How to Change the World

In these exclusive interviews, I speak to the leaders of five of the world’s most influential civil sector organisations. Brian Gallagher (President & CEO of United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately-funded non-profit), William “Bill” Drayton (Founder & CEO, ASHOKA), Gilles Carbonnier (Vice President of the ICRC, International Committee of the Red Cross), Linda Fuller (Co-Founder of Habitat for Humanity & the Fuller Center for Housing) and Nancy Lublin (Founder & CEO, Crisis Text Line). We discuss how the charities, social enterprises, foundations, organisations and individuals in the civil sector are changing our world.

It’s April 2019 and I’m in Northern Uganda with In Place of War, close to the border with South Sudan.  The soil under my feet was red with ferrous metals, a reminder that this ground had witnessed decades of brutal mechanised-conflicts, from the coup launched by Idi Amin Dada in 1971, the civil war against Obote’s government in 1981 and the twenty year long fight between Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (led by Kony and his top commanders).   This latter conflict ravaged northern Uganda, southern Sudan and eastern Congo, making the region – for a while – one of the most dangerous places on earth.  Tens of thousands have been left permanently traumatised and physically disabled, and one and a half million people were driven from their pastoral existences into the squalor of refugee camps, where they lived for almost 20 years.  This was a war the international community barely paid attention to because of the neighbouring crises in Darfur, Rwanda, Congo, Somalia and western Sudan – and one which has disrupted indigenous communities across the nation.

Today, Uganda is now at peace, but it’s a fragile peace – held together by the collective sense that the nation has heard enough gunfire, and now wants to move forward and create a new narrative.   Without government, and without a functioning economy, it was the civil sector made-up of charities, social-enterprise, not for profits, NGO’s and other groups from grass roots to global organisations who worked to create a new narrative, and provide everything from food to healthcare, education to justice and

11,500km away in the United States, the civil sector is just as critical, contributing over $980 billion to the US economy (around 5.4% of GDP) and playing an essential role in the social and economic well-being of every citizen.  The same story is true in country after country, with the civil sector stepping in to fill the gaps that government and business cannot, will-not, or cannot be seen to address.

In these interviews, I speak to the leaders of five of the world’s most influential civil sector organisations.  Brian Gallagher (President & CEO of United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately-funded non-profit), William “Bill” Drayton (Founder & CEO, ASHOKA), Gilles Carbonnier (Vice President of the ICRC, International Committee of the Red Cross), Linda Fuller (Co-Founder of Habitat for Humanity & the Fuller Center for Housing) and Nancy Lublin (Founder & CEO, Crisis Text Line).  We discuss how the charities, social enterprises, foundations, organisations and individuals in the civil sector are changing our world.

[bios]Brian Gallagher became President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of America in 2002 and then of United Way Worldwide in 2009. In 2002, he immediately took on the challenge of leading the transformation of the organization to focus on community impact. A career veteran of the United Way system, Gallagher believes that the true measure of success for United Way and other philanthropic organizations is bottom-line results: the lives that are changed and thecommunities that are shaped.  This represents a dynamic shift from the United Way recognized for decades as the nation’s premier fund raiser and distributor.  Gallagher has raised the bar on the accountability, governance and transparency standards adopted as a requirement of membership for all United Ways.  Today United Way has 1,800 local affiliates in 45 countries and territories raising $5.1 billion annually, with 11 million donors and 2.5 million volunteers. Gallagher began his career with United Way in 1981 as a management trainee, later working in various positions in United Ways around the United States including Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Reading, Pennsylvania; Providence, Rhode Island; and Atlanta, Georgia.  He then served as president of United Way of Central Ohio in Columbus, Ohio where he had first-hand experience with community impact, creating a very successful Family Housing Collaborative, which works simultaneouslyto obtain low cost housing while providing day care and job training sothat the cycle of homelessness is broken. Gallagher was born in Chicago and grew up in Hobart, Indiana.  He received his bachelor’s degree in social work from Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, in 1981 and earned a master’s degree in business administration from Emory University in Atlanta in 1992.  In May 2003 Gallagher received an honorary Doctor of Humanities from his alma mater, Ball State University.

Bill Drayton is a social entrepreneur with a long record of founding organizations and public service. As the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, Bill Drayton has pioneered the field of social entrepreneurship, growing a global association of over 3,900 leading social entrepreneurs who work together to create an ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ world. Ashoka Fellows bring big systems-change to the world’s most urgent social challenges. Over half have changed national policy within five years of launch.

As a student, he founded organizations ranging from Yale Legislative Services to Harvard’s Ashoka Table, an inter-disciplinary weekly forum in the social sciences. After graduation from Harvard, he received an M.A. from Balliol College in Oxford University. In 1970, he graduated from Yale Law School. He worked at McKinsey & Company for ten years and taught at Stanford Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. While serving the Carter Administration as Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, he launched many reforms including emissions trading, a fundamental change in regulation that is now the basis of much global as well as US regulatory law, including in fields beyond the environment.

Bill launched Ashoka in 1980; in 1984, he used the stipend he received when elected a MacArthur Fellow to devote himself fully to Ashoka. Bill is Ashoka’s Chief Executive Officer. He also chairs Ashoka’s Youth Venture, Community Greens, and Get America Working! Bill has won numerous awards and honors throughout his career. He has been selected one of America’s Best Leaders by US News & World Report and Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. In 2011, Drayton won Spain’s prestigious Prince of Asturias Award, Other awards include Honorary Doctorates from Yale, NYU and more.

Gilles Carbonnier was born in 1965. He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Neuchâtel and has worked in three main fields over the past 30 years: development economics, humanitarian action and international trade.

Since 2007, Dr Carbonnier has been a professor of development economics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, where he also served as director of studies and president of the centre for Education and research in Humanitarian Action. His expertise is in international cooperation, the economic dynamics of armed conflict, and the nexus between natural resources and development. His latest book, published by Hurst and Oxford University Press in 2016, is entitled Humanitarian Economics: War, Disaster and the Global Aid Market.

