I began a new journey nearly two years ago (May, 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 30 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).
Last time I described a failed merger between three large international NGOs. Across the MDG era there was a constant theme, in senior management strategy sessions and board rooms, of consolidation: surely, we thought, the sector would go through a period of mergers and acquisitions like what we were seeing in the for-profit world. We imagined that, at the end of this process, that there would be many fewer, larger generalist INGOs, and a range of smaller, specialized agencies. Seemed inevitable.
That consolidation hasn’t really happened, even now, but we had tried one: I had led the due diligence effort from Plan International’s perspective in mid-1997, helping formulate a strong case that Plan International, Plan USA, and Save the Children USA could achieve much more if they combined forces. The process ended, as I described, because of glitches in the relationship between two CEOs and their boards. And because, in one case, the agency’s board saw their own roles being diluted should the merger go forward.
A real pity, because the combination of these three agencies back in 1997 would have really created very strong programmatic and funding synergies. And it would have jump-started a necessary and positive consolidation in our sector…
In this article, I want to reflect about how to build a great INGO program: to misquote Haruki Murakami: what we think about, when we think about a great program.
In early 2009, my work as Executive Director at UUSC Just Democracy was in transition, partly because of our success. Our political work in New Hampshire had contributed (in a small way) to the success of several progressive candidates in the 2008 federal election, and our donors were starting to relax. (Which is pretty sad because, as we all know now, the great results of 2008 would be rapid undermined by a virulent, anti-democratic, right-wing reaction from 2010 onwards.)
The consequence for UUSC Just Democracy was that I started to pick up some consulting work from my old life, in particular with old friends at ChildFund, organizing what became Bright Futures 101 in the Philippines, which I’ve blogged about earlier.
That consultancy led to a connection with ChildFund Australia, which was looking to put in place a new, international program department in Sydney. At first it seemed like I might be able to help out on a consultancy basis, because they were having trouble finding the right International Program Director, a new position. Maybe I could fill in for a while … so I had several Skype interviews with ChildFund’s CEO, Nigel Spence, which went well. So well that it felt like maybe I should consider doing the job!
We agreed that after my assignment in the Philippines I would travel to Sydney for face-to-face discussions with Nigel and members of his board of directors.
As I prepared for that visit, I spent time thinking about how I would approach creating a new program approach, and a new team, for ChildFund, should I be lucky enough to be given the opportunity.
To skip the description of my ascent of Galehead Mountain, and go directly to my discussion of great NGO programs, click here.
The Climb – Galehead Mountain
But first, back to the other arc of this journey: I climbed both Galehead Mountain and Mt Garfield, solo, on July 19, 2017. Here is a view of both peaks, from an image I had taken from Mt Lafayette a couple of weeks before:
North Twin and South Twin Mountains can be seen behind Galehead. The idea was that Jean would drop me off, I would loop up over Galehead, across to Garfield, and then finish up a few miles from where I started. If we planned things well, Jean would be waiting for me…
Jean and I drove up from Durham that morning, leaving home at about 7:15am. We stopped for refreshments in Tilton, and then to buy me a sandwich (for the hike) in Lincoln.
We drove up through Franconia Notch, and then east on Rt 3. Jean was going to drop me off at the start of the Gale River Trail, and then have a day with an old high-school friend in Littleton, and pick me up at the end of the Garfield Trail. I planned to hike up Gale River Trail, then make my way up past Galehead Hut on Garfield Ridge Trail, to the top of Galehead Mountain. Then I’d retrace my steps on Garfield Ridge Trail, to the top of Mt Garfield, and then drop down Garfield Trail.
First, the climb of Galehead Mountain:
Jean left me at the Gale River trailhead at 9:45am:
When I looked at the AMC White Mountain Guide, it seemed that the whole loop would take me over 9 hours, which seemed hard to believe. I figured it would take me between 7 and 8 hours, so asked Jean to meet me between 5pm and 6pm. In the meantime, she would visit with her friend from high school.
The walking was easy up the Gale River Trail, gently upward for several miles, mostly in the shade of a lovely clear blue sky. The first couple of miles were a bit unusual, because I wasn’t “rock-hopping” here, it was mostly on roots, “root-hopping,” dodging mud. But it was a gorgeous day:
The trail is north-facing, so would be covered with snow and ice for many months in an average year. Of course, I was walking in late July, so the path was clear, but evidence of winter walking, with poles, was clear along the way:
At around 11am, the trail became somewhat steeper, and rockier; by this point, I was completely drenched with sweat!:
I reached the Garfield Ridge Trail (coincident with the Appalachian Trail here) at about 11:30am, and became very optimistic about how long the hike would take me. I had read that this part of the hike would take 3 1/2 hours, so if I was already at the ridge, not even two hours after starting, this was going to be easy!? Was I making much better time than I expected?
