Our Member Profile blog series features Humentum members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. This month we feature Chief Impact Officer Edna Ogwangi of Rise Against Hunger. Based in Raleigh, NC, Edna has been working in development for more than 20 years, and has been with Rise Against Hunger since 2015. Here she talks about her career path, collaboration and innovation, driving learning internally, and how she defines operational excellence.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your career path and how you arrived at your present position.
A: I always had a dream that I would do this type of work in my lifetime. My journey started in 1998 when I landed an internship with Land O’ Lakes, Inc., one of America’s premier agribusiness and food companies based in Minnesota. As an intern, I was tasked with writing a concept note to USAID/Washington, DC, on how to revitalize the East Africa dairy sector, focusing on two countries—Kenya (my native country) and Uganda. USAID awarded this proposal, and my journey in international development work began and continues to this day. For most of my career, I have worn many hats, from program management, monitoring and evaluation, contracts and compliance, and field country officer, until October 2015, when I transitioned to Rise Against Hunger to take on a leadership position as the director of monitoring, evaluation, and aid distribution. Shortly after that, in April 2016, I was promoted to the position of chief impact officer to spearhead our impact strategy and program framework.
What does your day-to-day work entail at Rise Against Hunger?
Every morning we start with our daily management huddle—a quick 15-minute check-in with the management team. This gives us a quick snapshot of the day. I also have a habit of doing an informal check-in with my team, just to say “hello.” This makes my day and my team’s day brighter and better. I know very well that we are meant to be social beings and human interaction is important for everyone! Then my business day begins. A good chunk of my day involves focusing on the bigger picture. I am responsible for guiding our impact strategy and leading our theory of change for all our programs. I spend most of my time figuring out “How we will get there? How we are meeting the needs of our stakeholders? And how are we measuring our organizational impact?” Additionally, being a mid-sized organization, we are very intentional in strategic partnerships and collective impact, so this is a part of my job to make sure we are collaborating with like-minded organizations in the food and nutrition security space. Last but not least, I am actively involved in strategic leadership discussions and decision-making processes that involve new business and expansion.
What are some of the operational challenges/issues you face in your organization?
We are striving to become a learning organization not just in theory but in practice, interweaving it into our everyday work ethic. Based on my experience in this international field, organizational learning calls for strategic group thinking and thought leadership, as well as having a streamlined knowledge management system. If done well, it offers practically infinite benefits. We are not there yet! We are still working on creating thought leadership learning circles, and creating a culture where each person in the organization must be motivated to attain and share knowledge actively. In order to create a culture and environment like this, it’s necessary to have an incentive system in place—much more compelling than a goal. Without the effective measures in place to motivate our staff and clarify incentives for teams, individuals, and for the organization as a whole, the dissemination of information will be hindered. This is still a work in progress.
How do you respond to these operational challenges?
There many strategies and tactics we use, but I would like to highlight two that we use very frequently. First, collaborative strategies. I am a strong believer in teamwork and collaboration. I know very well that organizations that work cross-functionally bring more creativity to the table than siloed teams. Our organization is mid-sized and for us to succeed we need each other. This means every team and person must consistently have an opportunity to contribute their expertise. It also means we create an environment in which people feel safe to share their creativity and express their perspective.
Second, rigorous innovation. We value the creative process. A classic example is the wonderful department that I lead here at Rise Against Hunger, the Global Impact department. This team has always championed rigorous processes and innovation. I encourage my team to develop hypotheses about how to make changes and pilot their ideas. And then we continually learn from this creativity all the time. But, most importantly we reward innovation and learning.
Share a little bit more about becoming a learning organization. How do you encourage learning across Rise Against Hunger?
Being a learning organization is not easy because it requires an organization to be nimble and resilient. In 2016, we developed and rolled out our food security theory of change, which we call “Pathways to End Hunger Framework.” This came about after the launch of the United Nations Sustainable Goals in September 2015. While this framework looks great in theory, we at Rise Against Hunger also recognize that the environment we live in is very volatile and things could change; a decision made today on our food security programming can be refined as we learn from our pilot projects later as we scale them up. We understand fully that in an environment of continual evolution, we will never have full information and often we won’t even have sufficient information to make a long-term decision, but we often have enough information to decide about our next step. We therefore need to keep an open mind to revising our theory of change when we gain additional insights. Hence it enables us to become nimble learners in this space.
Additionally, working in this industry for over 20 years has taught me one thing—to be resilient. I frequently encourage my team to value adaptability, flexibility, and curiosity as they are the fuel for our process and success. Ongoing change in our development and humanitarian space requires us to build a foundation of well-being that supports ongoing innovation and change. Resilient people respond to situations with an attitude of curiosity and the ability to act with flexibility and adaptability. Finally, as a leader of a very innovative team. I have always encouraged my team to have a growth mindset and make amazing mistakes that nobody has ever made before, but most importantly learn from those mistakes.
You have written on the importance of measuring outcomes in donor reporting, as opposed to output-level results. This is an issue close to the heart of many who are implementing programs. What kind of opportunities do you have to share evidence of impact about your programs—or even stories about change—as opposed to just reporting numbers? And related to this, how open are funders to outcome-level data?
While quantitative output numbers are necessary to understand the reach of program activities, they sometimes do not tell the depth of the outcomes and impact of the program. I am a strong proponent of asking the “so what?” questions until we reach to the real outcome and impact of the program. I also believe that in order for local communities to have lasting positive change after the program implementation period, both donors and implementing organizations must be willing to gain in-country insights and adapt to the local context. This will bring local stakeholder involvement, create strong partnerships, and encourage sustainable, locally appropriate innovations to take off and scale. Additionally, we must understand impact is just more than output numbers and start to incorporate stories of change in our reporting. These qualitative impact changes include most significant change stories, outcome harvesting, appreciative inquiry, and others. Our role as implementing actors and change agents is to share with our donors, what is working or not working in the contextual framework and how we can best improve our programming so that we achieve sustainable results. Every donor wants to see positive lasting change happen. Ultimately the success of our stakeholders is our success!
How do you define operational excellence?
I equate operational excellence as a three-legged stool intertwined between three ingredients: culture, process, and results which ultimately leads to a sustainable and competitive advantage in an organization. While it is critical to have an organization with operational excellence in mind, the leadership team should be cognizant that each person in the organization has a stake in our collective success. We must immerse our staff in a collaborative environment where the team comes first. This means every member of the team is acknowledged and given an opportunity to learn and grow to advance the overall team and organization performance. It is still a work in progress here at Rise Against Hunger, but we are getting there!
Photo above: Edna with Rise Against Hunger Board Member Anne Bander with children while on a site visit in Haiti. Photographer: Robert Seligson.