Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!

I’ve been writing over the last few months about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  Each time I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

The ninth of the 48 peaks that I summited was Mt Whiteface (4020 ft, 1225 m), which is slightly to the Southwest of Mt Passaconoway.  I went up both of these peaks on 15 June 2016, just five days after having gone up Mt Osceola and East Osceola.

I hiked over to Whiteface from the top of Passaconoway along the Rollins Trail, reaching the top at around 2:30pm.  Whiteface’s summit is uninteresting, but there are some beautiful granite outcroppings just past the peak, which give the mountain its name:




The Top Of Mt Whiteface


Here in the distance you can see “Ferncroft”, where I began and ended that day.  The photo is taken from the granite outcroppings just to the south of Whiteface’s peak:



Ferndale, As Seen From Granite Outcroppings Just Past The Top Of Whiteface


Unusually, at least for the summer of 2016, there were massive numbers of black flies at those granite outcroppings, so I didn’t stay long.  Swarms, like other years.  It’s a lovely place with fantastic views, so it’s a pity that I had to leave so quickly…

Much of the way down was on the Blueberry Ledge Trail, which was very steep as I left the ledges, fleeing those black flies.  Many of the signs along the way were painted in appropriate colors:


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This was a great day – warm but not too hot, and enough of a challenge to be interesting.  Except for the black flies at the top of Mt Whiteface, it was a perfect day!


Last time I described Plan’s first Regional Office in South America in the early 1990’s.  The overall organization was still growing quickly, and regionalizing.  But morale at International Headquarters (IH) in Rhode Island was poor and, as a result, it seemed to becoming less effective.  So, less relevant to what we were doing… My sense was this was mostly because of the clash between Plan’s still-new International Executive Director, Alberto Neri, and the existing organisational culture.

As a result, in the early 1990’s, under the leadership of Andy Rubi, the South America Regional Office (SARO) began to fill the vacuum.  This was, to a great extent, a reaction to Alberto Neri’s strong emphasis on financial controls – most of us supported those changes, but wanted also to work on improving our programs.

I want to describe two of the ways that SARO moved ahead as IH seemed to drift a bit.  In this blog post, I will describe our efforts to pull the region together around a concept that was new to us, which we called “empowerment”.  This evolution became one component of a strategic planning exercise – which, itself, was another manifestation of how we were filling the vacuum left by IH.  A controversial action.

Next time I will describe how we adapted and implemented Total Quality Management, which was picked up by IH and considered by the overall organization.


South America’s embrace of “empowerment” came as we learned from several innovations that were taking place in Field Offices in the region, in particular what Annuska Heldring was doing in Cañar.  So in many ways this strategic evolution was a  good example of bottom-up change: a wider organisation recognising and embracing an innovation that was coming from the “coal face.”  This process led us to establishing a “vision” for Plan in South America, something that we were very proud of.

But, on reflection, I think that we might have been overstepping some boundaries – more on that later!


I’ve described how I met Annuska Heldring when she arrived in Azogues to set up a Field Office for Plan.  As she set up Plan Cañar, I remember hearing her describe how she would have very few staff.  At the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and had never heard of Plan, so I had no sense of the importance of what she was talking about, nor the implications for Plan.  But I do recall Annuska telling me about the problems she had faced as Field Director in The Philippines, before coming to Ecuador, in the Field Office in Iloilo.  Because of labor problems there, the Field Office had been closed; that experience had obviously had a very large impact on Annuska.

As a result, when she left the Philippines and began to set up the Plan Cañar Field Office, she was determined that it would be set up without the dozens (or hundreds) of staff that were typical for Plan offices in those days.  Plan Cañar would have just a few, mostly senior staff, plus a driver.  This meant that, because there were virtually no staff to manage projects, community members managed project implementation with, for example in the case of the water system in San Rafael, the support of government.  (In San Rafael, that was IEOS and me!)

So, I think that putting the community in the driver’s seat wasn’t necessarily the point.  It seemed that Annuska mainly was determined to avoid staff headaches, so created a “low-staff” model.  What we ended up calling “empowerment” – communities leading their own development, as was their human right – was a by-product of having low numbers of staff.  Not that simple, obviously, but that’s how it felt.

