In this blog post, I want to describe an innovation that we introduced in Plan’s work in Viet Nam. We wanted to boost our revenue from technical donors, and extend our work for children; but, across the agency, Plan had struggled for many years to achieve that goal, without notable success. So we pilot tested a new structure inside the organisation in-country, creating a separate unit focused on grant-seeking and grant-implementation.
What became the “Large Grants Implementation Unit” (LGIU) was quite successful during its short life, partly because it was well-led and well-managed by Ary Laufer; partly because of the great team he worked with; and partly because the LGIU was carefully designed to address the deeper causes of Plan’s longstanding inability to attract significant levels of technical grants.
But the story of the LGIU is also a story of the organisational tensions and political behaviour that Plan suffered from during those days. It was, and is, a great organisation, but with some significant weaknesses. In this case, those weaknesses led to the abrupt and counter-productive closure of what had been shown to be a successful pilot test, soon after I completed my service as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam. No coincidence in that timing, as I will describe!
I began a new journey a year ago, tracing two long arcs in my life:
- Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers. I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
- Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
From the top of Wildcat “D”, which is the southernmost 4000-footer of the Carter Range, it’s two short miles to the summit of Wildcat Mountain (4422ft, 1348m). The trail heading northeast from Wildcat “D” drops fairly steeply at first, and then climbs back up to Wildcat “C” Peak. Wildcat “C” (4298ft, 1310m) is over 4000-feet high, but does not qualify as a “4000-footer” because it’s too close to other, higher summits. Then back down to “B” Peak (same story) before arriving at Wildcat Mountain.
Along the way, I had fine views of Mount Washington to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. A sharp, clear, spectacular day:
I arrived at the top of Wildcat Mountain at about 1:30pm, a gorgeous view down into Carter Notch, where there is an AMC Hut by that name. In 1997 (I think!), I hiked this trail with Max van der Schalk, who had been Plan’s CEO during my time at headquarters, and we stayed one night in that hut. The blue roof of the hut can be seen just below the pond, at the bottom of this photo:
I had lunch at the top, and was joined by another climber. We struck up a conversation, and he told me that he was climbing the 4000-footers with two knee replacements! I asked him how it was going, and he said that the knees weren’t perfect, but better than they had been before the surgeries! Even more amazing was hearing that he was on the way to completing a “cycle” of the 4000-footers.
“What is a ‘cycle’?” I asked.
“Every one of the 48 peaks, in every month” he replied.
Wow, so he was doing each of the 48 mountains in every month… over who knows how many years. That’s 576 climbs!
Pretty incredible, but I’m not tempted – one climb of each of the 48 peaks is enough for me!
From the top of Wildcat Mountains, I could see north to the Carter Range, where I would hike the next day. After lunch, packed up again and retraced my steps along the four “Wildcat” peaks, and arrived back down at the parking area at around 4:30pm.
That night I stayed at Dolly Copp Campground, planning to climb a couple of the Carter Mountains the next day.
Stay tuned for descriptions of those climbs!
Plan Struggles To Increase Grants
During my time working with Plan, the organisation continually struggled to diversify its funding. Around 90% of our income in those days came from child sponsorship contributions, which provided a steady source of flexible, unrestricted income. (I’ve written elsewhere about the sterile criticisms of child sponsorship.)
It seemed to many of us that this situation was a great blessing, as we didn’t have to spend lots of time preparing funding proposals and technical reports. But, at the same time, it was clearly an opportunity: it seemed logical to try to leverage some of our unrestricted income as “match” funds for technical (bi-lateral, multi-lateral, foundation) grants. Our private income would be a competitive advantage here, and technical grants might be useful in funding activities to work on child poverty that was unsuitable for child-sponsorship funding.
But to ensure that the agency remained non-governmental in nature, Plan’s fundraising offices had a formal limit on government income of 30%. That was an obstacle in theory only: in fact, we struggled even to approach 10%. Year after year, we did our best to increase our grant-related income, by setting targets, establishing new systems and procedures, reaching out to possible donors, but, overall, nothing seemed to work, as can be seen in the following figure, copied from my first draft LGIU proposal – see below.
Our grants income was flat, and our underspending of overall revenue was surging. We were stuck in a bad place.
A Regional Meeting in Plan Asia
When I arrived in Viet Nam, in July of 1998, the Regional Office was planning to convene a region-wide workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to discuss ways to increase our non-sponsorship income. Regional staff encouraged us to bring some creative ideas… so I put my thinking hat on.
