Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach

I climbed Mt Jackson (4052ft, 1235m) on 2 June, 2017.  This was my first climb of 2017, having taken a rest over the long, cold winter of 2016-2017.  In 2016, I had been able to start hiking in early May, but this year we had much more snow, and longer and later cold spells.  So I gave May 2017 a miss, and began to tackle the 4000-footers in early June…

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I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Leaving Plan International after 15 years, the last 4 of which were spent as Country Director in Viet Nam, I was fortunate to join CCF as a consultant.  My task, over what became two great years, was to help develop a new program approach for the agency.  This was exciting and opportune for me: I had been reflecting a lot about how things had changed in the development sector, and at that point I had a lot of experience across five continents, in a wide variety of roles, under my belt.

So I was very ready for the challenge that CCF offered me – I felt I had a lot to offer.  Little did I know that I was also stepping into a great environment, where CCF’s senior programmatic leadership, and the CEO, were beginning a very exciting journey of reflection and discovery.

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My first task had been to research current thinking, and best practices, across our sector.  Last time I described that research and the recommendations that had emerged.  To my delight, Daniel Wordsworth and Michelle Poulton embraced my findings enthusiastically, and senior management had endorsed them as well.

Our next step was to take the research that I had done, with its recommended themes of change, and create the specifics of CCF’s new program approach.  In this, Daniel took the lead, with me acting as a sounding board and advocate for the principles and themes of the prior research.  This was appropriate, as now we would be detailing concretely how the agency would implement programs, core stuff for CCF.  So I moved into more of an advisory role, for now.

In this blog post, I want to share the details of what we came up with, and how CCF ended up proceeding.

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As I drove north from Durham, the weather forecast was problematic, with a strong chance of afternoon rain.  But I decided to take the chance.  This was #24 of my 48 climbs, and I hadn’t had any rain so far, on any of those climbs.  So I figured I was on a long run of good luck – couldn’t possibly rain this time, right?

I left Durham at around 7:45am, and arrived at the trailhead at just after 10am, parking just off of Rt 302 near Crawford Notch.

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Even though it was June, I could see some patches of snow above me in the mountains as I approached Crawford Notch, but all was clear on the road.

My plan was to walk up the Webster Cliff Trail to Mt Webster, on to Mt Jackson, and then take the Webster-Jackson Trial to loop back to Mt Webster.   I would retrace my steps from there, on Webster Cliff Trail, to the trailhead.

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As I began the hike, it was a nice day, cool and a bit cloudy.  I crossed Rt 302 and quickly reached a pedestrian bridge over the Saco River.  The Webster Cliff Trail forms part of the Appalachian Trail here:

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The first section of the Webster Cliff Trail was moderately steep.  Though the temperature was cool, I heated up as I ascended.  It was a beautiful day hiking, still sunny at this point:

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Clouds gathered as I ascended, and by 11am the sun was mostly gone.  The trail was consistently steep and became rockier as I ascended the Webster Cliff Trail, passing above the tree line.  Once I was onto the ridge, the views were great, looking north up into Crawford Notch:

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Looking Across Crawford Notch, Mt Tom

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That’s Mt Webster Up Ahead

 

Here are two views of the ridge, taken over a year later, from across the way on Mt Willey:

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Mt Webster is on the left.  I ascended steeply up the right side, then along the ridge

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The Ridge

 

I ran into some snow remnants along the path as I approached Mt Webster!  Just proves, once again, that you have to be prepared for snow  – even in June!

I was prepared this time… but the snow patches were not an issue this time!:

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The walking was good, but windy, and clouds were building from the west.  So far, I had not seen any other hikers…

I arrived at Mt Webster ( 3910ft, 1192m – not a 4000-footer) at 1:30pm.  The plan was to rejoin the trail here on my way back, via the Webster-Jackson Trail.

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To the west, I could look across Crawford Notch and see Mt Tom and Mt Field and Mt Willey.  The views north towards the Presidential Range were great, though Mt Washington was in the clouds.  There were patches of blue sky above me, but darker skies to the west.

 

Just before reaching Mt Webster, I passed a through hiker: he was hiking north, doing the entire Appalachian Trail.  Impressive, since it was only early June, that he was this far north.  Maybe in his 60’s, with a grey beard.  He asked me what my “trail handle” was, assuming (I guess) that I was also a through hiker.  I just laughed and said: “well, my name is Mark”!

“These are some heavy hills” I said.

“Hills?!” he exclaimed.

So I guess he was feeling the ascent, as I was.  But, having just restocked his pack with food, he was carrying much more weight than I was…

Just past Mt Webster, I began the Webster-Jackson loop that planned to take; first, continuing on to Mt Jackson, then down and around to return to Mt Webster:

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Here I encountered the second hiker of the day.  Dan was hiking with the guy I had met earlier, and was waiting here for him.  Dan had joined the other guy a week ago, for part of the through hike.  Dan seemed tired and ready to get off the trail, asking me what was the fastest way to the road.  Seemed like he had had enough, describing lots of rain and snow and ice over the last days.

I told him how I had run into so much ice over that way, on Mt Tom and Mt Field the year before, and how I had fallen in May on Mt Liberty.

I left Dan there, and arrived at the top of Mt Jackson at about 1:45pm, and ate lunch – a tried-and-true “Veggie Delite” sandwich from Subway.  It began to sprinkle, light rain falling.

Here the views of the Presidential Range were great, though Mt Washington was still in the clouds.  Mispah Springs Hut can just be seen, a speck of light in the middle left of the photo:

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The Mt Washington Hotel, in Bretton Woods, can be seen here in the distance with distinctive red roofs, looking north through Crawford Notch:

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From the top of Mt Jackson, the Webster Cliff Trail continues on towards Mt Pierce (which I had climbed with Raúl and Kelly earlier in the year) and the rest of the Presidential Range.  I turned left here, taking the Webster-Jackson Trail, hoping to loop back up to Mt Webster.  My hunch was that Dan was going to wait for his friend, and then follow me down, since that would be the quickest way to “civilization” and he was ready for a shower!

I began to drop steadily down Webster-Jackson, a typical White-Mountains hike, rock-hopping.  But I was a bit surprised, and became increasingly concerned, at the amount of elevation I was losing, as I went down, and down, and down… I knew I’d have to make up this elevation drop, every step of it!

 

I passed five people coming up – two young men running the trail, a mother and daughter (probably going up to stay at the Mispah Hut), and one guy huffing and puffing.

I arrived at the bottom of the loop at just before 3pm, exhausted and now regretting having taken this detour.  Cursing every step down, which I would have to make up, soon: because, from here, it would be a long way back up to Mt Webster, and it was beginning to rain steadily.

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At the bottom of the Webster-Jackson loop, there is a beautiful waterfall, and the temperature was much lower than it had been at the top of the ridge:

It was a VERY LONG slog back up to the top of Mt Webster, where I arrived again at 3:45pm, very tired and very wet.  It had become much colder here since I had passed through earlier in the day, now windy and steadily raining.

Here I would walk back along the ridge.  And I began to feel quite nervous about the possibility of slipping on the slick rocks – from here it would be all downhill, and a fall on the now-slippery rocks could be trouble!

I didn’t really stop at the top of Mt Webster – too cold and rainy.  Conditions had changed a lot since I’d passed this peak that morning!

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Although it was raining steadily, some blue sky did roll by once in a while:

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From here I began the descent back to Rt 302, and soon the trees began to grow in size, and cover me.  I never slipped on the wet granite stones, though I came close a couple of times.  I had to take it very slowly, taking care as I went across every one of the many rocks…  But I got soaked through – for the first time in 24 climbs!

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Soaking Wet, But Happy

 

I was back at my car at about 6:15pm; it was raining hard and 49 degrees.

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The Mt Jackson climb was great, despite the unwelcome rain and cold.  It was longer and harder than expected – nothing technical or super-steep, just long, due mostly to my decision to do the loop down from the summit and back up, and because I had to take care on the slick rocks coming down.

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Once CCF’s management had endorsed my recommendations for their new program approach, Daniel and I began the design process.  Along the way, CCF’s President John Schulz had baptized the new approach as “Bright Futures,”  which was very smart: branding the change with an inspirational, catchy name that also captured the essence of what we were proposing would help open people to the idea.

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Daniel Wordsworth, 2003

Here I will be quoting extensively from a document that Daniel and I worked on, but which was primarily his.  He boiled down the essence of Bright Futures into three fundamental objectives.  Bright Futures would:

  1. Broaden, deepen and bring about longer-lasting impact in children’s lives;
  2. Fortify sponsorship;
  3. Strengthen accountability.

Bright Futures would be based on the belief that people must be given the space to design and shape the programs that will be carried out in their communities and countries.  The fundamental principle that guided our thinking was that there was no universal strategy that CCF could apply across the complex and different contexts in which it worked.  Therefore, the emphasis was not on a framework that outlined what should be done – e.g. health, education, etc – but rather on a set of key processes that would set the tone of the agency’s work and provide coherence to its programming around the world.

There were five key work processes, qualities of work, that would characterize CCF’s Bright Futures programming.  Each of these was firmly linked to the transformational themes that my own research had identified, but Daniel managed to put things in clear and incisive terms, displaying the brilliant insights I had come to admire:

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Grounded and Connected: Bright Futures programs would be integrated into the surrounding social environment, contributing to and drawing from the assets and opportunities that this environment provides.