Prior to joining the Graduate Institute, Gilles spent several years with the ICRC: he worked in the field from 1989 to 1991 as head of subdelegation in Ethiopia and Iraq and as a delegate in Sri Lanka and El Salvador, then at headquarters from 1999 to 2006 as an economic adviser. He was on the board of directors for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Switzerland from 2007 to 2012.

Between 1992 and 1996, he was in charge of international trade negotiations (GATT/WTO) and development cooperation programmes for the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.

Linda Fuller, with her husband, Millard, founded Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI). They launched this ecumenical Christian housing ministry in 1976, after pioneering a low-cost housing program in rural southwest Georgia, (1968-1972) followed by three years of similar work in the African country of Zaire (1973-1976). Since then, their leadership has helped forge this Christian movement into a worldwide housing ministry, standing as a beacon of success in the face of a low-income housing crisis.

While Linda was earning her Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, her husband and a fellow attorney/businessman began a marketing firm. Their business expertise and drive made them millionaires in their twenties. But as the business prospered, the Fullers’ marriage suffered.

This crisis prompted the Fullers to reevaluate their values and direction. Their “soul-searching” led to reconciliation with each other and to a renewal of their Christian commitment.

The Fullers then took a drastic step: they decided to sell all of their possessions, give the money to the poor, and begin searching for a new focus for their lives. This search led them to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community located near Americus, where people were looking for practical ways to apply Christ’s teachings.

With Koinonia founder Clarence Jordan and a few others, the Fullers initiated several partnership enterprises, including a ministry in housing. They chose to build houses on a no-profit, no-interest basis, thus making homes affordable to families with low incomes and no means to access conventional financing.

In 1973, the Fullers moved to Africa with their four children to test the model overseas. They went to Zaire with sponsorship from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The housing project was a success and became a working reality in that developing nation. The Fullers became convinced that this model could be expanded and applied all over the world. The no-profit, no-interest components of the program are based on a passage in the Bible advising that someone lending money to the poor should not act as a creditor and charge interest (Exodus 22:25).

Upon their return home in 1976, they met with members of the Koinonia community and several people from across the U.S. and decided to create a new, independent organization called Habitat for Humanity International and to devote all their energies to eliminating poverty housing throughout the world.

When they were forced to leave Habitat for Humanity International in early 2005, they founded a new organization called The Fuller Center for Housing to continue their calling by raising funds to assist low-income housing groups in developing affordable housing.

Also in 2005, Linda co-authored “Woman to Woman Wisdom, Inspiration for Real Life” with Bettie Youngs and Donna Schuller. Maya Angelou praised the book, calling it: “Profound, a ‘must have’ book for legions of women. It is a tender work…and a serious one.”

One of the many prestigious awards Linda and Millard Fuller have received is the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award in 1994. Linda has also received seven honorary doctorate degrees.

The Fullers were married close to five decades before his sudden and unexpected death in February 2009. They have four grown children and nine grandchildren who live in Georgia, Texas and Florida.

On June 20, 2011, Linda married Paul Degelmann of Americus, Ga. Linda remains active on Fuller Center build sites and continues to inspire volunteers, homeowner partners and countless others in her role as “The First Lady of Affordable Housing.” She and Paul often work as a team on Fuller Center build sites as he has embraced Linda’s mission to help families have simple, decent places to live.

In 2015, The Fuller Center launched the Lind-A Hand program — Linda Fuller’s Build for Women — in which all-women teams of volunteers build and repair homes.

Nancy Lublin enjoys building things that matter.

At age 23, she turned a $5,000 inheritance into Dress for Success, a global entity that provides interview suits and career development training to women in need. Today, Dress for Success helps women reclaim their destinies in almost 150 cities in 20 countries.

In 2003, Lublin came to Do Something to rescue it from the ashes. The organization had lost its office space, was $250,000 in debt, and had just laid off 21 out of 22 people. Lublin moved everything online, transforming it into, an organization that leverages technology like social media and texting to reach its audience. Today, is one of the largest youth organizations in the world with more than 4.4 million members.

In 2013, while still CEO of, Lublin turned her popular TED talk into her third company. She raised $4 million dollars, hired a team, and launched Crisis Text Line. It processed 1 million messages in its first six months and is heralded as a pioneer in big data for social good. Today, that number is upwards of 100 million.

Lublin’s innovative approach to business, teens and technology has transcended the not-for-profit world, making her a sought-after expert and public speaker. She wrote a popular monthly column for Fast Company for two years and has taught graduate-level courses as an adjunct faculty at both Yale and NYU. She is the author of 4 books and sits on the board of McGraw Hill Education.

Nancy was named one of Fortune’s “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” alongside the Pope and Dalai Lama. She thinks this is hilarious. Actually, she has been named to lots of lists and received many awards, but she will not let us list them here because she thinks lists and awards are silly.[/bios]

Q: What are your views on the non-profit and social-enterprise sectors? 

[Bill Drayton]:  You would do the world a great service if you never used the phrase non-profit or non-government again.  We recommend the citizen sector or citizen organization.  When you look closely, the essence is a person who brings together a group of people to organize around something they care about.  If people didn’t thus stand up as citizens, our sector would not exist.

Social enterprise and social entrepreneurship are different, though there is an overlap.  Social entrepreneurship is the much bigger idea – you have a person who, from deep within, is committed to the good of all of society.  That person is also an entrepreneur whose job it is to change patterns across society.  We do not do direct-service, our work is systems or pattern change.  For Ashoka, our minimum standard is continental-scale reach.

Social enterprise is a narrower concept, tied to a particular financing mechanism.  It’s an area that’s now attracting attention.  “Wouldn’t it be cool to make money and do good?”  Many people are excited, and a lot of money and energy has poured in.  The underlying deal-flow continues to grow, but not as fast as the money chasing it.  In the past, such periods of enthusiasm have been followed by very, very poor performance.  We saw the same behaviour in venture philanthropy.  Many crowded in; the results fell; and so people slipped away….

Q:  What is the role of the non-profit sector in society?

[Brian Gallagher]:  Individuals in communities need resources and partners to build social capital, that [social capital] is at the heart of building civil society.  In the United States – and in most developed economies around the world – we’ve carved out the economic middle, and we’re systematically carving out the cultural middle.