As a Peace-Corps Volunteer in Cañar, years before I arrived in SARO, what Annuska was doing seemed to work pretty well to me, but I had no sense of the audacity of this way of working, from Plan’s perspective.  It was only when I got to know Plan, in Tuluá, that I gained a clear perspective, and began to see what a revolution Annuska had begun.  Plan Tuluá was pretty typical, with around a hundred staff, including dozens of “Social Promoters” that did much of the project work.  With, of course, lots of involvement of local community members, and it worked very well, but it was quite different from what Annuska was doing.  At its best, Plan Tuluá was very empowering, but Plan Cañar was very, very different.

By the time I got to the South America Regional Office, Annuska’s office had been running for four or five years, and was performing well in terms of many of the things that we measured: unlike many Field Offices those days, Plan Cañar was spending its budget¹, complied fairly well with what we called “Sponsor Relations” – the elaborate system that Plan had put in place to specify communications between sponsored children and families with “Foster Parents” – and was extremely “efficient.”

This last point became very important.  Because of Plan Cañar’s low numbers of staff, Annuska was able to allocate a relatively very high proportion of her budget to project implementation.  Not only were staff salaries a low proportion of her budget (although her staff were highly paid, there were few of them), but associated staff-related costs such as office rent, vehicles, etc., were also low.  Again, perhaps this wasn’t Annuska’s intention, but Plan Cañar really stood out when we in the Regional Office, and IH, reviewed budget ratios.

And for Plan in those days, budget ratios were extremely important.  Alberto Neri had established a goal that Plan offices would spend at least 70% of funds on “tangible benefits”; no more than 20% on staff salaries; and no more than 10% on operating costs.

Like many of Alberto’s initiatives, to me this one made a lot of sense to me.  Many of our offices were spending even less than 50% on “tangible benefits” in those days, and encouraging all of us to become more efficient made sense to me.  I could certainly see ways that we could become more efficient.  But, also like many of his initiatives, it was handled clumsily, pushed too rigidly, and alienated the very people who were implementing it, and who would have been his best allies.  There was a backlash.

So Alberto liked what Annuska was doing, because it was low-cost.  And we in SARO and across South America began to like the model, too, because there seemed to be a big difference in the communities.  People from villages in Cañar managed projects themselves, learned a lot from that experience, and did good jobs – at least as well as our armies of “Social Promoters” seemed to be doing in other offices.  And when I commissioned a review of the Plan Cañar model, asking my old boss Monique van’t Hek from Tuluá to review things, the conclusions were very positive.

There were a couple other Field Offices where Plan was putting community members more centrally into the driver’s seat; for example, Mac Abbey in Plan Loja (Ecuador) was doing something quite similar.  These other initiatives were perhaps not quite as radical as Annuska’s approach in Cañar, but the difference was that they were approaching the change intentionally from the point of view of “empowering” the community, rather than having a “low-staff” model as such.

We at SARO began to pick up the importance of these initiatives, and started a process of strategic planning that incorporated the shift towards “empowerment” into a region-wide commitment.  Plan South America got excited at this strategic movement, partly because the overall organization seemed to be drifting, and it gave us a cause to rally around.  And, ironically, Alberto was very supportive, for his own reasons (as I described above, he liked the low-cost aspect of the model.)  The rest of the organisation – senior management at IH, staff in other regions – was much less enthusiastic!

Here is a page from a regional newsletter that I prepared.  You can see that Plan’s South America Region was committing to working in a quality way; to “empowerment”; and to focusing on children and our donors.




These statements were developed through a careful process of reflection and discussion – you can see me being rather careful in the last two paragraphs here, noting that we hadn’t yet “fully debated and endorsed” the final two strategic directions.

What I think became a bit more controversial were the Vision and Mission statements for the South America Region.  Here perhaps we went a bit too far, because the wider organisation was developing Vision and Mission statements at the same time, and it probably would have been more appropriate for us in SARO to simply focus on strategies that fit within Plan’s overall Vision and Mission.  In fact, the four Strategic Directions that are shown here fit very well within the final Vision and Mission that were adopted by Plan, globally.  But we in South America had a lot of momentum, felt that IH wasn’t leading, and we were going to move ahead.

