In my previous entry of this series, I wrote about my arrival at the International Headquarters (“IH”) of Plan International, in 1991, as Program Director. I had proposed to the then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, that I would stay in that role for just three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field.
I hoped to advance three carefully-chosen major projects in what I planned would be a relatively-brief time at IH:
- We would articulate a set of program goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity, align our work with best practices, and enable accountability;
- We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be more rational, less political, less dependent on the force of character of a particular management presentation;
- We would finish the restructuring of the agency. Now that the Regions were functioning, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan worked at country level.
Each of these efforts would contribute to addressing the disunity and lack of accountability that had grown as the agency regionalised and as staff had rebelled against Max’s predecessor, Alberto Neri. I felt that the centrifugal forces unleashed by regionalization needed to be balanced with stronger centripetal forces – building unity across regions.
Centrifugal force is a way of describing the way that an object following a curved path will fly outwards, away from the center of the curve. Centrifugal force isn’t really a force, it describes how an object resists any change in its state of rest or motion, so any object moving in a curved path must be subject to some force to make it deviate from a straight line. Centripetal force is a real force, counteracting the centrifugal “force” and preventing the object from flying away from the center of the circular path.1
I hoped to strengthen the centripetal forces: with clear goals, an objective way of allocating resources across countries, and the completion of our restructuring, I felt that Plan would be well-positioned to focus clearly on program effectiveness, and be less internally-distracted. And I was trying to take a systems approach – fix the problems by changing the system using those three key levers. I sought to change the system in part by creating a new and shared language with which Plan staff would describe and understand our work in common ways, a new lexicon.
In this post I want to describe the first of those three projects – the preparation and approval of a new set of program goals and cross-cutting principles for Plan.
(Portions of the content below have been adapted from a journal article I wrote and published in “Nonprofit Management and Leadership,” after I left IH. A copy of that original article can be found here: NML – Fragmentation Article.)
I’ve been writing over the last few months about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 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.
On July 3, 2016, Eric and I climbed North and South Kinsman, two of the three 4000-footers in the Cannon-Kinsman range, just west of Franconia Notch. I’ll describe the first part of that long, long day here – the ascent of North Kinsman (4293ft, 1309m).
We left the parking area on NH 116 at around 11am, having driven up from Durham that morning.
After a steady climb of around 3.7m, at around 1pm we arrived at the junction of several trails that are arrayed around Lonesome Lake Hut, which we could see below us down towards Franconia Notch. Here we joined Kinsman Ridge Trail towards North Kinsman.
Less than a half mile after passing this junction, we arrived at the summit of North Kinsman. The view of Franconia Range from North Kinsman was spectacular that day.
Here you can see, from the left, Cannon Mountain (in the near distance) and, farther away, Mt Lafayette, Mt Lincoln, Mt Liberty, and Mt Flume. Obviously, it was a stunning day and, once we arrived onto Kinsman Ridge Trail, the views were gorgeous:
As can be seen on the map, above, when we arrived at the top of North Kinsman we were barely a quarter of the way into our hike. It was a great, but very long, day – the rest of which I will describe next time.
“Third sector organizations, in particular, have fuzzy boundaries and countless opportunities to drift away from their primary purpose” – Hudson (1995)
The kind of drift that Hudson describes was clearly occurring in Plan. By 1994, Plan had three formal program goals (education, health, and economy); six program policies (HIV/AIDS, special-need children, family planning, women in development, the environment, and urban-rural work); a global program document, with nine policy themes and strategies; and an official Program Manual, including additional related statements.
These goals and policies had been developed over a number of years and became outdated, incomplete, and inconsistent in form. They were a mixture of strategies, targets, and indicators, predating the development of Plan’s vision, mission, and strategic directions, the World Summit for Children, the World Conference on Education for All, and other important shifts in the development sector that had taken place. Importantly, this hodgepodge of statements were not very child-centered. From my own perspective, having worked as a Field Director in Tuluá, Area Manager for Ecuador and Bolivia, and Regional Director for South America, Plan’s program goals and policies were not as relevant to field practice as they should have been, and they did not enhance unity of purpose or accountability. We weren’t using them; we had no shared language to describe our work.
But there was another reason for the drift: the new Regional Offices were asserting themselves in the vacuum that was being created by the reality that IH was very distracted by conflict between senior staff and the new CEO, Alberto Neri. As I described earlier, for example, in the South America Region we had created our own strategy process, which was very successful in unifying our work in that part of the world, but I felt, even at the time, that there needed to be a mechanism for common, consistent accountability across the whole organization. Otherwise, regionalisation would pull Plan apart.