Our job in the non-profit sector is to create social-capital… to create that commitment to each other when we don’t know each other.  That’s what holds communities together.

The market simply provides economic opportunity, and government should provide foundation and oversight to make sure the market works as fairly as possible.  The non-profit sector is about building the norms, the social capital, the ‘more than…’ that holds society together.

It’s an inevitability that the non-profit sector will exist in society.  Having a job or a livelihood is much better than being dependent on social services or public services.   You need a functioning economy, but that doesn’t imply a degree of fairness – economies are designed to be competitive and to integrate winners and losers – the government’s job is to be as compassionate as possible, and to apply pressure where it can without pushing too much, and without being laissez-faire.  However… the market will not create opportunity for everyone, and so civil society must hold government to account and fill the gaps and provide social capital.

Q: How did you begin your journey in the not for profit world?

[Brian Gallagher]:  I stumbled into studying social-work at undergraduate school.  I realised I wasn’t cut-out to do direct service, but I loved the part of the curricula on organising and social change.  I actually did a Practicum in my senior year at the local United Way (close to my university).  I applied to a management training program at United Way of America back in 1981… I was the first alternate, someone turned it down…. I agreed to take it…. And I’ve been at United Way ever since!

[Linda Fuller]:  I met my (late) husband, Millard Fuller, when I was seventeen. I was still in high school; he was studying law at the University of Alabama. When we were on a date one night, he told me his goal was to become a millionaire by the age of 30. I bought into that achievement for the first five years of our marriage before I realized that wealth was detrimental to our relationship as well as diminishing rather than enhancing quality of life. Millard spent most of his time at the office rather than his evenings and weekends with me and our two small children. We had everything money could buy…except happiness. When I threatened divorce, Millard decided to sell his half to his business partner in order to hopefully save his family. We decided to divest ourselves of that million dollars, give it away to worthy causes and turn to God to redirect our lives toward a worthy endeavor.

Let me tell you, we did not have a clue what God would call us to do and it wasn’t revealed in a day, a week, or a month – but over time, we were led on an amazing journey. We gained a focus to really make a difference in this world. During the last half century, we spent our lives raising four wonderful children as we built houses for the poor. It’s has been a blessing, a privilege, a lot of hard work – but now looking back? It’s a joy to be able to have a wonderful life, and to help others have a better life, too.

[Nancy Lublin]: My dad was a Republican, and my Mom was a Democrat.  Every night, we watched the evening news together before dinner – and that meant you were expected to have an opinion, and were expected to be politically switched-on.

I always thought I was going to do something meaningful, but my career hasn’t been very thought-out or planned.  I haven’t made my conscious decisions, one thing has flowed to another and I feel like I’ve been riding a train more than driving it.   Everyone says that entrepreneur life is about being in the driving seat, but I don’t think it’s like that for everyone; for me? The opportunities were the driver.

Q: How did you discover the citizen sector was your passion?

[Bill Drayton]: I grew up in New York City, which – in itself – is very liberating.  I’m also not built for contact sports, and I could not imagine why I was being tortured by math and Latin.  For all those reasons and more, I was someone who started things of my own.  In elementary school, I started a newspaper, and that was the start of my entrepreneurial journey!

When I was 18 – 19, I drove to India.  There, the statistics, e.g., the 100 to 1 difference in average per-capita income, became people I knew and, as an entrepreneur, my reaction had to be: ‘What can I do about it?;’  However, because sophomores in college control as close to nothing as possible, I had to think of the most highly leveraged way of closing the North-South gap and advancing democracy.  That’s where the Ashoka idea came from.  What is the most powerful force in the world?  It’s a big systems or pattern change idea – but only if it is in the hands of a great entrepreneur.  Ashoka launches both just as they are ready to be born.

There’s a moment in the lifecycle of an idea where a person makes a very small intervention, and then that idea and its entrepreneur/creator are ready to fly.  That is when the entrepreneur has the new pattern change idea, knows the field deeply, and has apprenticed in the world enough to know he/she can make it happen.  These entrepreneurs then need to step out of their existing employment, out of the old system.  Ashoka makes that possible.  It supports its social entrepreneur Fellows for the average three years it takes to demonstrate, test, and refine the idea – and build the needed organization and outreach.  By this point, they’re in their 30s, have a family, and are most likely in a part of the world (most of the world) where there is no social security for the period of time they’re working on their idea.  That’s exactly when we intervene.

We give people financial security for however long it takes them to get their idea up and running (on average, 3 years).  We also give them a community of peers – this is lonely work, and when they meet people who have the same life story, albeit with different subjects and geographies, they can and do help each other.  Their mutual help and collaborations are very powerful.

Q: Why do we need a new way of approaching societal problems?

[Bill Drayton]:  From the end of the Roman Republic to 1700, there was no growth in average per-capita income in the west.  From 1700 to now, the rate of change and the degree and extent of interconnectedness of society have been going up exponentially.  That fact has created a mirror curve plunging downward – the demand for repetition.

Yes, there were people who were changemakers before – but they were not living in a world where those skills were essential for everyone.  Now they are.  The old world of giving people a skill which they would then repeat for life (professor, barber, banker, etc.) is over.

Everything is changing faster and faster; and, as each element changes, it bumps more and more others.  Society is becoming one brain-like organism; and if you don’t have the ability to play in that context, it doesn’t matter what skills you have; you’re going to hurt people and disrupt groups.  Worse, you will not be able to understand the environment and its opportunities and risks – and, even if you did, you would not be able to create the new openings that are needed.  Unless you are a changemaker, you will not be able to help people or build the synaptic architecture that allows new teams to come together and cause change.

Q:  Why does the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) need to exist?

[Gilles Carbonnier]:  We [the ICRC] are in our 157th year of existence. Unfortunately, millions of children, women and men are still suffering today because of countless situations of protracted armed conflict and violence. Hence needs for protection and assistance remain unabated, and we strive to respond to those needs while strengthening the capacity of affected populations to cope with ongoing crises. Extreme polarisation in international relations has further exacerbated the need for a neutral intermediary such as the ICRC: we maintain intense, confidential dialogue with all warring parties to ensure respect for international humanitarian law.

