In this episode of Chasing Impact, MzN interviews Sam Worthington, CEO of InterAction, the largest U.S.-based alliance of INGOs focused on people around the world (we recommend watching this video with closed captions and you can find the transcript below). Sam shares his experiences and insights looking back at two decades of leading InterAction, elaborating on the following topics:
- why local and INGOs need to work together to deliver the greatest impact possible
- when the emphasis should be on local and when global aid is necessary
- why organizations should challenge the expectations and limitations that come with the resources donors, such as the government, foundations, etc., give
- what successes InterAction has had challenging the US government in the Supreme Court on behalf of civil society
- how to unite and manage a diverse group of actors under a common goal
- reminding (I)NGOs of their purpose in this world and warning them not to be disconnected from their values
- why the size of an NGO does not matter when it comes to the impact it is able to deliver
- what the NGO leadership of the future will look like
MzN: Many people like their NGOs small, local, sort of amateurish, and by the people, for the people, but you actually think differently about this. I know that you think that we need global entities who are capable of changing and building a better future. Large, long-term, well-funded, international nongovernmental organizations that to some look corporatized and hollowed out and professionalized. What would you say to these people?
Sam: I think local agency and the ownership of development at the local level is essential, and so, too, is a power shift: A shift towards the ability of individuals to have a say over shaping their own futures. But as we see in any global crises or any challenge, local needs to be supported. You can’t deal with flows of refugees coming across the borders simply locally. You can’t deal with the climate crisis or issues of malnutrition simply locally. You need the capacity, or capacity beyond local, to reinforce those local abilities, to impact human lives, to change the possibilities for people’s future. So the answer is you need both. And while we must focus on local, and that is the ideal, we can’t stop on the local. If we do that, we become less powerful, less influential, and less able to help those people.
So you’re basically saying that some problems are too global, too large to stay local?
Yes, and that there is also knowledge that is global. There’s expertise, there are concepts, there are ideas that come from around the world. For example, some of the ideas around microfinance from Bangladesh are used in microfinance banks in the South side of Chicago. Things that we’ve learned about child survival, how people help children survive the first five years of life, that came out of universities in the US are now used around the world. So everywhere we have ideas, we have knowledge, we have expertise, and we need to think of ourselves not just as responding within our respective nation-states. I reject the idea that there should be an “America first” or “India first” or “Uganda first” as the best model to advance human welfare or human rights. Yes, we need those local responses, but at the same time, we need to tie ourselves together around some common values of human welfare and around the sustainable development goals.
I reject the idea that there should be an “America first” or “India first” or “Uganda first” as the best model to advance human welfare or human rights.
You’re coming out here in your support of local knowledge, local expertise, local aid, local development initiatives led by local people. At the same time, you’re trying to spread the validity of international professional global nonprofit organizations. How does that match up?
Well, it depends on the context. In some places, the local needs to be dominant. After typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, local Filipino NGOs and the government were well equipped to respond yet supported by international actors. When you’re in Darfur in the midst of a war and have to feed two million people a day, the local is torn apart in the civil war so there was no local capacity to be able to handle two million people a day in that context. So the context matters, and it is somewhere always in between the two. Tap the local as much as you can, but recognize that there are times when governments are overwhelmed, when local is overwhelmed, or when it’s torn in two.
Yes, there’s capacity within Ethiopia to respond to Tigray, but the reality is that you have a civil war going on, and the only ability to get to hundreds of thousands of people, should the government allow them in, is through international capacity, and that capacity was built through the United Nations, but the UN in many ways is too cumbersome and too slow. So the world in the 20th century created this space for the evolution of the international nonprofit, of entities that we know as the “Save the Childrens” or the “World Visions” or the “Oxfams” of this world. Those are the biggest ones. Of course, there are many that are much smaller and more local. So that mixture of international capacity to provide large-scale lift when needed has to mirror what’s happening in terms of working capacity.
Where we go wrong is when the international overwhelms the local. Where we also go wrong is when we say, “We can take care of ourselves.”
Where we go wrong is when the international overwhelms the local and then there’s something wrong. Where we also go wrong if you say, simply, “We could take care of ourselves.” Usually, if the situation is so bad or the problem is so large, we can’t deal with it on our own. We could not have responded to the global AIDS pandemic just locally. It required a global response.
So you are basically saying that large INGOs need to be both: They need to be locally-led in some places and global in others. I know you work with a lot of CEOs and leaders in international non-government organizations. How do you manage an organization that needs to basically be a chameleon? How do you manage an organization that needs to prioritize and be led by local organizations, in some contexts, and insert global expertise in other contexts without effectively colonizing the aid efforts there?
