Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle And Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit

I began a new journey 18 months ago: writing about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall and, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I began to work in social justice, 30 years ago: on development, human rights, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

So far, I’ve described climbing 27 of those 48 mountains in New Hampshire.  Last time I described some aspects of my time as Executive Director at the UU Service Committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I had moved sectors – from the international development field where I had been working since joining the Peace Corps in 1984, to focus now on human rights advocacy.  I joined UUSC in early 2005.

This shift felt right.  The world had changed – at least on average, for majority populations, basic human  development had advanced substantially in the twenty years I had been overseas.  The challenge for social justice now was to address injustice, inequality, and human rights – and not just overseas!  In fact, in those Bush years, my own country seemed to be on a dangerous, wrong track.  Since the mission of UUSC was to support activism to advance and protect human rights, I made the move!

Last time, I mentioned that one of the challenges of working at UUSC was managing relations with the staff union.  I learned a lot from that experience, so I will write about that here, below.  But first:

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I climbed Mt Willey, the 28th of New Hampshire’s 48 4000-footers, on the Fourth of July, 2017, driving up from Durham that morning.  My plan was to drive to Crawford Notch, get to the top of Willey, and stay the night at the nearby Dry River Campground.  Then I would get an early start on 5 July 2017, drive across from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch and down to Lincoln, get a sandwich to-go, and then drive east from Lincoln on the Kancamagus Highway to climb Owl’s Head.  Owl’s Head is one of the longer, and (supposedly) less scenic climbs of the 48 4000-footers, but it’s on the 4000-footer list – I thought getting an early start, by staying overnight at Dry River after climbing Willey, would make the second day of this trip a bit easier.  But things didn’t work out quite the way I had planned!

I had intended to climb Mt Willey the previous year: my very first climb in this new journey was meant to take me up Mt Tom, Mt Field, and Mt Willey, back in May of 2016. Loyal readers will recall that I was unprepared, back in May 2016, for the packed ice I found on the trail once I got up to elevation, and I only made it up Mt Tom and Mt Field.  Who knew that there would be ice that late in the spring?!  In fact, I fell going down from Mt Field, and injured my shoulder, which I would reinjure after climbing South Carter, as I have described.

So Mt Willey had been pending for over a year.

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I left Durham at 8:45am, and made good time up Rt 16, stopping only in Ossipee to grab a sandwich for lunch and a coffee to-go at “Aroma Joe’s.”  Traffic wasn’t too bad for a Fourth of July…. at least not until I arrived at Bartlett, not too far from Crawford Notch State Park: it was 11am, and Rt 302 was closed for a parade!

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Once the parade had finished, I was on my way again, and arrived at the trailhead – the parking lot for historic Willey House – at about 11:45am.  Normally it takes about 2 hours to get from Durham, but this day it took an hour longer than usual due to the parade in Bartlett.

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As I prepared to start walking, changing into my boots and assembling everything into my backpack … I realized that I had forgotten a very important piece of equipment: I didn’t have my backpack.  This was very frustrating, because even if I could improvise and manage to get to the top of Mt Willey, the long Owl’s Head climb I had planned for the next day would certainly not be feasible without carrying equipment and water, etc. Very frustrating indeed.

So I improvised for the day, using a stuff-sack to carry lunch, water, and my first-aid kit, and started the hike, grumbling about my forgetfulness. How could I forget something so important?!  I would think about what to do tomorrow when I got back down…

Still, it was a very pleasant day, mostly sunny and cool, very few insects on the path. And fewer people than I had feared there would be, this being a major holiday.  As I went, my mood lifted and I stopped kicking myself so much. I vowed to prepare a checklist that will prevent this kind of mistake in the future!

Walking up Kedron Flume Trail from Willey House was steadily uphill, crossing the railway line at about 0.4 miles. Just before that I passed an old box culvert.

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From the railway crossing it’s steeply up to Kedron Flume at 1 mile, a picturesque waterfall:

 

 

Soon Kedron Flume joins Ethan Pond Trail, which is part of the famous Appalachian trail here.  I arrived at that junction at about 12:30pm.

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I continued on Ethan Pond Trail, and began to hear the train whistling in the distance down below me.  I think it’s a tourist train these days, so it would be busy on a holiday like today.

About 15 minutes later, at 12:43pm, I arrived at the junction of Willey Range Trail and Ethan Pond Trail, and took Willey Range towards the summit of Mt Willey.  After a short, fairly-flat section, Willey Range Trail becomes rough and steep, with several flights of steep wooden staircases.

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Views across Crawford Notch started appearing as I climbed:

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Mt Webster

 

I stopped for lunch at 1:15pm, at a very beautiful spot, but well short of the summit of Mt Willey. Still going up steeply.  It was a bit surprising how few people I had seen so far, just a handful, on such a major holiday.  And it was becoming even more sunny, so my mood was lifting – it was a beautiful day!

Just before 2pm I passed an outlook, near the top of Mt Willey, with a spectacular view across Crawford Notch. Several peaks I’ve climbed on this journey were clearly visible, as were some I was yet to climb: Mt Webster, Mt Jackson, Mt Pierce, Mt Eisenhower and, in the distance, Mt Washington.  To the east, I thought I could see the Wildcat / Carter Range. I didn’t stay at the outlook for long, because a couple with a young daughter arrived and space was limited.  I took a few pictures:

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I got to the top just after the outlook, just after 2pm – a wooded summit with a cairn but no views.

 

From there I turned around and retraced my steps on this very nice, clear day, taking photos and a few videos as I went. The descent was pleasant, especially when compared with the climb up!

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An “Appalachian Trail” Blaze On The Willey Range Trail

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I arrived back at the junction with the Ethan Pond Trail at 3pm, rejoining the Appalachian Trail. Ten minutes later I reached Kedron Flume Trail, and took a left to return the 1.3 miles to the parking lot.

At 3:25pm I was back at Kedron Flume:

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and I arrived back at the railway crossing at 3:43pm, finishing up the hike at 3:53pm, at Willey House.

It was a very nice walk, marred only by my beating myself up over having forgotten my backpack.  And I could have done with a little longer spell at the outlook at the top, but it was good to give the family with the little girl the opportunity to enjoy that view.  I will have plenty of chances.

I stayed the night of 4 July 2017 at Dry River Campground: it was much posher than Dolly Copp, where I’ve stayed on two earlier overnights in Pinkham Notch as I climbed these 4000-footers:

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Not only was there a platform for my tent, but hot (!) showers and toilets and laundry facilities!  Luxury!  I decided not to attempt Owl’s Head without my backpack – it’s a very long hike, so I thought it would be better to carry more equipment, water, food, etc., in case of unforeseen eventualities.   So I decided I would go up Cannon Mountain, a shorter climb in Franconia Notch, which would be more suitable, shorter, and much more predictable.  And Cannon is still a 4000-footer.

More on my climb of Cannon Mountain to come, the next posting in this series!

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I enjoyed my time at UUSC.  We worked hard and achieved a lot together during those years, and I learned a lot, about managing a domestic NGO, about campaigning, activism, collective action, and power, and about the social justice landscape in the United States.  I extended my range, my toolbox, from development into human rights and social justice campaigning and activism.  This would serve me well in the coming years, in future roles…

In this blog post I want to describe a little bit about one of the challenges I faced at UUSC: managing relations with the staff bargaining unit.  The difficulty resided, I think, in three areas: our idealistic approach to working with the union, at least at the beginning; my own inexperience in union relations, at least initially; and the tension between the organization’s commitment to economic justice and our (management’s) obligation to manage the agency pragmatically.  Navigating across principle and pragmatism was especially complex when it came to working with our staff union.

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When I joined UUSC, I felt quite able to lead and manage international nonprofits: I had grown up with the sector, and developed myself professionally as our nonprofit organizations grew and professionalized.  I had served in a wide range of roles (local, country, regional, and international) across the world, working in line management at all those levels, and in staff roles as well.  So when I started as Executive Director in Cambridge, I was able to offer UUSC a useful range of capabilities: general management expertise, especially across cultures, experience developing and implementing programmatic and business systems and procedures, and an empowering leadership style.  That’s really why UUSC had hired me – I could take the organization to the next level, internally, letting Charlie Clements (UUSC’s President and CEO) focus on the external side where he was so gifted.  I was a safe pair of hands, competent in areas where Charlie and the board felt UUSC could use some attention.

