When we think of dynamic, successful, start-up organizations, we typically think of Silicon Valley and its rich complement of technology-driven, wildly-profitable businesses. From ride sharing applications, to social media platforms, and autonomous electric vehicles, the stories of overnight, billion-dollar success stories from the West coast are plentiful and well-known. Less known are the stories of rapid success and explosive growth by non-profit and social impact organizations. One typically doesn’t think of those entities as being particularly bold or innovative. But there are great stories to be told and lessons to be learned from their resourceful and creative leaders who are driven primarily by a dedication to better the world, rather than furthering corporate ambitions. I recently had the opportunity to study one such organization and its own dynamic leaders, the Canadian-based entity known was WE, which was founded by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger in 1995. The organization consists of WE Charity, a not-for-profit entity, and ME to WE, an innovative social enterprise that funds the charity and employs hundreds of workers in developing countries. The arc of WE, which began operating out of the Kielburger’s family basement when the brothers were just 12 and 16 years old, has been astounding and worthy of study. As it approaches its 25 year anniversary, it has grown into a large-scale international organization operating on 4 continents with over a thousand employees. In many ways, WE’s trajectory of rapid growth in a very short time is quite similar to a typical tech start-up, but what makes WE’s story unique is the talent, dedication and passion of the two brothers who lead the organization. Their story unfolds in four distinct phases, each with its own unique set of challenges and successes. In just over two decades, the Kielburgers and their fledgling ‘start-up’, matured, adapted and grew into what is now becoming a world-class social impact organization. When the small group of young volunteers formed Free the Children (WE Charity’s original name) in 1995, their resources couldn’t have been more meagre, but their passion was unlimited. The original cause they fought for was ending child labour in developing countries. Sketching out plans from their parents’ kitchen table, or stuffing envelopes in their basement, the culture of the organization then was ‘everyone does everything’. The small team was fueled by their vision to help other children in faraway countries, the belief that they could make a difference, non-stop work, and a lot of stale pizza. They were a tiny operation by any measure, but their work was noticed on the world stage almost immediately when 12-year old Craig managed to secure a meeting in India with the visiting Canadian Prime Minister. That meeting landed him on front-pages and newscasts Stage One: All for one, one for all
around the world, and led to a major influx in funding and long list of people wanting to partner with the young activists. The focus of the organization expanded, too. It wasn’t enough to free children from forced labour operations – the bigger issue at the time seemed to be that the impoverished children had no education and nowhere else to go. So Free The Children began building schools. Lots of them. Entrepreneurs are hardwired to say ‘yes’. Yes to new partnership opportunities, ‘yes’ to any form of growth, ‘yes’ to all possibilities. Nothing happens in business or in an organization until someone says ‘yes’. And no leader of a start-up, ever wants to say ‘no’, regardless of whether or not they have the capacity to deliver. Those requests to say ‘yes’ were becoming particularly abundant for the Kielburger brothers. Owing to their drive, charisma, vision and dedication, many donors and businesses were lining up to ask them to say ‘yes’. By 2004 they had appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show several times and had a commitment from her to build 100 schools in Kenya. The ‘Oprah effect’ led to seemingly unending opportunities to take on more and more work, and the young WE team hadn’t yet developed the foresight to turn any one of them down. Why would you every say ‘no’ to someone’s offer to partner or invest in you? No matter how impossible the opportunity actually was, the singularly focussed WE staff would take it on, and deliver. But that came at a cost. Long hours each weekday and working all weekend were the norm. By 2007, they had built 500 schools between Africa and South America. But even that wasn’t enough because the children couldn’t attend school if they had to walk all day to get clean water for their families. And they couldn’t learn if they had no food in their stomachs, which was most of the time. So WE established WE Villages, to create a wholistic solution to support children: ending poverty, providing clean water, enabling families to grown their own food and sustain themselves. Only once those basic needs were addressed could the children consistently attend the new schools WE had built for them. Nobody in the organization worked harder to implement and deliver on those necessities than Craig and Marc. Their entire lives were dedicated to WE’s mission. As impressive at that was, it created a situation where the senior leadership modeled an expectation for the other staff that most couldn’t sustain. It certainly wasn’t intentional – that’s just how they were wired. But in that era, the organization focussed too much on maintaining a breakneck pace with hard work and long hours, and not enough on the outcome of those efforts. Stage Two: Swing at Every Pitch
There were other growing pains. Some of the original employees were moving into leadership roles without the proper skills or training. Despite being highly dedicated and intelligent people, certain roles could only properly be marshalled by specialists. A lifelong activist can work with numbers 12 hours a day but never be able to achieve what a trained accountant could do in half quarter that time. Activity is not the same as movement. A boat with a powerful engine running twelve hours a day will make lots of noise and use lots of fuel, but it’s not likely to get anywhere if the operator doesn’t know how to steer.
