Q&A with Benjamin Feit, Creative’s first Chief Business Development Officer
By Michael J. Zamba
April 28, 2021
Creative Associates International recently named Benjamin Feit as the company’s first Chief Business Development Officer, which will lead the company’s business development strategy, oversee proposal development and coordinate among other divisions to ensure continued growth. Ben joins Creative after several successful years as CARE USA’s Associate Vice President for Institutional Funding and Strategy in Washington, D.C., where he developed and led a comprehensive, data-driven growth strategy that focused on the U.S. government and multilateral clients like the World Bank.
Ben’s development experience includes Palladium, Deloitte Consulting, Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He earned a Master of International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in 1999, and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Tulane University in 1992.
What attracted you to Creative?
Feit: There are three main reasons I wanted to join the company. The first is the truly compelling story of Creative’s founding in 1977 by four enterprising women of diverse ethnic backgrounds and nationalities who joined together to make an impact in education and child development. Their vision led Creative to become a major player in international development today. Creative’s story speaks to the values that motivate me professionally – commitment, perseverance, diversity and a passion for social justice and improving the lives of others.
The second is Creative’s reputation for high–quality, mission-driven, innovative development work built from a long track-record of success in the key global issues of our time: Peaceful and stable transitions, accountable governance, holistic and inclusive education, sustainable livelihoods and economic opportunity.
Finally, I believe in Creative’s potential to build upon its incredible foundation and grow as a global company that has an even greater impact in areas such as climate change, forced migration and health systems, to name a few.
What do you hope to accomplish as the company’s first Chief Business Development Officer?
Feit: Developing this new position demonstrates the company’s commitment to growth and results. I would like to lead Creative to capitalize on its potential to ascend to the top tier of development organizations. This will require not only winning in our core capability areas, but thinking strategically about expanding to new sectors, diversifying funding sources and responding effectively to the clear signs of the rapidly changing international development landscape.
In a few words, what is your approach to business development?
Feit: The first aspect of my approach to BD is being responsive. Proposals and projects must reflect the client’s vision of the challenge and we need to demonstrate an understanding of what the client is trying to achieve. Second, my approach is about integrity. We need to demonstrate our own professional expertise and judgments about good development, innovation and our proposed solutions. Finally, it is about fairness and transparency. You can only be successful in this field if people come to trust you.
How do you see the development landscape shifting during the next five years?
Feit: One of the most profound trends shaping the development landscape is a shift in how international development is financed and implemented. We have been seeing this happen for some time and it will pick up steam in the next five years.
This shift includes the obvious commitment to local ownership. To keep pace, companies like Creative must change mindsets from an overall reliance on short-term, three-year to five-year projects and instead develop a “next gen” operating model. This should include a variety of in-country presence approaches, while remaining nimble and adaptive to changing regional and country circumstances. Of course, such a model still includes short-term donor funded projects. But we must also look for opportunities to create and leverage alliance partners, subsidiaries, select regional and/or country offices, impact investments and other mechanisms that also help to promote long-term impact and locally driven implementation.
This trend also includes how aid itself is delivered. More and more USAID and other bilateral donor aid is flowing to and through international financial institutions, multilateral organizations and host country governments, all of whom also need reliable and capable implementing partners like Creative. We will also see continued moves toward market-based approaches and financing in which institutional donors collaborate with the private sector to finance development through innovative approaches such as grand challenges, pay-for-performance mechanisms, tiered innovation funding, impact investing and blended finance.
The companies that recognize, prepare for and adapt to these changes and find ways to engage even as they continue with traditional aid approaches will be the successful ones in this new development landscape. This will require continued focus on traditional aid approaches to development, while remaining adept at serving a multiplicity of clients, bilateral donors, multilateral agencies, multi-donor trusts, host country governments, foundations, corporations and other private actors.
Creative’s demonstrated track record and dedicated staff makes it well positioned to take on these challenges.
What drew you to the field of international development?
Feit: What drew me to the field of international development was really making a positive difference in people’s lives. I graduated from college right as the Berlin Wall was coming down and the Cold War was ending, and I felt like the possibilities seemed endless. I could think of nothing more exciting than working in countries in transition and trying to support development to make a positive impact on people’s lives.
Where was your first assignment?
Feit: My first field assignment was in 1995. I was working for an NGO and transferred to a long-term position in Niger. We were working to support the democratic transition that was underway there. About six months into my assignment, the people I was working with in parliament and in political parties were put under house arrest and there was a coup d’état. My colleagues and I had to switch gears. With the support of USAID and the U.S. Ambassador at the time, we changed our programming to address the coup and its effect on democratic institutions. It was an eye-opening experience for me. It gave me a much greater understanding about the importance of development programs. For the people living in countries like Niger, I saw how tenuous life, politics and their economies can be – and how much of a positive impact we can have on people.
How has your experience working at USAID informed your career?
Feit: After West Africa, I returned to the United States and went to graduate school. After graduation, I decided to take a job at USAID working in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina managing a portfolio of development projects focusing on inclusive and accountable governance, election support and civil society strengthening. This was about four years after the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. I really got a good sense of working from the inside of our primary client and how they operate, how they think, what’s important and really kind of figuring out how to kind of manage the portfolio of programs in a strategic manner to shift in a positive manner development in a country.
Why did you decide to move from USAID to program implementation?
Feit: While I really enjoyed working directly for the U.S. government, I felt like I missed being more of a hands-on implementer. I decided to end my assignment in Bosnia and come back to the United States and worked for DAI in Bethesda, Maryland. I found that my experience working inside the U.S. government, and my field experience in West Africa, made me particularly well-suited for program design, business development and proposal writing. I managed projects and led proposal efforts. Not too long into my tenure, I helped lead one of their largest proposal wins of the time in pre-EU accession Romania and ended up going out to serve as a Deputy Chief of Party for that project in Romania for the next few years.
How have these experiences shaped your view of development?
Feit: The diversity of experience gives me a balanced view of development. Having worked in the field, the home office, directly for the U.S. government, for both nonprofit and private consulting firms provides a holistic perspective of development and its challenges, and the contributions needed from all actors in this development ecosystem.
You have an extensive, 25-year history in global development. What keeps you going?
Feit: What has kept me interested throughout my career is having a deep-seated passion for the work, a belief that international development is about social justice and the idea that everybody deserves an equal opportunity to prosper and to have a positive livelihood for themselves, their families and their communities. I have always been sort of guided by that sort of North Star of my belief in and passion for international development.