And, for my part, it was exciting to play a leading role in an organisation that was pushing back against US-sponsored torture, working to advance the human right to water, responding in partnership with groups particularly harmed by humanitarian disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) because of their ethnicity, campaigning to stop the atrocities happening in Darfur, advancing a living wage, and pushing to expand labor rights.

But although I had been managing staff for two decades, I did not have much experience working in a unionized environment.  (Yes, there had been a union for the staff in Plan Viet Nam, but that was mostly just a social club, a mockery of the concept of a union.)   This meant that, at least at first, I relied on guidance from Charlie and Maxine Hart (our HR Director), who had been managing relations with the union before I joined.  And when it came time to renegotiate UUSC’s collective-bargaining agreement with the staff union, I would also learn a lot from Phil Schneider, who provided excellent legal support during weeks of tense negotiations.  More on that below!

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The situation was complicated.  Charlie’s predecessor had not worked out, and the staff union had played a key role in her departure.  While this may have been for the best, it was a dangerous precedent: Bargaining-Unit leadership felt that they had rescued the agency by forcing out a President and CEO.  I think that this led to union leadership sometimes acting as if they, not Charlie, the board of trustees or I, were in charge of UUSC, they were the real stewards of the spirit of the place.

In retrospect, a decision that had been made a year before, with the best intentions, was making things worse.  When Charlie had returned to UUSC as President and CEO, having worked in a program role in the 1980’s, he had established two senior teams:

  • The “Management Team,” comprising Charlie and the Department Directors, plus me once I was on-board.  Chairing of MT meetings was meant to rotate around all members, and meetings were scheduled for the first and third Wednesdays of each month;
  • The “Leadership Team,” which, in addition to the members of the management team, also included the three union shop-stewards.  Charlie chaired LT meetings, which were scheduled for the fourth Wednesday of each month.

Charlie sometimes described the Leadership Team as comprising both the “selected” and “elected” leadership of UUSC.  His intention was positive and generous: since UUSC was dedicated to labor rights, we would “walk the talk” and open things up to the union, being inclusive and transparent.

But after attending a few meetings of each team, it felt like things weren’t working out as we had hoped.  Bargaining Unit representatives on the LT almost never proposed agenda items for discussion, instead seeming to prefer to be reactive and passive.  It really felt like LT meetings were just being used by Union members to monitor UUSC’s management.  Since they viewed themselves as the real “stewards” of the place, having ousted Charlie’s predecessor, they were going to keep a careful eye on us.

To address this, I prepared “charters” for each group, trying to clarify accountabilities; here is a version of the charters from October of 2006: Team Charters – 25 October 2006.

Looking at the charters today, over ten years later, they seem quite clear: the Management Team managed the organization:

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while the Leadership Team provided a space for problem-solving, reflection, and input:

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But it wasn’t working out that way – Bargaining Unit members on the Leadership Team weren’t providing input, they were just gathering information about management.  As this dynamic continued, I began to feel that we (management) had created a monster.

And members of the Management Team were becoming conflict averse, as tensions grew over time.

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Some examples:

  • A particular staff member in one Department was not performing.  I worked with the Director of that Department to devise a progressive-discipline process – this was something that I knew a lot about, from my time with Plan International.  Plan had very well-developed processes for staff management and development, which we had pilot tested back when I was a junior staff member in Tuluá, Colombia.  My experience was that, if we provided clear feedback and, when the time came, agreed a plan of corrective action, the under-performing staff member would probably improve.  If not, most of the time, when the time came, the staff member would recognize that he or she needed to move on and the separation would be relatively smooth and uncontested.

In this case, however, the Department Director really did not want to work through progressive discipline, was very averse to taking that kind of action, having lived through the departure of the previous CEO and seeing the power of the staff union.  The Director even suggested on several occasions that, since I had experience, I should take over management of that particular staff member and manage the disciplinary process myself!  But I felt that managing staff performance was a skill that all Directors needed to build, so I kept coaching the Director.

(UUSC had become very conflict averse.  In fact, the only example of a formal warning being given to anybody, ever, at UUSC that anybody could recall was when I had forced one to be given quite early in my tenure.  I had decided to get a feel for how things were being managed by reviewing all staff expense reports, something that I planned to drop once I felt comfortable with the levels of control being exercised.  But I soon saw a troubling example, where a staff member had used a UUSC credit card to pay for personal travel.  The employee’s Director, who had not discovered the situation, accepted the staff-member’s explanation that the whole situation was a mistake.  “So do I,” I told the Director, “that’s why we won’t dismiss them!  But we must provide written warning, and you should do it, not me.”  The warning was given, but grudgingly, because of how unprecedented this kind of action was.  Later, this employee would angrily vow that they would have me dismissed, in a very public area of our office, apologizing after I confronted them about that particular threat.  Clearly staff felt that they really ran the place!)

But things weren’t getting any better with this particular situation, with this underperforming staff member.  The Department Director was deeply resistant to taking formal action, or even putting a plan of corrective action in place.  And the employee was going from under-performing to not performing at all.  In a sense, I couldn’t blame the employee, because we (management) were not taking any action even though it was clear that things weren’t going well.  Probably we put the employee under a lot of unnecessary stress by prolonging the ambiguous situation.

I met with the external union representative (“business agent”) fairly regularly.  She was smart and pragmatic, and I think we had a good relationship.  One time she brought up the employee that we were having such trouble with, and told me, confidentially, that if we fired them the union wouldn’t take any action.

But we wanted to follow progressive-discipline procedures that I had put in place, were unwilling to be seen as being unfair by simply firing the employee (even though the Union was in agreement with that!) and so it was a muddle.  By the time I left UUSC to start up UUSC Just Democracy, the staff member was still in place, still underperforming;

  • I dismissed a “confidential” staff member for sharing sensitive and confidential salary information with the union during contract negotiations.  The staff member, whose position was not eligible to be part of the bargaining unit, admitted having given union leaders that information, despite clearly understanding that it was forbidden.  And the employee refused to provide assurances that this wouldn’t happen again.

I looked to see if there might be a position for the person in the near future that would be inside the bargaining unit, thus being able to stay as an employee, but there no suitable vacancies foreseen.  So, after giving them a second opportunity to commit to not sharing confidential information outside management, and hearing (again) a refusal, I dismissed the employee.

The organization exploded with anger and righteous indignation.  How dare I fire this person!  Believe it or not, staff began wearing black armbands and putting up protest banners.  The reaction was beyond what we had expected, what I had expected.

(I think that the cause of the extreme reaction was that the staff was completely unused to management taking that kind of strong action and, to make matters worse, I hadn’t consulted with the bargaining unit; which never occurred to me, remember, this employee was not a member of the union!)

In the end, we agreed to mediate the situation, and (of course, since I had worked closely with legal counsel all along) UUSC prevailed on the terms we had offered the staff member initially.  But, as I have described elsewhere, the very fact that we took this extra step, and sought external mediation, entirely defused the internal situation.  In other words, the internal atmosphere inside UUSC immediately and significantly improved right after the mediation!

Years later, I became fascinated with how much things improved after the mediation.  After all, management prevailed, and the employee I had dismissed was not reinstated (as had been demanded).  I would write a paper on this as part of my pursuit of a masters degree in dispute resolution at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

As I concluded in that paper, I think that the fact that management took this extra step, using a “neutral,” demonstrated the “justice” of our actions.  If we had realized that at the time, perhaps we could have pushed through into a new era of management-union relations.  Who knows?

  • Finally, contract negotiations!  Bargaining Unit contracts, at least in UUSC in those days, lasted three years, and then the two sides would renegotiate another three years.  Those who had been around for previous renegotiations often spoke about them with a deep degree of “gallows humor,” as if they were deeply traumatized.  “Just wait,” people would warn me.

This time, in 2006, it would be my turn.  My partners were Maxine Hart, our HR Director, and Phil Schneider, a veteran of many similar negotiations, both with UUSC and beyond. This was his field, and he was very good at it.

Nonetheless, it was every bit as unpleasant as I had been warned.  By then, the external “business agent” from the union had changed, and the new representative was much less straightforward then the previous one.  And our counterparts on staff, the UUSC bargaining-unit negotiating team, behaved appallingly – openly hostile, petulant, and unreasonable from the very beginning right to the end, in August 2006, when we agreed a three-year contract.