I reflected on what might be blocking Plan from increasing grant income. Having thought a lot about this issue, worked hard on it when I was at Plan’s International Headquarters as Program Director, I thought I had an idea of what it would take to succeed.
In the end, after several days of discussion, two proposals emerged from the Chiang Mai workshop. The first idea was simple: include non-sponsorship revenue targets in each Country Office Strategic Plan. The benefits of this proposal were that it was simple, and measurable. For me, the problem was that simply setting targets did nothing to address the underlying obstacles that had blocked the organisation from increasing grant income in the past. We had tried setting targets. And, without identifying and addressing the root causes of the problem, I felt that the proposal had little likelihood of succeeding.
The second proposal that was approved at Chiang Mai was one I had formulated. My argument was that Plan was failing to increase non-sponsorship income not because of a lack of commitment or targets, or good intentions. Rather, it was because Plan’s culture, structure, systems, and incentives all flowed from a reality in which child sponsorship was the explicit foundation of the organisation. Perhaps that very reality – which was core to our success – was the obstacle.
I was reminded of my time at Tecogen, my last formal engineering job, where I worked to build a prototype coal-water slurry home-heating system. What Tecogen produced, mainly, was co-generation equipment: machines that produced both electricity and hot water or steam.
Tecogen’s office, in those days, had two main wings: on one side, co-generation equipment was built for the private sector, and on the other side, virtually-identical machines were built, but for government customers. The same machines, but the customers were so different, with such varying requirements and specifications, that an entirely-separate organisational setup was established to serve them. And Tecogen wasn’t unique. I had worked at Boeing Aerospace in Kent, Washington, in summer jobs when I was in college. Boeing had two divisions making airplanes – one for commercial customers, and another for the military.
I wondered if Plan was facing a similar situation, where similar “products” (meaning, child-focused development) with different funding (from sponsors, or from technical donors) would require different organisational setups to succeed. An approach that worked with child sponsorship revenue sources might not be fitting for technical donors.
When I made this argument in Chiang Mai, there was some skepticism. How would it work? Would there be two organisations in each country, with different Country Strategic Plans? Two sets of staff, with different terms and conditions?
But the regional team recognised that the idea had merit, and felt that it might be worth piloting, at least in one Country Office. So it was agreed that I would develop a concept paper for a “Large Grants Implementation Unit” to be pilot tested, if approved, in Viet Nam.
“Large Grants Implementation Unit” – Conceptual Drafts
After the Chiang Mai meetings, I prepared a series of drafts describing why the LGIU was worth testing, and how it would work. Here is the summary of the earliest draft I still have on-file, dated 30 October, 1998:
The percentage of PLAN’s worldwide income derived from grants has not increased, in spite of a decade of good intentions, hard work, several generations of new systems and procedures, and strong organizational commitments. This is because PLAN has not recognized that grant-funded projects require different behaviors, a different organizational culture. Without recognizing the essential differences between grants and sponsorship projects, and the different cultures required for project implementation, PLAN’s desire to increase grant-related income will not be achieved.
To take a specific case, PLAN/Vietnam currently implements a substantial grant portfolio, but the potential exists to significantly expand grant funding. Both the need for programmatic expansion, and the interest from grantors, are strong. But, as in many PLAN programs, staff struggle to address grant requirements alongside sponsorship management, and grant-implementation quality suffers.
It is proposed that a parallel grants-delivery structure for large grants be established in Vietnam. A parallel grant implementation unit would allow PLAN to increase grants income from large institutional and governmental donors while ensuring that PLAN/Vietnam’s outstanding sponsorship performance remains the top priority. A parallel structure would recognize that PLAN deals with two different funding customers, while delivering similar products, and would thus address the real causes of poor grant-related performance.
Should the proposal be approved, the experience of PLAN/Vietnam with this parallel implementation structure would be studied and documented for institutional-learning purposes.
LGIU staff would be tied to grants, working under terms and conditions suitable for fixed-term employment. Just as most staff at most other international NGOs, which commonly gained most of their revenue from technical donors. The full first-draft proposal is available here: Grants Implementation Unit Draft Three.
