It was 7am, and I was in professional dress, coffee in hand, headed into my first ever hospital board meeting. The executive conference room was full of CEO/COO/CFO types, the chief of pediatrics, some local politicians… power and influence. And they wanted me there, a lowly mother of four who worked just a handful of hours each week helping them understand the mind of a parent (and helping parents understand the minds of doctors and hospital staff). In many ways, my job was interpreting.
I will never forget the sick feeling in my stomach during that first presentation. The director of the Hematology/Oncology Department showed slide after slide of financials, emphasizing how much revenue their department brought into the hospital as an argument for why the hospital should invest in them more. All I could think was, “Children are suffering and dying a most horrific death. How can you talk about profit?”
But I stayed, quelled the waves of nausea, and learned that “profit” is the wrong word. The right word is “income.” They turn income around to invest in salaries, research, tests, and treatments. Money is essential to saving these precious children’s lives. Best of all, I learned that pediatric cancer research and treatment is highly collaborative. These specialists proactively share their discoveries. No matter which hospital or lab they work at, they collaborate with colleagues around the world because every one of them is passionate about saving children’s lives.
I no longer work for a children’s hospital. Today, I work for an anti-hunger non-profit, and I can’t help but be struck by the parallels between the two worlds. Our goals are very similar: save children’s lives, and make those lives better. What’s different is our methods. NGOs focus on things like clean water and nutritious food, improved health (deworming medications, basic first aid to prevent infection, and more), education, and livelihoods that can support a family. Our methods are also often the opposite of collaborative.
As one of my friends who works in the humanitarian sector told me, “Joy, you will not believe how nasty things get in the world of feeding hungry children.”
Our nation’s charities could learn a lot about collaborating from the pediatric cancer world. The current climate of humanitarian work is territorial, splintered, and fractious. We take defensive and competitive postures, talking and acting as if other NGOs are our enemies. And we slip into prioritizing our own survival over saving lives.
One of the first things I noticed about humanitarian organizations is the sheer number of them. As Eric Stowe, Founder and Director of Splash, says in the above Tedx Talk (you will find the stats around the 1:05 mark, but take the 13 minutes and watch the whole thing), today the United States is home to over 17,000 charities working internationally and representing over $30 billion in annual revenue. His story is all too common: he decided to invest himself in providing clean water to orphans, joined an organization, became disillusioned with their unsustainable approach, and left to start his own charity. While well-meaning, most of these new charities are started under the notion that a small-time new-kid-on-the-block can do it better than any of the thousands of charities already at work… which leads to giant egos and nasty competition.
When our egos get involved, we very quickly forget that the goal of a humanitarian should be to work herself out of a job, to be so successful in helping people achieve independence that he is no longer needed. We forget that we’re all on the same team. We forget to respect, value, and capitalize on the strengths of the others working at the same things we are, and we refuse to admit our own weaknesses, blind spots, and mistakes. We get defensive. We get territorial. We get greedy. And then, instead of making decisions that prioritize doing what’s best for the people we’re trying to help, our fight becomes one of self-preservation.
Thanks to Jamie Wright’s post a couple of weeks ago, many people have been talking about how NGOs work and how they talk about their work. This is an important conversation. But we also need a larger conversation about pride and ego, competition vs collaboration, when helping hurts, and how charities can and should try to work ourselves out of a job.
We are on the same team, so let’s act like it. We have the same goals. Let’s work together to achieve them. Children are dying while we fight about accounting practices, scalable models, proselytizing, and child sponsorship. Let’s remember that we are not here to waste time patting ourselves on the back, soothing our guilt, or winning awards. We are here to eradicate hunger, end human trafficking, and raise people out of poverty. We are here to save people’s lives.