I began a new journey in May of 2016, 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.
So far, I’ve described climbing 29 of those 48 mountains in New Hampshire, and I’ve moved across time, from the beginning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador (1984), through to serving as Executive Director for UUSC Just Democracy (into mid-2009).
In this blog post, I want to describe a short “project” that Max van der Schalk, then the CEO of Plan International, gave me as I was leaving Plan’s international headquarters for a year’s sabbatical. We were looking at a big merger, and Max asked me to head up the merger team on Plan International’s side.
To skip the description of my ascent of Carter Dome, and go directly to my description of the failure of a merger in the NGO sector, click here.
The Climb – Carter Dome
I climbed Carter Dome (4832ft, 1473m) on 9 July 2017, with Yingji Ma, a friend who is studying at UNH. He goes by the name of “Draco” here. Carter Dome is the eighth-highest of the 48 peaks
We left Durham at about 7:15am and drove up Rt 16 towards the White Mountains, stopping along the way for coffee and tea, and sandwiches to pack for lunch. We arrived at the trailhead of the 19-Mile Brook Trail at about 9:30am:
Our plan was to hike up 19-Mile Brook Trail, and then bear left to take the Carter Dome Trail up to Carter-Moriah Trail, on the ridge. Then we would turn south, taking the spur over to Mt Hight (4675ft, 1425m), and continue along Carter-Moriah to reach Carter Dome. Rejoining 19-Mile Brook Trail at Carter Notch, we’d finish the day dropping down directly back to the parking area.
(Note that Mt Hight does not qualify as an official “4000-footer.” The AMC criteria for being included as an official “4000-footer” is that a mountain must (1) be at least 4000 feet high while also (2) rising at least 200 ft above the low point of its connecting ridge with a higher neighbor. In this case, Mt Hight does not rise 200 feet above the ridge connecting it to Carter Dome, which is higher.)
I had climbed the southern and northern sections of this ridge over two very memorable days in September, 2016 – climbing Wildcat D, Wildcat Mountains, and then Middle Carter and South Carter. Once we finished the climb today, I would have only Mt Moriah left of the six 4000-footers on this long ridge that stretches along the east side of Mt Washington.
We walked up the 19-Mile brook, gently upward for some time. It was a very nice day, mostly sunny, perfect cool temperature. Draco said he felt good and fresh!
At 10:41am, we reached the start of the Carter Dome Trail, where we went left onto a less-developed path:
The trail then became steeper, and at 11:57am we reached the junction of Carter Dome Trail and Carter-Moriah Trail:
Here we turned south towards Carter Dome, our objective for the day, joining the Appalachian Trail. Soon we came to another junction where we had the option of going directly towards Carter Dome, or getting there via Mt Hight. It was about noon, and we had time, so we decided to take the slightly-longer route, and go via Mt Hight:
This was a good decision because, even though the ascent up to Mt Hight was very steep and rocky, the views from there were excellent. As we would see, the summit of Carter Dome is forested, without any view at all! We arrived at the summit of Mt Hight at 12:30pm, very windy, and a good time to have lunch.
There were really great views towards the east and the Presidential Range, and towards the west and the Atlantic Ocean:
After lunch at the cold and windy top of Mt Hight, we continued towards Carter Dome, at about 1pm. We were now up at elevation, so the trail was up-and-down along the ridge:
We arrived at the junction of the Black Angel Trail, and continued towards Carter Dome:
We reached the summit of Carter Dome at about 1:30pm:
It looks like there used to be a tower here at the summit, but we didn’t stay too long at Carter Dome, as there are no views. So we continued along the Carter-Moriah Trail and, as we approached Carter Notch, the view down into the notch was impressive. Here the Carter Notch Hut complex is visible below, and Wildcat Mountain rises above the Hut:
Back in September of 2016, I had sat on Wildcat Mountain and had lunch looking north into the notch. A guy with two new artificial knees had sat with me, and described his plan to do the “cycle” of the 48 4000-footers: every one of the 48 peaks, in each month of the year! Too much for me…
Here is the mirror-image view, taken last year from that spot at the top of Wildcat Mountain at lunchtime: I’m looking back towards Carter Dome here, in September of 2016:
Draco and I dropped down steeply toward the hut, hopping over and around typical White Mountains granite boulders, and arrived at the lake next to hut at 2:20pm:
After resting for a few minutes (Draco said he was getting tired!), here at the junction of the 19-Mile Brook and Carter-Moriah trails, we took a right turn, and headed north. It was about 2:30pm … the 19-Mile Brook Trail ascends briefly up to the Carter Notch saddle, and then drops steadily down to the trailhead.