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Why was this happening?  What was going on?  Was it just that management was simply not doing its job?

Several times in this blog series I’ve reflected on the complexities of culture inside NGOs. The idealistic nature of our missions, and the passion of our people, leads to great motivation and commitment, but also, often, to overly emotional internal dynamics.  We strongly associate our own self-images with our work, which is dangerous!

And it can be easy to be trapped by the realities of managing an organization in the real world when you’ve committed to noble ideals.

This was happening to us at UUSC, in a big way.  Our commitment to economic justice was real, and honest, but it got in the way when we had to take strong action inside the organization.  It made us too careful about taking actions that should have been uncontroversial – like giving that staff member a warning, or dismissing an employee that was leaking confidential information.

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And at an even higher level, our “mission” statement seemed to empower our staff to “confront unjust power structures” (management?!) on anything they judged to be “oppressive”:

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The creation of the Strategic Plan, as I described last time, was quite good and in general the result was solid.  But there was one statement that further complicated management’s relations with the UUSC union.  In the section on “Organizational Development Goals and Strategies,” we made a commitment that:

“UUSC will create a work environment in which all staff can develop professionally, progress in their careers, and maximize their contributions to achieving the mission of the organization.  Central to achieving this goal will be building upon the constructive and productive working relationship between the bargaining unit (UNITE HERE!, Human Rights Local 2661) and management…

… We will review our internal work processes to ensure that they are as inclusive and participatory as possible – for example, decentralizing decision-making wherever possible and prudent, carrying out continuous improvement efforts led by staff involved in work processes, etc.  A component of this review will include a periodic power analysis.”

This was good, and proper – except perhaps for that last reference to “a periodic power analysis” – not sure about that one!  But it added to the challenge of navigating between principle and pragmatism.

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UUSC’s bargaining unit had succeeded in dismissing the previous CEO, and this led to roles becoming confused and to management being too cautious.  For good, idealistic reasons, we had established internal mechanisms by which management shared power with the union, further confusing roles and raising tension.  And we were perhaps somewhat “boxed-in” by our noble programmatic commitment to economic justice, to labor organizing and activism against “oppression.”

We had created a monster, and our desire not to appear hypocritical about economic justice was blocking action to clarify roles internally.  We were trapped between principle and pragmatism.

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In the years since leaving UUSC, I’ve thought about what I would do differently, looking back.  Would I navigate the terrain between principle and pragmatism any differently?

For me, today, it boils down to being clearer and tougher, and deepening self-awareness and non-attachment.  Because there is no contradiction between being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice.  

  • In the first instance, above, I should simply instructed the Department Director to correct, or dismiss, the under-performing employee.  If, despite coaching, the Director couldn’t do this, I should have resorted to progressive discipline with the Director also!  And I certainly should have taken the opportunity given to me by the union “business agent” to dismiss that employee;
  • In the case of credit-card abuse, I was absolutely right to force the Department Director to issue a formal warning.  And when the employee threatened me I should have issued a second warning;
  • When staff started wearing black arm-bands after I dismissed the confidential employee, I was right to push forward towards mediation;
  • And when the union team behaved inappropriately, I should have suspended contract negotiations.

In future situations, these reflections would serve me well.  I would be clearer and tougher, while still acting from foundational principles of social justice internally.

That’s easy to say, but hard to do.  So perhaps the most valuable outcome of my years of working with UUSC’s Bargaining Unit is that I have taken the time to build my competencies in two key areas, include two very useful tools in my personal toolbox that, for me, are key to navigating principle and pragmatism.

  • Firstly, as I mentioned above, I’ve taken the time to pursue advanced studies of dispute resolution.  This has given me a range of capabilities to manage conflict, tools that would have enabled me to deal constructively with the tensions that rose in key moments as I worked with UUSC’s Union, and move past those challenges to deal with the issues at hand.
  • Secondly, navigating principle and pragmatism in the kinds of situations I’ve described here often brings intense emotional flooding and threats to self image.  Even using the tools of dispute resolution and conflict management, it’s not always possible to manage these kinds of situations successfully because of the physiological reality that comes from the cognitive dissonance between principle and pragmatism inside NGOs like UUSC.

But the chances of success, for me, are improved dramatically as I deepen my sense of humility and self-awareness, of mindfullness and equanimity, of engaged non-attachment.  So I recommitted myself to my practice of meditation, the best way I know to build those particular skills and characteristics.

To repeat for emphasis, my biggest lesson learned from those years of working with the UUSC Bargaining Unit was that there is no inherent, inevitable contradiction between being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice.  

And, for me, the way to successfully navigate the terrain between principle and pragmatism is to learn how to manage conflict while developing a deep sense of humility and self-awareness, mindfulness and equanimity, and engaged non-attachment.

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Last time I described in some detail how we had developed UUSC’s Strategic Plan.  One of the commitments we made there was that we would “research the feasibility and usefulness of establishing a UUSC-related 501(c)4 structure.”  In 2007, we decided to set up what became “UUSC Just Democracy,” allowing UUSC to expand our focus on social justice and human rights more into the political realm.

And, in 2008, I would move to head up “UUSC Just Democracy,” and spend the next year working mostly in New Hampshire as a pilot test of how we could influence the federal election process in favor of our priorities: ending the war in Iraq, and stopping climate change.

More on that next time!

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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;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
  26. Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
  27. Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights.

 

 

 

Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101.

I began a new journey over a year ago: writing about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall and, each time, reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.

Since then, across 25 posts (so far), I’ve described climbing 25 4000-foot mountains in New Hampshire, and I’ve reflected on: two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador; my 15 years with Plan International; the deep, disruptive changes in the development sector over that time; and, most recently, the two years I spent consulting with CCF, developing a new program approach for that agency that we called “Bright Futures.”

This time I want to conclude my description of those Bright Futures years by sharing our attempt to encourage a new set of values and attitudes in CCF’s staff, through a weeklong immersion, experiential training workshop we called “Bright Futures 101.”

Peter Drucker is supposed to have said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  This certainly seemed to be true as CCF moved into the pilot testing and rollout of Bright Futures – the agency was investing in new systems and new structures in a big way.  But Bright Futures would only realise its promise of more effective work for children living in poverty if the culture of the organisation shifted how it viewed its work, how it viewed the people it worked for.

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But first… I climbed both Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette on 22 June, 2017, on a beautiful, mostly-sunny day.  My plan had been to do this loop back in September of 2016, with my brother, but my fall and the resulting injuries (broken rib, torn rotator cuff) forced a postponement.

That morning I left Durham at 6:45am, and drove up through Concord, stopping in Tilton for a coffee, and in Lincoln to buy a sandwich for lunch.  So I didn’t get to the trailhead until just after 9am.

The parking lot at Lafayette Place was nearly-full, with lots of people arriving, getting ready to hike on what was a clear, cool day, perfect for hiking.  It was a bit surprising for a Thursday; I was glad not to be doing this climb on the weekend!

I know that I climbed both Lincoln and Lafayette in the distant past, probably in the 1980’s, but I don’t really have any clear memory of the hike.  So it was new to me, again, perhaps 30+ years later!

On this day, I had arrived at the trailhead for both the “Falling Waters” trail, and for the “Old Bridle Path.”  I planned to walk up Falling Waters, across Franconia Ridge to Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette, and then down the Old Bridle Path, back to Lafayette Place.

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As I started out, there were many people walking along with me, so it took some time to get sorted into a fairly-stable pack.  It took me about 15 minutes to reach the beginning of the Falling Waters Trail; I would return here later in the day, coming down the Old Bridle Path.  So far, it was a beautiful day for hiking!  But lots of people…

I continued up the Falling Waters trail, along the stream with many small waterfalls (so, the trail is aptly named!)  I took lots of photos and several videos of the waterfalls.  The trail ascended steadily, moderately, along the brook.

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The walk was typical White-Mountains rock-hopping, moderately and steadily upward in the shadow of Mt Lincoln.  I was working pretty hard, and gradually more space opened up between groups of hikers.  There were no insects during this part of the hike – indeed, there would be none until I got to Greenleaf Hut later in the afternoon.