I think that the challenge here is attention: So in areas where there is great local capacity, don’t create international capacity on top of it, reinforce it. We have member organizations that work entirely through local groups and through local nonprofits and don’t try to brand it as their own. They are there to support the local capacity that exists. And we have situations where international nonprofits have gone global in a sense where they have built capacity and country under their brand that is locally-led, locally-managed, local boards and so forth.
In areas where there is great local capacity, don’t create international capacity on top of it, reinforce it.
But the real challenge behind this is not the INGO versus local. The real challenge here is the power of money and resources. Because there’s lots of talk of going local and power shift, talking to our community, and it is something I embrace wholeheartedly as something we must do. But the resources that are coming from governments: Ultimately, they are saying we are accountable to our parliaments or to our taxpayers. They are not making those resources more local and they are not saying that those resources come with no strings or no limitations.
So our tension is: How do you get as much local autonomy and agency over something, at the same time be responsive to donors who are insisting that you meet certain goals and certain deliverables that are associated with the resources that give? You will never have localization, purely locally owned and managed and so forth, unless it is totally funded by local resources. The moment you introduce international resources, you’re going to get a tension between this desire for local agency and this desire for accountability from the funder. NGOs find themselves caught between those two forces.
You will never have localization, purely locally owned and managed and so forth, unless it is totally funded by local resources. The moment you introduce international resources, you’re going to get a tension between this desire for local agency and this desire for accountability from the funder. NGOs find themselves caught between those two forces.
So Sam, are you saying, if we are honest, as an NGO leader right now, if we’re honest about localization, it won’t work with international resources?
We have to look at what is the problem we’re trying to solve. One of the problems is getting out of the way and making sure that local groups have a say on their own futures and their own societies. So that’s one problem to deal with. But the other problem is that most resources don’t flow through the NGO center, at all in the US, or maybe 10% of U.S. government money perhaps. Most flow through larger contractors, governments and other entities. And those resources flow with various restrictions and norms associated with them. Part of challenging this is to look at that and change how governments give, change the requirements associated with foundation resources as those resources go out. Look at where are you trying to get accountability in a positive way and avoid corruption and where you simply want more control over resources. So part of our role is to push back against our own governments, our own governors and say we have a bias towards resources that are owned and shaped by local actors. We understand that you want accountability, understand that you don’t want corruption, but if you have too much control of these resources, you negate and take away all of the advantages that come from local actors having a say, doing what they can to help people’s lives.
OK, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about how we represent to our own governments, how the NGO sector, and how the entire nonprofit sector – it’s not just NGOs anymore – how they stay not led by the donors that often give them their money to the tune of at least 25% in the US. Now I know that InterAction went to town on that. I think you have, in the not too distant past, won a case on the freedom of arguing to the Supreme Court in the US that NGOs have a right to not be “gagged”, effectively, by the US government, even if they are funded by them under a larger “freedom of speech” argument. How did that feel negotiating, steering InterAction as a representative of US civil society through that battle, right up to and through the Supreme Court in the 21st century, when you kind of think that should be a given already? That must have been frustrating and exciting at the same time.
Well, we’d always assumed we had this freedom of speech and the question was we had to prove it and prove it in a court of law, and we find that our relationship with government is twofold. On one level, we battle with and challenge one another; we look where we can collaborate and move something forward together. In this case, we found that the US government was trying to make policies that impinged on our own voice. Yes, they could tell us what to do with their resources, because we could always say we don’t want your resources, but they can’t tell us what to do with our own voice, our own political opinions, and so forth. And so we challenged that successfully all the way up to the Supreme Court. We won a victory for NGOs in terms of clearly establishing our own independent voice, respective of our government, and even if the government is funding us, we maintain that voice.
Yes, (the government) could tell us what to do with their resources, because we could always say we don’t want (their) resources, but they can’t tell us what to do with our own voice, our own political opinions. And so we challenged that successfully all the way up to the Supreme Court.
At the same time, as we drill down into this, is what are the strings attached to those resources? We have for years worked with and challenged the procurement norms of the US government, how they control the resources, where can we push back and enable a partnership rather than a contractual relationship. This is an ongoing battle we have. We have seen, unfortunately, that as we have been more successful in establishing our voice, our independence, our ability to work, the governments have moved, and we’ve seen this in the US and in Europe, towards more contractual entities, simply entities that will do what you tell them to do. (…) So in that sense, our challenge is to steer governments towards this ability to partner locally.