From my perspective, regionalisation was, in fact, pulling Plan apart.
Once Max brought me to IH, I prioritized reviewing Plan’s program goals and policies. And having been a Regional Director, I was determined to undertake that review using a very different approach, consistent with a very new role for International Headquarters in general, and my new Department of Planning and Program Support (PPS) in particular.
What was that new role? Previously, headquarters departments would decide what to do, and would carry out whatever was decided. Of course, like good NGO people, headquarters staff consulted widely and deeply, and there was always lots of participation. But IH ran things, developed things in a participatory way, rolled things out.
Now that regionalisation had been completed, my view was that the Regions would carry out many of the kinds of initiatives that were previously handled by IH. They were closer to Plan’s work, better and more authentic innovations would come from Regions.
But, as I had been as Regional Director in South America, Regions would naturally tend to see things through their particular lens. That was OK, as long as that kind of centrifugal force was balanced by the centripetal force of an agent that naturally saw things from the overall organizational perspective. That was, almost by definition, International Headquarters.
So, the role of headquarters departments, at least my department, was to define parameters and objectives, and then – whenever possible – devolve development of corporate initiatives to decentralised operational units which were, after all, headed by senior managers (Regional Directors) who reported to the International Executive Director, just as I did. I thought that this approach would be consistent with our regionalised structure, put my IH department into a necessary and proper centripetal role, and be effective in achieving the desired changes for Plan.
As I will describe here, and in my next two blog entries, I think it was mostly, but certainly not completely, successful…
So I proposed that PPS review and update Plan’s goals using the kind of approach outlined above and, once support was obtained from Senior Management, and the international board approved the initiative, we got going.
As a first step, a conference was organized using a “future search” methodology.2 Participants at this weeklong conference included senior staff from each Region, from IH, from Plan’s partner fundraising organizations, and from other international NGOs.
A complete set of “Domains” of child development were articulated as representing organizational goals, and another full set of cross-cutting “Principles” guiding Plan’s work in each domain were also proposed. These Domains and Principles were designed to replace the patchwork of existing goals and policies.
The basic framework that emerged included five Domains, or spheres of work:
Growing up healthy: here we articulated a move beyond child physical survival to address the broader development and well-being of child age groups, incorporating Plan’s existing policies for child survival, family planning and HIV and AIDS;
Learning: in this Domain we put emphasis upon learning rather than just schooling, recognising the importance of early childhood, preschool preparation, and youth and adult literacy and skills;
Habitat: this recognised the interconnection of numerous habitat elements, social as well as physical, and their importance for children;
Livelihood: here we rightly placed the focus of economic activities squarely upon their ultimate benefit for children;
Building relationships: in this Domain we made explicit the inter-relation between child-sponsorship activities and program.
The Building-Relationship Domain, in particular, was seen as a breakthrough. Plan, like many other “child-sponsorship” agencies, struggled to make sense of that particular mechanism: was it “just” a fundraising tool, or was there something more?
Our new formulation put Plan squarely in the “something more” camp – sponsorship was seen as a way of involving children in community development and building the competence of children to communicate about their daily realities. Plan also committed, in this Domain of our work, to calling for “sponsors” to support – and understand – the development priorities of children and their communities. This was a big step forward for the organization.
Seven “Principles” were also proposed, which would be qualities characterising Plan’s work in each program Domain:
Child Centredness (The Fundamental Principle): Plan’s programs would be child-
centered. This was known as the Fundamental Principle because we wanted the child to be at the center of all of our work – our unchangeable, indisputable foundation;
Learning: the organisation would strive to learn from its experience to support the achievement of its Mission;
Integration: program components would reinforce each other, so that activities in various Domains would become more powerful together, in integrated programs;
Gender Equity: Plan would emphasise women and girls, working to provide equal opportunities for all. “Across its program interventions, Plan will actively work toward the eradication of gender-based inequities in opportunities, and the access to and control over resources.” Here we sought to transcend the debate between gender equality and gender and development and move towards what I would characterize, today, as gender justice;
Environmental Sustainability: “across its program interventions, Plan will promote equitable and sustainable access to and use of natural resources by the people with whom it works, based on an understanding of their relationship with the environment”;
Empowerment and Sustainability: Plan would seek to build the capabilities of local communities and local institutions and organisations with the aim of ensuring the long-term well-being of children;
Cooperation: Later our sector would come to describe this as “partnership” – “to achieve its Mission, Plan will work through communities, and with community organisations, government bodies, NGOs and others. Work with these partners will be based on mutual respect, with specific rights and obligations for all parties.”