To accomplish this, programs would be based in well-defined, homogeneous “Areas”, matching the level of government service provision – often the “district” level.  Program planning would be based at the community level, and program implementation would be accountable to local communities, but programs would be integrated with relevant efforts of the government and other development agencies, at local and national levels. CCF staff would be decentralized, close to communities, to ensure on-the-spot follow-up, using participatory methods and strict project management discipline to ensure effective program implementation.  By partnering with other organizations, building the capacity of local people, and seizing opportunities to replicate program methods wherever possible, impact would be expanded into other communities within the Area and beyond.

These would be big changes for CCF, on many dimensions.  Current programming was exclusively at village or community level, but it was disconnected from efforts to overcome poverty that were taking place at other levels.  Staff visited programs rarely, typically only once per year.  And notions of replication or even sustainability were rarely addressed.  Making these changes a reality would be challenging.

Achieve Long-Term Change: Bright Futures programs would be grounded in an understanding of poverty and of the causes of poverty, and designed to make a long-lasting difference in the lives of poor children.

To accomplish this, program design would begin with immersion in communities and a thorough analysis of the deeper issues of poverty confronting children and communities.  Program interventions would then take place where the causes of child poverty were found, whether at child, family, community, or area (district) levels. Programs would be designed and implemented according to a series of three-year strategic plans, and would consist of a comprehensive set of integrated “Project Activities” that had specific objectives, implementation plans and budgets.  Financial flow would follow budget and implementation.

As we began to design Bright Futures, CCF’s programming was guided by an agency-wide set of outcomes that had been articulated some years before, called “AIMES.”  These “outcomes” were really more of a set of indicators, most of which were tightly focused on basic needs such as immunization, primary-school completion, etc.  Communities seemed to view these indicators as a menu, from which they selected each year.  And, as I mentioned above, interventions were exclusively at village or community level.

With the advent of Bright Futures, the findings of the CCF Poverty Study, and of my own research, we would fundamentally change these practices.  From now on, there would be no “menu” to draw from; rather, CCF would help local organizations to grapple with the causes of child poverty, viewing that poverty in a broader way, and consulting deeply with local people and children; staff would then create an “Area Strategic Plan” (“ASP”) that outlined how programming would address these causes across the “Area.”

(Details of how the ASP would be designed will be included in my next posting, stay tuned!)

Build People: Bright Futures programs seek to build a stronger society with the ability to cooperate for the good of children and families.

To accomplish this, programs would build Federations and Associations of poor children, youth and adults that represent the interests of excluded and deprived people.  These entities would manage program implementation (mostly) through and with partners. Programs would be implemented through local bodies such as district government, NGOs, or community-based organizations, building the capacity of these groups to effectively implement solutions to issues facing poor children.  A long-term, planned approach to capacity building would be adopted, that reinforced and strengthened local competencies and organizations so that communities could continue their efforts to build bright futures for their children long after CCF had phased out of their communities.  This approach would include clearly articulated and time-bound entry and exit conditions, and specific milestones to gauge progress towards exit.

This was another big and challenging change.  CCF would continue to work with parents’ associations at community level, as it had been doing, because this was a real strength of the agency.  However, these associations tended to lack capacity, were left to fend for themselves, and did not interact with other stakeholders and “duty-bearers” around them.

All of this would change with Bright Futures.  Parents’ associations would now be “federated” to district level, and the Parent’s Federations would be the primary bodies that CCF worked with and for.  These Federations, being located at the “district” level, would interact with local government service providers (“duty bearers”), serving as interest groups on behalf of poor and excluded people.  And the Parents’ Federations would, normally, not be seen as program implementors.  Rather, they would – at least in the first instance – locate local partners that could implement the kinds of projects that were identified in the ASP.

Here we had a challenge, as we moved the existing Parents’ Associations into very different roles, where they no longer controlled funds as they had previously.  There were many vested interests involved here, and we anticipated opposition from people who had learned to extract benefits informally, especially given that in the previous model CCF’s staff had been very hands-off and remote from program implementation.  And the very idea of “federating” and influencing local duty-bearers was completely new to CCF.

Show Impact: Bright Futures programs demonstrate the impact of our work in ways that matter to us and the children and communities we work with.

To accomplish this, using CCF’s poverty framework of Deprivation, Exclusion, and Vulnerability, the National Office would clearly articulate the organization’s niche, and demonstrate its particular contribution.   The outputs of each project would be rigorously monitored to ensure effective implementation, and programs would likewise be carefully monitored to ensure relevance to enrolled children.

Before Bright Futures, CCF’s National Offices had very little influence on programming.  If a local Parents’ Association was not breaking any rules, then funding went directly from CCF’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia to the Association, without intervention from the National Office.  Only when a serious, usually finance- or audit-related, issue was identified could the National Office intervene, and then they could only halt fund transmissions and await remedial action from Richmond.

Now, the National Office and local Area team would be monitoring project implementation on a regular basis, using techniques that ensured that the voices of local children were central to the process of monitoring and evaluation.  We would have to develop tools for this.

Recognize Each Child’s Gift: Bright Futures programs recognize and value each particular child as a unique and precious individual.

To accomplish this, programs would be designed to facilitate the development of each child in holistic ways, taking into account the different phases of development through which each child passes.  The voices of children would be heard and would shape the direction of programs.  CCF would promote children and youth as leaders in their own development, and in the development of their communities and societies.  This would now be central to program implementation.

While the local Parents’ Associations would be retained, and federated to district level, two new forms of Association and Federation would be introduced: of children, and of youth.  These new Associations and Federations would be given prominent roles in program design and project implementation, as appropriate to their age.

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These were all big, fundamentally-disruptive changes, involving seismic shifts in every aspect of CCF’s program work.  I felt that we had incorporated much of the learning and reflection that I had done, beginning in my Peace Corps days and all the way through my 15 years with Plan – this was the best way to make a real, lasting difference!

Once Daniel and Michelle were happy with the way that we were articulating Bright Futures, our next step was to get senior-management and board approval.

I was very pleased that, in the end, CCF’s leaders were very supportive of what Daniel was proposing.  But, in a note of caution given the magnitude of the changes we were proposing, we were asked to pilot test the approach before rolling it out.

This cautious approach made sense to me, and I was delighted that Daniel asked me to continue as an outside consultant, to oversee and support the pilot National Offices, documenting their experience and our learning as the Bright Futures approach was tested.

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We then began to consider where we should pilot test.  First, we asked for volunteers across CCF’s National Offices and then, after creating a short list of viable options, we reviewed the status of each of the National Offices remaining on the list.  We quickly came to the conclusion that we would select one National Office in each of the continents where the majority of CCF’s work took place:

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    Carlos Montúfar

    In the Americas, we chose Ecuador.  The office there was well-run, stable, and was regarded as a model in many ways.  The National Director (Carlos Montúfar) was a strong leader, and he and his team were enthusiastic about being Bright Futures “pilots”;

 

 

 

 

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    James Ameda

    In Africa, we chose Uganda.  Here things were a bit different than in Ecuador: the Uganda office was considered by many in CCF as needed a bit of a shakeup.  James Ameda was a senior National Director and was supportive of the pilot, but there were some tensions in his team and performance across CCF/Uganda in some areas was weak;

 

 

 

  • For Asia, we decided to choose the Philippines office.  The office in Manila was well-
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    Nini Hamili

    run, with high morale and strong leadership in the form of Nini Hamili, a charismatic and long-tenured National Director.  Nini was a very strong leader, who sidelined as a mediator in violent Mindanao – I came to see how courageous Nini was…

 

 

 

 

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Soon I would begin regularly to visit the three pilot offices, training them on the methods and systems that were being developed for Bright Futures, accompanying them as they learned and adapted, documenting our experience.

It was a great privilege working with Carlos, James, and Nini and their teams – they had taken on a huge challenge: not only did Bright Futures represent a set of fundamental shifts in what they were accustomed to doing, but they were asked to continue to manage their programs the old way in the areas of their country where Bright Futures wasn’t being introduced.

And it was equally impressive working with Daniel and Michelle at CCF’s Richmond headquarters, along with staff like Victoria Adams, Mike Raikovitz, and many others, and fellow consultants Jon Kurtz and Andrew Couldridge.

Next time, I will go into much more detail on the pilot testing of Bright Futures, including how we designed and implemented perhaps the most fundamental program-related system, Area Strategic Planning.

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Here are links to earlier 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:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
  23. Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach.

 

Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach

Note: this blog post has been updated to include a video I prepared in 2003, and recently rediscovered.  It summarizes some of the consultations carried out as part of the research described here.

After I got home from climbing South Carter, I took a nasty fall and broke a rib and tore my rotator cuff.  This put me out of action for a month, and when I ventured north again to climb Mt Tecumseh (the lowest of the 48 4000-footers, at 4003ft, 1220m), I was careful: it was late October, and there was already plenty of ice and snow in the White Mountains.

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I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall.  And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Last time I described some of the pioneering research that CCF was doing, as they sought to sharpen their programming: an organizational capacity assessment, carried out by Alan Fowler; and a groundbreaking effort, by Jo Boyden and her team from Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford University, to understand how children and youth across the world were experiencing poverty.

In this post, I continue to describe my two years working with CCF as a consultant, helping that organization develop, pilot test, and begin to implement a new program approach for their global operations.  Looking back, it was a very creative and exciting time for that organization, and it was a fantastic opportunity for me: I had been reflecting about how the development sector had changed, and I had learned a lot since my Peace Corps years, working with Plan International in South America, Plan’s headquarters, and with Plan in Viet Nam.  Now I had the opportunity to work with a major INGO, and a great group of people, to modernize their approach, putting those reflections and learnings to the test.  It’s worth telling the story.

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I drove up from Durham on the morning of 24 October 2016, arriving at the trailhead a bit before 11am.  Mt Tecumseh is in Waterville Valley and, in fact, the Waterville Valley ski area runs alongside the trail I was going up.