We have for years worked with and challenged the procurement norms of the US government, how they control the resources, where can we push back and enable a partnership rather than a contractual relationship.
My fear is, and I see this in a very, very positive mood by the US government of “let’s move 30% of our resources directly locally.” That is great, but the US government is not the Swedish Government. Those resources are going to come with so many strings, so many restrictions that they could harm and destroy a local civil society, or simply turn them into entities that are an extension of the US government. It is essential that we find programs that do something different, and a model in my mind that comes to mind is the Ford Foundation. They have something called BUILD where they’ve dedicated a billion dollars simply to the capacity of local civil society. They’re not telling them what to do, where to do it; they’re saying, “We invest in you for your ability to exist.” Now no government is going to do that. They will always want deliverables, but we need to head into that direction.
So, let’s talk about this a little bit, Sam. For the last 10 years you’ve spent your time running a member organization that is ultimately in charge of manufacturing consent amongst a wide-ranging membership and then effectively projecting that as unified as voice as possible to the outside. How do you do that? Because you’ve had some successes in the Supreme Court, with the child nutrition case that resulted in hundreds of millions of efforts being put towards child nutrition by the US and later, I think, the UK Government. Great, well done. That does not come pain-free, right? As there are people on this podcast who are also representing membership organizations who also have the challenge of having to manufacture consent amongst them and then effectively project it. How do you do that?
So this is the expertise we’ve built. Well, that’s about 38 years, and even before that there were entities in the US; so we’ve been at this for a very long time. The one thing that we’ve learned, or several things we’ve learned, is: You have a common principle – in this case, it is human welfare, human dignity, human rights – that everyone believes in. So you start off with this common principle. You also come with a pragmatism that our goal here is not to change each other, so if you come from a faith background that’s more conservative or a progressive background, that doesn’t matter. Allow people to come in from the different perspectives and how they exist. That sort of level of mutual respect and tolerance has been built over decades. And then organize people and institutions around very concrete topics.
Allow people to come in from the different perspectives and how they exist. That sort of level of mutual respect and tolerance has been built over decades. And then organize people and institutions around very concrete topics.
At this point in time, InterAction has some 40 different work streams operating, so it’s not as if we’re trying to organize everyone and so forth. But let’s get the groups that are focused on Ukraine talking about Ukraine. Those that are dealing with Yemen, having conversations about Yemen. Those that are on food security there, and other groups around on climate or whatever the topic is. So organize in topical thematic areas. Bring together the experts of those different groups so that they could come in and talk with them.
And then the challenge then is to present an external challenge. Are we simply here to talk with each other and have great discussions or are we trying to actually solve something very concrete so that the group has to have a set terms of reference and what it is trying to solve and why? And then what moves things along very rapidly is you’re focused on particular policymakers, particular individuals. You don’t have time for big, large papers. You do have time to pull together one or two pages together with three or four points that you agree on, and the discussion is not on all the issues you disagree about. But what are those two or three things that you can agree on? And get that in front of someone very rapidly at the highest level possible. And what we find is when that starts changing policies, when that starts changing laws, people begin to buy into this process as it works. I’ll give a concrete example that is on an even larger scale than InterAction. (…)
There is a big topic that we absolutely must talk about that is looking into the future and maybe a couple of lessons from your past. Let’s look into the future first. (…) What are the three things, if you had to limit it to 3, Sam, that NGO leaders and their senior management need to look out for over the next 8-10 years. And what would be your top tips for battling them?
So the first is the world is fundamentally different than it was two years ago, let alone 10,20 years ago and will remain changing. Part of it is to remember that we have a role in this complex environment and to focus on where can you make a difference. Where pragmatically can you do something? Because we could always curse the darkness; to me is the question of where can we light that match that actually does something concrete. So it’s an issue of focus.
Where pragmatically can you do something? Because we could always curse the darkness; to me, is the question of, “Where can we light that match that actually does something concrete?”. So it’s an issue of focus.
It’s very much looking at how adaptive are you as an organization. If someone is saying “We’re a large INGO and look how global we are and all the good things we’re doing today.” If you have not and are not building an adaptive infrastructure, an infrastructure that could change, that could respond, that can spin-off, that can merge, that could close efforts – if you are not able to change that institution – it will not survive. Our challenge is to be adaptive to the times.
