Practicing What We Preach – Guest Blog by Esther Stevenson
Trust and empowerment in Angola agriculture
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It was November 2013 when a small group of us squeezed into the back of Toyota Land Cruiser and bounced along a rough track. We were in the heart of rural Angola, on the way back from a workshop with local farmers on changing climate patterns, part of Christian Aid’s work in Angola.
Across from me, Mustafa was chattering animatedly in Portuguese, a grin stretching from ear to ear. We had met a few days before; he had sat silently at the back of the small twin-propeller plane, a local development worker who was attending the workshop as a learning opportunity.
But now, he was full of energy and enthusiasm. He had been to events like this one before: workshops aimed at improving farming techniques where participants had sat politely while someone from another continent had informed them of what they needed to do. Afterwards, the locals had collected their per diem, travelled back to their village and carried on farming the way they had always done.
But this workshop with Christian Aid had been different; the group had been introduced to the latest research on changing weather patterns in Southern Africa. For as long as people could remember, the province had two rainy seasons and so they planted accordingly. Now though, the second set of rains were steadily disappearing, taking with them the second set of crops. And this is exactly what the satellite pictures showed too.
With this new information confirming the patterns they had already seen, the villagers worked together to look at how they could adapt their own practices to meet this challenge. Mustafa’s excitement was this would result in last changing, simply because we had trusted people to find their own solutions.
Bringing the Happy Manifesto to Christian Aid
And so when I read Henry Stewart’s book, The Happy Manifesto, many of his ideas resonated with my own experiences. Ideas such as ‘enabling people to work at their best’, ‘creating mutual benefit’, and ‘being open and transparent’, are written into the organisational DNA of Christian Aid.
Like many charities though, putting these lofty aspirations of trust and empowerment into practice in our own internal ways of working can be challenging.
Recently I have been looking at what these ideas mean for our supporter-facing teams. The goals are clear: to raise income, increase the numbers of supporters and to increase our global reach. But how we do this has provides a constant source of tension and frustration.
For some of our teams, their main motivation is a set of implicit principles. Working closely with our more committed supporters, they believe our supporters can change the world, both with their giving but also in their actions. They believe that £2/month direct debits are not going to solve global poverty. They want to help our supporters respond to the powerlessness they feel when they watch the news and see people fleeing from Syria, or factories collapsing in Bangladesh, or famine repeating itself in East Africa. Traditionally though, these people have felt less accountable for the bottom line.
And then there are the professional fundraisers: those who have devoted their career to caring about the bottom line. They usually work in our central office; they know the best techniques for getting people to part with their hard-earned cash. And while they know some mass-marketing methods aren’t popular, they also know they bring in the cash and provide our projects in the developing world with the resources they so desperately need.
Creating Job Ownership
So when I attended Henry’s workshop, I was thinking of how we could move beyond the uncreative tension of these debates, to a place where we draw on the best of both. I was particularly taken when Henry presented his Job Ownership model. That people need to be able to own their work is clear goals, principles, support and feedback. And while the goals were defined, I realised that as leaders we have not been as explicit about the principles.
As Henry said, you don’t work for Amnesty International and constantly debate whether the death penalty is a good thing. In the same way, there are some principles of working in partnership that Christian Aid holds to, which mean that extractive fundraising methods, although effective in raising cash, are simply not acceptable to us.
And so we used a pre-planned leadership meeting to draw out and agree a shared set of explicit principles that we can all work to. Having taken the time to work through these, we then commissioned our Project Managers to go away and look at what they meant in practice.
Last week, we had our first report back on how these project teams, reflecting the full range of perspectives, were delivering against both the goals and the principles. It was clear that by making the principles much clearer and asking people to demonstrate accountability for them, it had taken us beyond the realm of personality, to a more objective sense of what good looks like.
Encouragingly too, it was clear the Project Managers felt trusted to get on with their role and we are doing our best to stay out of the way, which I think will be a little easier now…
Esther is Co-Head of Performance and Development for England at Christian Aid, working in a job share with Libby Gordon.
You can connect with Esther on Twitter @eststevenson.
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