Soon the trail rejoins the 19-Mile Brook, and we walked down alongside it, crossing occasionally:
We had seen an inviting swimming hole on the way up, and talked about taking a quick dip when we came back through. In the end, Draco took the chance and said it was “SUPER COLD”:
We arrived back at Rt 16 at about 4:20pm after a very nice day, beautiful views along the way, especially at Mt Hight.
A glorious White-Mountains day, and peak number 30 had been climbed!
A Failed Merger in the NGO Sector
Loyal readers of this blog will recall that Jean and I had left the UK in May of 1997. I had wrapped up four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), and was looking forward to spending a year in Durham, New Hampshire, on a “sabbatical.” This was a very generous policy that allowed Plan staff with tenure in the organization to take time to reflect, without pay but with a guarantee of a job at the end.
We flew from Heathrow airport to Boston that May, on the day that Tony Blair became Prime Minister, and then drove up to Durham, where Jean’s sister Joan had helped us rent a house outside of town. The plan was to take a year and reflect about my time at IH, maybe climb a few of the White Mountains, take some courses at the University of New Hampshire (which is based in Durham)…
It was a great year. The “reflection” part of that year led to two papers that were published in peer-reviewed journals, and which have informed several blog posts in this series:
- A description of how we produced the first data-driven growth plan for Plan International: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth;
- A summary of the three major “projects” that I had focused on during my four years at IH, along with lessons learned: Tackling Fragmentation and Building Unity in an International Nongovernmental Organization.
Few operational staff in INGOs take the time to write for serious journals, so I was proud to have managed to publish these articles.
As for taking classes at UNH, that worked out well also. I took a course in African History, Intro to Architecture (with Jean), and bicycle maintenance. That winter, I spent a good amount of time learning to cross-country ski. And I did two small pieces of work for Plan, researching the potential for the organization to begin work in two new countries: Madagascar and Eritrea. This involved a few weeks of work, and a visit to each country.
During the year, I kept my eye on internal vacancies in Plan, thinking about reentry. My ideal next job would be back in the field, starting up a new country for Plan, as Country Director. The visit to Eritrea had been positive, and I had recommended that Plan consider establishing operations there. After that decision had been made, I applied for the job and was appointed as Country Director. The future looked bright for Eritrea, and for Jean and I there, but just as I was leaving the country from my research visit, tensions rose (again) with Ethiopia, which led to a long period of conflict. Soon, what had looked to be a possible model for an open society in Africa descended into repression and dictatorship. This included a rapid closing of space for civil society in the country, including for INGOs. So Plan deferred the opening of a Country Office in Asmara…
In the end, as readers know, Jean and I ended up flying to Hanoi in July of 1998, where I had been appointed as Country Director. This would be my favorite posting in Plan, which I’ve described extensively in earlier articles in this series: here and here and here and here.
But as left for that sabbatical year, in May of 1997, Max asked me to continue to look after a very important and rather sensitive project for a few more weeks, from New Hampshire. Now, 20 years later, I feel that I can write about it: we were moving towards merging three organizations together: Plan International, Plan USA, and Save the Children USA.
Over the years, our sector always seems to be on the cusp of consolidation. The logic is clear: many of our organizations do very similar work overseas, duplicating many functions. And we compete for funds domestically. So, at least in principle, mergers would seem to offer opportunities for massive cost savings. To my knowledge, if we had succeeded in merging Plan, Plan USA and Save USA, it would have been one of the first mega-mergers in the sector. The fact that the merger failed is, I think, a case study that illustrates why consolidation hasn’t really happened, despite the clear economic (and moral) case that can be made. Instead, what we’ve seen, mostly, is consolidation between unequal parties (a larger INGO absorbing a smaller agency) rather than the kind of merger we were examining (between three large organizations.)