Later in that first draft, I make a point about culture which attracted widespread criticism, and strong opposition, at Plan’s International Headquarters:
It is the thesis of this paper that the cause of the stagnation of PLAN’s corporate grants-income percentage is simple: the organizational behavior (culture) of major institutional and governmental donors is inconsistent with the behavior (culture) needed for superior sponsorship implementation.
PLAN has attempted to merge these two incompatible cultures, to manage and implement grants with the same behaviors learned through 61 years of successful sponsorship programming, and the result has been confusion and the poor performance shown in Figure 1 (copied here, above). In this light, the failure of our attempts to create better systems and procedures to increase grants income percentages is easy to understand, because the cause of the problem is unrelated to systems and procedures. And the unenthusiastic attitude of staff towards grants can be seen as a rational, logical response to incompatible cultures.
But PLAN’s sponsorship culture is our organizational foundation, and a strong and vibrant sponsorship culture is essential. Therefore, any increase in the percentage of income from grants sources will require the creation of a parallel, “grants-delivery culture.” This is the only way to safeguard our sponsorship foundation while increasing grants income.
Later in the paper I outlined, in more detail, the examples summarized here, above (Tecogen and Boeing), and indicate why implementing this separate grants unit would not only enable Plan in Viet Nam to grow our funding stream, but also how it would protect the quality of our sponsorship-funded programming.
Senior management at Plan’s headquarters reacted strongly, even emotionally, against the notion of a parallel culture, seeing this idea as undermining the unity of the agency. It was said that implementation of my proposal would destroy Plan!
My response was three-fold:
- We would operate the LGIU under the same Country Strategic Plan, and the same leadership. The organization, in Viet Nam, would remain unified;
- It was just a pilot, and we’d evaluate the performance of the LGIU, and the impact of the experiment on the broader organization, in due course;
- There were no other serious proposals that addressed the underlying causes of Plan’s failure to grow its grant income.
So why not try it? After all, I was no longer Plan’s Program Director, just a simple Country Director with authority in one country only. Once the pilot was evaluated, it would be for others to decide what happened next.
It’s worth noting that my supervisor, Plan’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia, was consistently understanding and supportive. Donal Keane, who had participated in the “skunk works” process through which Plan restructured its field organization, was a wise and experienced professional, humble yet clear and decisive. He was one of a long line of supervisors I had in Plan that I learned so much from. He saw the potential in what became the LGIU.
In the end, to gain (grudging) acceptance at Plan’s headquarters, I removed all references to culture, to other organizations, to Plan’s historical experience – this was distracting Plan’s senior management from the actual proposal, making them think I had delusions of (continued) grandeur. I simply focused on what would happen, operationally, in Viet Nam. In other words, the proposal was “dumbed-down” to gain approval; which did not bode well for the future (as will be seen below!)
Once the pilot was approved, we developed a job description for a “LGIU Manager.” My thinking was that we would locate the LGIUM in the central region of Viet Nam, either in Hue or Danang, and combine it with a “Decentralized Operations Support” office, providing financial, administrative, and communications support to the operational Program Units in that part of the country. (The DOS concept was included in the restructuring of Plan’s operations that we had implemented when I served as Program Director at headquarters.)
After recruiting from across Plan, and interviewing several outstanding candidates, we appointed Ary Laufer, who had been working with Plan in Mali, as LGIU Manager. Ary “got” the idea, and had the skills and experience needed for the challenge. He and his family moved first to Hanoi, while we finalized the design of the LGIU and the DOS, and then they moved to Hue to set things up.
Ary managed the DOS and the LGIU with great energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism. We were lucky to have him take the position, because he kept things simple while also being very tolerant of the ambiguity involved in the LGIU pilot test. Ary had to fill in many blank spaces in the design, learning by doing along the way!
I have asked Ary to write a description of the experience, and include his thoughts here, lightly edited:
Foresight, hindsight and the LGIU becoming the new norm.
William Blake said that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better. The opportunity to look back at Plan Viet Nam’s Large Grants Implementation Unit some 15 years later is a great opportunity. But in hindsight, the real foresight was (the) drive to establish this unit, on top of the organisation’s operational structure. This is an unspoken real credit in Plan’s history.
Plan International’s shift to the new country structure, along with its new 5 domains provided a great opportunity for uniform development and expansion benefiting many new communities. This foresight was long standing – but at the time it was being quickly realised that increasing opportunity to access large international funding and programs outside the standard Plan norm would be difficult. Thus the opportunity and potential for Plan evolution was realised and … my young family and I Ieft the established country operations in West Africa, to Viet Nam, to embrace new beginnings.
