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Together Again – Discussing messy change at Humentum’s Executive Summit

January 12, 2023

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Jessica Walker

Senior Manager, Convenings, US

On December 1, Humentum hosted our first major in-person gathering for members since 2019. The Executive Summit brought together C-suite leaders from international NGOs (INGOs) to talk about the four components of operating models that Humentum believes are vital to equitable, locally-led development. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with one another, create new relationships, and socialize face-to-face again.

The event required new and old skills – in-person logistics are a lot more different than creating a Zoom link! — and COVID-19 has added a new layer of health and safety concerns. But, together, we successfully examined old and new challenges in breakout groups that addressed topics in each of the four key areas of Humentum’s Theory of Change: institutional architecture; people and culture; funding and financial systems; and compliance and risk.

Key Themes

Our opening panel highlighted key themes for the Executive Summit:

  • First, change is happening, but at varying speeds and in varying ways.
  • Second, while we know what the general end goal is, the effort to get there can have some unintended consequences. For example, Kelly Saldana, Vice President, Systems Strengthening and Resilience, Abt Associates, highlighted that the very act of shifting power will mean that new power dynamics will come into play.
  • Third, the “why” behind change needs to be clear to provide inspiration for pushing through. As Ennie Chipembere, Director, Locally-Led Development for Humentum, said, “Equity is messy and it’s hard. The journey will be long and difficult to end up with the change we want to see.

Organizations must evaluate how, where, and why they are invested in change – and that change needs to align with their original mission and values to ensure they bring their stakeholders along. The pace of this change depends on a variety of factors, including the organization’s risk tolerance, their understanding of the goal and the process to get there, and the commitment of the executive team and Board.

As Dr. Joyce Tamale, Humentum Board Member and Co-founder and CEO of Capital Solutions said, it will depend on “designing the solution from within.

Not everyone will go the same speed, but we’re all on the same road – even the ones that don’t want to be, as they are dragged along by the sector as a whole.

As we all examine definitions and processes and try to imagine what the sector of the future might look like, it’s important to dream big. As Kelly said, it’s important to remember that working toward that dream could have unintended consequences that end up being just as damaging as historical dynamics unless we work hard to ensure they are truly equitable.

Working with local partners and national NGOs will help the change itself be locally-led. In many of the conversations, attendees reminded one another that they should be focusing on using their influence to affect change with funders while listening to their partners for what changes are needed within and from their own organizations.

Guiding Questions

In the afternoon, attendees self-selected into breakout rooms to discuss the ways in which change is coming, noting that it’s crucial to encourage a pace fast enough for real, noticeable progress but slow enough to bring everyone along. Relatedly, what is support, and what is resistance? For some, staff who are passively supportive are more of a roadblock to shifting power than those that are openly resistant.

The way leaders approach the process is going to be key to success; change management will be critical to building commitment and shared ownership of the process internally and externally.

As attendees wrestled with how they approach these topics, they developed guiding questions to help themselves and others think through change. For example:

  • To what are we holding ourselves accountable? How? To whom?
  • Are proposed changes true to our mission and values?
  • What is our tolerance level for change? For risk?
  • Where do roles need to sit, and where can they sit? How does this impact compensation?
  • How do we develop standards or metrics for change?
  • How can processes be complete, yet flexible?

Alongside process questions, attendees looked at more philosophical issues like:

  • Are proposed changes actually shifting power, or are they surface level?
  • How do we work toward anti-racism and/or decolonization from within structures built on racist, colonial histories?
  • Is it a bad thing if shifting power affects funding?
  • What does real partnership look like?
  • Who do we want to be as an organization? As a sector?
  • How do we get buy-in from the whole sector?

And the biggest questions of all:

  • How can INGOs continue to demonstrate value? What is the role for INGOs in the sector of the future?

As we wrapped up the day, attendees reviewed notes from the breakouts and heard from a panel of volunteers who shared insights from the day.

Influence: The progress of change will depend on influence. INGOs can lead change – and its pace – by shifting internally and using influence to encourage external change among funders and partners. For now, it is more about practicalities, but as progress is made, change will need to focus on the philosophical role of INGOs.

Ongoing: Each organization will approach equity differently, starting with understanding its own reasons and goals for change. For example, John McPhail, President and CEO, Partners of the Americas, noted the different, often conflicting, ways equitable compensation can be approached (by role or by market) and how it will take time to find a sector best practice. As individual organizations determine what works best for them, and we collectively evaluate what is most equitable, we will need to monitor impacts and keep making tweaks in an ongoing process to reduce the negative and increase the positive.

Change: Throughout the day, attendees grappled with the fact that change is hard. Organizations – and their staff – will need to be resilient. It will require a dual approach – innovating to work within existing structures, while influencing to change the shape of the structures themselves. As mentioned throughout the day, this will require individual mindset shifts, internal change at organizations, and collective change throughout the sector. This change is messy– as was repeated throughout the day – but together we can work through it.

It was a welcome change to meet in-person and to approach these difficult topics face-to-face. This Executive Summit focused on US-based INGO executives, and the discussion highlighted the need to hold similar conversations among national NGO leaders and continue building connections across these groups for maximum collaboration and impact.

Humentum looks forward to facilitating more conversations in 2023 and exploring how we all wade through the messy change toward a more equitable, resilient, and accountable sector.


To continue the conversation, stay tuned for an in-depth analysis of the State of the Sector report coming early 2023 – if you want to be the first to know, subscribe to the Building our Future newsletter here.

Starting in March, join our 2023 Operationalizing Locally-Led webinar series for INGOs and national NGOs, where we dig into the policies and practices that align to shift power in the sector.

Register here for the INGO series

And here for the NNGO series