Also, within this very complex environment of pandemics, of rising conflict, of, you know, climate crisis, of poverty and human displacement or heading in the wrong direction and so forth, we need to look at who are our allies in this mix. It’s not us solving this problem. These are human problems. Where are the local governments that we could work with? Where is the local capacity that we have? Are there new ways of connecting and relating to each other that we could do? Are there businesses that are positive to partner with and move this forward? Are there new forms of connectivity that we could take advantage of or social movements that we could engage in?
So, the world is changing rapidly and our challenge is to sit back, to step back, to get some distance from this all and to ask the question of where do we remain relevant, stop those areas where we are not, reinforce those that you can. My fear is less that the INGO sector is going to disappear. If anything, more resources are flowing into larger institutions than ever before, and crises like Ukraine just reinforce that trend. My fear is that we’ll become less relevant and disconnected from the values that we are rooted in. So always asking ourselves, is this about the welfare of others? Who has a voice in changing the future? And it must be the people themselves. And how can we learn to partner in a way that is less hierarchical and less based on power and more based on the values that we have? That vision and that sense of purpose cannot go away from our sector. In fact, the world needs us more.
How can we learn to partner in a way that is less hierarchical and less based on power and more based on the values that we have? That vision and that sense of purpose cannot go away from our sector. In fact, the world needs us more.
Why do you say that? Do you fear that NGOs are navel-gazing? They’re too busy with the mechanics of running an international or national civil organization and non-governmental organization? Or do you fear that they’re moving away from their purpose somehow?
I think we always remain for our purpose. We do tend to auto-critique and self-critique ourselves all the time and we also tend to
see ourselves as the center of development. We are not. The center of development is not international development, it is local. It is happening through governments, through local institutions, through universities, through think tanks, through scientific efforts, etc. It is an enormous amount of social change that is happening outside the NGO sector, which is far larger than anything we do.
The question really for us as we critique ourselves and try to do better, is always to focus on where do we make a difference? If something is displaced by a market and the market is taking care of it, let’s focus on the people who are excluded from that market. If a war is displacing people, let’s focused on those people who are displaced. If a disease results in vaccines that are inequitably applied, let’s focus on issues of equity and vaccines. So our ability to adapt is linked inherently to our values, so I think we are good at those values at times. I do think, however, that we spend too much time in a sense that somehow we are the center of things rather than we are one contributor to this broad effort to advance human welfare, well-being and rights around the world.
Are NGOs too self-centered? Are we, at the same time, if we are keeping our purpose and our values close to our heart, and let’s bear in mind here that every organization under the sun professes to be purpose-led, are NGOs in danger of being too occupied with themselves, as a result, unable to change, unable to stay adaptive, unable to deliver impact?
They’re various issues that are forcing us to change, whether we like it or not. In the US context, you mentioned about $15.4 billion run through the NGOs that make up InterAction, and only about 24 percent of that is the entire U.S. government. So USAID is in teams and so forth. So we have multiple donors. We’re not centered on government and dependent on government donors. You’re having to get donations and engaging with the private sector. You’re having to engage with other governments, having to engage with the UN. You’re having to engage with local partners and individuals and so forth. And all those donors and all of them have influences on you and so forth. At the same time, you’re operating in different environments, you’re in, at times, you’re in war zones, other times you’re in areas where you’re more playing a technical role in supporting a government on its health system. So all these external forces are buffeting NGOs. They are changing what they’re made up of when we talk about them as if they’re unitary.
We are no longer a sideshow of the world. We are, in essence, something that has certain powers of influence and all that comes with a massive amount of responsibility. And in that world, we have to ask ourselves again, this constant question of how can we be more relevant? How can we be better while remaining rooted in our values?
These are 10s if not hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world. They’re made up of hundreds of different nationalities and technical skills, and so forth. That infrastructure, I have found every time I dig and push into it, all the individuals are there because they believe in a set of values, a set of betterment of human beings and so forth. That I think that is rooted in who we are. Our challenge is: how do we do that better? Can we do it in ways that give individuals more say over their own futures? What can we do when there’s disinformation from nation-states? What can we do when there are conflicts or tax directly directed at the NGO sector itself? One of our challenges is that we’ve grown up. We are no longer a sideshow of the world. We are, in essence, something that has certain powers of influence and all that comes with a massive amount of responsibility. And in that world, we have to ask ourselves again, this constant question of how can we be more relevant? How can we be better while remaining rooted in our values?
Do NGOs need to professionalize more, run more smoothly, run more like a corporate in order to be more purpose-led? Or do you feel that’s not the case?