The day after Jean and I arrived in New Hampshire, still with major jet lag, I drove south to Rhode Island. You may recall that Plan’s International Headquarters had been located in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, before we moved to the UK. But the US fundraising office, “Plan USA,” was still there in Rhode Island, in separate premises not far from where IH had been. It was a two hour drive for me: an hour to Boston, then another hour to Rhode Island.
The idea of merging Plan International, Plan USA, and Save USA had been on the table, quietly, for a few months. I think that the idea emerged from what we had called “The Gang Of Four,” which was an initiative that Max van der Schalk had prompted over coffee with three other CEOS (Dean Hirsch of World Vision International, the head of Save USA, and Paul McCleary of CCF) one afternoon in Geneva at a UNICEF meeting. Max thought that Plan, Save, World Vision, and CCF ought to be able to collaborate on something big, and the other three CEOs agreed. Maybe as a way of building towards something even bigger.
We four program directors (the Save International program director had joined us) were asked to figure out something that made sense, and I proposed that we work together to figure out how we could do a better job with girl education, together. My colleagues liked it, our CEOs embraced the idea, and off we went. (It’s quite interesting that Plan is now becoming quite focused on girls, overall. A good move into “exclusion” and away from “deprivation”, very appropriate for these times. More on that later…)
From the “Gang of Four” initiative came, among other things, closer relations at the programmatic level, with me, Gary Shaye of Save US, Steve Commins of World Vision, and Joy Carol of CCF getting to know each other. It was great working with the three of them – I certainly learned a lot. And, out of that very positive initiative came, I think, the idea of merging.
There were three CEOs directly involved in this possible merger: Max, of course, at Plan. Then there was Sam Worthington, who was the CEO of Plan USA (now the CEO of the US peak body for INGOs, Interaction.) And of course the CEO of Save USA.
The potential for efficiencies was really clear: Plan USA and Save USA competed for support in a very similar marketplace: individual donors, major donors, corporations, and the US government. Even more interesting was that Plan USA raised most of its funding from private sources, and Save USA got the majority of its money from the US government; this meant that the potential for leveraging Plan’s private income to “match” a big increase in government grants, seemed very large if the two agencies were merged. In fact, Save USA’s government funding was pretty much “matched out”: they they didn’t have any more “private” income to match government funding, so they couldn’t grow.
And Save USA and Plan International both had operations in a number of countries, doing very similar work in the same places. Duplication and inefficiencies across the three organizations seemed ripe for elimination. All in all, there seemed to be big financial, programmatic, and moral reasons to at least consider consolidation.
But structural relations were complex: Plan USA was, in theory, mostly, a fundraising office for the Plan alliance, tightly bound to the wider group. Plan International implemented programs for the whole Plan alliance. Save USA was, similarly, a key member of the Save the Children Alliance, raising funds and running their own programs around the world, and also remitting funds to other Save members. A merger would be very challenging.
But first we needed to figure out if the advantages we saw, in principle, really existed in fact. And we needed to do this very quietly, because a merger of this kind, with Save USA leaving the Save the Children alliance, would be a bombshell!
(As an aside, as I was leaving IH for my sabbatical, I had a strange conversation with the chairman of Plan’s international board of directors, Fred McElman. I thought he simply wanted to thank me for having spent four years at IH, which he did, but then he went on to express his sorrow that things hadn’t worked out… but perhaps something would come from the merger. Later I thought that he was assuming that I had been interested in the CEO job, Max’s job, and that perhaps something like it would emerge from the merger for me! It was kind of him, but of course he was looking at things from a private-sector point of view: I was DELIGHTED to be leaving IH and, after the year on sabbatical, going back to the field.)
As I mentioned above, Max asked me to lead the due diligence from Plan International’s perspective. Sam Worthington was, of course, based in Rhode Island, and Gary’s office was in Connecticut. There was a fourth player involved in the process: Dave Matheson, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group, was on the board of Plan USA and Plan International and he offered to provide expert assistance, in the form of a very savvy BCG analyst, with experience in our sector. I’ve forgotten this person’s name, sadly, but we all worked together very well in the process. New Hampshire, Boston, Rhode Island, and Connecticut – we were all in the same general area, which boded well for being able to get through the due diligence.
Gary and I were asked to look at the value proposition for the merger from the programmatic and government-funding sides, with that excellent BCG analyst helping us. We met a few times in Rhode Island and Boston, and worked out the details.
