This is a question non-profit organizations (and their leaders) should ask themselves, even at the very beginning. So many NGOs end up sustaining themselves one way or another, and perhaps having a degree of impact but can’t find ways to meaningfully scale-up or hand-off their work (to communities, governments or business). At the same time, NGO leaders should also think hard about when it might be time to step away and let others step-up and take the organization to the next level- and create a transition plan for this to happen, even if the process might be far in the future. The very best non-profits clearly understand what success looks like and what their exit strategy will be- and bear those in mind as they plan their work.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Blair Glencorse, who is the Founder and Executive Director of the Accountability Lab– an organization that makes governance work for people around the world. Blair and his team have done everything from building large-scale socially conscious music campaigns in Nigeria; to monitoring and improving public services in Pakistan; to running a global TV show called Integrity Icon to “name and fame” honest government officials. Blair is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership; an expert on anti-corruption with the World Economic Forum; a member of the World Bank’s Expert Advisory Council on Citizen Engagement; and is the Co-Chair of the C20 Anti-Corruption Working Group, advising the G20 on issues of anti-corruption on behalf of global civil society. Blair speaks and writes regularly on issues of open governance, citizen participation and corruption. Follow Blair on Twitter @blairglencorse and the Accountability Lab @accountlab.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I’m from the UK originally but have lived in Africa and the US and now live in Pakistan. I realized while I was a student that the private sector was not going to be the path for me- the incentives didn’t seem to match my own and I was interested in finding the space to really try and help to shift political systems. After school I worked at the World Bank for several years and also realized that while big international organizations do some good work, they are 20th century institutions that are not agile or adaptive enough for 21st century problems. So after working for a think-tank in the US, I worked to build a non-profit organization called the Accountability Lab, which works with young people in particular to find creative approaches to improve governance and accountability. I’m more convinced every day that this is the central problem of our times.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non nonprofit?
While working at the World Bank and other organizations, I talked to a lot of young people around the world. I would ask them about their challenges and always expected to hear that they wanted better education, jobs or healthcare. But actually, what they told me- almost unanimously- is that they wanted people in power to be more honest, they wanted politicians to be less corrupt and they wanted the rule of law. This is because they know that it is these issues that are at the heart of all of these other problems. A lack of schools is not an education problem, for example- it is actually a problem of governance, because either the money for those schools has gone missing, or the community has not been consulted about where the schools should be built, and so on. So, accountability is really what it is all about. And young people everywhere have the most amazing ideas to solve these problems- but they are rarely given the opportunity and the support they need to built-out those ideas. The Accountability Lab began to support citizens to push for accountability and super-charge their ideas for change- and it has grown from there.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
The problems we are talking about are systemic- and it is only by changing systems that we can create a significant social impact over time. For example, in corrupt systems, it is very hard or impractical for 1 person to stand up and say they won’t pay a bribe- the pressures and incentives are too great. They are likely to miss out on critical services, or be ostracized by others, or if they push too hard they may even find themselves in physical danger. But if we can create a whole generation that stands up together and says they won’t pay bribes and that decision-making needs to be more transparent and fair- it is much harder for existing power-holders to push back. We can actually begin to change expectations and norms towards greater integrity and accountability. This is a long-term process and is not linear- and certainly isn’t easy! But it is essential if we are to truly make our societies more fair and equal for everyone.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
Absolutely- let’s elaborate on the idea I mentioned above related to education. Here in Pakistan we began to work with a group of young people to support them to organize as “accountability ambassadors” in their community of Rawalpindi. In that city, there were a number of problems related to education- some schools had not been built, others lacked desks, drinking water and toilets, and much more. We worked with the ambassadors to identify problems and organize a campaign through which they engaged students around their rights, lodged requests for information about budget spending, lobbied school principals and lawmakers on social media, and pushed politicians to sign a pledge for reforms. Within 10 days there were new drinking water facilities in one school as a result of these efforts- this kind of social accountability can really work. The Ambassadors signed an MoU with the district government and began to monitor facilities more closely, and even managed to unlock the funding for 2 schools that had been allocated but was unspent. These schools are now built, meaning hundreds of children can now access education which would otherwise have been unavailable. It is groups like these accountability ambassadors that give me hope for the future!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are many! But three seem to stand out to me. First, push for transparency. It is very difficult to know how we can fix problems unless we have the information and data to do so- sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say. Politicians and those in power need to commit to transparency- of decision-making, of budgets and finances and of implementation. And all of us have to push those in power to be transparent- by advocating, using the law, asking questions and crunching data- so we can create a shared understanding of what is working and where things are going wrong.
Second, insist on accountability. Transparency isn’t enough- just because data is open it does not mean that there are incentives for anyone to do anything about the problems that it shows. We have to push for accountability- so that the information we have leads to the changes we want to see. Politicians need to commit to accountable government- and I think the wave of leaders standing on anti-corruption platforms these days demonstrates the centrality of this idea in public discourse. But they also need to follow-through and should ultimately be held accountable through the ballot box. As citizens, we again need make our voices heard, find ways to ensure our ideas are included in decision-making and prioritize accountability over time.