Q: What is the relationship between the ICRC and international law?

[Gilles Carbonnier]:  The ICRC has been working with states and militaries since the outset, pushing for the adoption of the first Geneva Convention (1864) – aimed to protect the wounded and the sick as well as the medical mission on the battlefield. Since then, the laws of war – or international humanitarian law (IHL), has expanded with a view to granting protection to prisoners and civilians, and limiting the harmful effects of certain weapons.

We contributed to developing a range of treaties including the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 that were adopted shortly after World War 2In these Conventions, States have entrusted the ICRC as an impartial humanitarian actor with a number of tasks and responsibilities.  One is to visit prisoners of war, making sure their conditions of detention and treatment are humane… Another is to look for missing people, and reconnect them with their families – or clarify the fate of the missing in order for families to know about their fate.  Thirdly, we engage states and non-state actors to press them to respect and ensure respect for IHL. These efforts take several forms: for instance, we help states translate IHL obligations into national laws and army training manuals, and we contribute regularly to training programmes all the way from commanders to rank and file soldiers.

Q:  How can social entrepreneurs scale their impact?

[Bill Drayton]: There are 3 – very different! – types of impact.  All are necessary.

The first is direct service.  We really do need teachers in classrooms!

The second is systems or pattern change – and this requires entrepreneurs.

The third is mindset changeThe Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements were about changing how people saw the world.  Today, 80% of Ashoka’s work is to catalyse mindset change.

Each of these different forms of impact needs its own, quite different, measurements.  Here’s how Ashoka measures its Fellow’s systems change impact:  Three-quarters of Ashoka Fellows have changed the patterns of their field (e.g. environment or human rights) at the national or international level within 5 years of launch.  55% have changed national policy within 5 years, and 90% have had independent institutions copy their innovation, also within 5 years.

You’ll never hear us giving you statistics about the number of people directly served.  Because that’s a different game that is played differently with a different type of person.

Today’s reality is that we are in an everything-changing world where success cannot be measured in terms of excellence in repetition.  To be a player now requires one to have almost the opposite set of skills as was required before.  That’s why everyone now must be a changemaker.

Q:  What are the common misconceptions about the non-profit sector?

[Nancy Lublin]:  My own grandfather believed that running a not-for-profit meant that I was at home all day watching soap-operas in my jammies and fuzzy slippers.  He would call me during the day at home, and leave messages on my answering phone like, ‘hey, where are you?’ – I don’t think he realised I was going to an office every day, had employees and actually earned a living… I remember once, I faxed him a budget for Dress for Success.  He called me during the night and said, ‘oh wow! This is a real thing!’ And I was like, ‘yeah! It’s a real thing! I have employees! And a payroll!

There’s definitely a misconception that somehow people who work at not-for-profits spend their days in lollipops and daisies, singing campfire songs…. But guess what, the people I meet in this sector are some of the sharpest, most-passionate, and sometimes most competitive people I’ve ever met…

Q:  What are the characteristics of non-profits that are able to scale?

[Brian Gallagher]:  Organisations have to be big (wholesale) and small (retail) at the same time.  We’ve grown big because we act small.

Over the past 18 years as my role shifted from national to global, I’ve been under pressure to go down a consolidated ‘enterprise’ path.  I’ve resisted this because I don’t want to lose the ‘localness’ of United Way.  Yet, we continue to put together enterprise level strategies and infrastructure to make the local work more effective.

The ability to be local and global, to be retail and wholesale, is the agility that allows non-profits to grow in a world where everyone encourages consolidation and efficiency.

[Nancy Lublin]:  You have to have systems-thinking in place right through the organisation and a fearless commitment to doing the right thing.  These two pillars have to be supported by an openness to getting things wrong, and a commitment to moving decisions forward quickly.

Look, the not-for-profit business model is ridiculous, it’s basically ‘we do great things, please give us your money and we will never give it back to you…’

Personally, I am also willing to pay $30 for a lobster roll, which also makes no sense, but at least I get some food!

I’ve tried to run my companies as close to the for-profit model in technology as possible; that means that I raise money in rounds, and we try to scale fast whilst finding ways to monetise and get stability.  I’ve tried to stay very laser focused on what we do and not be distracted or follow the money into branched things.

Q:  What are the leadership challenges of non-profits at scale?

[Brian Gallagher]: We merged United Way of America and United Way International together in 2009.  We flipped the model and created a worldwide board and a US operating board so, the US United Way gains authority from the worldwide board.

We then went through a methodical convening of our twelve priority country’s board chairs, CEOs and senior leaders.  We had to get agreement that we were all on the same mission, and had the same purpose…  We had to agree what the issues were that were most compelling to us around the world, and the commonalities those issues had in each country…  We had to agree on strategies to execute against those issues. It took multiple convenings over 5 years to get agreement globally that (i) we’re in the same business, (ii) we focus on the same human issues, (iii) that we have the same strategies and (iv) we execute in a way that’s true to local economy, history and culture.

Around the world, we have no ex-pats running United Ways in India, Colombia, Mexico, anywhere… We train-up local folks, resource local volunteers, and have a huge amount of volunteer capital – ultimately they are our bosses.  As far as we’re concerned, our CEOs and staff answer to our volunteer boards, and I think that’s an important part of our DNA.

Q: How did you begin to scale your charity?

[Linda Fuller]: A big idea has to start small.

We had seen a great need for decent housing where we lived in Southwest Georgia, and we realized we had to create a demonstration plot- on the ground so to speak- to see how our idea of partnership housing would work…partnership with God and partnership with mankind. It was in the late 1960s when we built our first house. There was extreme poverty in the area.  Many black families were living in ‘shacks’ – under the oppression of the “share-cropping” system.  White farmers provided housing for those working in their fields and were supposed to share an adequate portion of the profits.  Instead, farmers built themselves a nice, big house but workers were in housing with leaky roofs, no insulation, holes in the floors and leaky roofs. Those kinds of conditions had a terrible impact on the health and dignity of the families living in those shacks.

