Marie Staunton: Values-driven leadership enables charities to do their jobs better

Investing in feminist leadership at ActionAid showed how changing behaviours can lead to tangible improvement

Marie Staunton
Marie Staunton

Running an organisation in line with its core principles is one of the most important, yet potentially challenging parts of a leadership job. When running a charity this matters tenfold. If, for example, the job of a development charity is to empower people who live in poverty to change their lives, we must apply these principles to ourselves and our workplace.

It’s something we’re working through at ActionAid, because last year we made the decision to run our organisation on feminist principles. We focus on disadvantaged women and girls, so feminist leadership makes sense as an organisational tool for us. It’s an approach other charities have used to be more in line with their values. For example, health charities have used compassionate leadership principles to challenge and change their culture.

We define feminist principles in the workplace as a committed attempt at reflection, continuous learning and being mindful of the power that we have as individuals in any situation – irrespective of where we are in the organisational structure – and how we exercise it.

Why are we making this move? In 2003 ActionAid was the first international NGO to change its power structure. It devolved ownership from the UK to local boards, introduced parity in decision-making between funding and delivery countries and moved its headquarters from London to Johannesburg.

But leadership was still traditional and patriarchal. It made power a zero-sum game: if I get some, there is less for you. Feminist leadership seeks to transform that dynamic. It tells us that we can become powerful by making those around us feel empowered, able and respected. It seeks power with others instead of power over others.

How to align your organisation with your core principles

At ActionAid we started by defining and agreeing 10 feminist behaviours. We then considered how to communicate the feminist behaviours internally, which is key to embedding them successfully.

It’s important that we recognise that many aspects of feminist behaviours are already exhibited by staff in our organisation and make it clear that staff aren’t expected to embody all of the behaviours from the off. Feminist leadership is a journey of self-reflection, learning and growth.

We are rolling out workshops to help staff build the confidence to strengthen and develop their feminist behaviours, equipping them with the relevant knowledge and the space to practise associated skills. The workshops will cover subjects such as equality, diversity and inclusion, respectful feedback, constructive disagreement and working in teams.

Tangible changes in how things are done show that the organisational commitment to core principles is real. For example, one of our behaviours is "inclusion", something that is realised by including the most relevant people – junior or senior – in the hiring process. Interview panels now consist of staff from different roles across the organisation who bring a range of views and life experiences.

In terms of the day-to-day, we’re using the behaviours in personal development and appraisals to help staff understand what being a feminist leader really means. The integration of new behaviours should be treated as flexible, encouraging staff to find their own ways to practise the behaviours and accepting that this will be done in different ways by different people.

For charities that want to drive culture change, it’s also key that behaviours are role-modelled at all levels within the organisation. At a recent awayday the ActionAid UK board reflected on how trustees were implementing feminist leadership: were we inclusive, were decisions transparent, how could we bring out and deal with conflict?

Although still in its early days, the benefits of feminist leadership were already apparent at the annual assembly of the 44 countries of the ActionAid federation this summer. The facilitator was adept at calling out overly dominating behaviour and sessions were run with a focus on everyone feeling included, valued and heard. The power of money and the "richer" donor countries was transparent, commented on and challenged constructively. Changing our cultures led directly to a more honest, productive debate.

As charities, our ultimate focus is what difference our behaviours make to beneficiaries. As international NGOs face claims of sexual harassment, will feminist leadership make ActionAiders more confident to call out harassment and abuse of power? Yes, we are getting more reports and more cases are being spotted.

It’s important to acknowledge that any culture change takes time. In a large devolved international organisation there is always a group in one country that is five years ahead, and another doing things we thought had stopped five years ago. The journey matters, though.

To make a difference, ActionAid is challenging itself to behave differently. Empowering our own teams is not only the right thing to do, but it will ultimately enable us to do our job better: to empower the most disadvantaged and excluded women and girls.

We are confident that other charities could benefit from a similar approach.

Marie Staunton is chair of ActionAid UK

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