I started to emerged from the forest into scrub pine at about 11am, and the views across to Franconia Notch became remarkable:

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Then, suddenly, I was out of the trees, ascending Little Haystack, and the views were just spectacular:

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Mt Lafayette and Franconia Notch

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Mt Lincoln Just North Of Mt Haystack

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Looking North Towards Mt Lincoln

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Franconia Notch.  Cannon Mountain is Clearly Visible At The Top Of Franconia Notch

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North and South Kinsman Visible Across Franconia Notch

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Cannon Mountain and the Kinsmans

 

I reached the top of Little Haystack at 11:25am, where I joined the Franconia Ridge Trail:

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I had been ascending the western slopes of Mt Lincoln; once I got up onto Franconia Ridge, views to the east were just as amazing: I was above Owl’s Head, and could easily see Bond Mountain, West Bond, and Bondcliff (all of which I would climb on a very long day in September, later that year), and out across the Twins to Washington and the Presidential Range in the distance.  Maybe I could see the Atlantic Ocean far in the distance.

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Looking East Towards Owl’s Head and the Bonds

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Looking South Towards Mt Liberty and Mt Flume

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Looking North Towards Mt Lincoln

 

There were many people at the top of Little Haystack, some of whom were probably staying at the nearby Greenleaf AMC Hut., which I would pass on my way down, later.  But many also were doing the same loop that I was doing, across Lincoln and Lafayette.  One amazing boy, maybe 4 years old, was zipping along ahead of his mother, who kept calling him back.  He seemed full of energy, and wanted to fly ahead.  I wondered how long his energy would last, but he certainly kept it up for the whole time I saw him… weaving in and out of my path, with his mother calling out to him all the way.

The walk along Franconia Ridge, to Mt Lincoln, was spectacular.

 

I arrived at the summit of Mt Lincoln right at noon, and rested briefly.  It had taken about 2 hours and 40 minutes to the top from the Lafayette Place parking area.

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It was too early for lunch, so I soon left Mt Lincoln and headed north towards Mt Lafayette.  I will describe that hike, and the trek back down, next time!

*

Last time I described how we had piloted the Bright Futures program approach in CCF, further developing and testing the methods, systems, and structures that had been defined through our research and internal and external benchmarking.  It was a very exciting process, and I was lucky to be asked to accompany the pilot offices in Ecuador, the Philippines, and Uganda as they explored the disruptive changes implied in Bright Futures.  Lots of travel, and lots of learning and comradeship.

Near the end of that period, I came into contact with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a human-rights, social-justice campaigning organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In late 2004, as I was finishing my consulting time with CCF as acting Regional Representative for East Africa, based in Addis Ababa, I was offered a position at UUSC as Executive Director (initially as “Deputy Director”) working for Charlie Clements, UUSC’s dynamic and charismatic president and CEO.

Working at UUSC would be a big and exciting shift for me, out of international development and into social justice campaigning.  But the move felt like a natural extension of what we had been doing in CCF, where we had included an explicit focus on building the power of excluded people into Bright Futures.  I was able to use what I had learned across 20 years in the international development sector, leading and managing large international agencies, to lead and manage operations at UUSC, while also learning about campaigning and advocacy (and working in a unionized context!)

I’ll begin to describe my years at UUSC next time.  For now, I want to skip forward a few years, to my second, brief incarnation with CCF.

*

In early 2009, a few former colleagues at CCF, now rebranded as ChildFund International, got back in touch.  At that point I had transitioned to the 501c4 branch of UUSC, which we had created in 2008, and I had some spare time after the federal election the year before.  (More on that in a future post.)

Between 2004 and 2009, ChildFund had continued to roll out Bright Futures, but there had been major changes in leadership.  Sadly, John Schulz, CCF’s president, had taken a leave of absence to fight cancer, and had then died.  Though I had never worked directly with John, I had always appreciated his leadership and his unwavering support to Daniel Wordsworth and Michelle Poulton as they redesigned the agency’s program approach.

The internal leadership changes that took place after John’s departure led to Daniel and Michelle leaving CCF, as Anne Goddard became the agency’s new CEO in 2007.  Initially, at least, it seemed that the global transition to Bright Futures continued to be a priority for ChildFund.  (Later, that would change, as I will describe below…)

During that period, as Bright Futures was scaled up across the agency, many structural and systems-related challenges were addressed, and staff inside ChildFund’s program department were busy addressing these issues – updating their financial systems, transitioning long partnerships, training new staff in new positions.  In particular, Mike Raikovitz, Victoria Adams, Jason Schwartzman, and Dola Mohapatra were working very hard to sort out the nuts and bolts of the change.

It is a truism, attributed to Peter Drucker, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Alongside their important, practical work, Jason and Dola in particular were learning that lesson, and as a result they began to focus also on the cultural side of the change involved in Bright Futures: the attitudes and values of ChildFund staff.  Systems and structures were vital elements of Bright Futures, but nothing would work if staff retained their old attitudes toward their work, toward the people they worked with and for.  And there was a clear need, from Jason’s and Dola’s perspective, for attitude shifts; in fact, it seemed to them that the biggest obstacle to implementing Bright Futures were old values and attitudes among existing staff.

*

Dola worked as Deputy Regional Director for ChildFund Asia, a brilliant and highly-committed professional.  I worked closely with Dola in the design and implementation of BF101, and I enjoyed every moment of it; I admired Dola’s passion and commitment to ChildFund’s work, and his dedication to improving the effectiveness of ChildFund’s programming.

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Dola Mohapatra, at the BF101 workshop

 

Jason managed a range of program-related special projects from ChildFund’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.  Jason was (and is) a gifted and insightful professional, who I had met back during my tenure as Plan’s program director, when he had worked with CCF’s CEO in a collaboration with Plan and Save and World Vision.  Jason had rejoined ChildFund to help develop an approach to working with youth.

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Jason Schwartzman, on the left, during our community immersion

 

In addition to Dola and Jason, I worked closely with Evelyn Santiago, who was ChildFund Asia’s program manager.  Evelyn brought key skills and experience to the design of our workshop.

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Evelyn Santiago at the BF101 Workshop

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Jason, Me, Dola and Evelyn

 

As noted above, Dola and Jason had identified the need to reinforce the values and attitudes side of Bright Futures, and felt that a deep, experiential-learning event might help better align staff with the principles of the new program approach.  They approached me for help and, as I had some time, we worked together to design and carry out a ten-day workshop that we called “Bright Futures 101” – in other words, the basics of Bright Futures, with a big emphasis on values and attitudes.

Working with Jason, Dola and Evelyn was a privilege – they were and are smart, experienced professionals whose commitment to social justice, and to the principles and values of Bright Futures were strong.

In this blog post, I want to describe “BF101” – our approach, the design, and how it went.

*

Rather than being just introduction to the tools incorporated into Bright Futures, our purpose was to promote and encourage the kinds of personal transformations required to make the new program approach a reality.  So we prepared something that ChildFund had never tried before – a long, experiential workshop with a village stay.

From the beginning, we agreed that BF101 would have two overall objectives:

  1. to build a comprehensive understanding of the principles underlying ChildFund’s Bright Futures program approach; and
  2. to build a questioning, exploring, and adaptive approach to program development and implementation that was aligned with ChildFund’s value of fostering and learning from its own innovation.

So, implicitly, we wanted to shift ChildFund’s culture.  By including significant participant leadership, immersion in communities, experiential education, and pre- and post-course assignments, we wanted to promote a meaningful connection between head (understanding), heart (values and principles), and hand (concrete action), thinking that this connection would spill over into their daily work when they returned home.  A 1 1/2-day immersion in a local community would be a key component of the workshop.

After a lengthy, collaborative design process, we agreed on a three-part workshop design (included here – Building Program Leaders – Immersion Workshop – Final Preworkshop Version).  The overall framework looked like this:

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Once Dola and Evelyn approved the design, they asked ChildFund Philippines to book a venue, and invitations were sent out to 3 or 4 participants from each office in Asia.  Extensive pre-reading assignments were sent to each participant, covering current trends in poverty and international development as well as the fundamental documents related to Bright Futures that I have shared in earlier posts in this series, such as the CCF Child Poverty Study, the Organisational Capacity Assessment, etc.