Output from the conference served to mobilize the organization. Several decentralized units, coordinated by PPS, managed the ensuing process of reflection and discussion. For example, the region of Central America and the Caribbean led development of the learning Domain, and an existing organizationwide network led in developing the Principle of gender equity.
In several cases, PPS handled Principle development directly, in the absence of a champion inside a decentralized organizational unit. But to a great extent, decentralized units handled the development of these crucial organizational policies, working with other units and consultants and reporting results out to the wider organization for discussion.
What was the role of PPS? We set up guidelines for Domain and Principle development; organized project timelines; and coordinated and monitored the overall process of review, discussion, and consensus building. PPS also compiled draft documents into complete versions for review by the IED and senior management at critical stages in the development process. Purposefully, the role of PPS was quite limited unless it was absolutely impossible for a decentralized unit to manage a particular part of this effort.
This process worked well. Ownership of the process and the result was strong across Plan. The role of PPS was clear and widely accepted; as a result a businesslike and harmonious atmosphere characterized the development of Plan’s goals. Headquarters staff felt that their role, though somewhat indirect, was still valuable. At the same time, ownership of the process was strong in field units, as they directly managed policy development for the wider organization.
However, two difficulties were encountered. In several cases, decentralized organizational units found that they were simply not able to dedicate sufficient time to developing a domain. In these cases, PPS stepped in to support the process. Also, at one point in the development process, an interim draft of the complete document took a direction that was unacceptable to Plan’s senior management in some particular aspects. But even this was constructive, since it defined the outer limit of options acceptable to management.
(Let me just foreshadow here that the same degree of success would not be achieved with the other two major projects that PPS carried out when I was at IH, even though I tried to use the same approach; stay tuned for posts related to those processes…)
The International Board of Directors endorsed the final draft, and the resulting, and pleasingly-brief document (issued in July, 1996, and available here – program-directions-1996) had a healthy effect on Plan for a decade, contributing to the unity of purpose that
was its broader aim.
For example, a new corporate planning, monitoring, and evaluation system was soon under development and implementation, systematically supporting programmatic cycles centered on the Domains and Principles. This, together with implementation of a new financial system in which all activities were framed in terms of Plan’s Domains, allowed for measurement of organizational progress related to the Program Directions.
The Domains and Principles were also the basis for much subsequent organisational development. In particular, the Principles became increasingly central in program development across the agency as years went by.
By the end of 1999, Country Strategic Plans, based on the framework of the Domains and Principles, were being finalized for all program countries. Guidelines for field implementation of the Domains and Principles had been developed and issued (the original document is available here – principle-domain-guidelines-1999), and Plan’s International Board of Directors had approved a further refinement of the Domains, termed the “core program,” identifying particular components of the Domains as mandatory in all locations.
This second document is perhaps a bit long (66 pages), as I read it now, but I do like the prominence given to the Principles in this revision. Still, given that I had left IH by this point, and was serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam (more on that later!), I appreciate the way that my successors at IH sought to build on what had been achieved earlier – kudos to Martin McCann!
Around 2000, though, a new wave of change and innovation began to sweep through Plan: my old friend Mac Abbey, who featured in this blog series earlier as a pioneer of “empowerment” in South America, was once again pioneering change! Mac was now Country Director (a new position, resulting from the third PPS initiative mentioned at the beginning of the post – restructuring at country level; I’ll describe that in due course!) in Bangladesh, and over the next few years he would lead an effort to frame Plan’s program work around a set of concepts known as “Child-Centered Community Development” – “CCCD.” In some ways, CCCD built on the Principles that PPS had developed, but Mac and other Country Directors in Asia certainly moved things in a new direction, a direction which was later embraced across Plan.
One of Plan’s biggest weaknesses was, and is, that the results of major change initiatives such as the development of Domains and Principles would be swept away by new changes before the benefit of the previous change project could be realised. I mentioned this effect when I described Plan’s TQM initiative. But in this case, I think that the organisation did manage to benefit from the work we did to develop the Domains and Principles, even though the focus on CCCD began to move Plan forward fairly quickly. That’s because, as I mentioned, CCCD did emerge in some ways from the Program Principles we had developed.
My next blog in this series will describe the development of a growth plan for the organization, perhaps the least successful of those three major centripetal projects.
Stay tuned for more!
Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and 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!
- This description was adapted, in part, from http://www.diffen.com/difference/ Centrifugal_Force_vs_Centripetal_Force.
- Weisbord, M., and Janoff, S. Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1995.