Third, model integrity. I’ll talk more shortly about values, and integrity is my number 1 value. All of us are often too eager to point fingers at others- like politicians- and apportion blame. No doubt they deserve that in many cases, but all of us have to take responsibility for the systems we have in place and the societies we want to live in. And this starts with integrity, even in the very smallest ways in our daily lives- from showing up on time to fulfilling our promises. All of us make mistakes and don’t always live up to our own expectations- but setting intentions is key, particularly when it comes to integrity. In the end, the way we will change our systems is through shifting norms and behaviors- and that begins with all of us first.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is modeling the values and behavior you would like others to demonstrate, even when that is incredibly difficult. This doesn’t mean you need to be in a formal position of power, or to be seen as somehow “important” in your community. And it does not always mean public leadership- often the most effective leaders are those that lead from behind and encourage others to push collectively towards solutions to shared problems. A good example now are the incredible public servants in hospitals and schools around the world who have worked tirelessly to provide healthcare and education during the pandemic. At Accountability Lab we’ve started a campaign on social media called #coronoaheroes to “name and fame” these leaders and show that serving citizens is truly worth celebrating. I think too often we look to charismatic, well-known leaders as our role-models. They are certainly essential- if they are doing the right things- but I find greater inspiration from leaders who are not necessarily in the limelight but lead with integrity.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
I’d like to structure this as 5 questions that aspiring non-profit leaders might like to ask themselves:
First- is there a need? There are already a lot of non-profits in the world (more than 1.5 million in the US alone) covering every possible issue, so the starting point is to understand why a new organization is necessary. In my case, I saw that there was a gap in supporting young people develop ideas for accountability, and there was not an organization that seemed to fill that gap well, but that kind of space might not always exist. Before I started, I researched as many organizations as I could over a 6 month period to see what they were doing, and how, and whether it would be better to try and join an existing NGO instead. So, the 1st step is to really understand if a new NGO is really needed.
Second- how will you shift power? In my opinion, non-profit organizations have to be driven by and fully reflect the communities that they serve. Setting up an organization that has great branding and communications but is not meaningfully providing avenues for the right voices to be heard or the right changes to be made is not going to be impactful. Creating an NGO that is not proximate to and led by those that face the greatest challenges in our societies is not going to endure. And growing an organization that does not meaningfully interrogate where power inequities may exist internally and externally is not going to prove effective. So, I’d encourage NGO leaders to really think hard about how they can shift power- something that we are definitely considering on a daily basis at Accountability Lab.
Third- are you ready? Growing the Accountability Lab has been the biggest and best challenge of my life but I had no idea how hard it would be when I started, and I was totally unprepared. It has taken years and years of hard work, learning, sleepless nights and debt to get to where we are now (and it is still very much a work in progress)! Running an NGO is really hard. I don’t want to put anyone off, but I do think anyone considering this path needs to be very aware of what it might take- which is years of your life in which you are likely to be underpaid and overworked. The potential impact is significant if you can get it right, but that takes planning and persistence.
Fourth- how will you adapt your plan? Most NGOs have some sort of strategy or plan, but rarely are these actually strategic, or used for planning purposes. And in any case, things can change dramatically as we’ve seen over the past year with COVID-19. The best NGOs are predicated on a “learning mindset” and remain adaptable and flexible. They collect information and data as they work to inform their decision-making and help them improve over time. They are also transparent and generous with this knowledge- sharing what has not worked so that others can use this to avoid the same mistakes. There can often be a sense of competition with other organizations over funding or ideas- but in the long-run this kind of adaptive learning and collaborative mindset is far more useful and sustainable.
Fifth- what is the exit strategy? This is a question non-profit organizations (and their leaders) should ask themselves, even at the very beginning. So many NGOs end up sustaining themselves one way or another, and perhaps having a degree of impact but can’t find ways to meaningfully scale-up or hand-off their work (to communities, governments or business). At the same time, NGO leaders should also think hard about when it might be time to step away and let others step-up and take the organization to the next level- and create a transition plan for this to happen, even if the process might be far in the future. The very best non-profits clearly understand what success looks like and what their exit strategy will be- and bear those in mind as they plan their work.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
We are just finishing a campaign called Integrity Icon in Philadelphia- a media campaign to “name and fame” the city’s most honest government officials. Talking to Josh Shapiro, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania (@JoshShapiroPA) about that would be cool- he is a big proponent of integrity.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
“When times get tough, let your values drive your decision-making” is the quote that comes to mind now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Accountability Lab we’ve begun to refer to our values as our organizational immune system, which I really like, given the reality we live in- because it highlights what values should mean to us. They are what keep us safe and our decision-making healthy. There are so many times during crisis when non-profit and other leaders might not know what to do- but I find that if you always revert to your values and use them as a guide, that makes the right decision much more obvious. So this is relevant every day for me- I try and stick to and model my values in every way.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’d love to be in touch with your readers to chat about all of this. I am on Twitter @blairglencorse and the Accountability Lab is @accountlab. They can also find me on LinkedIn at Blair Glencorse.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.