We started in 1968 surveying off enough land to build about 20 houses. The first house was built for Bo and Emma Johnson and their five children. They had never lived in a house with running water, a bathroom, electric stove and closets – amenities many people take for granted. As the Johnsons were moving in to their new house, the next house was under construction. Families were moving out of poverty one or two houses at the time. A house was sold to a family on what we called the “Bible Finance Plan”…no profit, no interest, long term to pay. A mortgage was based on cost of materials. Labor building the house was mostly by volunteers and adult members of the homeowners. For instance, the Johnson’s house payment back at that time was $20 a month because his earnings were low. They paid off their house in 20 years. We had to teach people the basics of a modern house; how to flush a toilet, how to use indoor plumbing, open and close windows, etc.  When we had completed around 30 houses, we started looking for a plot that would be very different to try out this idea of partnership housing

Our family moved to Africa, we worked under the umbrella of Eglise de Christ au Zaire (now, the Democratic Republic of Congo).  We were able to acquire a large plot of land through the government for building houses. There was a defunct block and sand company previously owned by a Belgian businessman. Our first year was spent clearing the land and refurbishing equipment to start making concrete blocks. In order to buy cement and roofing materials, we raised money mostly in America. As houses were completed and families moved in, we saw the difference it was making for African families moving out of mud block, thatched roof homes into durable houses… just as we had witnessed in the USA. Within 3 years, we built over 100 houses for over 400 people.

By the time we returned to the USA, we had about 500 people contributing money- some small, some large donations. Based on successful achievements as well as widening financial support, we began thinking about starting a worldwide movement.

The point I am making is start with a large vision, yet it’s essential start small…try out the idea to see if it works. It’s important to set goals and operate by a certain set of principles.  We, as a faith ministry, found both our principles and purpose in scriptures. We didn’t charge interest to the poor, we treated everyone fairly, and it gave us a sense of moral direction in our work.

We had a dream to end poverty housing all over the world. I think it was not a coincidence that right before we started building houses, my husband and I had an opportunity to see Man of La Mancha on Broadway in New York City. Don Quixote belts out ‘To dream the impossible dream…’.  The message in that song along with seeing the great need that existed was our inspiration. If we could dream the impossible dream of eliminating poverty housing in the world, that would be a worthy mission.  A lot of people said ‘you’re crazy!  You can’t do that’! Well, we said, ‘yes, we can’…with God, all things are possible.’ Not easy, but possible.

Q: How do you manage and mobilise large groups of volunteers?

[Brian Gallagher]:  First and foremost, we have zero-tolerance for those who don’t apply best practice in what they do as volunteers.  If we give you the license to operate as United Way, you have to govern yourself – so when we say you have to be volunteer led, you have to be volunteer led.

Secondly, we provide a great deal of resource to help local and national United Ways to succeed.

We want people to make the dream come alive in their context through extraordinary commitment and alignment.

People often think you can’t have a centrally designed program deployed across geographies, but that’s not true.  Innovation happens at the edge of the network, and the centre responds to that.

Each issue has a different meaning in each context too.  In the United States, they call it employment… in Africa and Latin America they call it livelihood. … in the US they may talk about health as being access to insurance, in Bangalore it’s about cleaning the lakes….

Q: How do you build a movement?

[Linda Fuller]:  From the very beginning, Millard said he wanted to build a movement… an organization that would be as well-known as the Boy Scouts. That was his benchmark… and, of course, in less than 30 years it became just that.

In the first six or seven years of our journey, he became frustrated and said, ‘we’re just not growing fast enough, how can we advance?’  He decided to have a big seven-year celebration in Indianapolis (our headquarters were in Georgia).  He figured Indianapolis, Indiana is about 700 miles from America’s Georgia.  ‘Why don’t we walk there,’ he proposed, ‘and at the end of the walk have a big celebration? People would come to Indianapolis from all over the United States and around the world…those who had started Habitat affiliates or wanted to know how to start one.’

Millard and I started training… we walked 5 miles a day then boosted up to 10 miles a day as we got closer to leaving. We had figured that if we could walk 18 -20 miles a day, we could arrive in Indianapolis in 40 days. Rosalynn Carter and daughter Amy walked the first few miles with us on that 700-mile walk, and along with the walk we achieved a goal of raising $100,000.  People were paying 10 cents, 25 cents per mile for every mile we walked. As we walked through towns and cities, Millard would speak and tell what we were doing.  There were people that would drive by and see our group walking and they’d holler ‘Get a job!’. Then there were those who would throw money at us out of their car windows like $5 or $10 bills. We got publicity about what we were doing so that venture was very successful.

It’s also important to set stretch goals! For example, in the early 1990s, we got the churches, businesses, government, etc. to agree to end poverty housing in our city and county. First thing we did was to take a survey. We found that there were about 500 substandard houses. Millard was able to set a goal to end poverty housing in our county by the year 2000. He figured out how many houses needed to be built each year. When a family moved into the house that ended substandard housing, we had a big celebration and started challenging other cities to do likewise. That’s the key…build on success. Make an idea work-demonstrate it. Make it work on a small scale and then expand it.  Well… from that Sumter County Initiative, we then started a program called 21st Century Challenge.  We had one person in charge of that, to challenge other cities to sign up and be part of the 21st Century Challenge. That is, do a survey, see how many substandard houses there are, figure out a plan on how many they could build a year-increasing number each year-and then reaching their goal by 2005 or 2010, how many ever years it took, to end poverty housing in their city or county.

Q: How are you able to stay politically neutral in conflict?

[Gilles Carbonnier]:  The only way we can perform our role on the frontlines of armed conflict is to abide by our fundamental principles, that is the principles of the International Red Cross & Red Crescent Movement.

These principles are humanity (to save lives, alleviate suffering and protect human dignity), impartiality (to provide assistance to those in highest need as a priority regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion or else), neutrality (to refrain from taking sides in armed conflict), and independence (from state interference), next to the principles of voluntary service, unity and universality.

These principles provide an ethical, operational and institutional framework for our work.

Q:  How do you work to ensure communities are left sustainable?

