Diversifying NGO Leadership
There was a time when the all the senior staff of international NGOs working in developing countries came from North America and Europe. That is changing.
By Donna Bryson | Spring 2013
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AN UPSTART THAT LOOKS LOCAL
Click on Village Enterprise’s website, and East Africans are country directors, assistant country directors, regional managers, and operations managers in Kenya and Uganda. You might think it is a local NGO, like Asha. But Village Enterprise is based in San Carlos, California. Its website displays its commitment to training local leaders. “It’s even more local than it looks,’’ says Dianne Calvi, CEO of Village Enterprise, which invests in café owners, tailors, carpenters, kale and tomato farmers, and other tiny businesses in extremely poor communities in East Africa. Village Enterprise also finds local leaders to mentor micro-entrepreneurs. “All of our mentors are local. They’re actually from the communities in which they work,” Calvi says.
Brian Lehnen and Joan Hestenes started Village Enterprise in 1987, operating it as an all-volunteer organization from their San Diego home. In 1995, Lehnen abandoned a biotechnology career to run Village Enterprise full time. By the time he retired in 2010, handing over the nonprofit to Calvi, Village Enterprise had helped create more than 20,000 small businesses. “There has always been at Village Enterprise a real appreciation for the importance of local participation for building support within communities,” says Calvi. “The value of indigenous leadership” is part of the organization’s culture.
Calvi, who studied at Stanford University and at Italy’s Bocconi University, has worked in multinational management consulting and directing nonprofits. Before coming to Village Enterprise, she was president of Bring Me A Book, a literacy-building foundation that serves poor families in California and has grown to operate in Hong Kong, Malawi, and Mexico. While working with Bring Me A Book, which trains local community members as reading trainers, Calvi says she learned the importance of having leaders who spoke local languages and understood their communities intimately. She adds that she would not have been as tempted by the Village Enterprise position if its field staff were Stanford PhD students.
Village Enterprise mentors were once volunteers who were paid small stipends. The organization decided a few years ago to make the mentors full-time employees and increase their training. Some training is provided by Village Enterprise Fellows, who often are Westerners whose stints are short-term. “There can be good reasons for bringing non-local people to augment what the locals have,’” Calvi says. “The goal of our fellows is to transfer know-how.” Village Enterprise brought in an outsider, Barcelona born Konstantin Zvereff, as its senior director of programs and operations, overseeing operations in Kenya and Uganda. Zvereff, an expert in finance, had the international experience Village Enterprise sought. “Finding Africans who have the skill set you’re looking for and the experience you’re looking for can be a challenge,” Calvi says. “Hiring at that level can be a challenge.”
The organization’s Uganda country director, Charles Erongot, is one of their star examples of leadership development. He started as a volunteer mentor 14 years ago, recently served as the main speaker at Village Enterprise fundraisers in the United States, and attended an international conference in Mexico to meet World Bank and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officials. This foreign trip, his first, was a step toward developing the skills that might one day make Erongot a contender for Zvereff’s job.
Calvi says her organization has had little interest from non-Africans for its country director positions. Other agencies place their country directors in relatively cosmopolitan Nairobi or Kampala, whereas Village Enterprise country directors live in provincial centers, in houses on dirt roads, with daily power outages and no international schools nearby—reasons Westerners may not apply. “We really have a very lean, program-oriented field orientation,” Calvi says. “There really isn’t a need to have someone in the capitals.”
Calvi says staff conference calls can take longer, as participants navigate a Babel of accents, and the workplace can be a complex place when Western and local ways clash. “It is more challenging developing local leaders, because it’s always easier for people to work with people who are like them,” Calvi says. But “you really need local people to have significant impact.” Calvi describes a Ugandan mentor whose depth of local knowledge Village Enterprise has drawn on. Vicky Achan works in an area in Uganda devastated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), whose leader Joseph Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes. Achan’s entire family was killed by the LRA, a tragedy that gives her empathy and authority when she urges peace and cooperation. “Even more so in a crisis, it’s important that you have local people,” Calvi says.
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