*

In the first workshop section, “Setting the Stage,” we would prepare participants for the experience.  A lengthy role play, adapted from a full-day exercise I had created in Viet Nam, was designed to challenge participants in an experiential, emotional manner, helping them actually feel what it was like to be a community member participating in programs implemented by ChildFund in the old way, the pre-Bright-Futures way.

We assigned various roles – community members (dressed appropriately), staff members of a fictitious NGO called “WorldChild International” (wearing formal attire), observers, etc.  I had written an extensive script (Role Play – Module 1 – Design – 4) which set up a serious of interactions designed to provoke misunderstandings, conflict, moments of emotional impact, and some fun:

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As usual, the most important part of any exercise like this one was the group reflection afterwards, in this case led by Lloyd McCormack:

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This led into a session, which I led, on mind-shifts and archetypes: M2 – Archetypes – 2.  The purpose here was to build on the impact from the role play to get participants thinking about their own attitudes and values, and how they might need to shift.

Ending the first section of the workshop, Jason, who had flown in directly from the US and was quite jet-lagged, gave an excellent historical overview of CCF’s programmatic evolution.  This presentation contained an important message of continuity: Bright Futures was the next step in a long and proud programmatic history for the agency: we were building on what had been accomplished in the past, not starting over.  Jason’s presentation set the scene for our work on the changes in attitudes and values that were in store:

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The next sessions outlined each of the main values and commitments articulated in Bright Futures (at least at that point in its evolution):

  • Deprived, Excluded, and Vulnerable children are our primary focus.  This session built on the CCF Poverty Study, which I described in an earlier post in this series.  At BF101 we sought to unpack what this “primary focus” would mean in practice;
  • We Build on the Stages of Child Development.  After I had concluded my tenure as consultant at CCF, program development efforts had built on Bright Futures by articulating a clear theory of child development, along with interventions related to each stage.  This was a very good development in ChildFund’s program approach which, however, had the potential to conflict with the bottom-up nature of Bright Futures.   So this section of BF101 would deepen understanding on how to resolve this seeming contradiction in practice;
  • Programs are Evidence-Based.  Again, ChildFund had continued to develop aspects of its program approach, building on Bright Futures to try to professionalize the design of projects and programs.  As above, this was a very good development in ChildFund’s program approach which, however, had the potential to conflict with the bottom-up nature of Bright Futures.   So we would reflect on how to resolve this seeming contradiction in practice;
  • We Build Authentic Partnerships.  This commitment flowed directly from the work we had done on Bright Futures earlier.

*

Perhaps the most important and crucial element of the BF101 design was a 1 1/2-day stay in communities.  We divided up the participants into smaller groups, and set out to spend a night in a community nearby the conference center:

 

*

Our concluding sessions were aimed at building on the community immersion by considering a range of personal and institutional transformations required, discussing systems implications, and then breaking into National Office groups to plan for action after the workshop.

*

During the workshop, Jason was blogging regularly, and asked me to prepare one, also.  Here is one of Jason’s blogs: http://ccfinthefield.blogspot.com/2009/05/opposite-sides-time-to-reflect.html.  And here is mine: http://ccfinthefield.blogspot.com/2009/05/seeking-balance.html.

*

We used a simple tool to track participant assessments along the way:

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As can be seen, the overwhelming majority of participants rated the workshop as very positive and helpful.  I myself felt quite happy with the workshop – I felt that we had gotten fairly deep into discussions that had the potential to transform people’s attitudes and values in a positive way.  Although it was a lot to ask people to set aside their work and families for seven full days, and to spend a night in a village, it seemed to pay off.

So, BF101 was successful, and fun.  Together with the systems work and structural shifts that were ongoing in the agency, it set the scene for the continued rollout of Bright Futures across ChildFund International, now including a positive, constructive way to promote values and attitudes consistent with the new program approach.

*

But, sadly, Bright Futures would soon be set aside by ChildFund.  In what felt like an echo of Plan International’s pathology (new leadership = starting over from scratch), despite having embraced the approach initially, ChildFund’s new leadership moved deliberately away from Bright Futures.  The global financial crisis had erupted and, like many international NGOs, ChildFund’s income was dropping.  It was felt that investment in the transition to Bright Futures was no longer affordable, so much of the investment in research, piloting, systems development, and training (for example, followup to BF101) was dropped.

As a consultant, I could only look at this decision with sadness and regret.  The dedication and resources that Michelle, Daniel, Victoria, Mike, Jon, Andrew, Jason, Dola and many others across ChildFund had invested in such a positive and disruptive shift was, to a great extent, lost.

Many years later, when I joined ChildFund Australia as International Program Director, a very senior program leader expressed similar regret to me, lamenting that Bright Futures was a clear ideology which was now lacking.

I’ve recently been reminded of another consequence of the virtual abandonment of Bright Futures: a year later, 65% of the participants in the BF101 workshop had left ChildFund.  Perhaps we didn’t do enough to help participants operationalize the changes we were promoting, in the context of ChildFund’s reality of the time.  But that would have been quite a contradiction of the basic message of BF101: that each person needed to take the initiative to operationalize their own transformations.

My own assumption is that the personal transformations begun during our week in the Philippines led to significant disappointment when the agency didn’t follow through, when ChildFund didn’t (or wasn’t able to) invest in creating BF102, 202, etc.

*

Why is it that international NGOs so often suffer this phenomenon, that when leadership changes (at country, regional, or global levels) everything changes?  That new leaders seem to view the accomplishments of their predecessors as irrelevant or worse?

I think it comes, at least in part, from the way that we who work in the value-based economy associate ourselves, and our self images, with our work so strongly and emotionally.  This ego-driven association can be a great motivator, but it also clouds our vision.  I saw this many times in Plan, as many (if not most) new Country Directors or Regional Directors or International Executive Directors scorned their predecessors and dismissed their accomplishments as misguided at best, quickly making fundamental changes without taking the time to appreciate what could be build upon.  And, when the next generation of leaders arrived, the cycle just repeated and repeated.

This, to me, is the biggest weakness of our sector.  Today, alongside this ego-driven pathology, the entire international-development sector is also facing severe disruptive change, which greatly complicates matters… but that’s a story for another day!

*

Meanwhile, I made the big move, joining UUSC as Executive Director, shifting from international development to social justice and human rights campaigning, internationally and domestically.  And into a strongly unionized environment.  These were the days of Bush’s Iraq invasion, torture and neoliberal economics, and I was excited to turn my work towards the grave problems affecting my own country.

Next time I will begin to tell that part of the story… stay tuned!

*

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;
  24. Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
  25. Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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 Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters

In early May, 1997, Jean and I left the UK and flew to Boston, on our way to spend a year on sabbatical in New Hampshire.  I had spent four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”) as Program Director, having planned to stay for only three; as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I agreed to stay a fourth year to lead the restructuring of Plan’s field structure, and to support the rollout of the new structure.  Then it was time to move on.

The last four entries in this series have described the major initiatives that we undertook while I worked at IH (defining a new program approach, goals and principles; deciding where to expand and where to shrink Plan’s program work; and restructuring how we worked at country level), and included, most recently, a “guest blog” from Plan’s International Executive Director during those years, Max van der Schalk.

It was an honour to work at IH, to contribute to Plan’s work at that level.  I look back on that time with some pride in successes, and also with a clear realisation of areas where we fell short.

So, this time, I want to share my own reflections on those four years at IH.  Joys, sorrows, successes, and failures, and lots of lessons learned.

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I’ve been writing a series of blog posts that describe 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 describing getting to one of those summits, and 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.  This is number 16, so covering all 48 of those mountains might take me a couple of years…

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Last time I described how Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia, and I climbed Mt Eisenhower on 20 August 2016.  From the summit of Mt Eisenhower we retraced our steps back down the Crawford Path and then reached the top of Mt Pierce (4312ft, 1314m), just after 3pm.

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This Cairn Marks the Summit Of Mt Pierce

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Here are my hiking companions on the way down Mispah Cutoff, close to the point where we would rejoin the Crawford Path:

 

We had planned on climbing three 4000-footers that day – continuing south from Mt Pierce along Webster Cliff Trail, to Mt Jackson, and then dropping from there back down to Saco Lake where we had left the car.  But by the time we reached Mizpah Spring Hut we were very knackered, so decided to take the Mizpah Cutoff over to rejoin Crawford Path, and then hike back down to the parking area that way.  Retracing our steps.