I don’t see the contradiction. You want locally-led small grassroots volunteer efforts and we need those. At the same time, you need the ability to get food and resources into Tigray in an efficient manner with very complex logistics. The two are not at odds with each other, but don’t have one crush the other. We do need to recognize that when you have a big footprint, you might step on others and that is also a responsibility you have to make sure that when we partner, we do so in the best way possible, and I think we have a long way to go to be more effective partners around the world.
There are a plethora of NGOs, some of them members of your InterAction membership party, many others who, I would say, fail to scale. They profess, and they are deeply emotionally married to providing services and development support to their constituents. Be that, you know, disabled people. Be that lifting people out of poverty, be that children, girls’ education or be that anything. But, for the last 10 years, by their own measures, they fail to expand the group of the impact and many of them fail to serve more than 1% of their intended beneficiaries. You could sum this up as “you fail to scale”. It’s hard to argue that you’re an efficient, impactful organization if you do not touch the lives of more than 1% of those who need your services. What would you say to these organizations?
Let’s look at the NGO sector the way we look at business. You have multinationals, you have very targeted businesses that have niches. And then you have startups that are doing new things and so forth. OK, so that’s the private sector. Move to the NGO sector, organized part of civil society. You have both nationals, the big organized global NGOs with their broader scale. You have institutions that are niched, that technically move something forward and then you have startups that are trying to solve an individual problem. The reality is you start with, “What is it that we are accountable for and what are we relevant for?” At the micro-level, that little startup may help 10 people, or an NGO that is focused just on nutrition or just on, you know issues of blindness or just on issues of burns – pick your topic – that they may only help thousands or hundreds of thousands of people but not millions of people. But that life that has been helped, that individual who you partnered with who has a better future, that’s what we’re about. We cannot claim this ability to reach millions and so forth. Now, on the other end, you have the multinational NGOs and they are trying and able to reach millions. But there’s still millions more not reached.
Ultimately helping one person gives us enough value to exist.
So the answer is yes, there is part of our sector that needs to scale and part of the scale from governments and others. But there are other parts of our sector that will bring expertise, that will help small populations. And there’s still other parts of our community that are more focused on the charity model of, “I am going to help some individuals, some lives and just help save some lives and their futures.” All of them have relevance in terms of advancing human welfare. I think our challenge is less that we’re too small or too big and so forth. At times we claim that we’re going to change the world, and the answer is, that’s not true. We are able to change some lives. We are able, at times, to influence hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. That is where we get relevant. Ultimately helping one person gives us enough value to exist.
You are looking back at a long and distinguished career, and quite a lot of impact, I might say, onto not just the US, but particularly, the US civil society service. That’s a generational change happening. So, from you personally, what would be your top 2 tips for any incoming leaders or to manage a large INGO, or a small INGO, be it from the diary, managing the staff body, managing the donor and the foundation, fundraiser expectations or just the matter that you somehow need to be in three places or the same time all the time?
So tough question. I think that the beginning of the answer is of course the new leadership, that changing generation coming in. We’re going to have more diverse, more inclusive, more representative leadership as a sector, as a whole, and that’s positive. Let’s embrace that global vision with some grace, that diversity. I think it’s critical both in terms of gender and ethnicity, backgrounds, different orientations, and so that’s the first step.
The second is there are some just general norms associated with leadership. I don’t think that will change too much. There has to be a degree of humility, a sense that you’re leading as a collective. You’re leading through a mission and purpose. This is not the top-down leadership that you may get in the corporate sector. That does not work. It has to be earned. You have to be respected and respect has to come from your actions and that’s difficult to do. It’s important for anyone in these roles to look at their own sense of balance. If you are simply burning yourself out or not finding some sense of work-life balance or family-work balance, it is important that you look at this as an endeavor and that is not the sort of “I’m sacrificing myself and all my hours and so forth because I am changing the world in some positive way.” Rather, you are contributing to positive change, but you have to do that from the sense of personal wellbeing.
Remember that this is about a collective enterprise, not about you, but that you have a role to play, perhaps as a conductor for others to make it.
And lastly, I know there’s been lots of talk of professionalizing, but there are all sorts of management leadership norms, of adaptive leadership techniques to different forms of effective management that are professional, that are skills that need to be acquired and learned, etc. So we’re mirroring the best of what the private sector has, not because it’s taking over, but learning from others, with the values of the individuals coming from the nonprofit sector and the complexity of organizations, and remember that we are focused on delivering something that has an impact. And in doing so, remember that you can’t solve everything, you need to delegate, you need to push it out of centers of leadership beyond yourself. That this is about a collective enterprise, not you, but that you have a role to play, perhaps as a conductor for others to make it.