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It was a clear and crisp New England morning, with the autumn colors all around, and a sprinkling of snow at the trailhead – there would be much more snow and ice higher up!  I left the trailhead at about 10:52am:

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(I’m writing this article in early August of 2017, and seeing these autumn colors again is a surprise: all is lush green now…)

The trail ascends gradually, steadily, alongside the ski area, up the Tecumseh Brook.  From about half-way up, much more snow and ice began to appear, and I became nervous:

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Autumn Light, Snow and Ice

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More Ice…

 

Going up, not so much of a problem, but I was nervous about what it was going to be like descending.  I felt very unprepared, and having broken that rib and injured my left rotator cuff just a month before, I was still very wary of using that arm.  If I slipped going down, it might be painful!  Mistake?

I was nearly at the top when I reached the junction with the Sosman Trail, at about 12:18pm.  There is a short loop around the summit of Tecumseh and, once I came to the loop, it also became very cold and windy, way below freezing, and I wasn’t dressed nearly warmly enough:

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Here is the cairn at the summit; I arrived there at about 12:45pm:

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At the summit, I put on my jacket and hat and gloves, had lunch, and tried to stop shivering so much!  Two small groups of climbers passed by while I was there, but I was too cold to interact with them very much – they were also moving pretty quickly to stay warm!

The top is mostly wooded, but there were some great views to the east:

 

On the way down it was bad, but not as bad as I had feared.  If I had slipped and grabbed onto a tree or fallen on my left arm, it would have been dangerous, but the difficult part was fairly short, and I took my time, getting down OK, just slowly.

Nearing the bottom, there is a great view from the ski area, looking across Waterville Valley directly at North and Middle Tripyramids:

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Nice autumn colors.

I reached the trailhead again at about 2:45pm.  The climb had taken just under 4 hours.  Putting aside how risky the descent felt, and how cold I got at the top, it was a very beautiful day with fantastic views.  I hadn’t hiked since the accident in mid-September, so it felt good to get back on the trails.

Since it was so cold and snowy and icy, in late October, and given that I was worried about the impact of any kind of fall, I decided that Tecumseh would be my last hike of the 2016 season.  Tecumseh was number 23, so I had 25 4000-footers left to do!

*

As I described last time, I had been engaged to help CCF prepare a “program practices guide” which, in effect, meant developing, testing, and documenting a new program approach.  It was a perfect step for me: after 15 years with Plan International, the development sector was changing rapidly, I had been fortunate to serve in a wide range of roles across the world, and was thinking a lot about what it all meant for our international organizations.  I felt lucky to be able to work with a great team of people (Michelle Poulton, Daniel Wordsworth, and Mike Raikovitz at CCF, and fellow consultants like Alan Fowler, Jo Boyden, and Jon Kurtz) with the opportunity to create a wholly new program approach.

How to proceed?  Great insights were coming from the CCF Poverty Study, and Alan’s “Organizational Capacity Assessment” had identified a number of CCF’s key strengths: unlike Plan International, CCF had developed a range of interventions that engaged directly with the development of children and youth as individuals: for example, Gilberto Mendez had created an impressive “child development” scale, which could be used to assess age-dependent cognitive, emotional, and social development.  This stuff was new to me, because Plan’s work was entirely community-focused: where we worked with children and youth, it was to integrate them into planning and implementing project activities that were community-wide in nature.  Most of CCF’s work was also community development – this was the best way to secure children’s futures – but they also had developed program expertise in child development.  I found this to be very interesting and appropriate, and began to wonder why we had focused only on community-level work at Plan.

And CCF’s existing program approach, which was called “Family Helper Project,” had some really good aspects.  In particular, parent groups were established in each community, and these groups received funding directly from CCF’s head office in Richmond, Virginia.  Even though the initial motivation for this model had come from a public-relations crisis in the 1970’s, it had the potential to be quite empowering.

But there were weaknesses.  Alan Fowler had pointed out that CCF’s development model was “insufficiently holistic and lacks a cause-based analysis of child poverty, vulnerability and deprivation. Consequently, symptoms receive more attention than causes.”  He also had noted that current the organizational approach meant that CCF worked in isolation from other development efforts; in particular, affiliated communities were not “capitalising on the decentralisation thrust in government reform and service delivery, with communities as legitimate claimants with rights, not supplicants.”  CCF was notdeveloping a capability to build the capacities of local organisations and associations beyond the confines and requirements of managing CCF and community inputs.”

Daniel told a good story that illustrated this.  He had visited a CCF-supported school in Brazil, where the parents and school staff had proudly boasted of their very-high enrollment rates, thanks to CCF.  Then he visited a nearby school, which had no support from CCF, and the enrollment rates were just as good, thanks to support from local government, support which was also available for the CCF-supported school!

As I began to work with CCF on a full-time, external basis, I also started to note the use of language that I felt pointed to deeper issues.  For example, the word “project” was universally used in CCF to refer to affiliated community groups, not as the rest of the development sector used the word: groups of activities producing a coherent set of outputs.  And when I looked a bit more closely at CCF’s work, it was no surprise that project management was very weak or entirely absent.

And the organization referred to the flow of funding to local community groups as “subsidy.”  Again, when I looked at this in detail, most funding to parent groups seemed to be going to “subsidize” ongoing expenditures (school fees or uniforms or supplies, for example), rather than being directed towards a clear theory of change, producing outcomes that would sustainably improve the lives of children living in poverty.

While these might seem to be minor, semantic differences, for me they seemed to reflect deeper, entrenched weaknesses that our renovation of CCF’s program approach would need to address.  Over my two years working with CCF as a consultant, we introduced approaches that would seek to correct these weaknesses and, along the way, I tried my best to encourage shifts in thinking and, consequently, shifts in language.

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I proposed an approach to developing CCF’s new program model which, like the OCA and the Poverty Study before it, would be rigorous and evidence-based.  We would begin by benchmarking what other, well-regarded international NGOs considered to be their own best program practices.  I would do my own research, both from my own experience and from available evidence.  And we would convene reflection workshops across a selection of CCF’s own Country Offices to discover what they were proud of, and what they wanted to change.  Then, with this array of evidence and reflection, Daniel and I would propose the key attributes of CCF’s new program approach.

Daniel and Michelle heartily endorsed this approach, and we began our research.

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Between October, 2002 and March, 2003, we carried out field visits to Plan and BRAC in Bangladesh, and benchmarking visits with ActionAid, Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, UNDP, and World Vision in Viet Nam, and ActionAid’s head office in the UK.

At the same time, we organized six workshops designed to allow staff, partners, colleagues, and community members to reflect together on a future CCF program approach and structure.  Carried out in Angola, Brazil, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Richmond, these workshops were designed also to stimulate enthusiasm and momentum for change.

About half of the participants in each workshop came from the local CCF office.  Usually, two or three participants in the field workshops came from CCF headquarters in Virginia.  On two occasions, staff from the CCF regional office team attended, and CCF staff from Zambia were able to participate in the Angola workshop.  Additional participants varied by location, but typically included senior staff from colleague organizations (INGOs, NGOs, UN Agencies), members of local CCF boards, CCF project staff, and community members.

I designed, facilitated, and documented all of these workshops, which were designed to be participatory, collaborative experiences, during which participants co-created a vision of CCF’s refined program approach. All six workshops were structured in two sessions, lasted two days, and employed similar methodologies:

The morning session of the first day employed a guided visioning technique (known as the “affinity exercise”) to identify program processes and issues that will be central to the future CCF program approach. A vast quantity of data was collected, and grouped, by affinity, into around 20 key processes.

In the afternoon of day one a structured methodology was used to identify a small number of program-related work processes of particular importance for the evolution of CCF’s program. Workgroups were formed to analyze each of these processes in great detail, meeting through the end of day one and the morning of day two.  Session 1 closed with plenary presentations from each workgroup, and general discussion.

Session 2, during the afternoon of day two, was focused on how we should document the new program approach: what documentation should look like, who its users would be, their requirements, etc. In several cases, one or two groups used Session 2 to focus in more detail on a program process from Session 1.

I recently rediscovered several summary videos that I prepared during the creation and pilot testing of what became Bright Futures.  These videos were prepared in 2003, to help  senior management get a sense of what was happening in the field.

So, here is a short summary video of the consultation workshops described above:

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We gathered an immense amount of information during these months, relating to what other well-respected INGOs were proud of, along with what CCF’s teams felt were their own best practices.  And, in parallel with these consultations, I was carrying out my own reflections: what had I learned along the way?  What were leading thinkers (Robert Chambers, Amartya Sen, Mike Edwards, our colleague Alan Fowler, and others) saying?

At the end of this phase of work, in March, 2003 I produced a summary document that described all of our benchmarking, and proposed the outlines of what I thought CCF’s new program approach should be.  The report is attached here: Phase 1 Report – Final.  Much of the content in the rest of this blog posting can be found, with more detail, in that document.

