I have noticed three things showing up consistently in the very best organizations. Like any single characteristic, they are not a guarantee of overall excellence or likely impact. I commend them as important in themselves and also as a stimulus for probing conversations.
Outside-In. The best organizations recruit staff from the communities they serve. The longer an organization has been around, the larger proportion of program graduates I expect to see on staff. In looking for this, I ask: Where do you look to recruit your talent? If “program graduates” is not the answer, the explanations why are usually revealing.
CAMFED is a great example. Founded as an English charity in 1993 by a British citizen to give secondary school scholarships to Zimbabwean girls, it now calls itself a “pan-African movement revolutionizing how girls’ education is delivered.” In CAMFED’s case, this claim is no hype. Here’s how CAMFED describes its journey on its website now:
CAMFED as an organization has literally ‘grown up’ with the first cohorts of girls who received support, and who are now at the forefront of CAMFED’s leadership. They are the experts in determining the most successful strategies to improve education and economic opportunity for young people in marginalized rural areas. These experts are united in the CAMFED Association, the network of women leaders educated with CAMFED support, founded in 1998. Together, they have inspired a new wave of support for girls’ education in their communities.
Peer-driven Change. It is a truism that all development depends on self-development. As was argued in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, the degree of peer-driven change (communities driving solutions to systemic issues they experience) that is appropriate for tackling different societal problems will vary. But the approach will always be there in the best organizations, and it can be illuminating to learn how thoughtful an organization is in parsing it within its overall model.
There is a disruptive global experiment based on this bedrock truth now in the form of direct cash gifts to people living in poverty. But maybe the best example of this is the work of Mauricio Lim Miller, first in the U.S. with the Family Independence Initiative and now going global in partnership with Root Change. Lim Miller’s work makes sure that those who take it upon themselves to deliver programs for the benefit of others avoid the all-too-common trap of displacing people’s own efforts to advance their lives. The best organizations work hard to make sure they work in mutuality, to use Mauricio’s favored term, with those they mean to help.
Founder-led. Another truism is brought to life here: Leadership matters, a lot. A short-cut to assessing leadership is to look for founders. I can hear the howl of protest from the legions of well-led high performing organizations who have literally out-lived their founders. Hear me out please! I define founder-led broadly to include organizations led by their founder and organizations led by people with strong entrepreneurial qualities and a track record for identifying and executing solutions.
There is a good reason that Warren Buffet put the thirty-five year spend-out requirement on his gift of billions to the Gates Foundation. Founders have the deep personal commitment, the passion, and the vision to resist the iron law of inertia, to make sure a bold mission does not run down to a custody.
When looking for this type of leadership, don’t be fooled by personability or even charisma. Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, has learned from over 40 years of selecting 3,800 leading social entrepreneur fellows, in 92 countries, that good entrepreneurs are serial entrepreneurs – creative people who refuse to stop at one solution.
When assessing an organization I always look into the life histories of the leadership cadre for these founder types. If I don’t find them, I open a conversation about how the organization cultivates entrepreneurial leadership.
There are certainly great high-performing organizations that don’t match these characteristics. For me, these are “the exceptions that prove the rule.” In any case, by putting these three in the foreground of your enquiry with any organization, you will get a unique understanding of their relationships with those they serve, their ability to teach fishing rather than give fish, and the character of their leadership.