Recently, EMpower’s President & CEO Cynthia Steele spoke with Beth Fredrick, a leading expert on global sexual and reproductive health and rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a long-serving member of our US Board. They spoke about good governance, philanthropic trends, and more.
You have such an interesting perch. Given the composition of our boards, and your experience both in the nonprofit and philanthropic spaces, I’m curious to know what you observe about EMpower’s governance model.
It is the backbone of any vibrant organisation, and I think in the 17 years I’ve been on the EMpower board, I’ve seen the impact of more attention to governance. In the beginning, it was almost as if the meeting structure and decision-making power of the board were secondary to their overarching interest in what we could do in emerging markets. That’s changed dramatically. I especially appreciate how much the emerging market investors on the Board care about making sure that everyone can share their views on big decisions. Moreover, there isn’t so much structure that it holds us back from taking chances and letting each of the EMpower regional offices do the work that they need to do. Governance has been an ongoing struggle in my time on the board, but I think we’re in a good place now.
Pivoting slightly, it feels like philanthropy is a highly dynamic sector. I’m curious to know what shifts in philanthropy you are observing.
One of the things that is an asset to EMpower, and is also now a big trend in philanthropy, is the focus on supporting local organisations. That’s because our grantee partners are strong enough and good enough to take money directly. The long overdue realisation is that there is strength at both the local and country level. But what’s missing is a big piece of what EMpower has built, which is connecting organisations with one another in countries, in regions, and globally. As EMpower has evolved its grantmaking, it has included capacity building. That was controversial in the beginning because many felt like that wasn’t actually doing the work. We’ve come to realise that the reverse is true. If you don’t build the capacity, then the organisations we fund risk not sustaining their programmes after our grants stop. And they’re not going to be competitive if they don’t have a good financial system, a good human resources handbook, and a strong management structure. I’m proud of that and it fits well with some of the trends that we are seeing in philanthropy right now. There is more recognition that young people worldwide represent a big wave of need but also strength. EMpower is perfectly positioned because we have supported some of the strongest and most innovative organisations in emerging markets. We also have a track record of listening to and engaging young people in effective ways.
How is EMpower positioned (or not) to capitalize on these trends in philanthropy?
One thing that I think we could do more of—and it might be a hard sell—is providing unrestricted general support to our grantees so they can prioritise exactly what they need. They can build a coffee shop or hire a communications professional or they can hire a janitor—whatever they need. That unrestricted support is becoming rarer. As someone who is a friend of mine used to say, “Somebody has to buy the toilet paper.” At the end of the day, we need to start thinking about if we can build in some money to spark innovation on its own.
You’ll be happy to know that we can give up to 50% of every grant as unrestricted. We started this during COVID when we knew partners needed flexibility, and we continued afterwards— recognising it as a best practice that had worked. Sunset grants are 100% unrestricted for whatever they want to do with their final big grant.
I’m happy to be reminded of that because it really is a strength of EMpower’s grantmaking. The way in which the staff has evolved and the caliber of staff that is now working with EMpower is exciting to me because it was a very lean organisation when I joined the Board and even when you came on as CEO. Now there are programme, communications, and administrative people that you’ve brought on who now drive the success and quality of our work. One of the most exciting things for me is listening to the staff. I can never predict what they’re going to say, and that’s the joy of it all.
We have a fantastic team, and I am especially proud of the growth in the countries where we support programmes.
I’ve served on a number of different boards and one of the perennial questions is: “Do you have a succession plan?” You don’t need one at EMpower. Almost all members of the senior team could succeed us: the Board members, and the leadership. And EMpower would be just fine.
I am so glad that you see that—we have worked hard to build a deep pool of talent. Was there anything you’d like to add?
I’ve been wondering whether it’s time to start thinking about harnessing the opinions of the young people we work with. Helping them to inform the world’s thinking on what young people can do and what’s important to them. I was reflecting on the Africa Health International Conference and how the Global CEO of AMREF, Githinji Gitahi, came up with a very clever way to talk about the multiple crises we’re facing right now. He was talking about the 4 c’s: conflict, COVID, climate crisis, and cost of living—which are even more relevant for young people. There has never been enough progress for young people in terms of education, employment, health, and involvement in the electoral and governance process. We have the opportunity to highlight their opinions in an annual survey that would help us bring new people into EMpower and more attention to the priorities of young people.
It would also be a way for them to engage their own communities and constituents in whatever geography they are working. It may be a way for them to learn what the young people beyond them think as well. Most youth we work with, by virtue of our collaboration, have the organisational platform, leadership skills, and personality to be a part of this kind of effort. This could bring in more youth who don’t have those advantages. They’re working in the home or outside, and often just trying to make ends meet. It could be part of EMPower’s brand of proactivity and responsiveness. Both are only some of the reasons I love EMpower and being on the Board. It’s changing all the time and I am happy to be part of the evolution.
Look forward to sharing more with you on the many ways we are engaging excluded young people to get their perspectives, with even more on the horizon. You’ve been such an important part of EMpower’s evolution! Thank you.View All News
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