gatherings were incredibly powerful, but they were also transient and produced little more than promises to “see each other more often.”
The Conduit emerged as an attempt to build a more consistent ecosystem, where changemakers could draw upon a community—investors, entrepreneurs, branding experts, and supply-chain resources, for instance—all deployed toward a higher purpose. It became a hub for people tackling ethical supply chains or decent work for people in developing economies, off-grid solar, and women’s empowerment.
If you’ve elevated your mission to something audacious like Van Zyl did—a lofty mission that can change the world—it’s easier to get people to want to jump aboard your train. “Today, our community has grown to more than 3,000 members,” he says. “It’s a fantastically diverse group from world-class academics, journalists, leading NGOs to social entrepreneurs, investors, and mission-aligned CEOs.”
Once he created this community, Van Zyl began gathering people around—in his alliterative phrasing—content, convenings, and capital. The Conduit is arranged around broad themes aligned with global challenges, such as racial equity, climate action and sustainability, education, and economic opportunity. Content comes in the form of a program offering more than 200 events per year, tackling issues from extreme poverty and inequality to climate change and migration.
“People come ready to share, and it allows for serendipitous connections to take place,” says Van Zyl. “And change takes many forms, be it learning, raising awareness, gaining collective interest, or in partnerships, the exchange of services, people giving up their time, or introducing someone who they think might be valuable to the community, and incubating new products that have a positive environmental impact.” The goal is to develop the best possible content in accordance with those themes so that people could spend 10% of their time talking about the issue/the problem and 90% of the time discussing the solution. When you build a community in such an intentional way, conscious about your mission and purpose—it’s authentic and it’s clear why you are coming together.
The capital side of The Conduit’s business both directly invests in businesses with a social and environmental focus and connects promising impact entrepreneurs with mission-aligned investors. So far they have raised nearly $16 million across direct deals and funds for businesses that are making a positive impact on the UN’s sustainable development goals, such as Ocean Bottle, which has created reusable water bottles where each such bottle funds the extraction of 1,000 ocean-bound plastic bottles; and Oxwash, a green laundry startup that’s replacing environmentally costly washing and dry-cleaning processes by using ozone to sterilize fabrics at lower temperatures.
The Conduit’s remarkable growth in such a short time span goes to show that when you build what Van Zyl calls “stickiness” around that higher mission, a purpose and content, followed by community and solutions, will spring forth.
When the pandemic hit as I was interviewing Van Zyl, The Conduit was experiencing a huge shift. They were ordered by the U.K. government to shut their doors. But what happened next was remarkable. The first thing Van Zyl asked was how do we serve our community. They pivoted to do digital programming and webinars with over 15,000 participants. The second thing they did was ask, How do we think beyond ourselves and focus on who is most at risk? In response to that question, the organization jumpstarted a program to deliver food to frontline NHS workers, healthcare professionals, and doctors, delivering 30,000 meals and 20,000 loaves of bread to the frontline in three hospitals.
Once you’ve established an elevated purpose, and the world comes to a screeching halt, the people you need to reach and your immediate goals might drastically change. But when you’re clear on your mission, it’s still relatively easy to get what you need in order to carry out your mission, and do it quickly—especially when lives are on the line.
Susan McPherson is a serial connector, angel investor, and corporate responsibility expert. She is the founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focused on the intersection of brands and social impact. This article has been adapted from her book, The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships (McGraw-Hill, 2021).