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Putting it all together, I came up with an overall description of what I felt was the most updated thinking of good development practice.  Based on my nearly 20 years of experience at community, country, regional, and international levels on five continents, along with some good time to reflect and research; on an extensive benchmarking exercise with some of the best organizations in our sector; and taking into account the learning and aspirations of CCF’s own teams, as of early 2003, this was where I thought international NGOs should be aiming:

Development can be viewed as the expansion of the “capabilities that a person has, that is, the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she values.”(1) Poverty would then be seen as the deprivation of these capabilities, manifesting itself in general in forms such as: “a lack of income and assets to attain basic necessities – food, shelter, clothing, and acceptable levels of health and education; a sense of voicelessness and powerlessness in the state and society; and vulnerability to adverse shocks, linked with an inability to cope with them.”(2)

Poverty is also a highly contextualized phenomenon, with intermingled, inter-linked, and multi-dimensional causes and effects. The concrete manifestations of the domains of poverty are highly specific and particular to local contexts.(3)

In this light, good development practice:

To have lasting effect, is based on a clear understanding of the causes and dimensions of poverty at all relevant levels;

To make a difference, promotes economic opportunities for poor people, facilitates empowerment of the poor, and enhances security by reducing vulnerability(4);

To be sustainable, is based on catalyzing and building on the potential existing (though perhaps latent) in a local community or area, by supporting institutions delivering services to the poor, and by building institutions through which the poor can act(5);

To be appropriate and relevant, is based on an immersion in each local environment, and the active participation of the poor(6) themselves;

To have impact on the causes of poverty, is linked up and integrated at all levels: micro, meso, and macro.(7)

  1. Amartya Sen, “Development As Freedom,” 1999.
  2. World Bank, “World Development Report 2000/2001 – Attacking Poverty.”
  3. Deb Johnson, “Insights on Poverty, “ Development in Practice, May 2002.
  4. World Bank, “World Development Report 2000/2001 – Attacking Poverty.”
  5. Mike Edwards, “NGO Performance – What Breeds Success?,” World Development, February 1999.
  6. See Vierira da Cunha and Junho Pena, “The Limits and Merits of Participation,” undated.
  7. Mike Edwards, “NGO Performance – What Breeds Success?,” World Development, February 1999.

(This outline of “good development practice” looks strong and holds up well, at least for its time.  If I were to create a similar statement now, from the perspective of 2017, however, I would include much more explicit references to building the power and collective action of people living in poverty, and to inequality and conflict.  And with the progress made across the world on the MDGs, which has correlated with improvements on average in indicators related to basic needs, I would put more emphasis on other non-material manifestations of poverty, such as those identified in CCF’s own Child Poverty Study – exclusion and vulnerability and resilience.  Finally, with the recent resurgence of populist nationalism and decline in support for globalization across the developed world, I would look to include much tighter connections with systems that reinforce and perpetuate poverty and injustice…

Later on I would put all of these concepts at the very center of my work and thinking… stay tuned!)

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Returning to early 2003, I moved on to unpack these overarching principles into key themes that represented concrete areas for change in CCF’s program approach.  Each of these themes represented, I felt, fundamental shifts that needed to be incorporated in our redesign of how the agency conceptualized, planned, implemented, and learned from its programming.

There were six themes of change:

Theme 1: CCF programs will be based on an understanding of poverty, of how children experience poverty, and of the causes of child poverty at micro, meso, and macro levels.  

We had found that CCF’s programs were not based on a clear analysis of the manifestations and causes of child poverty in the particular local context, nor did they identify how interventions would link with other relevant efforts.  And we had documented that sustained impact came from this kind of joined-up approach.

This theme was important and represented a fundamental change from the output-oriented, “subsidy”-type approach that characterized the agency’s approach in 2003.

Theme 2: CCF will provide closer support to development processes.  

CCF was rightfully proud that local parents’ groups were in charge of program activities; this was a positive differentiator for them.  But it had led to a lack of interaction with, oversight of, or support to what was actually happening on the ground: in other words, CCF simply (and, often, naively) trusted parents’ groups to do the right thing.  This was leading to bad practice, and worse.  So I was suggesting the establishment of some sort of local CCF support staff function, close to program implementation, to provide support and oversight.  Of course, there were tradeoffs here, and local staff might well fall into the trap of marginalizing the parents’ groups, but I felt that could be mitigated.

This theme was also important and represented a fundamental change from the stand-offish approach that was currently in place.

Theme 3: The agency of parents, youths, and children will be central to CCF’s program approach.  

Here again, CCF had a strength, and I recommended that the agency continue, and reinforce, work with parents’ associations; their “agency” was a key institutional niche.  But existing parents’ groups were isolated from local civil society, and often lacked the capability to implement more robust programs.  In those cases, I was recommending that CCF train them to act as funders to relevant institutions, local NGOs for example, and to them move away from being implementors, project-management bodies.  This would enhance their stature in local civil society, reduce their isolation, and (in principle at least) improve project management.

I also recommended including youths as active protagonists in the development processes affecting them: this was not only consistent with the findings of the CCF Poverty Study, and with the principles of child rights, but was also a pragmatic choice: children, as with any other group of human beings, understand their situations from a unique and uniquely valuable perspective.

This theme was important and represented a fundamental change, building on one of the strengths of CCF’s current approach, but correcting some of the more-simplistic practices that had led to isolation, and questionable impact.  I recommended adjusting, and going much further.

Theme 4: CCF will strengthen programmatic linkages, both horizontal and vertical.  

Related to Theme 1, I was recommending that CCF link up and integrate its program at all levels: micro, meso, and macro.  This did not necessarily mean that CCF would operate at all levels; rather, building program design from extensive immersion and reflection with the poor and poor children, and focusing the National Office in-country on interactions with other development actors, CCF could link its programs and partners at various levels, seeing its grassroots interventions as illustrations of national programs and, importantly, offering learning from the grassroots to help the design of those national programs.

This theme was important and represented a fundamental change, connecting CCF with broader development efforts in each country and connecting its work with programs at other levels where this would increase sustainable impact.

Theme 5: Changes will be made to CCF’s corporate systems.

In particular, I advocated fundamental changes to CCF’s monitoring and evaluation, financial, planning and budgeting, performance appraisal, and donor-relations systems.  These changes would need to be made to support the fundamental programmatic changes implied by Themes 1 through 4.

The details of these changes are outlined in the Phase 1 Report (Phase 1 Report – Final).  Very deep reconsideration of, in particular, financial, HR and M&E-related systems, were recommended.

Theme 6:  Substantial support to frontline staff, partner institutions, and communities will be required. 

I felt that major efforts would be required to support staff, partners, and communities in the deep changes emerging from the recommendations I was making, if they were accepted.  These were major changes, which would require structural shifts (for example, putting CCF staff in support offices near project implementation), a whole new set of competencies (for example, project and partner management) and introducing wholesale changes in core systems (finance, M&E, etc.)  A comprehensive HR-development plan to support all stakeholders in the transition was required.

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Along the way, I was helping Daniel create updates to the organization, keeping people informed about the progress we were making.  The third of these updates, summarizing the themes of change, is attached here: Update 3 final

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These themes of change, outlined in much more detail in that Phase 1 Report, would, if approved by Daniel and the rest of CCF’s senior management, would represent very deep shifts for CCF.   But we had carried out the research and reflection processes in a professional and thorough fashion, and I was delighted that the report was received quite positively.

CCF’s senior management gave us a green light to craft a program approach that would be consistent with the recommendations I had made.  Which was very exciting, and challenging.  I was being asked to help this major INGO to build the best possible program approach – what a great opportunity.

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I will describe that new program approach, which CCF’s President John Schultz would baptize as “Bright Futures,” in my next blog post in this series.

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Tecumseh would be my last 4000-footer in 2016.  Winter was coming to the White Mountains, and it was time to take a break until the spring thaw.  The winter of 2016-2017 would be cold with a lot of snow, even in Durham, so it wasn’t until early June of 2017 that I was able to get up another 4000-footer.  On 2 June 2017 I would climb Mt Jackson; that would be number 24, and I would be halfway there!

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Here are links to earlier 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:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;

  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
  21. Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
  22. South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study.

Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International

In this blog I want to describe how we finished the restructuring of Plan International in the early 1990’s.  Regionalization was complete, and Plan’s International Headquarters had been right-sized, and so now we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level.

This is one in an ongoing series of posts that has been describing how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall.  The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time, also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

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I climbed Mt Carrigain (4700ft, 1433m), a solo hike, on July 20, 2016.  It was a fairly long, strenuous, and very beautiful hike.  Like all but one of the hikes I did in 2016, there were no significant insect problems.

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Sawyer River Road runs southwest from Hart’s Location, New Hampshire.  It’s an unpaved forest-access road that is closed in the winter.

I drove up from Durham that morning, and left the parking area on Sawyer River Road at about 10:30am, and took the Signal Ridge Trail.

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I arrived at the junction with the Carrigain Notch Trail at 11:15am.  From here I would hike a loop, arriving back at this same place 5 1/2 hours later, after climbing Mt Carrigain…

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At around 1pm, nearing the top of Mt Carrigain, I stopped for lunch on Signal Ridge.  This view is towards the north, looking across Rt 302.  The Presidential Range can just be seen, with Mt Washington in the far distance, on the left side of the image, just about touching the clouds.

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From my lunch spot on Signal Ridge, you can see the top of Mt Carrigain – there is a fire lookout tower at the summit.

 

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I arrived at the top of Mt Carrigain around 1:30pm, and approached the fire lookout tower.

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Here I’m on the top of the tower, looking back down at the trail I had just hiked up.  The arrow points to where I had lunch that day:

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Here are a few more views from the tower that day, looking in various directions:

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Here is a view of the section of the hike along Signal Ridge.  This photo was taken about a month later, when I was climbing Mt Hancock and South Hancock; I’ll describe that hike later.  You can see Mt Carrigain, and maybe also the fire lookout tower.  The plateau where I had lunch, Signal Ridge, is also visible.

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The evocatively-named “Desolation Trail” leads off of the top of Mt Carrigain.  From here I would loop around to the east of Mt Carrigain, through Carrigain Notch.

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I arrived at the junction of Desolation Trail and Carrigain Notch Trail at about 2:50pm, having dropped steeply from the top of Mt Carrigain.  It was a pleasant hike

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Ten minutes later, I reached the junction with Nancy Pond Trail.