Simply put, the organization needed to become more efficient and more professional.
Stage Three: What got us here, won’t get us there
By 2009, Marc and Craig realized that WE could not progress much further without some key changes. First and foremost was the matter of funding. Following the devastating 2004 tsunami in South East Asia, charitable funds were being spread among an ever-growing list of non-profits who responded to the widespread destruction and loss of life. That was followed by the 2008 world economic crisis, which led to a significant decrease in charitable donations. i The net result was more organizations chasing fewer dollars. And for WE that meant more time, staff and infrastructure dedicated trying to raise funds instead of delivering for the charity’s beneficiaries. Working harder and putting more staff hours to fundraising was not going to advance the mission. The dollars were just not there. That reality laid the groundwork for Marc and Craig to launch ME to WE. The social enterprise was the first of its kind in Canada and fundamentally changed the way charities and social impact organizations could operate. By selling products and trips to consumers, instead of trying to leverage funds from scarce donors, ME to WE created a sustainable revenue stream for WE Charity to operate and grow well into the future. It also created work for thousands of artists and craftspeople in Africa and South America. By 2012, the leaders also started to understand the power of the word ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ did not come naturally at first, and Craig and Marc began to change as leaders, understanding that the strengths and limits of their organization and their people might not be the same as their own innate work style or energy level. With the revenue stream soon consistently delivering for the charity, they were able to start looking at all big decisions and opportunities through a three-tier model: 1. Do we want to do it? Previously, the answer was always an enthusiastic “yes”. It was an emotional response and one that often over-loaded the organization. But with the
emotional maturity they developed, they considered opportunities less based on want and more on feasibility. 2. Can we do it? Does WE have the resources, the skills and the overall capacity within the organization to deliver on the opportunity at a high level? Does it have enough staff to deliver the project in a way that’s healthy for them? Will the opportunity take away from other more important deliverables? 3. Should we do it? Just because the organization could execute the project, doesn’t mean it’s the right fit. Does the partner share WE’s values? Is the opportunity in line with WE’s mission? Will it provide the most impact for the time and resources WE needed to invest to make it happen? To ensure they could say ‘yes’ more confidently and more often, the organization went from a mission first mentality to a people first philosophy. This meant focussing on better supporting employees’ physical and mental health, onboarding well-established experts with specialized skills, leadership and management training for existing staff, and an overall understanding that working smarter was more impactful than working harder. The organization was growing up, figuratively and literally. Many members of the original staff, including Marc and Craig, were having families and better appreciated outside demands on employees. Just as the founders of tech companies are intimately involved in every detail and decision related to their business, so too were Marc and Craig when it came to WE. But as most tech founders also learn, there are benefits derived from delegating and stepping back from day-to-day operations to focus on the bigger picture of creating more and more impact. This brings us to modern-day WE, where work and sweat are no longer the sole measure of commitment. The focus now is on results; increasing impact. And WE knows better than most of its peers that the way to maximize impact is by striving to be a world-class organization. Organically, and strategically, WE is moving from a pure “accountability” culture to one of “people development”. This is the jump from “mission first” to “mission and people first”. They have been, in a variety of ways, asking the question, “How do we move our work and our people at the same time--to become the organization, in any way we can, that develops and grows it’s staff?” WE has given its home grown leaders hundreds of hours of leadership training and personal coaching. It has hired best-in-class sector experts in areas like IT, Strategic Planning, Human Resources and other critical specializations. It has created additional layers of leadership with mature systems of growth. With 75% of its employees falling into the millennial demographic, there is a strong focus on retaining and supporting this notoriously restless employee group. To that end, WE provides competitive salaries and unique benefits including travel opportunities, free gym memberships, on-site yoga and meditation classes, and a wide range of health and dental coverage. Stage 4: Reassess and mature
Above all, Marc and Craig have learned that it’s the people that create the impact, and it’s the organization’s job is to support the people. If the support system in terms of health, wellbeing, physical infrastructure, technology, training, and leadership are all world-class, then the people will efficiently and effectively deliver world-class results.
i https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financialcrisis/3405594/Charity-donations-hit-by-financial-crisis.htmlPage 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5
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