The timing in the development world, and more so in Viet Nam was perfect. Access to INGO’s to larger amounts of bilateral and multilateral funding had just commenced. A number of new Plan countries across Scandinavia had been established, which had brought new ways of thinking to development, partnerships, funding and working methodologies. These progressive ways were more in line with the future of aid thinking, than the older ways Plan had wanted to retain and continue.
The LGIU in Viet Nam sought to develop new relationships with donors, and in doing so it went about building new partnerships that allowed for the an expansion in programs. Not restricted in child sponsorship revenue ratios, nor in traditional program ideology, it allowed Plan Viet Nam to think beyond the norm to new goals that could be achieved. Both of which Plan ironically changed later.
The LGIU also attracted very bright and dedicated Vietnamese team members, many of whom went on to be leaders in the field, and some who still work for Plan today. People and partnerships became the core of the work, much in line the Central Vietnamese culture that was being infused into the LGIU. While much of the donor relationships work occurred in the global capital cities, its heart was in Central Viet Nam leveraging partnerships for the common wealth of the community in an astute and humble manner
This foresight allowed Plan Viet Nam to focus on different types of ‘child focused development’. Two illustrative examples are:
- Plan’s LGIU was to be the first INGO to access and fully work with incarcerated adolescents in the juvenile justice system outside Ha Noi. Traditional forms of funding, and program management was not possible in a highly restricted environment. It required months of negotiation, trust building and partnerships with the Department of Justice authorities to achieve what we all recognised as being at the core of work for the most marginalised youth. Something the normal child sponsorship program could not fund. Our partners at Plan Norway and NORAD (Norway Government) also recognised this unique & restricted partnership opportunity, and became the required silent partner in this program. Quite revolutionary 15 years ago, more so for an organisation focused on child sponsorship – this would be the norm of a specialised INGO today.
- Plan’s LGIU saw the shift of INGO’s not just to wider partnerships, but to also to the implementation of what was traditionally bilateral aid programs. Working with the Quang Binh People’s Committee, it developed a fully integrated economic and social development District program. This was the first non-socialist INGO program in the District, the home of many famous Vietnamese Generals and Patriots. Plan partnered with MAG, who under the unique leadership of Nick Proudman also saw the ability to do something extra-ordinary, and more than what had been achieved jointly in Quang Tri. The design process was participatory across a number of sectors, with heavy community partnership engagement and two five year plans were development. Funding modules were broken up aimed at the bilateral funding sources. Still core to Plan’s mission, it took program design to the next bilateral level. Plan still works in Quang Binh to date.
Plan Viet Nam’s LGIU raised $4 Million in funding in its second and it seemed its final year. This was quite an achievement in hindsight. The foresight was not only the shift to more bilateral programs, or more marginalised programs or even the ability to access larger grant funding – all of which Plan would evolve to a decade later. The foresight was investing in leveraging in local and international partnerships, quite the norm 15 years later. The foresight was investing in an asset-based approach in staff and management members, allowing them to achieve more rather than follow the Plan cookie cutter approach. The foresight was a LGIU team that were always mobile, with a phone and laptop working across differing locations, not office bound; this is also seen as the norm some 15 years later. The foresight was also Mark and a few key stakeholders believing that the LGIU was possible – which 15 years later is the norm.
The establishment of such a Unit was received with mixed feelings across the Plan world. Indeed a popular and well known Plan Country Director in West Africa at that time informed me that the idea while ahead of its time, would never survive due to the ‘old Plan guard’ undermining it. Politically it would be discredited, in addition to the old Plan funding countries refusing to reduce the focus on child sponsorship revenue. And he ended up correct by the end of 2002…
The lesson here is that hindsight is easy, foresight is difficult, and old ways in organisations are hard to change. But having foresight can change the way we work, and the communities we work with, making a difference to every child.
Many thanks to Ary for his recollections!
So, as planned, at the end of three years an external, independent evaluation of the LGIU pilot test was commissioned. It’s notable that Donal Keane had left his post as Regional Director for Southeast Asia, and I had also left Plan. And Ary had also returned to Australia. Basically all of the people involved in the conceptualisation of the LGIU, and the leadership of the unit during its pilot phase, were gone. This left senior management outside of Viet Nam, who had opposed the pilot from the beginning, and the local staff who had prepared grant proposals and implemented projects which had been funded
But before I left, the evaluator visited the country, where interviews with staff and donors were carried out. Similar interviews took place at Plan’s headquarters.