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From here, it was a long, long hike slowly up Notch Brook to Carrigain Notch.  And then dropping down alongside Carrigain Brook to the end of the loop.

Mt Carrigain loomed over me through the forest cover as I walked through Carrigain Notch for nearly two hours.

Here I have arrived back at the earlier junction, which I had passed at 11:15am.  It’s the end of the long loop over Mt Carrigain and up Carrigain Notch.  The loop took me about 5 1/2 hours!

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The walk back out to the parking area was pleasant:

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It was a long day, which I could have shortened by turning around at the top of Mt Carrigain instead of continuing on the loop around and through Carrigain Notch.  But I’m glad I did it, because the day was fine and the walking was interesting.

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In my last blog in this series, I wrote about the second of three major projects carried out when I served as Program Director at Plan International’s International Headquarters (“IH”).  When I moved from my previous post as Regional Director for South America, Plan’s then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, and I had agreed that I would stay in the Program Director role for three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field.  (In the end, as I will describe below, I stayed at IH for four years, because it took us another year to finalize the country structures.)

Those three carefully-chosen major projects would be:

  1. 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.  My description of that project is here;
  2. 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.  I wrote about that project last time.
  3. We would finish the restructuring of the agency.  Now that regionalization was complete, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level.  That’s the subject of this blog post.

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.  More united.  And I was determined to take a systems approach – fix the problems Plan faced by changing the system using those three key levers – goals, structure and resource allocation.  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 third of those three projects – finishing Plan’s restructuring by creating the key operational unit, the Country Office, in place of the Field Offices of the past.

(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.)

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In 1993, Plan’s field structures were diverging.  Notwithstanding superficial consistency, Regional Offices were gradually evolving, some moving toward larger structures, others devolving responsibilities downward.  Of equal concern was the situation below the Regional-Office level.

Prior to regionalization, Plan’s operational structures were clear and consistent: a Field Director managed each Field Office, reporting directly to Program Coordinators at IH in Rhode Island.  When Plan regionalised, Field Directors began to report to Area Managers who were located in Regional Offices, and who in turn reported to Regional Directors.

For example, when I arrived in Tuluá, Colombia, readers of this blog will remember that I reported to the local Field Director, Monique van’t Hek; she reported to Leticia Escobar, who was our Area Manager based in Quito.

In those days, most countries where Plan worked had several local Field Offices; no country-level structure existed as such.  One Field Director was assigned the additional task of relating to national authorities in the country, as Plan’s representative.  For example, when I was in Colombia that role was taken by Ron Seligman, who was Field Director in Cali.

But as a result of decentralization, these structures were diverging.  In 1992, for example, the region of Central America and the Caribbean proposed eliminating all Field Director positions, releasing a large number of expatriate staff to be absorbed by other regions.  This was a major shock – what was the organisation going to do with all the people no longer required in that region?!  In West Africa, on the other hand, a country-level Field Director position evolved and local management was put into place in Field Offices, sometimes using a team-based approach.

This structural divergence was seen as a problem by Plan’s senior management: if our operational structures became different in each region, managing the organization would become unnecessarily complex.  So in 1994 I proposed that we begin a study to define a common structure toward which all regions would evolve.

Mintzberg(1) advises that “the elements of structure should be selected to achieve an internal consistency or harmony, as well as a basic consistency with the organization’s situation”.  Consistent with this aim, and mindful of my department’s commitment to build organizational unity while recognizing Plan’s decentralized nature, I designed a bottom-up, participatory process through which we would design a new structure.

During a preliminary stage, internal documents covering Plan’s entire experience with decentralization, relevant academic and professional literature, and practice in other (INGO and private sector) organizations were reviewed.  Concurrently, each Region named a team to carry out a study of current structures and make recommendations.  An extensive organizational design survey was circulated, collecting information about individual jobs, office workflow, and work-related communication from 232 managerial and professional staff in Regional Offices, Country Offices (where they existed), and Field Offices in all Plan regions.  An expert external consultant (Dr Tony Dibella, who had worked with the organizational learning team at MIT) advised this process.

As a result, a set of general design options were presented to the Plan’s senior management (which I was a part of, of course.)  Results of the ensuing, robust, discussion are shown below.

Senior Management Agreements Made Regarding Regional Structure

The International Management Team (IMT) recognized that introducing country structures will lead to adaptation and change in the current Regional Offices, and that country operations are being implemented in diverse forms across the organization.  After reviewing current structures in each region and discussing the results of a study commissioned to propose a common field structure for the future, the IMT reached consensus on the following:

Countries will be the prime operational units in Plan International.

Over the next six months, standard countrywide functions will be defined, and a uniform job profile for country directors will be produced. This will be carried out by the Director of Human Resources together with selected IMT members and Country Directors.

Using existing methodologies, an analysis of skills required, and a review of training needs of the current incumbents, training programs for country directors will be designed. This will be coordinated by the Director of Human Resources together with selected regional and country staff, over the next twelve months.

After fully defining standard country roles, Regional Offices will evolve into networks.  By moving some functions to countries, Regional Offices will shrink, becoming more focused on networking and learning.  If new functions or additional human resources are needed for multicountry functions, the bias will be to locate them in countries, whenever feasible and cost-effective.

Countries will be given latitude to structure program operations.

However, best practices will be defined and implemented for nonprogram functions, unless valid reasons for variation exist. This will allow the organization to focus more on program matters in the future.

Subsequently, the International Board of Directors endorsed the proposal that “countries . . . become the prime operational units in Plan International.”

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At this point, I had been at IH for the three years that Max and I had agreed.  I felt it was important to move on, because many people at Plan’s headquarters, and in the head offices of other INGOs, seemed to get trapped and stay for years and years, or decades.  Or maybe they wanted to stay on at the center, with the power and authority that came with being based there.  I wanted to send a different message: working at IH would be like being based anywhere – you came in, made a contribution, and moved on.  In this case, I tried to make light of it by saying that I would leave headquarters and go back to the field, to “face the mess I had created at IH!”

Plus I was feeling quite burned out.  Headquarters for many organizations is a stressful place, because staff are squeezed by governance bodies (our Board of Directors) on one side, field realities on another side, and the normal politics of any complex human undertaking on the third side.  I was accomplishing a lot, but felt stressed by managing the different realities.

But our IH-based senior management team (Max, me, Catherine Webster, Nick Hall, and Richard Jones) felt that I needed to stay one more year, to finish up the design and lead the implementation of the new structure.  So I agreed, somewhat grouchily I recall…

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To this point, the role of my department and of the field was clear.  My department (Planning and Program Support, “PPS”) managed the process of organizational reflection, but Regions took the lead in analysis and proposal development.  The process continued, as agreements recorded above set the stage for a full-scale, participatory design of Plan’s field structures, led by PPS.

I can’t remember why PPS took the lead, when (as can be seen above) we had agreed that the HR Director would manage the process.  That is a logical choice, but it’s likely that such a challenging restructuring of field operations would not have worked without the person leading it having field experience and credibility, which our HR Director did not have.  And I did still have…

From December 1995 through October 1996, a core, common country structure for Plan was developed in a bottom-up, participatory manner.  Modelled after the process taken to develop Plan’s domains and principles, a workshop was convened first, to create a foundation for organizational discussion. This workshop, held in February 1996, again included participants from much of Plan, at various levels.

I designed that weeklong workshop very carefully.  Modelled after the famous Lockheed “Skunk Works” that were successful in accomplishing nearly-impossible tasks in very short times, I invited a group of people who I knew would work hard, and who would bring both creativity, experience, and credibility into the process.  We rented an entire, empty floor in the same building where IH was located, brought some basic desk furniture up, and asked people not to visit.  I basically locked the door, because I wanted everybody very focused on the crucial task at hand.  This would not be a normal NGO meeting, with everybody expressing opinions and going home.  No, here we were going to work out a detailed proposal for a new structure, with tasks and job descriptions drafted and ready.

Here are some photos of that workshop:

I’m sure I will not remember the names of all the people involved in that workshop, but here are a few that I recognise from the photos: Amadou Bocoum, Catherine Webster, David Muthungu, Donal Keane, Ernesto Moran, Heather Borquez, Hernando Manrique, Janet Dulohery, Jim Byrne (who had been my predecessor as Program Manager), Mohan Thazhathu, Subhadra Belbase, and Winnie Tay.  Apologies to those who I have inadvertently omitted.

I dropped by often, but didn’t participate all the time.

The workshop worked very well, and was a big success.  The workshop first produced a purpose statement for the Country Office.  Key activities carried out by the Country Office and the front line were articulated, and grouped into six “functions.”  Then, importantly, a recommended core, common structure for Plan Country Offices was developed around those functions, with four core positions that would be included in each Country Office; job profiles and performance standards were defined at the workshop for these core positions.  However, it was made explicit that other positions and structures would be designed and implemented in program countries, depending on local requirements.  In other words, Country Directors and their teams would be completely free to structure operations according to need, beyond the core, subject of course to normal budgetary review processes.

The four core, required, positions would be:

  • The Country Director, leading and managing, responsible and accountable for, all aspects of Plan’s work in a particular country;
  • The Program Support Manager (“PSM”), focused on program quality and program strategy.  The PSM would be located at the Country Office;
  • The Sponsorship and Grants Support Manager (“SGSM”), focused on building strong and accountable relations with donors and other supporters.  The SGSM would be located at the Country Office;
  • The Operations Support Manager (“OSM”), who managed “back-office” administrative functions such as finance, IH, logistics, etc.  The OSM would be located at the Country Office.

