Leadership must evolve for partnerships to grow

Harpinder Collacott, Executive Director of Mercy Corps Europe, believes changing how we assess the success of humanitarian leaders is key to a systemic shift.

Organisations have to evolve and move forward – the way we worked in the past won’t be the way we work in the future.

I’m fine with that, because I don’t think there’s ever been true stability in the humanitarian sector. Although, times of substantial change can mean it is sometimes quite an uncomfortable place to be as a leader.

I really believe the more learning I can access and analyse, the better informed my decision-making will be. It helps me make sound choices, sometimes quite courageous choices, to take the organisation forward.

But success for organisations – particularly NGOs – is still very much defined by growing your operation and growing financially. We are all clamouring for relationships with donors and to get our foot in the door, continuing to increase our revenue so we can fund our core operations, which are essential to delivering humanitarian and development programming at scale.

We need to start changing and challenging financial growth as the key indicator of success. Our success will also be judged by how much our partners grow, how we show up as a partner for local CSOs, the impact we achieve and our ability to deliver results for the people we seek to serve.

Some of the best examples of success and impact are small projects and programmes, which have large-scale impact and substantial reach despite their small budgets. In 2023, Mercy Corps’ MicroMentor initiative reached 60,000 new entrepreneurs and small business founders across the world, connecting them to a network of over 20,000 mentors, and creating more than 10,000 jobs in just one year. Initiatives like these are changing people’s lives for the better – their impact and success should not be judged on the size of their budget but their results.

As an INGO leader, my role should be to champion my partners and their initiatives that are delivering at scale, creating space for them to speak up and bringing their approaches into donor discussions too.

Speaking collectively for impact and results, no matter how we achieve them, will be critical to all our success. It’s not easy in the current climate to promote partners when we are all fighting for the gold dust of unrestricted funding and living hand to mouth year-on-year. Humanitarian funding tends to be short-term, requiring leaders to be continually out there seeking funding without much reprieve. However, when we start to talk about collective results and the role of a rich civil society ecosystem, that’s when leadership will really take a leap of learning.

Part of my role is trying to help my board think through how we can collectively create an ecosystem where we all contribute to the same goals. I would love for my success to be judged on that – building a rich and diverse community of actors of all scales and sizes, pulling towards creating a better world.

We need a shift so all future humanitarian leaders are assessed on how they forge partnerships, informed by feedback provided and success factors shaped by their partners.

Right now, Mercy Corps is spending a lot of time workshopping ideas with our partners to look at what this means, trying not to impose metrics on them from our perspective, but actually hearing from them. We must get those success criteria right to work in a way that is going to be useful for all of us and enable real change in the ecosystem.

A lot of systemic change is already underway, but we need to institutionalise this, manage knowledge effectively and inform the sector appropriately about how things can be done differently.

Having come from a medium-sized thinktank to a large global organisation, I see it’s quite a task to build in learning at every point in the process and commit to learning from each other. The tendency of humanitarian responders to do just that – respond fast when a crisis occurs – can mean learning processes are compromised in favour of fast action. The challenge for the humanitarian sector is: how do we do both?

Leaders of INGOs are all thinking this through and grappling with these challenges. A community of practice is important to create the right conditions for INGO leaders to be able to discuss and contemplate these issues and how we can change.

These are the quintessential challenges of our time. The organisations we lead today will not look the same tomorrow and that means leaders must support their organisations to adapt to be relevant for the future.