[Gilles Carbonnier]:  Armed conflicts have become more prolonged and protracted; think about Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq for example, where we have seen conflict for decades. We are now working to alleviate the suffering of the 2nd, or even 3rd generation of families affected by conflict.

Our aim is however, as soon as possible, to give communities the possibility of moving towards autonomy, out of aid dependency.  Together with emergency assistance, we work to restore the means of livelihood – ensuring people can make a living by themselves.  To give you one practical example – if there is a famine, we don’t just distribute food – we distribute seeds, tools and sometimes fertilizers to ensure that communities can restart farming as soon as the next planting seasons.  In urban settings, we may provide emergency assistance to those who are displaced – but soon after, we provide e.g. seed capital and support vocational training to help them start small businesses.

Conflicts, and people’s displacement, are ever more urban. We therefore have to provide systemic support to restore and maintain vital infrastructure, for example for water or wastewater treatment.  Many years ago, we simply dug wells in rural environments – but today? we need engineers to work with electrical systems, water pumping station, wastewater and other essential urban infrastructure.

Q:  How do you support the mental and physical health of your teams?

[Gilles Carbonnier]:  While the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement started on the idea to care for the wounded in armed conflict, we now have to take care of the body & soul, if I may say.

For communities and individuals impacted by war, there are many invisible scars. Post-traumatic stresses, if they left un addressed, can be extremely detrimental to long-term health and wellbeing.  We have started to include much more systematic mental-health and psycho-social support activities in our assistance programmes.

Our colleagues in the field are often exposed to extreme hardship and trauma. The ICRC has put systems in place to help support its staff’s physical and mental health and we need to do more in this regard.

Q: How do you quickly and effectively build trust in the community?

[Gilles Carbonnier]:  We walk the talk – our only agenda is humanitarian, and we perform those humanitarian tasks in a neutral, independent and impartial manner.

We also communicate early, and clearly, to ensure that everyone knows who we are and what we are here to do; it’s important that we invest in relationships to ensure we are accepted by all those who could threaten our access to the people we are here to help since we do move with armed escorts.  We have to build trust as humanitarians and maintain physical – and ever more digital – proximity with the communities affected by armed conflict.

Q:  Will the future bring us a different way of organizing society?

[Bill Drayton]: Change in how we organize is happening right in front of our eyes; it’s one thing that unifies all sectors.  We all have to transition to a radically different way of organizing.

In the new way of organizing, you are dealing with an environment where everything changes, and everything is bumping everything else.  Here, you cannot have walls.  Think of it this way: If a part of the human brain walls itself off, that part dies – and the brain will find some other way of getting the job done.

The brain is integrated.  If I say the word ‘basketball’ to you, 20-30% of your brain lights up because you’re thinking of all the times you’ve played before, the rules, this great game you saw on television – and there are parts of your brain that, when you play, automatically control 98% of what you do (e.g., your inner ear balance mechanism) so you can focus on the 2%.  Now that is what’s happening across human society. That’s why the web is so important.  And that’s why it was invented now.  We needed it.

The brain is mainly connecting tissue, and the power and the health of each neuron is a function of how well it is connected to the whole.  The same is true for people in society.  You can have an idea and cause this whole thing to move – because you are part of a fluid, open, integrated team of teams.

Q:  How do we continue to encourage people to support global charities? 

[Brian Gallagher]:  Before I came to the United Way of America, I worked for 5 local United Ways in the US.  I was a quintessential first generation American… USA through and through… I lived the American Dream; my knowledge of charity and philanthropy was American… and then I came to the United Way of America and started learning.

There were two truths I came upon.

The idea that Americans are uniquely generous is bullshit, we’re just unique in how we do it.  People are fundamentally generous everywhere in the world, but how they exercise that generosity is different.  Giving has been part of our tax code since 1917, it’s in our financial interest to give money to charity.

The second truth was that we cannot fix the issues at home without tackling issues abroad, and vice-versa.  Donors are very open to the idea that it’s in our interests to support international causes.  In the United States we’re about to wade into a migration issue between the US and Central America.  The opioid crisis we’re facing and the consumption of drugs in the United States is directly tied to immigration from Central America; we’re creating those drug cartels and cause those people to flee, yet we act like we’ve got nothing to do with it.   Why don’t we build infrastructure? Why don’t we tie migration to the opioid crisis? Why don’t we explain to Americans how these crises tie together… why people running for their lives links to international aid investment in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala…. Part of the problem is language…. We can’t keep talking like we’re giving speeches at Davos, we have to translate these issues into relatable, local, language.

Q:  How did you build your donor base?

[Linda Fuller]:  There were a few large donors early on – for example, we received a grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation (pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis, Indiana) through a pastor who was friends with a top executive in that company. That donation bought us a lot of concrete when we worked in Africa!  Organizations can urge smaller donors to use their connections and contacts to raise awareness of the mission and raise money. For example, ‘hey! I know Oprah Winfrey!’ or ‘I know this person with money!’ When you find someone who is interested in what you are doing, write them a letter, call them on the phone. If there is potential for a large donation, make arrangements to meet them personally. We would invite presidents of large companies to put on work clothes and help us build a house.

If you totally believe in an idea, people can sense your passion and lend their support.   We always depended on thousands of people that would give $5 or $10 – but you’re absolutely right, it takes some large donors in order to really go forward.

[Nancy Lublin]:  You have to ask for big numbers.  I think a lot of people who run non-profits will go into a meeting asking for $50,000 – but if you can ask them for that, why not go in for $100,000? I always ask for big numbers, I don’t always get it – but at least I’m asking.

I ask early, directly and quickly – I’m not afraid to talk about money.

I don’t have a lot of fear; and that makes a big difference.  Imagine you’re on an island, with a jungle through the middle, and you need to get to the other side.  If you’re fearless, you can walk through the jungle – you may get bitten by things, but it’s a lot faster than walking around the island on the beach.