We were very clear that one of the biggest benefits from having four common, core positions was that we could develop and link our people: there would be enough commonality of tasks, terminology, and accountabilities that an SGSM, say, in Mali could relate very easily to what another SGSM in, say, Bolivia was doing.  They could learn from each other because they shared language, etc.

So one of our key proposals was that the four common, core positions would be actively networked across the Plan work, enhancing learning and organizational coherence and culture.  At the same time, we thought a lot about pathways for career advancement.  We imagined that future Country Directors would serve in at least two of the other common, core positions, in at least two different Regions.  Again, this would provide coherence across the wide variety of cultures where Plan operated, and a breath of experience in the basic roles in the organization.

Program implementation in the country was meant to be structured as necessary.  Just to provide some degree of common terminology, we decided to call these structures “Program Units” that would be managed by “Program Unit Managers.”  Program Units would most-commonly be geographical in nature – located in a specific location, ideally coincident with some aspect of the political structure of the country.  But, since Program Units were meant to be very flexible, they could also be organised sectorally, or with a particular advocacy purpose, or located with a technical ministry, or in any number of ways.

The use of the term “Support” for the core positions, except for the Country Director, was very intentional.  All Program Unit Managers were to report to the Country Director, helping keep the Country Director grounded in the realities of field implementation.  Otherwise, we feared that CDs would be too distant from program implementation and that, therefore, decisions could become less realistic as the Country Director drifted into more abstract, country-capital-focused realities.

The PSM position would turn out to be the most problematic of all the four core positions, only because the position was designed NOT to have line authority over program implementation.  People who moved into the PSM roles as we implemented the new structure, mostly, were accustomed to leading and managing, and found it frustrating to have to influence rather than direct.  My reasoning was that the pace and pressures of program implementation were so fast and heavy, that it was easy to focus exclusively on getting projects implemented.  Space for thinking strategically was squeezed out by the pressures, common in Plan, of spending the budget, managing sponsorship backlogs, and handling yearly audits.

The PSM was meant to be shielded from these pressures, so that SOMEBODY in Plan would have the time to focus on program quality!  My own position, not in the line of authority, was similar in that sense, but I never had trouble getting things done.  After all, I sat next to the IED!  And the PSMs should realize, I thought, that they sat next to the CD!

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Output from the workshop was shared with Plan’s senior management, and then with our partner fundraising organizations, in another two-day workshop.  Nearly all Country Directors and Regional Directors, along with Regional Office staff, participated in full-day review sessions, during which they examined the draft structural recommendations made in our workshop, and made suggestions for improvement.

Throughout this process, a series of updates were issued to all staff, detailing progress, reporting interim results, and building consensus. Much of the feedback received was incorporated.

The Country Office was to be the key component of this new structural architecture. Positioned as the fulcrum between the micro and macro levels in Plan, the Country Office would handle program implementation at the grassroots level, while also becoming the key point of contact within the broader Plan organization outside the country.  The Country Office would interpret and localize policy and implement operational systems and procedures in the country context.  As part of this balance of micro and macro, it was deemed necessary to include some measure of standard structure. This core would tie the organization together; the remaining structure could be adjusted to suit local realities.

In late 1996, after preparing job profiles and performance standards for each of the four core positions and finalizing detailed guidelines for filling these positions in each country, final proposals were approved.  In addition, a clear planning mechanism for the new country structure was developed, leading to production of Country Strategic Plans.  It was agreed that the roles of Regional Offices and IH would be reviewed in light of the new country structures, to ensure that duplication and structural conflict were minimized. It was further agreed to develop training packages for each core position.

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This process worked well, but perhaps not quite as well as the development of Plan’s program Domains and Principles.  Generally speaking, field involvement and ownership of the process of restructuring was high.  But it was difficult to assign discrete portions of the project to decentralized operational units, particularly in the second phase of the project, so ownership of the process was not shared quite so widely.  This was due at least in part to the highly sensitive nature of the project, which was reshaping core senior positions (and livelihoods) across Plan. As a result, the role of PPS became somewhat more directive and the atmosphere slightly less harmonious.

Perhaps the level of process ownership was not quite as high as that achieved in developing Plan’s Domains and Principles, but the resulting structure was accepted and implemented.

As a result, by the end of 1999, all program countries had implemented the core common structure, and networks of the core positions were operational in much of the Plan world.  In fact, the structure lasted for quite a while; there were some local adaptations, of course, but in general Plan would have CDs, PSMs, SGSMs, and OSMs, with Program Unit Managers, in most places for quite a while.

Later in this series, I will write much more about my experience serving as Plan’s Country Director in Viet Nam from 1998 to 2002.  But when Jean and I arrived in Hanoi, of course, Plan’s new country structure was already in place, so I had a PSM (Le Quang Duat), an OSM (Pham Thu Ba), and an SGSM (Tran Minh Thu), along with four Program Unit Managers (Pham Van Chinh, Nguyen Van Mai, Nguyen Van Hung, and Hung Quang Tri.)

So the new country structure was implemented and functioned.  On that most basic level, the effort was a big success.

But beyond that, followthrough was spotty, as was unfortunately common with Plan.  I left IH fairly soon after completing this final project, and Max departed fairly soon after I did – more on that next time!  Once we were gone, to my knowledge, no review of regional and headquarters functions ever took place, nor did “Regional Offices evolve into networks… (or) shrink, becoming more focused on networking and learning.”   In fact, mostly, Plan’s Regional Offices continued to grow and grow over time, increasingly absorbing resources that, in my view, would have been better utilised at country level.  At least, that was our idea when we developed the country structures in the mid-1990’s.

And networks of the four core, common positions never really functioned in as disciplined fashion as they could have and should have – they were in place, as I noted above, but Plan could have gotten much more benefit from the commonality we included.  Also, to my knowledge, Plan never developed the training and development packages focused on those positions.

Perhaps if both Max and I had stayed at IH we could have seen this process of restructuring through to its logical conclusion, and battled back the forces of bureaucracy and top-heavy management structures.  But, as I mentioned when describing how I led the adaptation of Total Quality Management in Plan, one of the organization’s biggest weaknesses was, and has always been, its inability to follow through on initiatives over the necessary period of time.

However, I would soon experience the reality of the new country structure, directly, myself!

Because it was time to leave IH.  I had agreed to stay for three years, stayed a fourth, so it was time to go.  So, on the day before John Major lost office, and Tony Blair became Prime Minister, Jean and I flew from Heathrow to Boston.  I had been granted a one-year, unpaid “sabbatical,” and my plan was to relax and recharge, take some classes and learn how to meditate.  We would settle for a year in Durham, New Hampshire, where Jean grew up.

Our next step, after Durham, would be Viet Nam, where I would become Plan’s second Country Director in that country, and where I would see the new country structure in action!

Before writing about that experience, my next blog in this series will contain some final reflections on working at IH: what was it like, how did Max and I do, what went well and what didn’t… stay tuned.

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Here are links to 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:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

 

  1.  Mintzberg, Henry (1993), Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Prentice Hall International Editions, New Jersey USA.

South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International

In my last blog in this series, I wrote about the first of three major projects carried out when I served as Program Director at Plan International’s International Headquarters (“IH”).  When I moved from my previous post as Regional Director for South America, Plan’s then-new International Executive Director, Max van der Schalk, and I had agreed that I would stay in the Program Director role for three years, accomplish some specific goals, and then I would return to the field.

Those three carefully-chosen major projects would be:

  1. 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.  I wrote about this last time;
  2. 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. That’s the subject this time;
  3. We would finish the restructuring of the agency.  Now that regionalization was complete, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan was structured in the field, at country level.  That’s for next time.

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.  More united.  And I was determined to take a systems approach – fix the problems Plan faced by changing the system using those three key levers – goals, structure and resource allocation.  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 second of those three projects – the preparation of an objective, data-driven, rigorous growth plan for Plan International.

(Portions of the content below have been adapted from two journal articles I wrote and published in “Nonprofit Management and Leadership,” after I left IH.  Copies of those original articles can be found here: NML – Fragmentation Article and here: how-should-an-international-ngo-allocate-growth.)

But first…

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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.  Last time, I wrote about getting to the top of North Kinsman, which was really just the first 25% of the day! Here I’ll describe the second part of that long, long day here – the ascent of South Kinsman (4358ft, 1328m), and our return to the beginning of the hike.

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We had arrived at the top of North Kinsman at around 2pm, after leaving the parking area on NH 116 at 11am.  The short, 0.9m hike over from there to the summit of South Kinsman didn’t take too long – we arrived there at around 3pm.  It was a beautiful day, but you can see how I had perspired through both shirts on the way up!:

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The Summit of South Kinsman

 

Here’s a view of the Kinsman range, taken from the top of Mt Lincoln, in June of 2017.  Moosilauke and both Kinsmans are easy to see, across Franconia Notch.  Lonesome Lake is just viewable in the middle right:

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The walk down off of South Kinsman was “steep and rough,” but otherwise a beautiful, typical White Mountains forest walk, with a nice rock sculpture along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 20 minutes after leaving the top of South Kinsman, we passed just to the east of Harrington Pond, with a beautiful view of the sky towards the south-west:

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Harrington Pond

 

It was a steep drop off of the top of South Kinsman, with several small waterfalls along Eliza Brook:

 

This section of Kinsman Ridge Trail forms a small part of the famous Appalachian Trail, which runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine, some 2190 miles, end-to-end.  Along the Appalachian Trail there are lean-tos and huts used by thru-hikers for overnights, as well as for day-hikers like Eric and I for quick rests.  One of those huts, Eliza Brook Shelter, is found along Kinsman Ridge Trail:

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We arrived at the Shelter at 4:45pm and, about a half-hour later, we arrived at the junction of Reel Brook Trail, which we took, heading west, downhill.