So we didn’t get to the top of Mt Jackson, which awaits ascent on another day – but we did scale Mt Eisenhower and Mt Pierce.

It was a strenuous hike that day, but with beautiful views and no insect problems.  Glorious views from the Presidential Range, mainly looking south.

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Looking back on four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), what stands out?  Let me share some thoughts on what went well and on what went badly.

What went well

  1. We made good choices about what to change;
  2. The way we went about making those changes was, mostly (but not always), smart;
  3. We were able to involve some of Plan’s future stars in what we did, giving them exposure and experience at the highest organisational levels, thus helping to build a new generation of Plan leaders;
  4. I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four.

Let me reflect briefly about each of these positive aspects of my time at Plan’s head office.

First, in addition to normal, daily tasks and senior-management duties, I decided to focus on three major change projects, all aimed at creating unity of purpose across what was, I felt, a quickly-atomising organisation.

I had outlined these priorities to Max in our first interactions, before I even went to IH. Described in three earlier blog posts in this series, these projects were focused on: overhauling Plan’s program approach; deciding, in accordance with set strategy, where to grow and where to phase out our work; and finishing Plan’s restructuring by reorganizing the organization’s field structure.

Looking back, these were very good choices.  Before moving to IH I had served as Plan’s Regional Director for South America, and had appreciated wide latitude to run operations in that region as I saw fit.  As Plan finished regionalizing, with six Regional Offices in place by the time I was brought to IH, and as each of the six Regional Directors began to “appreciate” that wide latitude,  Plan was in real danger of atomizing, becoming six separate kingdoms (all six were, initially, men!)

So I selected those three major change projects carefully, seeking to build unity of purpose, to bring the organization together around shared language, culture, and purpose.  This would, I hoped, balance the centrifugal forces inherent in regionalization and decentralization with necessary, binding, centripetal forces that would hold Plan together.  Building unity of purpose around a common program approach, a common structure (with local variations in some particular functions), and a shared understanding of where we would work.

Plan should have taken these change efforts much farther – for example, to build shared staff-development tools around the core, common positions at Country Offices, and finishing a monitoring and evaluation system centered on the program goals and principles that we developed.  More on that below.  But, in four years, I think we accomplished a lot and, generally speaking, we were able to notably increase unity of purpose across Plan.

Second, as we developed those changes, we were (mostly) pretty smart about it.  Plan’s new program goals and principles evolved from a wide organizational conversation, which began with a workshop that involved people from across the agency.  Development of the Country Structure began with a “skunk works” that involved a very impressive set of people, chosen both because of their expertise and experience, as well as their credibility.  In both cases, we took initial prototypes across the organization, through senior management and the board, and the results worked well… and lasted.

As I’ve described earlier, the preparation of the organizational growth plan, on the other hand, was primarily handled by me, myself, without anything like the kind of participation, contribution, and ownership that characterized the other two projects.  Yes, we consulted, but it wasn’t enough.  Partly as a result, the growth plan was less successful in bringing Plan together than were the other two projects.

1607-4210So the way we went about addressing unity of purpose in Plan was effective, mostly.  The model of advancing change in an international NGO by convening a focused reflection, including key staff, and honestly consulting the initial prototype across all stakeholder groups, seems appropriate.  (See below for some reflections on implementation, however.)

Third, I look back on the people that we involved in those projects, and I’m proud that we helped bring Plan’s next generation of leadership into being.  Just to give a few examples, participants and leaders in those key efforts included people like Donal Keane, who would become my manager when I went to Viet Nam as Plan’s Country Director; Subhadra Belbase, who would soon become Regional Director in Eastern and Southern Africa; Jim Emerson, who helped me create the planning framework for Country Offices, and who would later become Finance Director and Deputy IED at IH; Mohan Thazhathu, who would become RD for Central America and the Caribbean, and later a CEO in other INGOs; and many others.  To a great extent, this was purposeful: I wanted to involve the right people, and I wanted their experience, and the associated high-profile visibility, to help move these amazing people onward and upward in Plan.

Finally, I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four.  My experience working with many INGO headquarters is that people stay too long: head offices are exciting places to work and to contribute; people who join our social-justice organizations (mostly) have strong desires to make the world a better, fairer, more-just place, and a lot can be accomplished from the center.  Plus, there are great opportunities for power and prestige, not to mention ego-fulfillment.

This reality can be entrancing, and can lead to people staying for too long.  I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t overstay my time, and I wanted Plan to be the kind of organization where the most important place to work was the field, not International Headquarters; in fact, my predecessor as Program Director, Jim Byrne, returned to the field from IH, as Country Director for Bolivia and then Ghana.  I was determined to follow that great example, and did so.

Plus, I was pretty burned out after four years, partly because of the things that went badly during those four years…

What went badly

  1. I was much too gentle with Plan’s Regional Directors;
  2. After designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions;
  3. I wasn’t smart enough in relating to Plan’s Board;
  4. Again related to the Board, we didn’t tackle basic governance problems, especially the imbalance due to the huge success of Plan’s Dutch National Organisation in those days;
  5. Personally, I was much too focused on making the three major changes that I described above, and didn’t spend enough time attending to the wider, political reality inside the agency.

First, I should have been much tougher with Plan’s Regional Directors during my time as Program Director.  In this, I agree with much of Max van der Schalk’s “guest blog,” published earlier in this series, when he says that he “learned from experience to mistrust most of the RD’s. I wasn’t always sure of their honesty and I also doubted that the whole team felt responsible for the effectiveness of the organization. Quite a few RD’s appeared to me to take advantage of their position and to think mainly about their own achievement.”

I completely understand what he’s referring to.  When Max arrived as Plan’s IED, he organised senior management to include the Regional Directors.  This was a change – previously, Plan’s senior management had all been IH-based.  Thus, in principle at least, all major operational decisions, and proposals to be made to Plan’s board of directors, would go through a staff team that included the field managers at Regional level.

From my perspective, this was very smart.  It was a great way to balance headquarters priorities with the realities of field implementation.  But, sadly, Plan developed a bad case of what I called the “Heathrow Syndrome” in those years – the global agreements that we made when Senior Management gathered in Woking, outside London, seemed to evaporate (at least for our six Regional Directors) when they got in to the taxi to go to the airport.  And then, by the time they boarded their flights home, their priorities seemed to have already shifted to their Regions, and thoughts of the wider organisation seemed to have disappeared.

In fact, a couple of the Regional Directors of the time should have been dismissed for behavior that was even worse than the “Heathrow Syndrome“, and I should have done more to encourage that.  Even though they didn’t report directly to me, I should have been much more willing to advocate changes to Max, been much less gentle.  In the future, I would be more willing to take action in similar situations.

After leaving IH I came to realise that part of the problem was related to the emotional connection that NGO staff – at least the good ones – make with their work.  Our people, at their best, associate their own values and self image with the aims of our organisations: we work for justice, human rights, to overcome oppression and deprivation, because we hold those values very deeply.img_6662

This emotional connection is a strong motivational force and, if managed well, can produce levels of commitment and passion that private-sector organisations rarely achieve.  But it often also means that NGO people overly personalise their work, take things too personally, and resist change. Perhaps part of the reason that several of Plan’s Regional Directors in those days resisted thinking globally and acting locally was that their personal ambitions – for good and for bad – were advanced more easily by thinking locally and acting globally.

Second, and related to my first point, after designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions.  For example:

  • there should have been no exceptions for putting in place the agreed country structure, because a suitable level of flexibility was already included;
  • we had agreed to develop training packages for the four core, common positions that would be in place at all Country Offices, but we didn’t get that done;
  • we should have mandated that all Country Strategic Plans be structured around the new Domains and Principles that comprised Plan’s Program Approach;
  • an effort existed to design and implement a “Corporate Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation” system, which didn’t really get off the ground until Catherine Webster took over the project;
  • finally, I should be been much more insistent that the agreed growth plan be followed, insisting on plans to close operations in the countries where our strategy mandated phase-out.

Generally speaking, my conclusion here is that we were right to design changes in a very open, participatory way, and to consult (and adjust) with all key stakeholders before finalising decisions.  That was good.  But once decisions were made, we should have been much stronger, much tougher, in carrying out those agreements.  Over time, that approach might have reduced the toxic “Heathrow Syndrome.