I received a draft evaluation report just before leaving Viet Nam, and leaving Plan. The summary of the draft report, dated September 2003, contained the following conclusions:
During the course of the evaluation there was no indication to suggest that the LGIU concept was fundamentally flawed, or that it would not have eventually succeeded in its aims, once operational problems had been resolved, and had the LGIUM not resigned early … a major concern at the onset of the LGIU was that it would develop a separate program culture in Plan which would be elitist and measured by the funds it brought rather than program impact or integration. At the time of the evaluation the LGIU appeared to be a separate, rather isolated, part of Plan in Viet Nam trying to get the attention of the centre, much more than it appeared to be the beginning of a separate culture within Plan… there is no evidence to indicate that the LGIU was not going to be a success, once its portfolio had been streamlined and operational and communication problems had been resolved.
In part because of the vacancy existing at the top of the LGIU, the evaluator recommended replacing Ary with a “second PSM.” This proposal essentially retained the LGIU as it was – a grants-seeking and -implementing unit within Plan Viet Nam – but renaming it.
I had no trouble fully agreeing with this analysis, conclusions, and the recommendation to continue – but adjust – the LGIU. It was based on data, reflected the reality, and was logical and wise.
When the final evaluation report emerged, however, just one short month later, I was shocked to find that the recommendation had changed fundamentally:
The evaluation concludes that the LGIU concept was implemented in earnest, and to the best of their abilities, by the LGIU staff and the former CD, but was not able to overcome the contradictions inherent in its design in its first two and a half years of existence… Given the very stringent conditions that would have to be continuously maintained by key busy senior people in Plan in Viet Nam to make the LGIU function as intended; that for most of its existence the LGIU was largely embodied in the LGIUM who then resigned; and the evidence from the experiences of other Plan countries that it is possible to have a dedicated in-country grants capacity without needing a separate organizational unit, by recruiting a second PSM with expertise and specific responsibility for grants, we recommend stopping the LGIU pilot…
An astonishing change, in only a month. Of course, the September document was a draft, and things can change when a draft is finalized. But in conversation with the author of the evaluation, it was made clear to me that the fundamental change in recommendation emerged from a desire to please senior management. Not based on the objective findings of an independent evaluation, but instead on the subjective preferences of Plan’s leadership.
From the beginning, senior management at Plan’s headquarters had only grudgingly gone along with the pilot. Now that the originator of the concept (me), the Regional Director (Donal), and the LGIU manager were all gone, closure of the LGIU, despite its success, could be accomplished without fuss. Plan’s fundamental weakness – when people changed, things started anew, initiatives weren’t followed through, and everything done by earlier generations was bad – had come into play once again.
But good ideas can’t be suppressed for ever. As Ary puts it in his note for this blog: by 2017, the operational governance underpinning the LGIU – of partnerships, funding leverage, and non-child sponsorship programs are very much the mainstream, even at Plan.
But the cost – to people involved in the LGIU, to the children who could have had support provided via increased grants revenue – was high.
As I foreshadowed above, by late 2002 I was ready for another challenge. I’d made this decision before the LGIU evaluation was complete. I had been with Plan since just after leaving the Peace Corps, in 1987, and it had been a fantastic 15 years. So I resigned from Plan, and Jean and I returned to Durham, New Hampshire, where we had made a home during our sabbatical year, before moving to Viet Nam.
I am still very grateful to Plan: ever since I first came into contact with the organization while I was still a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, I had learned and grown. Plan gave me so many priceless opportunities, which would serve me well in the following phases of my career.
Just as I was leaving Hanoi, I got an email from out of the blue, from a person I had never met. Daniel Wordsworth was Program Development Director at CCF in Richmond, Virginia, and he wanted to know if I knew anybody who could help them reinvent their program approach. I thought I knew of the perfect person…
But before describing the three great years that followed, as we developed and tested what became CCF’s new approach, “Bright Futures,” I want to reflect a bit about what had changed – for me, and in the world of development, poverty, and social justice – in the 15 years between my start in this work (Ecuador, 1987) and my departure from Plan (Viet Nam, 2002).
So, stay tuned!
Here are links to other blogs in this series. Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.