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After descending down Reel Brook to NH Rt 116 in around 3.5m of pleasant White-Mountain forest we arrived back where we started – it was nearly 8pm!

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Photo of the Trail-Head, Taken At 7:44pm

 

The loop over North and South Kinsman had taken us 9 hours, 13 hours if you include the drive up from Durham and back home.  But it was a fantastic day.

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My second major priority at IH was finding a better way for Plan to allocate resources, which meant deciding where the agency would grow.  This felt like a very strategic question: Plan was growing quickly those days, and deciding where to invest those new resources was important.  It would be a tangible manifestation of our strategy.

My own experience with this topic was, in some ways, an example of how not to approach these decisions.  As Regional Director for South America, before going to IH, I had obtained authorisation to negotiate with the government of Paraguay with the aim of reaching an agreement for Plan to work there.  From my perspective as Regional Director, this made sense, and with my old friend Andy Rubi acting as International Executive Director at the time, before Max’s arrival, I was able easily to get approval and so we began to work in Paraguay.  My well-known ability to dazzle senior-management meetings with slick presentations didn’t hurt, either!

In retrospect, even by the time I arrived at IH soon after we opened in Paraguay, that decision seemed questionable: there were many places in the world with more need than Paraguay.  I had been very parochial in my approach, battling to expand as much as possible in South America, my “patch,” not really considering what was best, overall.  But there had been no overall strategy for allocating resources across countries in Plan at that point, no analytical approach to balance the normal political advocacy and rhetorical skill that was all we had.  So I was approaching things in the “normal” way.

Helping the organization make these sensitive decisions in a strategic manner would be valuable, a key lever of change that would help us “think globally and act locally.”  Once at IH, I thought that if I could find a way to approach resource allocation in a skilful way, it might help us pull together and operate as a united organisation despite the centrifugal forces created by regionalisation.

But, could I find a way for Plan to allocate resources in an objective way?

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International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) can scale up their work and impact in several ways, but they often find expansion to be difficult to manage.  Of course, there are well-known strategic and managerial challenges facing growing organizations in all sectors of the economy, and INGOs in particular face tough choices when seeking to scale up their impact.1  In addition, unlike private and public sector organizations, INGOs lack simple and commonly accepted analytical tools for targeting additional resources consistent with their organizational aims. A slow but steady blurring of institutional focus can result.

As I have described earlier, by the time I arrived at IH, Plan was quite decentralized, with a structure divided into six regions spanning the globe; within these regions were 42 program country offices.  Day-to-day management was  undertaken by the International Executive Director (“IED”) and six Regional Directors; International Headquarters staff, based in Woking, England, provided services to program and donor country operations.  Members of the International Board of Directors, who were all voluntary, were nominated by the national boards of the donor country offices, in numbers based on the number of children supported by each donor country.  Staff in Plan’s fourteen national donor country offices were responsible for recruiting and serving individual sponsors and other donors.

Plan’s income grew strongly over the 1990s, and therefore annual field expenditures were increased from around $50 million in 1987 to over $219 million in 1997, an impressive increase in real terms of more than 220%.

Before 1995, when we created a new approach, Plan’s geographical expansion was guided pragmatically and opportunistically.  The result was that incremental resources were directed toward countries where the organizational capacity to grow already existed.  Although there is nothing inherently wrong with opportunistic growth, or pragmatism for that matter, this approach allowed the organization to drift.

For example, as can be seen in the Figure, the world average under-five mortality rate (U5MR), weighted for population, dropped continuously from 1975 to 1993.  The world was making good progress!  The weighted-average U5MR corresponding to Plan’s caseload distribution rose from 1975 to 1980, indicating that Plan was gradually moving toward needier countries.  But after 1981 this trend reversed, and the organization gradually began to work in relatively less needy countries. In fact, Plan gradually was, unintentionally, evolving toward working in countries in which under-five mortality rates were decreasing more quickly than the global average.

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Two examples illustrate the trend. First, from 1977 to 1978, Plan’s weighted-average U5MR increased from 126 to 132. This increase took place because of strong expansion in Burkina Faso, Bolivia, Haiti, Mali, and Sierra Leone, countries with U5MRs above the Plan average, and a reduction of caseload in Korea, with a relatively low U5MR. So although Plan was reducing its caseload in Ethiopia, a high-U5MR country, and increasing it somewhat in Colombia and the Philippines, which had U5MRs lower than Plan’s average, the net effect was to increase global weighted-average U5MRs.

From 1981 to 1982, Plan’s weighted-average U5MR dropped from 137 to 132.  Here an increase in caseload in countries with U5MRs above the Plan-wide average, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Sudan, was more than offset by strong growth in Colombia, Ecuador, and the Philippines, which were relatively low-U5MR countries.  Caseloads were increased in Colombia, Ecuador, and the Philippines at least in part because it was easier for staff to manage growth in these countries, a trend that continued through the 1980s.

For an organization seeking to build better futures for deprived children, families, and communities, this drift toward relatively less needy environments was unsettling and inappropriate.  Especially during a decade of exceptional growth, a mechanism to enable Plan managers to target organizational expansion was needed.

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Plan’s situation was not unique. Geographic expansion experienced by INGOs is often strongly influenced by where growth can be managed.  Internal politics, pressure from governmental development agencies and other external funders, attention from the mass media, theories currently in vogue among development professionals, the ability of an individual manager to speak persuasively in public, or simply the dynamics of a particular meeting often drive these decisions.  As a consequence, organizational strategy – particularly concerning target populations – can become less of a focus. Day-to-day pressures dominate the attention of managers.

That sounds a lot like what driven me with the (in retrospect, wrong) decision to open in Paraguay!

Such pressures are not necessarily harmful. But without objective analytical tools that can demonstrate that resource allocation decisions are consistent (or inconsistent) with institutional strategy, organizational drift of the sort that Plan was experiencing can result.

To help correct this evolution toward less-needy populations, I proposed that a methodology be developed to direct Plan’s geographical expansion, and Senior Management approval was obtained.

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A wide-ranging in-house analysis of global poverty trends, funding prospects, and organizational capacities was then carried out in 1994. The culmination of this strategic review was the November 1994 approval by Plan’s International Board of nine “Strategic Directions for Growth,” covering a range of issues such as program effectiveness, priorities for institutional strengthening, the fundraising approach, and a policy for human resource development.

One of these Strategic Directions was particularly relevant in developing a methodology to guide resource allocation: in the section entitled “Where to Work,” it was stated that “Plan should gradually evolve towards needier countries, and towards poorer regions within new and exist- ing program countries.  The essence of Plan’s intervention is that useful and sustainable development is achieved, so that the quality of life of deprived children in developing countries is improved.  The potential for this impact should be verified before entry into new program countries” (emphases added).

Therefore, the first step for the growth plan was to develop indicators to gauge the two central points of the policy statement: the need of a country and the potential for impact of Plan’s program there.  Such indicators would have to be intuitive and useful for managers rather than suitable only for experts, employ data that were widely available in a regularly updated form and generally accepted, and amenable to quantitative techniques so that results could be as objective as possible.

Of course, a data-driven approach would only take us so far; but I thought it was the right  place to start.

Measuring Need

Because of the focus of Plan’s work on children, any management indicator of need had to be related to child welfare.  The Under 5 Mortality Rate (“U5MR”) can be viewed as the “single most important indicator of the state of a nation’s children” for a variety of compelling reasons:2

  • “It measures an end result of the development process, rather than an ‘input’”;
  • It is “known to be the result of a wide variety of inputs”;
  • It is less susceptible to the fallacy of the average because an advantaged child cannot be a thousand times more likely to survive than a deprived child.

At the same time, the U5MR is intuitive and useful to managers, and data are updated regularly by many agencies.  Finally, the U5MR is amenable to quantitative manipulation because it is an absolute, not a relative, measure.

On this basis, I selected U5MR as the parameter by which Plan would assess need for its growth plan.

Measuring Potential for Impact

The creation of a simple indicator for potential for impact was more challenging, but the concept of a national performance gap, pioneered by UNICEF, turned out to be helpful.

The idea starts with the fact that a strong correlation exists between national wealth, as measured by gross national product (GNP) per capita, and various measures of social welfare.  In general, the richer a country is, the better off its citizens are: average U5MR are lower, educational levels are higher, and maternal mortality rates are lower, for example.  Because of this strong correlation, given a nation’s wealth, various indicators of social welfare can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty.

However, some countries achieve more than can be expected given their levels of national income, and others achieve less.  These countries perform better than others.  War, corruption, the political system of the country, budgetary priorities, and many other factors can affect this performance.  In short, the performance of a country in deploying its national wealth, no matter how meagre, to achieve expected levels of social welfare must depend on a wide variety of factors – I felt that these were just the sorts of factors that could determine the potential for impact of Plan’s programs.

Just to go a bit deeper, consider two hypothetical countries with similar national wealth, as measured by their respective GNP per capita.  The solid line in the Figure depicts the global correlation between income and some hypothetical measure of child welfare, constructed by carrying out a log regression analysis on the performance of all countries.  As can be seen, country A has a (say, marginally) higher level of child welfare than does country B and is in fact doing better than the correlation analysis would have predicted.  With the same economic resources, country A must somehow be creating a socioeconomic environment that is more amenable to child development than is country B.  It is important to note that the absolute level of child poverty in both country A and country B can be quite severe, with many needy children in each country, but the relative performance of the two countries varies.

But we can see that something is going right in country A, relative to country B.

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Bearing in mind that Plan sought to focus its work in areas where conditions are not hostile to sustainable development (it was not a humanitarian organization, at least in the mid-1990’s), the organisation might anticipate having more impact in the country that is achieving all that can be expected (no matter how little) with the resources (no matter how meagre) it has. In other words, Plan should target its marginal resources on country A instead of country B.