Third, I should have developed a much stronger relationship with Plan’s board of directors than I did.  Again, in his “guest blog,” Max notes that he is “… less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there…”  As Program Director, I naturally had less direct relation with Plan’s Board than Max did, but I could have usefully developed more of a connection.  That might have helped me achieve my own goals, advance the organization, and also helped Max (though he might not have agreed with that, or even accepted it!)

For example, one Board member was named to work with us on the development of Plan’s program approach; Ian Buist had worked in the UK government’s overseas aid efforts across a long career, and his contributions to what became Plan’s “Domains” and “Principles” were valuable.  In retrospect, I would have been more effective, more successful, and more helpful to Max if I had developed similar relationships with other program-minded board members.

But I wanted to focus on program, and felt that working with the Board was not my role; Max would involve me when it was necessary, I thought.  But, of course, I knew Plan much better than Max did, having at that point worked at local, regional, and global levels for nearly ten years, so my reluctance to put more energy into working with Plan’s board was short-sighted on my part.

Fourth, and perhaps most fundamental, comes governance.  When organisational governance doesn’t function smoothly, watch out!  And, in those days, if not broken, Plan’s governance was not working very well at all, for one main reason.

When I was at IH, Plan’s funds came from nine “National Organisations” in nine developed countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US).  The way that Plan’s corporate bylaws were designed meant that the Dutch organisation was allocated four seats, four votes, on the 25-person board, even though over 50% of Plan’s funding came from the Netherlands.  (In comparison, the Canadian and US National Offices, each bringing in around 10% of Plan’s funding, each had three seats, three votes.)

This lack of balance – over half of Plan’s funding coming from the Netherlands, with the Dutch organisation having just 16% of the votes on Plan’s board – distorted the agency’s behavior in negative ways, ways that I could see in my daily work.

Unsurprisingly, and most damaging, was that an informal power structure evolved to compensate for Plan’s unbalanced governance.  This could be seen in action in several ways.  For example, it felt to me as I observed board meetings, that Dutch board members had effective veto over any major decisions: if a Dutch board member spoke strongly against, or in favour of, a proposition at a meeting, the vote would always go that way, despite the Dutch only having 4 of 25 votes.

There’s nothing inherently bad, or wrong, or evil about what was happening; it was completely logical that the interests of the biggest financial stakeholder would become paramount.  Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg!  But the problem was, as I saw it, Plan’s formal governance structure wasn’t able to handle the reality of those days, so informal mechanisms evolved, and those informal mechanisms were not always transparent or effective.

For example, I vividly remember a lunch meeting which included Max, me, and the National Director for the Netherlands.  The Dutch National Director was, without a doubt, a genius fundraiser, and had build Plan Netherlands into an iconic force in Holland, known and respected by virtually everybody in the country from the royal family on down.

His undoubted accomplishments were accompanied by similar levels of ego and assertiveness.

I don’t recall the exact issue that we were discussing that day over lunch, but I do remember our Dutch colleague expressing his strong disagreement with the direction that Max and I were planning to take.  Those kinds disagreements are common in any human endeavour, of course.  But he took it one step further: in so many words, he made it very clear that, if we proceeded with the course of action we were planning, he would have Max dismissed.

In Plan’s formal governance setup, the Dutch National Director was not a Plan board member, and had no formal influence on Max’s job security.  But the informal governance structures which had evolved, to recognise the importance of the Dutch Office’s success to the overall organisation, meant that his threat was completely credible.

Another example of the dysfunctional consequences of Plan’s imbalanced governance came soon after I (and Max) left IH.  Max’s successor fired one of Plan’s Regional Directors, who was Dutch.  From my perspective, this was probably well within the new IED’s authority, but from what I heard (I wasn’t in the room!) the actual dismissal was not handled very astutely.  The Regional Director then threatened legal action to challenge his dismissal and, as I understand it, had an assurance of financial support from the Netherlands office in this action – essentially, one part of the agency would be suing the other!  This led to several years of estrangement (and worse) between Plan and the Dutch Office, our biggest source of funds!

Apparently, the imbalance in governance, and resulting informal power structures, extended to the Dutch Office having the ability to veto personnel-related decisions, at least when a Dutch Regional Director was involved!

These examples illustrate how our operational management was influenced by the realities as seen from the point of view of our biggest revenue source.  Nothing wrong with that, in theory – in fact, it makes a lot of sense.  But in the absence of a formal governance structure that reflected organisational realities, informal mechanisms evolved to reflect the needs of Plan’s biggest funder: such as heated lunch discussions, and a law suit against Plan funded by one of its own National Organisations.  These informal mechanisms drained our energy, stressed us all, and became major distractions from what we were supposed to be focused on: the effective and efficient implementation of our mission to help children living in poverty have better lives.

Now, the best solution to re-balancing Plan’s governance would have been for other National Organisations to grow – for the Australian or Canadian or German or US offices to increase their fundraising closer to what our Dutch colleagues were achieving.  Then Plan’s existing governance structure would have functioned well.  Alternatively, perhaps, at least in the short term, we could have increased the votes allocated to the Dutch organization.  In these ways, the imbalance described above would have been corrected without informal mechanisms.

What actually happened, sadly, was that the Dutch organisation ended up shrinking dramatically, as the result of a mishandled public-relations crisis.  In fact, I think that our management of that crisis actually illustrated the basic problem: Plan’s Dutch Office refused to let us address false accusations coming from a Dutch supporter as we should have done, and the problem just festered, got worse and worse.  But the informal power of the Dutch Office, caused in part by the governance imbalance I’ve described, was such that we at Plan’s International Headquarters were not able to go against the preferences of the Dutch Office to take the actions we felt would have defused the crisis.  (Namely, full, frank, and fast disclosure of the facts of the particular case.)  In this case, I’m pretty sure that we were right and the Dutch Office was wrong… and, as a direct result, Plan’s fundraising in the Netherlands dropped by half.

My sense is that these kinds of governance dynamics are common in federated International NGOs (ChildFund, Save the Children, Oxfam, World Vision, etc.) though there are differences in the particularities of each grouping, of course.  The solution, as far as I can see it, is to periodically re-examine governance and make sure that structures fit the reality of the agency.  (Ironically, Plan had attempted to review and adjust its governance before I arrived at IH.  Glorianne Stromberg, who readers of this blog series have already met, was Board Secretary in those days, during Alberto Neri’s time; she had proposed a far-reaching update of Plan’s governance.  Probably Glorianne’s proposals would have helped reduce the imbalance I’ve described, and would also have addressed Max’s feeling that the Board was too big…)

Finally, I was much too focused on my program changes, my three projects, and was not “political” enough.  In a sense, this failure on my part relates to all of the above accomplishments and setbacks – if I had been more astute “politically” I could have helped Max correct the behaviour of several Regional Directors, and connected more effectively with Plan’s board of directors.

But I just wasn’t interested in spending my limited time and energy on those things.  I was focused, passionate, and effective focused on program matters (goals and principles, structure, and growth.)  I felt, and still feel, that behaving “politically” would be inconsistent with the values and aspirations of the NGO sector.  I wanted to enact those values – honesty, transparency, empathy, compassion – and I didn’t see how I could do that while also being “political.”

Today I think I see that it is indeed possible to be focused and true to the moral and ethical values of our sector while also being “political.”  It’s not about learning from Machiavelli; rather, it’s mostly about being able to handle conflict competently.  Conflict is inherent in the human experience, certainly including at senior management levels in an INGO like Plan!  Managing conflict productively, being able to confront conflict situations with confidence and panache, is a skill that I would deepen later, some years after my time at Plan’s International Headquarters.

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Those four years at IH were great.  Weighing up all the successes and failures, large and small, looking back there’s no doubt in my mind that Plan was stronger and more unified when Jean and I left the UK, in May, 1997, than it had been when I arrived.

But it was time to move on, and it would be for others to take up the challenges and joys of running that organization.

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In future blogs in this series I’ll describe my tenure as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, as consultant at CCF, as Executive Director at the UU Service Committee, and as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.  As I approached my work in those organisations, I tried to apply what I learned from those four years at Plan’s International Headquarters, from the successes and failures described above.  Stay tuned!

Next time I’ll begin to reflect on four years living and working in Viet Nam, as Plan’s Country Director in that very special country.

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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.

Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters

After four years as Director of Planning and Program Support (Program Director) at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), I stepped down in early May, 1997.  Jean and I would spend the next 12 months on sabbatical in New Hampshire.

My time at IH was very eventful for me, as I hope I’ve described in the four previous blogs in this series.  Even today I feel (mostly) proud of what we achieved, but at the end of it I was certainly ready to go back to the field.  After the year-long sabbatical, I would wrap up 15 great years with Plan: Jean and I would move to Hanoi, where I would serve as  Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself …

During my time at IH, I worked closely with Plan’s then-new International Executive Director (“IED”, equivalent to CEO), Max van der Schalk.  In an earlier blog in this series I described Max as “Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just completed a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia … I found Max to be very easy to get along with.  He was a great listener, funny and curious, and very confident in his own skin.  Max had just as much business experience as Alberto (something that Plan’s board clearly wanted), but seemed to be a much more accessible, open, and emotionally-intelligent person.”

Before I wrap up my description of those years at IH, sharing some overall reflections, it occurred to me to ask Max to share his thoughts about his five years as IED: another perspective on some of the events I’ve been describing from my own point of view.

Max kindly agreed, and his reflections are included below as a “guest blog.”  Next time, it’ll be my turn!

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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 Eisenhower (4780ft, 1457m) on 20 August 2016, with Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia.  We also climbed Mt Pierce later that day, and we had planned to climb Mt Jackson as well, but we ran out of steam.  In my next blog I’ll write about our walk down from the top of Eisenhower, over Mt Pierce, and then the long hike back down Crawford Path via the Mizpah Cutoff.

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We drove up from Durham that morning, and parked by the side of Saco Lake, just across from the old Crawford Depot.

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The first part of the hike took us around the lake, rejoining Rt 302 briefly, arriving at the start of the Crawford Path, the “oldest continuously-used mountain trail in America,” or so the sign says!  The section we walked on was created in 1819 by Abel and Ethan Crawford.

 

 

The walk up Crawford Path was pleasant, a steady upward walk.

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We came across several large, beautiful expanses of bright green moss that day.

 

We arrived at the saddle between Mt Pierce and Mt Eisenhower a little before 2pm, and took a break there.  It was a beautiful spot, with a view towards the north and Mt Eisenhower:

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Kelly, with Mt Eisenhower on the right.

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Raúl and Kelly

 

From here, towards Mt Eisenhower, the Crawford Path forms part of the famous Appalachian Trail.  The section leading up to Mt Eisenhower is above the tree line, through some low scrub and ledge with fine views in all directions.

It was quite cool and windy at the top of Mt Eisenhower.  There were plenty of other hikers around, walking up or resting around the cairn at the top, where we arrived at around 2:15pm:

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The Summit of Mt Eisenhower

We were all pretty tired when we got to the top of Mt Eisenhower, and the day wasn’t even close to half over!

I’ll write more about our ascent of Mt Pierce, and the long walk back down to Crawford Notch, next time.  But the walk up Eisenhower was great that day, and the company was just as good.

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Max van der Schalk served as Plan’s International Executive Director for five years; for four of those years, I worked directly with, and for, him.  Earlier, I described how I ended up being appointed to that position, and I noted Max’s involvement in the three major projects that I advanced in my four years in this blog on Plan’s Program Directions; in this blog on the preparation of Plan’s growth plan; and here as related to our creation of the new country-level operational structure for the agency.

I thought it would be valuable to get Max’s perspective on events during those four years.  And I don’t know of very many “memoirs” from nonprofit CEOs, particularly in the international development sector, so his thoughts might be useful more broadly.

So, since I’m still in contact with him, I invited Max to share his thoughts, which follow:

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“I arrived in Rhode Island from Colombia. I had had 30 years experience in industry and the main reason I was selected for the job of IED was that this experience was mainly in the developing world. That also caused my interest in the job: I had seen enough poverty to know that something should be done to eradicate that pest on human happiness. When I arrived at IH I was asked whether I joined the charity in order to make up for the sins I had committed in private industry. My answer was exactly the opposite: I was going to introduce a businesslike attitude to the charity in order to make best use of the generous contribution of so many people to poverty reduction, specially child poverty.

I commenced by trying to create a management team (IED, RD’s and IH managers) that would feel joint responsibility for the quality of the programme part of the organization. Despite the efforts of some of the more capable managers in the team, this was never achieved. To the contrary: the RD’s didn’t see eye to eye with the IH managers and what was worse : they didn’t see eye to eye with each other. There was  a lack of mutual confidence. This was something new, in my 30 years industry experience I had not encountered that. I learned from experience to mistrust most of the RD’s. I wasn’t always sure of their honesty and I also doubted that the whole team felt responsible for the effectiveness of the organization. Quite a few RD’s appeared to me to take advantage of their position and to think mainly about their own achievement.

Part of the reason for that behaviour is the difference in work attitude in charity as compared to industry. Where in industry people are motivated by the objectives of the organization and by their success in achieving these, in charity staff has a much more personal viewpoint about what should be done. As a result you could find great differences in how the money was spent in PLAN: some field offices were mainly concentrated on health matters, others on education or on wealth creation for the communities they were assisting. My cooperation with Mark was so useful because he had the intelligence to see that that was not the optimum way to spend the money. I brought him into IH to create a framework, setting out the objectives and ambitions of the organization: to reduce poverty in our communities and achieve a way they could live comfortably without outside financial contribution. This was eventually achieved, though acceptance of this framework throughout the organisation took a long time. In the end it was generally accepted by all staff, but we never achieved full acceptance by the International Board.Max at IH01

The International Board (IB) consisted of non-executive directors of the fundraising organisations. The number of directors each country organisation could appoint to the IB was dependant on the money they contributed. The Board was far too big to be useful, some 25 persons. The main problem was that board members were generally from a business or government background, seldom was there any experience in development work. However they all thought they had a full understanding of the problems of international development and furthermore that they knew quite a bit more about running a business than the PLAN staff. This created an atmosphere where instead of being supportive they were often highly critical of the way the organization was run. Furthermore, because of the various nationalities that were represented there was often a cultural difference amongst the various board members. As IED I made the mistake to try running the show as far as possible without the active participation of the IB, but that led to a lack of trust of board members in their Chief Executive. This was shown very clearly when my 5-year term came up and I was requested to continue in the job. I said I only wanted to do that if the IB would become a supportive board rather than a critical one and if I would get complete freedom to technically run the show on my own, without specific approval for things like staff changes and office accommodation. The Chairman of the IB did a round of phone calls to discuss my request with his colleagues and the outcome was a clear NO to both .

Reflecting on the things that went well during my tenure and the things which could have been done better, I am not unhappy with the results obtained. We clearly formalized the objectives of the organization and the way to achieve them. We also exchanged many – expensive- expatriate staff members for high quality local staff, thereby reducing the cost of carrying out the work of the charity. We also created a career path for staff and improved the audit procedure: both financial audit – how was the money spent – as the programme audit – how successful were the programmes. The organisation grew rapidly in money, volume and results; a number of additional national organisations were created. However, I am less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there. It is always difficult to change the culture of an organization, but we changed the staff attitude considerably and with good results for our effectiveness. I could have achieved the same results with the International Board, but as I was unhappy with their attitude regarding my role, I decided to ‘walk around them’ . On balance I believe I made a wrong decision there and it resulted in my effectiveness being less than what could have been achieved.

After I resigned from the charity, I expected I would be asked to join the local board of either the Dutch ( my nationality) or English ( my residence) organisation. This didn’t happen and my relationship with the organisation ended the day after my resignation. I felt very disappointed about this, but now – at a much bigger distance – I feel I should blame my own attitude to the IB and also to the local boards for this total rupture. I just wasn’t liked by them………

My next job after PLAN was Chairman of the Board of my local Health Authority and I learned so much of my negative experience of dealings with boards in PLAN, that I was sure the managers in the NHS working in my area would not form a similar opinion about my board’s role. And that was indeed very effective, so I learned my lesson just in time before I sat at the other side of the table!”

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Next time I will describe the rest of my hike with Raúl and Kelly that day – down from Mt Eisenhower and over Mt Pierce.  And I will share my own reflections from those four years at IH.

I’m grateful to Max for sharing his perspectives here in this “Guest Blog.”  They set up my own reflections – in some ways consistent, in other ways different.  That will come next time.

So, 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.