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Interview July 18th, 2016
Matthew Mercer Senior Editor

Social impact: metrics, mission and transformation lessons

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Many development challenges are about how how the world deploys against them

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NGOs and professional services firms share a similar focus on outcomes

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'Leading' means ensuring all staff are focused and united around the organisation's mission

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In mid-2005 Dave Young made a decision. After eight years in the corporate world and seventeen in professional services, it was time for a change - time to focus on social impact. “I've always felt that professionals should find ways to give back at peak times of their working lives,” he says. “For me, that means at the centre of my career rather than the end.”

And with that he resigned his role as a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and embarked on a different journey fired by his determination to get involved in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals and children. “I felt that a lot of the development challenges were less about funding and more about how they are being approached, and how the world deploys against them,” he recalls. “BCG's work with the World Food Programme and other social impact organisations proved that viewpoint over and over. I thought that my full-time attention to a social mission organisation and applying my BCG strategic and analytical skills could have a real impact.”

Going global

Young took up a role with World Vision, a leading Christian humanitarian, development and advocacy organisation of 46,000 staff active in nearly 100 countries. The sheer scope of its operations held significant attraction. “I was looking for the best platform on which to have to an impact,” says Young. “It was the largest field-based global NGO working in emergency response, community development, advocacy and microfinance. The footprint provided the right way to get the most experience and have the best opportunity to contribute, given the range of issues and countries that they worked in.”

As a result, Young soon found himself in the heart of the organisation, first in its Office of Strategy Management but it wasn't long before he was appointed chief operating officer. His arrival coincided with an internal review, named “Our Future”, which was focused on preparing the organisation for the road ahead - priorities, direction, scale, all were up for rethinking during a time when the development sector itself was also undergoing profound change. Rapid growth, new technology, changing funding models and questions over aid effectiveness were all playing out across borders.

“As an institution, World Vision had experienced extraordinary growth over its first 60 years,” says Young. “But the time had come for it to rethink itself to achieve more impact. And so we began a fundamental transformation programme that literally involved all aspects of the operating model, the organisation, the attention to programming and outcomes, partnership and national strategies, not to mention people and culture. We examined everything about its current performance as well as its future demands.”

It's all about the kids

As a result of this process, the decision was made to refocus the organisation's priorities around the explicitly defined needs of children and the creation of four child wellbeing aspirations: that children enjoy good health, are educated for life, experience the love of God and their neighbours, and are cared for, protected and participating. “This enabled the increasing alignment of all World Vision's diverse skills around the outcomes we and their communities were hoping to see for children and their families,” comments Young. “It also helped us to better focus our resources, strategically better allocate our funding and agree a global set of priorities and measurement disciplines so that the organisation would have greater impact.”

To turn vision into reality, Young and his colleagues sought to improve the integration of the organisation's technical and field expertise across the countries and contexts it operates in. From Angola to Australia, the Solomon Islands to Somalia, the needs are vast and unrelenting, but a key requirement is always to strengthen the capacities of the national organisations to do things themselves.

“Greater focus on child wellbeing meant the organisation could dramatically expand the number of children its programmes were affecting, directly and indirectly,” explains Young. “In turn, this gave rise to a stronger advocacy function that multiplied the impact of fieldwork, enabling World Vision to speak with authority, born of experience in the field, and giving voice to the communities the organisation serves. The goal became striving to achieve the sustainable wellbeing of 150 million of the world's most vulnerable children.”

Tips for transformation

Young is clear that he wouldn't have been as effective in his role at World Vision without his deep prior experience in the commercial world - particularly around large-scale transformations and global organisation. Interestingly, he says that an NGO is not dissimilar to a global professional services firm. They share a similar focus around their beneficiaries or clients and come to work with a determination to change things for the better. That said, he goes on to point out that transformations are never easy.

“It's always a bumpy process,” he admits, “but it can be done, and done more quickly than people may think. The first critical dimension is clarity around the imperative for change. The stronger and sharper that is, the easier it is going to be to gain an alignment of people and will around that change. The second is the deep understanding of the complexity of change. How big are the changes? Do we have the resources, skills and capacities to implement these changes? What are the risks? It is with the answers to questions like these that you develop the programme - how to achieve as much change as possible in the shortest period of time, and breed a confidence in the organisation to keep learning and striving to continuously improve.”

Transformations in social impact organisations present their own challenges, because many of the hard levers to drive change are weaker, from strong hierarchies to deep management experience to financial incentives and consequences. “They are very much driven by mission and passion and often go without sharp reporting and accountability,” says Young. “And often, given the scope of the countries they operate in, the cultural norms and expectations including hiring and firing can become a difficult to navigate in creating change. This means that leaders in these organisations learn to rely on many other soft levers to achieve large-scale reforms.”

However, it's not all challenging news. The very nature of an organisation like World Vision is change. It underpins everything they do. “The natural skill set in a social mission organisation is engagement and process to achieve change,” Young points out. “Their whole business is change. These are the embedded skills, so in some ways it is more natural for them to draw on them and apply them internally to transformations.”

Young also came to rely heavily on the strong sense of shared mission among World Vision staff. Linking the changes the organisation needed to make to strengthen the outcomes that every staff member wanted to see made it easier for them to get on board with the transformation. “If you are going to lead well, you need to summon the mission close to the surface of everything you do,” he says. “This helps people see that what they do is bigger than simply a day job. It's about speaking in terms of vocation rather than career. And you need to use shared narratives - you have to recognise that the power of the mission expressed in the work done and the stories told is going to be your single biggest motivating lever to do it better.”

Young recently returned to a serve in the social impact practice of BCG - his mandate is to bring about new models at the intersection of the social, public and private sectors that create sustainable social impact while supporting good business and policy.

“The ultimate test of corporate strategy is at the triad of shareholder value, social value and sustainability,” he explains, but it is clear that his time at World Vision has left an enduring mark. “For me it's all about achieving better and sustainable social outcomes that lift people up,” he concludes. “That's what I was able to help do at World Vision, and it's what I want to continue to do in the next chapter back at BCG.”


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  • Development matters: much done, more to do. Nancy Birdsall has spent a lifetime in development, focusing on driving impact and lifting the world's poorest to better heights. With fresh challenges continuing to proliferate, she tells us how policymakers can help
  • The SDGs are complex - let's treat them as such. The Sustainable Development Goals are highly ambitious, crucially important and far more complex than anything we've attempted before as a global community, says Adrian Brown. How can we better understand the nature of the challenge to maximise our chance of success?
  • Striving for scale. Clean water, deworming a whole community - Evidence Action is leading the charge to deliver evidence-based development interventions, says Alix Zwan
  • Open all hours. Liz Carolan explains how open data can help accelerate development progress around the world
  • Mind the gap: from theory to implementation for the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. The applause that greeted the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals was well merited, says the UNDP's Max Everest-Phillips. But meeting these targets will require some course adjustment
  • Open data: unlocking development potential in Africa and Asia. Dr Savita Bailur sets out how open data can empower ordinary people to participate in development
  • Into the light. The International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, is helping deploy private sector investment to spearhead sustainable development around the world. Here, Hemant Mandal explains how an innovative new programme has had a huge impact in lighting up Papua New Guinea

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Matthew Mercer Senior Editor
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