Thus, instead of somehow directly measuring the likely impact of Plan’s program in a given country, a task that is conceptually complex, I decided to use an indirect measure: the performance of that nation in achieving child development, no matter its national wealth.

To assess this performance concretely, a compound index of the status of children was created.  The index was formed by combining the U5MR, the percentage of primary school children reaching grade 5, and the enrollment ratio of females as a percentage of males in primary school.  These data are all readily available, intuitively simple to use, and absolute rather than relative measures.  (The U5MR is therefore used twice in this analysis: once directly, to measure need, and again indirectly, as one of three components combined and analyzed to measure government performance. The U5MR was chosen again because it is an effective measure of need and at the same time well represents the impact of efforts of a government in the health and education areas.)

This index, which I referred to as the “Plan Index”, was then analyzed to determine whether a given country, while qualifying as a Plan program country, was achieving more or less than could be expected given its national income.  The difference between actual and expected performance was denoted as the “Plan Gap”.

I calculated the Plan gap by performing a standard log regression on the Plan Index against per capita income at purchasing power parity.  A graphical portrayal of the result is given in the Figure; the gap between the smooth series of diamond-shaped points, which represents expected levels of the Plan Index for all countries qualifying as program countries, and real levels, shown as round points, represents the Plan Gap.  A positive Plan Gap (actual points above predicted levels) indicates that a country is performing better than would be expected given its national wealth; a negative gap suggests that performance is lagging.

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The analysis described was carried out on the eighty-one countries that Plan considered for program operations.  Then these countries were prioritized by combining the U5MR (measuring need) with the Plan Gap (measuring potential for impact); the U5MR was added to 2.5 times the Plan Gap to produce a compound index that was used for sorting.

The results are shown next: the table orders countries by this compound index; current program countries are shown in italic type, and countries selected for active consideration as new program countries are shown in boldface type. Thus Niger would appear to have the highest priority and the Dominican Republic the lowest. Four countries in which Plan had program operations in 1995 – Colombia, Paraguay, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – no longer qualified and therefore we decided to discuss their phase-out.

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Qualitative Factors

All that data analysis was great, but it took us only so far.  We thought that a methodology based exclusively on data would still miss much of value: informed judgment, experience, and intuition – also valuable tools when considering resource allocation.  And responsiveness and flexibility are two of the virtues of NGOs.  These attributes can be especially useful when employed in the light of the rigorous data-driven analysis that was carried out.

Therefore, we arranged for the quantitative analysis outlined above to be reviewed by a panel of Plan staff, a member of Plan’s International Board of Directors, and an invited guest from another large INGO.  A few of the qualitative factors examined in this review included:

  • Projected U5MR.  What is the trend for need in the country? Is the effect of HIV/AIDS likely to increase U5MRs beyond current trends?
  • Development climate.  Is the environment in the country conducive to development? Is the government in favor of NGOs working there? Has the government signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and produced a plan of action to implement the convention?
  • Risk.  How risky is the environment in the country? Is it stable? Are international investors working there? How likely is conflict, war, or some other similar problem?
  • Market potential.  Is there likely to be interest from sponsors and other donors? Are there ties between the country and any of Plan’s donor countries?
  • Saturation.  How many INGOs, bilateral agencies, and multilaterals operate in the country? What are their budget and geographical coverage? Is there room for Plan?
  • Caseload potential.  Is the population of needy children large enough to enable sufficient economies of scale for Plan?

Starting with the quantitative analysis outlined above, this discussion produced a proposal for resource allocation (a growth plan), which was reviewed by Plan’s senior management team of field and headquarters-based staff.  Thus the objective analysis was complemented by extensive discussion based on real, informed experience.

For example, although analytical work highlighted Niger as the highest priority in 1995, political instability there (not completely captured in the quantitative analysis outlined above) meant that Plan did not consider working in that nation until later.  And though some Plan Regional Directors felt strongly that Plan should continue to direct resources to countries such as Colombia and Sri Lanka, analytical results were helpful in convincing managers that these countries, though undeniably poor, had less child-related need than others and should thus be lower priorities for the organization.

The final growth plan was therefore created by combining the priorities and recommendations emerging from rigorous analysis with the informed experience of field-based staff.  Decisions were influenced, still, by political influence within the organisation and by rhetorical flourish, but these factors were now balanced by data.

I attach here a version of the growth plan prepared for consideration by Plan’s International Board of Directors in June, 1995 – plan-international-growth-plan.  Note, on page 7, a recommendation that Plan phase out operations in Paraguay!

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During the rest of my time at IH, Plan’s senior management team frequently reviewed resource allocation requests, both when annual budgets were formally approved and when adjustments were made during the year.  Since discussions began with a review of the analytical results from the growth plan, the entire process became less confrontational, more objective, less emotional, and more productive.  The competing views of field managers were tempered with objective and rigorous analysis.  Rarely, when consensus on a particular resource-allocation decision was not reached, Max made the final decision. In most, but not all, cases, he endorsed the course of action recommended by the growth plan.  Where his decision varied from the plan, it was often to strike a geographical balance across Plan’s regions.  These more-objective discussions had a significant effect on resource allocation decisions.

However, the process used to develop the growth plan was far from perfect.  I managed the project, partly this was because of my own background and training in engineering, I was comfortable with the mathematics underlying the growth plan.  In particular, explaining the “Plan Gap” to those in senior management with different backgrounds was challenging.

Feedback was sought and endorsement gained at several points along the way as we developed the methodology but, unlike the development of Plan’s organizational goals (described last time), real involvement from the field was minimal, limited to giving feedback rather than, as in the earlier project, managing parts of the effort.  The emotional commitment of members of my department to the redirection of Plan’s growth toward particular areas (Africa) or issues (HIV and AIDS) was strong; a vocal “Africa lobby” took vigorous part in the discussions as well as behind the scenes.  And, in contrast to our work on Plan’s goals, the process did not begin with an organization-wide workshop, and communication of results to the wider organization was sporadic.

Personally, I was quite enamored of the elegant methodology that emerged, taken by its rigour and the insights embedded in the Plan Gap and Plan Index.  As a result, even though Max was just as pleased with the end result as I was, and greatly appreciated its rigour (he was also an engineer by training), ownership of the growth plan was less evident outside headquarters, and resistance to the results that came from its application was pretty strong.

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Why did development of the growth plan stray from the lessons learned in successfully developing the Program Directions (and, as will be described, the final of the three projects, the restructuring of Plan’s country operations)?

I think that, in part, it was because, unlike the other two projects, the growth plan was by nature a win-lose proposition.  The growth plan led to quantitative growth of the organization being redirected from one area to another, with some regions gaining resources and others losing.  This led to a high level of anxiety on the part of field staff.  Together with the emotional attachment of staff in my department and myself to the growth plan model, the trap was set and we fell into the old top-down behaviors that had been common in earlier reincarnations of Plan’s headquarters.

Still, I think that the growth plan served a useful purpose.  By the end of 1999, another review of Plan’s growth strategy concluded with recommendations forwarded to senior management.  This review was based on the approach outlined here, further refining the model built in 1995.  Although reaching similar conclusions, the study focused on internal systems needed to ensure effective short-term management of growth supply and demand, while updating the long-term, strategic aspect of the original plan with identical methods and similar results.

So, while not entirely successful, the Growth Plan helped us to allocate resources more strategically, and I certainly learned some lessons on how NOT to manage sensitive projects like this one!

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My next blog in this series will describe how we finished the restructuring of Plan’s field operations, which led to the creation of Country Offices.  It was a big effort, with huge implications for many people… and it went much better.

Stay tuned for more!

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Here are links to 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:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
  6. Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
  7. East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
  8. Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
  9. Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
  10. North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
  11. Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
  12. North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
  13. South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
  14. Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
  15. Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
  16. Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
  17. Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
  18. South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
  19. Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
  20. Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam.

 

  1. See  (Edwards and Hulme, 1992; Billis and MacKeith, 1992; Hodson, 1992)
  2. Reference to UNICEF here?

Thoughts from Ross Brinkert

Some thought-provoking words from Ross Brinkert:

“… despite uncertainty, meaning and action are important. An uncertain world allows us to justify either meaninglessness or meaningfulness. Most would agree that the latter makes for more attractive lives and relationships. It also makes us more likely to act with intention. Action is important because it helps construct the environment we act into. Acting may mean making a leap and exploring a model even though we might later apply another.

… it is useful to act with curiosity. Many people find that a curious mindset is helpful for remaining comfortable with uncertainty and diversity, in various forms.

… my assumptions about conflict itself. The assumptions are as follows: 1) conflicts are a part of everyday life and have positive potential, 2) the nonviolent expression of conflict should be generally encouraged, 3) developing both individual and shared responsibility for conflict is valuable, 4) voluntary participation in conflict management is likely to increase the overall success of the process and 5) a general openness to differences is helpful in a pluralistic community.”

Fragmentation?

Here’s an article from some time ago, seems relevant still:

“Growth and decentralization have brought increasing conflict to many international NGOs, particularly between field and headquarters.  This case study, written by the executive responsible for the activities portrayed, examines an attempt to define a clear new role for a headquarters department in a large, decentralized INGO – focused on building unity of purpose.  By ensuring that decentralized units of the organization took the leadership in related corporate initiatives whenever possible, with headquarters coordinating an inclusive process rather than implementing, unity was increased and tension reduced.  Senior managers at the headquarters of growing, decentralized INGOs should find this case study relevant as they strive to maintain unity in the face of institutional fragmentation.”

NML – Fragmentation Article