Recently, Cynthia Steele, EMpower’s President and CEO, spoke with Michael Hirschhorn, a strategy consultant in business and nonprofit organisation management, founder of mebl: Transforming Furniture, and long-time member of EMpower’s US Board of Directors. They spoke about the intersections of finance and human rights, organisational culture and values, and more.
You are one of two current board members who have been part of EMpower since its inception, along with Rob Kushen. What strikes you about its journey over these 22 years?
Well, if ever there's been an organisation that has gone to scale, it's EMpower. We really were the sector equivalent of "launched in a garage." Now we are a very sophisticated and far larger organisation, that's not just gotten bigger, but more thoughtful, strategic, and global.
Another trademark of EMpower has been what I think of as mutual learning: at the beginning, this was the juxtaposition of two fields that don't always meet: the financial sector and the human rights sector. Over the years, I've seen a lot of respect in both directions; for a bunch of my colleagues on the board—high performing emerging markets execs—their natural worldview was not the human rights worldview. But they were ready to step back and pull in the right professional colleagues and a handful of board members from outside the EM finance sector and listen.
In the other direction, there's a unique imprint on EMpower as a nonprofit organisation because it is governed largely by finance sector practitioners who look at outcomes and cost ratios in a certain way. Each has pushed against the other, and what's emerged has been stronger for both. The gestalt, the shape, of EMpower is different than other organisations, and I say that in a positive way.
You’re on the board of various nonprofits involved in human rights. What is unique about having the finance community, which is one of our key stakeholders, involved in the human rights space? As you say, historically, they’ve been fairly siloed sectors.
I think that’s a piece of what attracted me to EMpower from day one. While some progressive friends might write off anything that has to do with those who are working in the markets, who are trying to do well by the geographies that are core to their investments, I have never felt free to desist from the effort. That's a cultural tradition I come from; it's too easy to make sweeping statements and write off possibility.
My first role at EMpower was actually facilitating a strategic planning process in which I interviewed many of the early board members in their offices. It was unmissable that while they might not have known the lingo, their heart was there. They weren't just involved with EMpower because it was a nice thing to do, but far more deeply, because it felt like an inextricable complement to what they did 9-to-5 (or 7 am-to-11 pm!). One was not the nice add-on; the two were symbiotic. As goes the well-being of the communities that we work in, so goes the well-being of the core business.
A decade later I went on to head up what's now called the Human Rights Funders Network. One of the things that I often tried to do with those that were part of the Network was to say, you don't have to just hew to the jargon to be a human rights funder. If you're comfortable with that, if that makes sense for you, go for it.
But if you're doing the work, if you're helping young people fulfill their human rights—by whatever name you want to call it—strengthening individual ‘agency’ through education and after-school programmes, helping girls understand a range of pathways to womanhood, go for it. Don't become paralysed by what can be an overwhelming bubble of jargon and concepts, when in fact, you're doing the work already. I think that is where EMpower has been very strong. If you read the literature of EMpower—unlike literature of many colleague organisations—it's not dominated by human rights terminology. But the goals, the methodology, the staff, and many of the board are committed to the principles.
I agree wholeheartedly. As is centring the protagonism of young people in making decisions and shaping their own lives and being the experts. To me, that is a big part of seeing them in their full humanity.
And that is radical. Some might say EMpower is not a radical organisation. When I see what I call the juxtaposition—when the emerging markets financial sector works with EMpower and sits, trusts, and listens to young people—that's radical. Even though there's not a neon sign, it's the quiet work of radicalism.
I love that. You helped us do a work climate survey several years ago. I'm interested to know why you think organisational culture matters so much?
It's all about “walking the talk” on a very clearly defined set of organisational values. Most organisations do, but not always paying attention to what does it mean to translate them into how the staff collaborate, how staff work together, especially in a complex organisation. On one hand, there's always been a virtual dimension to the way EMpower runs because it's global and there are offices all over the world. But that virtual has gotten exponentially more intense with the pandemic, and who knows what the next year or two will bring.
I also want to talk about governance culture. To evolve as an organisation—to think about what does it really mean to minimise silos at a staff collaboration level, but also at a governance level –is no easy trick. It's an ongoing project. It’s not just that the organisation evolved, it's that it has continued to evolve. So yes, there are problems. But if there weren't problems, we wouldn’t be pushing the envelope enough.
With this convergence over two decades: growth, operating on multiple continents, now working virtually, and a commitment to asking what it means to live our values—not just in grantmaking, but in the ways we relate to each other—that takes work and intentionality. We're going to know if we're not doing a good job because people are going to walk. We hire smart people, we hire savvy people. Why are they going to stay? A lot of it will boil down to: Am I working for an organisation that cares about me and my professional development? Am I aligned with its mission? Where climate is really work culture—getting the most out of the individuals who are part of the team.
Any parting thoughts, in closing?
I just used the word intentionality. I wanted to say that, as a board member who has been with EMpower for a long time and who serves in a board role in a number of other organisations, another thing that stands out about EMpower is the intentionality and the seriousness with which we engage in strategic planning.
In some other organisations, it's largely a cookie-cutter approach: casually codifying what is, to feel good about the way we do things. At EMpower, I've been through this three different times, at different degrees of proximity. It's always a very serious process, and we’re not afraid to ask hard questions. Are we doing things the best way? Are we optimising the way we spend our money? The particular DNA of EMpower makes us ask that question more frequently than it might get asked in other like-minded nonprofits. And to say, are there things that made sense five years ago that just don't make sense anymore? Or, are there things that we do a little of that we need to do a lot of?
How do we codify a framework for expanding globally? How do you actually get what we now think of as the Joint Executive Committee—a model that represents an intentional incarnation of thinking about how to make something work that could otherwise be a big mess, or a competitive jumble. How do we pick where we work? How do we pick where we no longer can work? How do we integrate country-based staff versus more centrally-based staff? What's the theory of change that ties all this together?
I've just been proud to be part of the strategic planning processes that sometimes land on decisions that mean that some people’s, some staff members’, some board members’ favorite things are no longer what makes sense for the goals of the organisation. It transcends any one particular person’s sensibility. That's a very healthy sign about EMpower.
Thank you, Michael—that means a lot.
My pleasure. I have to add, Cynthia Steele, thank YOU for leading us.View All News
Stay up-to-date on the latest EMpower news, highlights from our grantee partners, upcoming events, and more.