Things definitely didn’t turn out that way! To begin with, even though I had reached the Garfield Ridge Trail, I still had plenty of climbing to do before I even reached Galehead Hut. As I looked ahead, the actual ridge seemed quite a bit higher than I was, and North Twin Mountain loomed over me to the east.
I took a left turn, and it took me 15 minutes to reach the actual ridge near Galehead Hut, the end of the Garfield Ridge Trail, the intersection with Frost Trail and the Twinway:
There were several Appalachian Trail through-hikers on the trail, mostly seeming to be heading south. I took the Frost Trail, and arrived at Galehead Hut just before noon:
From Galehead Hut, the Frost Trail continues a short distance to the summit of Galehead Mountain. I dropped my pack at the Hut, and headed up.
There is a great outlook half-way up the mountain, where there are views back down to the Hut, to South Twin Mountain, and down along the Bond ridge:
I arrived at the forested summit of Galehead Mountain at 12:19pm. Just a rock cairn surrounded by small pines, no view at all:
Peak number 31, done and dusted!
I got back to Galehead Hut at just past 12:30pm, and had a quick lunch. I started back on the Frost Trail to rejoin the Garfield Ridge Trail at just before 1pm, heading towards Mount Garfield!
What We Think About When We Think About Great NGO Programs
So what does it take to build a great INGO program? I was thinking a lot about this as I prepared for my interviews with ChildFund Australia, drawing from my career thus far. In the rest of this blog, I want to outline the elements of my thinking.
If I was lucky enough to be able to create a new program structure in Australia, I kept coming back to experiences I’ve described earlier in this blog series. They seemed to coalesce into five general themes:
- It felt important to emphasize the commitment to closeness with people living in poverty that I had learned from colleagues in Tuluá, Colombia, as they explored and adapted PRA methods in the late 1980’s. As our sector had “professionalized” in the 1990’s, it really felt like we had gained a lot, but lost a lot, too. (I would describe both sides of that coin in an article I would write in Australia, which I have already blogged about earlier.) Later we would insist on incorporating this commitment into what became “Bright Futures”, in the early 2000’s;
- To make sure we got things right, I thought about lessons from the Total Quality Management framework that I developed when I was Regional Director for Plan International in South America in the early 1990’s. Part of this would have to be a clear measurement system, so that we could learn and improve and be accountable;
- To measure it, we needed to have a clear understanding of poverty (in general), and child poverty (in particular). I thought a lot about the framework that we had developed when I worked with CCF as a consultant in the early 2000’s, designing and testing what became “Bright Futures”;
- I had learned a lot about how human-rights and social-justice frameworks could help us address the deeper causes of poverty, because these concepts had underlaid UUSC’s work, and the understanding of power that drove our activist work, in the mid-2000’s. To have real impact, these frameworks needed to be alive in our work;
- And, finally, it felt like I might have a priceless opportunity, setting up a new team in Sydney and, later, in Laos and Myanmar, to approach my leadership and management role using the restorative principles and NGO values I had learned along the way. I wanted to focus my own contribution squarely on bringing out the best in our NGO people.
When I thought about putting all those pieces together, I began to get very excited at the prospect of joining ChildFund Australia, which I would do in July of 2009. Before this journey arrives in Sydney, however, I want to reflect a bit more on the five areas outlined above…
As I thought about creating the new department in Sydney, being close to the people we were meant to serve – people living in poverty – seemed to be of fundamental importance. How could we dream of helping improve their lives if we didn’t have a clear sense of their situations, at a human level?
Back in Tuluá, Colombia, in the late 1980’s, I had been fortunate to work with a group of great people who were way ahead of my own evolution in this sense:
They were a joyful group in Tuluá, and I learned a lot from them. For example, I vividly recall our program head (Lucyla Posso) and several program staff working to carry out a PRA exercise – I had no idea what that was, but they were excited by this new methodology. I was still caught up in my engineering approach – Gantt Charts, etc. – and didn’t pay enough attention to what Lucyla, Lijia, and Oscar Arley and others were doing. Later I would catch on to the power of PRA methods!
Later, we would incorporate this fundamental commitment – accompaniment of people living in poverty – into what became Bright Futures. In 2003 I summarized much of the research carried out as we designed Bright Futures in the Phase 1 Report (attached here: Phase 1 Report – Final):
For now, I just want to highlight the fourth dot-point included in the Box: “to be appropriate and relevant, (good development practice) is based on an immersion in each local environment, and the active participation of the poor themselves.” The use of PRA tools would be fundamental in enabling us to make this a reality, but as I thought about setting up a new department in Sydney I was determined to bring this into our work not only as a tool, but also as a key value. Accompaniment of people living in poverty would enable us to design effective development programs and to understand their impact, and it would also help create and reinforce a culture of respect and humility.