Most non-profits think the board is going to solve this problem for them; they’re not.  Nobody else is going to raise this money for you, even hiring a fantastic biz-dev or foundation person.  Everyone wants to meet the founder or meet the CEO, and so the leader must be capable of fundraising.  That leader needs to be capable of looking someone in the eye and asking for large amounts of money, and then being quiet; and being comfortable with the silence whilst the donor squirms!

Q:  How did you stay resilient on your scale journey?

[Linda Fuller]:  You have to take care of yourself physically, get enough rest, spend time with your children and loved ones, go on a little vacation once in a while. I must tell you that I didn’t do such a good job of that.  In the late 90s, I had a breakdown – had an awful period of clinical depression, had to go on medication – that was my body telling me that I wasn’t doing a very good job of pacing myself.  I had to learn that the hard way.  In this exciting, demanding work, it’s really important to give yourself some time and space to take care of yourself and your personal needs. That isn’t selfish…it’s good sense!

[Nancy Lublin]:  I’m so fried…. I know I should give you a nice answer but dude, I eat more chocolate and slam more Frappuccino’s…. I’m a hot mess.  I love what I do, but I sleep 4 hours a night and work constantly. I love my kids, I love my husband, and when I’m with them the phone is down… but I’ve got so many balls in the air, it’s kinda’ surprising I haven’t broken down yet…. Watch this space.

Q: How important is it to remove ego from your work?

[Linda Fuller]:  People would say, ‘Habitat for Humanity is an organisation that President Carter started’.  They thought that because the Carters let us use their name to send out hundreds of thousands of letters introducing people to Habitat and asking them to give.  So a lot of people were introduced to Habitat through the Carters.

Millard would say ‘it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, it’s just getting those houses up and families moved in. After all, the glory belongs to God who called us to this work in the first place’.

Q: How important is it to involve the recipient?

[Linda Fuller]:  One thing that made our work so unique is that we involved the recipients, the homeowners. Our mission went a set beyond charity. It was to give people hope and an opportunity to help themselves and their neighbours. Build community as we built houses.

We created a concept called sweat-equity hours.  A family was required to put in 100-150 hours working alongside volunteers building on either their own house or somebody else’s house.  We had a requirement from our recipients rather than just handout. They were also required to make payments on their no-interest mortgage. Those payments were used to build more houses. Receipts were informed that their house payments were one of the ways to get another family like themselves out of poverty. We gave a hand up, not a hand out. If a homeowner is physically unable to work on a build site, they can accumulate their sweat equity hours in other ways such as working in the local office.

Q: How important is integrity within an organization?

[Linda Fuller]:  Maintaining integrity is one of the most important elements. If you don’t have integrity, both on a large and small scale, this can be detrimental and destructive. Some of the ways to maintain integrity are being truthful in your communication, be wise on how programs are developed, hire staff who have a passion for the mission, keep administrative expenses lower than money spent accomplishing the mission.

Q:  What is the role of technology in building a scaling non-profit?

[Brian Gallagher]:  United Way is over 130 years old, we’re a product of industrialisation in the United States and a response to the social issues that were created, beyond those communities ability to respond.  There was no public welfare system… there was no non-profit sector… United Way was created around the principle of community planning, and around the business model of community chest.  The way we built social capital was to pool money together, and use our group of volunteers, academic leaders and others to study the issues in cities and towns, and decide how to dole money out and create lasting impact.  Community chest was the business and financial model.  We were crowdfunding, 130 years ago!

Technology has broken apart that model, and facilitated individuals’ ability to move money directly to agents, non-profits and groups they care about.  That doesn’t build social capital… it builds personal capital and doesn’t scale… it doesn’t bring community assets and knowledge together…

Today, I can create a GoFundMe and help someone – but that doesn’t help us deal with homelessness at large, or help us deal with migration… You can literally give money to a particular classroom for a particular set of supplies, but how does that impact education? You can drill a well in rural Africa and have the farmer wave at you as its done… but what does that do about the wider problem of water supply?

Our partnership with Salesforce is predicated on building a technology platform that allows people to engage with volunteer opportunities, knowledge and resource to build social capital.  It’s United Way as a platform, and is helping people to solve the world’s biggest problems. You can invite your friends, invite your co-workers, and be a part of larger societal issues in addition to the particular non-profits that you care about, or the particular geography that you care about.

That’s the idea of partnership…. Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce and I have gotten to know each other – we started batting back and forth.  And I kept saying to him ‘Mark, we don’t need another app.  We don’t need more software transaction capability.  We need the capability to create the community chest of the 21st century’.

[Nancy Lublin]:  people think that technology and empathy are somehow at odds, but I see that technology helps make us faster, and more accurate at how we deliver empathy and service.  A lot of not-for-profits still confuse data with metrics and goals.  We have goals, but that’s not our data.  Our Chief Data Scientist describes us as being a dot.organism – like a human body, where there are nerves everywhere…. When you touch a stove and it’s hot…. You just recoil, it’s automatic…. It doesn’t take 6 meetings and a board vote….

In this day and age, data moves at the pace of life.  And if your company, whether it’s for profit and not-for-profit is based on the quality of human life, you have no excuse for not leveraging data to make you faster, more accurate and cheaper.

Q:  How can non-profits attract and retain the best talent?

[Nancy Lublin]:  If you have the right product/market fit, you can sell ice in the desert, but if you have the wrong people selling ice…. Even that can go badly, it melt on the way there, you can undersell it, you can lose it!

We believe that the world’s biggest problems should have the world’s best thinkers on them.  Just because we’re a not for profit does not mean we should settle for talent – we should have the best possible people out there, not just the best people we can get.

Our CTO was the VPE of Birchbox, we’ve hired product managers out of Amazon, out of Facebook… we’re going after top talent and you know what? They’re OK making less money when they work here… they’ll get a Tesla in heaven! ….more importantly, they’ll be the most interesting person at the dinner, they’ll be proud of what they do.

We also have unbelievable volunteers – our counsellors are the best people I’ve ever met, they are volunteers, everyday humans who apply online, go through background checks and training, and then do this stuff at home in their jammies or on their couch.

Q: What are both positive and negative impacts of a board of directors?