Here’s another page, from a presentation I prepared at the time:




The presentation goes into lots of detail for each of these three elements of what we thought “Quality” should be in Plan.

This was good stuff.  Defining “Quality” as having those three pillars – unity of purpose, continuous improvement, and an empowering management culture – still makes sense to me, at least in an NGO setting.


And we paid a lot of attention to implementation, with the Regional Office providing support, funds, frameworks, guidance and accompaniment.  Mostly, we provided ways to share across Field Offices.  For example, here are four pages from workshop materials supporting an important event held in Cali, Colombia, in March of 1992:


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The purpose of this workshop was to help Field Directors from across the South America Region to prepare their transition to “Empowerment” – to “empowering” Field Offices, locally adapting what Annuska and Mac and others had pioneered.  There were few aspects of the end result that had been pre-defined; mostly, we learned together from what was happening out in the field.


I learned a lot from all of this.  As I look back on our regional focus on “empowerment,” a few things stand out to me:

  • I really like how we at the Regional Office were able to perceive that a key innovation was happening, how we paid attention to it, embraced it, without having to invent it ourselves, and that we sought to catalyze the spread of the innovation.  That was a good role for the Regional Office;
  • The documents I have, and my own memory of events, show a lot of enthusiasm, and mutual learning.  There was very little “top-down” feeling to SARO’s move towards “empowerment;”
  • The essence of the shift, that community members we were working with had the right to be in the driver’s seat, that the decisions they would make would be as good as, or better than, Plan staff’s decisions – that was a correct instinct.

But also, looking back, I think that other elements of the wider organization – at International Headquarters, in other Regions – were beginning to perceive us in South America as wanting to be independent, operating autonomously.  Our own “Vision” and “Mission”… rapidly changing program models … “not asking permission…” and even not asking for forgiveness!

Their suspicions were somewhat justified.  We in South America were asserting ourselves as a response to the weakness of the agency’s center.  Perhaps this is common when organizations regionalize, a normal struggle between center and region, between “parent” and “child.”  But from our perspective, norale at the center of the organization was bad, South America was the first area to regionalize, so we had a strong sense of unity and energy, and much of the rest of the agency was preoccupied with resistance to Alberto Neri.  So we simply filled the vacuum.

A couple of years later, as Program Director at International Headquarters, I tried to take these lessons into account.  I tried to reassert the proper role of the center of the agency, ensuring unity of purpose, measuring results, and supporting organization-wide learning, while taking care that elements of the organization outside head office took the lead in important agency-wide initiatives whenever possible.

More on that later!



SARO’s focus on “Quality” led to a Plan-wide movement to adapt and adopt Total Quality Management for the entire organisation, an effort I was a key part of.

I’ll describe my involvement in that project – chairing Plan’s Quality Council – in my next blog post in this series!


Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office.


¹  In fact, Plan was building up a big surplus of funds, as Field Offices underspent, year after year.  This was, of course, a problem: firstly, we weren’t using funds that the public had entrusted us with for an important purpose, which was not to save it.  Second, it was also a potential public-relations issue – why give to an organizaiotn that didn’t seem to need it?
When I went to IH as Program Director, a few years later, we solved this problem in a very-effective way, I think.  Field Offices were, on average, underspending each year by 10%, year after year.  And Plan’s fundraising offices were overachieving their targets each year by around 5%, year after year.  So it was easy to understand the sources of the problem.
So Plan had tried asking Field Offices to budget better, and spend according to budgets, and asking the fundraising offices to be more accurate in their projections.  But it wasn’t working.
The approach we tried when I went to IH was different: recognise that the system was leading Field Offices and fundraising offices to behave in a specific way.  And plan for this.
So we simply asked Field Offices to plan to spend 15% more funds than we thought we’d raise.  Then their underspending, and the fundraising offices’ over-performance, would balance out.  In fact, to work down the “surplus” funds that had accumulated by the time I got to IH (which, if I remember correctly, was over $80m), we increased this to around 20%.
Over a few short years, that solved the problem, and we worked down the “surplus.”  A good lesson for me – think about the system, how it behaves, and manage it or change it.  Simply instructing people to behave differently was ineffective.