From my time at Plan International’s South America Regional Office, and in particular as we developed a framework for Total Quality Management in Plan, I had learned that a great organization must be united around a clear purpose, drive the continuous improvement of everything it does, and it must have a healthy and accountable management culture. Later I came to appreciated that this greatness can only be constructed on a strong platform of policies and procedures. Otherwise, people would tend to spend too much time reinventing ways of carrying out mundane tasks; for some reason, we are drawn to spend time on these kinds of housekeeping issues instead of grappling with the challenges of our program work. The graphic captures the overall idea:
Of course, my role at ChildFund Australia, if I ended up joining, was not to run the overall organization – that was Nigel’s job. But nevertheless the framework was in my mind as I thought about setting up a new department:
- I would want to have our basic policies and procedures be crystal clear, mostly so that we wouldn’t have to think about them. The idea of creating something like the “UUSC Handbook” I’ve described earlier was in my mind, somehow;
- The management culture that we would co-create in our team would be as full of trust and empowerment, accountability, and fun, as possible. I wanted to apply what I had learned from Atema Eclai at UUSC, what I would later learn to describe as “restorative principles,” in our teams;
- We would establish a clear framework for assessing the effectiveness of our work, and we’d use that framework to improve our work on an agile basis. What would become the ChildFund Australia “Development Effectiveness Framework” came from this;
- And we would strive to be very clear about our purpose, and how our program work linked explicitly to that purpose. Here I would end up building the first chapter of what became the ChildFund “Program Handbook” to include a theory of change and how we would measure its achievement.
I will share much more on all these topics in the near future!
As I’ve outlined in an earlier blog post in this series, one of the many exciting aspects of the work that Michelle Poulton and Daniel Wordsworth were doing in CCF in the early 2000’s was the study of child poverty. CCF had commissioned staff from Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University to survey the literature, listen to children and youth around the world, and then reflect back their findings.
I’ve explored those findings in some detail earlier in this series. To summarize, we had formulated a clear framework that represented the lived experience of children who were living in poverty:
- Part of their experience could be described as deprivation. Just as with adults, children and their caregivers experienced poverty as a lack of health, education, income, etc.
But children’s actual lived experience of poverty couldn’t be described entirely in terms of what is traditionally understood as “deprivation.” The CCF Poverty Study documented very clearly that:
- in addition to deprivation, children experienced exclusion, even from the earliest ages;
- And that children living in poverty felt a strong sense of vulnerability.
These two additional elements of child poverty, exclusion and vulnerability, represented areas that, generally speaking, we were not addressing in our programming. I wanted to see how we could build them into our work at ChildFund Australia, if I ended up joining the organization!
Later I had been lucky to join UUSC, where I served as Executive Director. One of the key elements of our work there had been the creation of the “UUSC Handbook”, which was my attempt to put in place the kind of clarity of policies and procedures mentioned above.
More importantly, UUSC was an organization focused on human rights, social justice, and activism. Our organizational theory of change, described in an earlier blog post in this series, spoke to the linkages involved for us:
Human rights and social justice have never advanced without struggle. It is increasingly clear that sustained, positive change is built through the work of organized, transparent and democratic civic actors, who courageously and steadfastly challenge and confront oppression.
As we explored the consequences of looking at our work at UUSC in this way, I began to deepen my own understanding of the importance of power, and collective action, in advancing human rights. I would want to incorporate this understanding, somehow, into our work in ChildFund Australia.
Finally, to some extent I would be setting up a new team in Sydney, if I ended up going there. I mentioned above that great international NGOs have a healthy and accountable management culture, so my intention was to build teams in Australia (and where we worked overseas, in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam) that were grounded in the values of our sector, clear about what we were doing and why, and driven to improve the impact of our work.
Just as important, I wanted to build teams that had high trust, listened well, were inspired, trusted each other, and were curious enough to discover the innovations that would help us break through. I had learned how this can be achieved, and how it can be undermined, in the preceding 25 years, so I felt ready for the challenge.
My visit to Sydney for the interview would be successful, and I would return to New Hampshire in mid-2009 to pack up for the move, rent our house, and get our cat Lois ready for the trans-Pacific trip.
It felt like a priceless opportunity. To help build a world-class program:
- which was as close to people living in poverty as possible;
- with clear policies and procedures, united around a clear purpose, driven to continuously improve what we did, and with a healthy and accountable management culture;
- underpinned by an understanding that poverty was a shifting and dynamic mixture of deprivation, exclusion, and vulnerability;
- informed by human-rights and social-justice frameworks, and by an understanding of power and collective action;
- and, finally, that I would lead and manage in a way that brought out the best in our NGO people.
A big challenge, that I would do my best to achieve, imperfectly, over the next six years. In my next article, I will reflect about what I had learned about building strong NGO teams and then, in my 33rd posting in this series, my six years at ChildFund Australia begins with a description of the team we put together in Sydney…
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…