We saw how overhead costs could be lowered by eliminating duplication where both agencies had field operations in the same country. And, most importantly, Plan’s private income could be used to “match” a big increase in government funding. In both ways, the combined entities would be able to do more than the three separate organizations could do. Perhaps a lot more. From our perspective, as I recall, the business case for the merger was overwhelmingly strong and we realized that, if it went ahead, we would be in the vanguard of consolidation that so many had predicted for years.
The arguments for, and against, the merger were prepared and board meetings were scheduled to consider matters.
Sam Worthington had become seriously ill while visiting Plan’s work in Africa, and was still recovering during this time. I vividly remember a lengthy meeting of Save USA’s board which Sam and I both attended, where he had to retire to an adjoining room where a cot had been set up so he could rest a few times during the meeting. His courage, and commitment, were admirable.
Of course, the merger didn’t happen. In fact, things fell apart rather quickly after Gary and I concluded our due diligence.
Why did it all fall apart? From what I could observe, which admittedly was only part of the story, I think there were two main reasons that such an obvious good idea didn’t go forward.
First, in two of the three agencies the CEOs weren’t in strong positions. Max van der Schalk was transitioning out of Plan, and would leave within a few months. This kind of merger would need strong leadership from all sides, and while Max certainly was a strong leader, he was also leaving. What was worse was that Max’s successor, John Greensmith, had been named but had no idea that this huge merger was a distinct possibility!
It’s hard for me to understand why Plan’s board hadn’t briefed John about the discussions, but it is easy to understand why he was very opposed to the idea once he found out: there would be nothing attractive about the idea for him, which might even threaten his (very new) job! So while Max was on-board, and saw the compelling logic, John Greensmith was uninterested and skeptical.
The situation with Save USA was even stranger. The board meeting that Sam and I attended was surreal, to say the least, and not because Sam was so sick: despite clear evidence why it made lots of sense, the idea of the merger was basically put aside without significant discussion.
What was going on? Like Plan’s board, Save’s board was well aware of the discussions; and, in this case, their CEO was very involved and positive, and he wasn’t on the way out of his job. So it wasn’t like the situation in Plan, where the board was involved but a new CEO was uninterested.
My sense, from attending that one board meeting, was that the Save CEO had lots of great initiatives bubbling along, he was very creative … and his board had learned that many of them wouldn’t come to fruition. I got the feeling that the Save USA board tended to let a thousand flowers bloom, but when this one unexpectedly looked like it was turning into something serious they were very uninterested, to say the least. And they quashed it without hesitation.
So the first reason why the merger didn’t go ahead was that two of the three CEOs didn’t, or weren’t able to, push things ahead with their boards. The second reason is also related to the boards that were involved: ego.
The brief discussions at that Save USA board meeting were informative: they didn’t focus on the business case, but rather on their individual roles in a combined entity. In other words, sure, it makes sense from the perspective of doing more for children living in poverty, but what role will I, a Save board member, have in this merged organization? Since Save USA would be a large minority part of a a combined organization, the writing was on the wall. So: no!
From my perspective, the merger failed for those two reasons: Plan’s new CEO hadn’t been briefed on a huge development that affected his job, and Save USA’s board thought that merging the organizations would diminish their own roles in some way.
Once the merger failed, I focused on the things I had wanted to do in my sabbatical: skiing, studying, writing, hiking. In later years, of course, some mergers would happen in our sector and many more acquisitions would take place. But I still wonder about the impact that our merger would had in the sector – it would have been a big deal, I think, a very positive example of putting aside vested interests and ego in favor of the mission.
Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: before describing how Jean and I moved to Australia for six great years with ChildFund, I want to reflect a bit about how poverty, the sector, and my own thinking had changed since my time in the Peace Corps, 25 years before.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, 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;
- Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
- Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
- Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
- Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
- North Twin (40) – Value for Money;
- South Twin (41) – Disaster Risk Reduction;
- Mt Hale (42) – A “Golden Age” for INGOs Has Passed. What Next?;
- Zealand Mountain (43) – Conflict: Five Key Insights;
- Mt Washington (44) – Understanding Conflicts;
- Mt Monroe (45) – Culture, Conflict;
- Mt Madison (46) – A Case Study Of Culture And Conflict;
- Mt Adams (47) – As I Near the End of This Journey;
- Mt Jefferson (48) – A Journey Ends…