[Linda Fuller]:  Founder(s) of a new organization form a board by recruiting persons who believe, support and involve themselves in the mission. As the organization grows, these attributes can turn negative…especially if it becomes a self-perpetuating board. What we found out the hard way is the founder or CEO needs to maintain full control of the board. Otherwise, board members replace themselves with their friends or persons who are there for selfish reasons and not necessarily committed to the mission. As the organization increases in size, the culture of hired staff can slowly transition from one operating out of compassion to more secular values. Boards of large organizations can easily become political in nature. If the founder or founders are still involved in the top leadership, they most likely become unwilling to accept a succession plan and are forced to step aside. Very painful to say the least. Amazingly, this has happened to a goodly number of worthwhile organizations. In our case, we determined that the Habitat International Board had disposed of us but God had not indicated He wanted us to quit. So, we immediately formed a similar Christian ministry we named Building Habitat. Habitat Board filed a suit in court claiming we were infringing on their brand. Guess who spent 30 years building the brand! Well, we didn’t want to spend our days in court or our money on lawyers so we renamed our new ministry The Fuller Center for Housing. The four years Millard had left in his life were some of his happiest because he was in charge again and we took our work back to its original Biblical roots.

[Nancy Lublin]:  I’ve got 9 people on my board, they’ve got different areas of expertise and I turn to them regularly for everything from recruiting to strategy.  My board act as touchstones for my own instincts, and a couple of them are safe-spaces for me to turn to when I need to sound-out things I can’t necessarily say to the team or employees.  They are colleagues, but they also review me, they improve me.

Serena Williams has a coach, and even though she could crush her coach in a game of tennis, she still needs to improve on things after every match.  I’m no Serena Williams, but I do believe that everybody needs a coach, everybody need someone to tell them what’s going-well and what’s not going well.  I’m grateful to my board for that.

Q:  What parts of the Ashoka journey are you most proud of?

[Bill Drayton]:  One indirect measure of our impact is the fact that we invented the phrase social entrepreneur and the word changemaker; both in 1981, sitting at Nariman Point in what was (then) Bombay and is now Mumbai.  They’re both words which are now in wide, common use.  But I think it was only 7-8 years ago that the word changemaker made it into the dictionary.  This happened because people now need the word.  That means we are succeeding in launching the new framework we have just been discussing.

Second, working with people who can’t be cynical because they are changing the world is immensely satisfying.  You grow with every conversation, and you’re always listening and learning.  The more you talk to these people, their stories become threads running through and explaining the gorgeous tapestry of the most important parts of life.

I’d like to reflect on one particular story of a young Ashoka changemaker called Ara, from Indonesia.  She was fascinated with cows at eleven.  She became really upset seeing how ill treated a village’s over 2,000 cows were.  She persuaded her parents to let her go and see a modern dairy.  When she returned to the village, she was on fire.  By the time she was 14, the urine, the poop, the meat, the milk… everything was being processed.  The villagers were working together.  The cows were well-treated, clean, and healthy.  And Ara had her power for life.  She had had a dream, built a team, changed her world – and she knew that the world would always want her.  Our goal is to ensure that all young people have that power, that they all know they are changemakers.

Now, the world is divided by “the new inequality” that increasingly separates those that have the abilities needed to contribute in the new change-focused reality and those who do not.  The desperate anger of the latter is the cause of the rapid global spread of bitter us-versus-them politics, be it in the U.S., Brazil, or the Philippines.

My plea to the world is this – please, everyone give yourself permission to be a changemaker.  This is the new game.  It needs you.  And you need to bring your kids, your friends, your co-workers, and whatever organisations about which you care through this transition.  This is the most important thing at both the personal and organisational level.  So please, give yourself permission.  Be a changemaker.

Q:  How do you lead a non-profit at scale?

[Brian Gallagher]:  My responsibility is to create a vision for the future, working with our team here and throughout our network to create the strategy… add fidelity to that strategy… and mobilise the talent throughout the network to enable us to succeed today and in the future.   As CEO you shouldn’t’ get directly involved in operations and execution.  My job is to ensure that we have the right people, the right strategy, and the resource to enable people to do their job.

As CEO, you also have to speak-out on the isues that matter.

Today, our cultural middle is under attack and we need to jumpstart globalism against this background of populism.

The global elite created our economy, they are the business leaders and government leaders… and they can’t act surprised that they created new markets, and movements of labour.  They also can’t be silent on the persecution of migrants moving around the world, and being treated as less than human.  The individuals and groups who made our economy have a responsibility to it.

We also have to understand that populists are never just populists, they are nationalists… xenophobes…. Racists… they are not talking for the public, but for a segment of the public that don’t want to cede power or move towards the future.  We have to call it out as directly, as it’s starting to tear society apart.

As a CEO, you have to give aircover to your network.  If you’re an organisation as big and sprawling as we are – you have to communicate well to your external and internal audience in ways that are appropriate and allow them to understand issues in their own local context.

Q:  What have been your personal highlights in building a global charity?

[Linda Fuller]: Some of the most satisfying and joyous times we had were attending house dedications, or working side-by-side with home owners on the construction of their homes.

It was also exhilarating to see the organization grow so fast; if you get the right person or high profile people, it changes everything.  Early on, we had the support of President and Mrs. Carter – they did a lot to help us grow, and it hit the news bigtime around the world that a former president of the United States was putting on overalls and swinging a hammer so that a very low-income person was able to have a decent house.

We were growing at a pretty steady rate for about the first 6-7 years but then after President and Mrs. Carter came home from the White House; Millard asked them if they would like to get involved with Habitat and help build some houses. The rest is history. If you graph the growth of Habitat for Humanity International, there was a steady rise and then all of a sudden in 1983/1984 there was just a steep upward rise of this line on the graph that continued to go up and up and up. The Carters not only helped build houses, they allowed us to use their names in mail and other fundraising campaigns. We had a Hollywood Build where we invited actors and other people involved in the movie production industry like producers, directors and set designers.  Twenty houses were built in a week.  When you do high profile builds or other big events with famous people, movie stars or big corporations, that gets media attention. When the media shows up and there is a frenzy of appealing activity that can boost an organization up another level.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.