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Under your leadership, World Vision is undergoing a digital transformation. How is digital transforming the NGO landscape?

Digital is profoundly changing the way we all engage with organisations – from travel to taxis to insurance claims.

The NGO sector is no different – donors expect to have more impact and they want to know the details. No longer can NGOs attract donations simply as an established brand – we must transform the digital experience on offer. Digital tools bring our field work close to donors in ways we’ve never achieved before. Child sponsors can now receive video messages from their child instead of drawings that can’t convey the changes that sponsorship funds have brought about in a community. The child can speak directly from their experience, free of marketing filters. This is a powerful way for the donor and the child to connect. We are rolling this out across the 97 countries in which World Vision works. Our mission is to fill our donors’ hearts with joy as they see directly what their gift is making possible.

I’m also hugely excited about the role digital is playing where we deliver aid and development to the world’s most vulnerable. For every 10 people that gain access to the internet, one starts a business and one gets a job, according to Deloitte’s ‘Value of Connectivity’ report. With development programming alongside, I think we can lift these statistics even higher. We can use digital to take education into contexts where it’s been interrupted, in places like the Middle East. We are teaching farmers how to increase their production through digital to reach farmers at scale in parts of Africa and South East Asia.  

And believe me, with 65 million people displaced as the result of conflict and famine, we need some pretty amazing digital solutions right now. The stakes are the highest they’ve ever been for our planet.

However, it would be a mistake to think that it’s all about technology. As we all know, digital moves fast so NGOs have to transform their culture to harness what digital has to offer. We can’t hope to ‘keep up’ with a change of this reach without completely rethinking the way we work. A shift in mindset and pace is critical. Organisational agility means finding rapid ways to deliver the customer experience (from big projects to lots of small changes), openness to new business models, partnership with innovations, and allowing time for customer-centred design. For us, the real magic comes in when the whole team and culture continuously strives for new and better ways to do things, informed by supporters and those we serve in vulnerable contexts.  

Some people don’t know that World Vision invests in community development in Australia as well as overseas. Can you tell us about your Australia programs?

World Vision is well-known for our overseas development work so people are sometimes surprised to learn that we are building strong relationships here in Australia with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Our partnerships begin when Indigenous Australian communities invite us to work with them and share our development expertise to help deal with a level of disadvantage that is as confronting as that I have seen overseas. Currently we are partnering with eleven communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.   The unique approach, which is one that we use all over the world, is to consult with community leaders and build the work with Indigenous leadership so it is sustained beyond our tenure. This takes patience but has been proven over 30 years across many communities to achieve the best outcomes.

Last year I visited the Gibb River Road community in the Kimberley to see the childcare groups that we’ve established in that remote and stunningly beautiful part of our country. It was a joy to meet the Indigenous teachers, especially the children, and to see how these childcare groups are providing pathways into education, as we know that good early childhood programs can help close the gap between the early life outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian children. Children’s participation rates are high, around 90%, and that’s simply because we support Indigenous leadership to get the best results: self-determination, not dependence.

Through our Young Mob leadership program, we are building on the inherent strengths of Indigenous cultures and nurturing healthy adolescent development and life skills amongst youth in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s a program that we would love to expand nationally. We are also supporting Indigenous communities to develop strong leaders through projects in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Why is digital technology a powerful driver of social and economic development around the world?

Technology can create, inform and drive social change and is doing this on its own as the cost of mobile access drops dramatically across the globe and, more importantly, in developing nations. For the first-time, people in remote communities have access to information about other places, ways of doing things and resources. Think about what a device means to someone who’s had to flee their home due to violence or famine – it’s a way to find lost family, it’s some level of personal safety, it’s a form of education, it’s a way to understand what others think and to achieve a collective voice. Like the youth in Florida who have taken on the US gun lobby using the hashtag #NeverAgain, social media is mobilising the voices of citizens in vulnerable contexts in ways never before possible. For example, Facebook was used when Cyclone Hola hit Vanuatu. When local community leaders posted their needs online, tarpaulins and mattresses arrived within hours rather than the usual days!

In another example, Facebook, Google and Microsoft were among a number of tech giants last year who joined forces with World Vision to create digital solutions for the education crisis facing more than six million displaced Syrian children. Over the next few years we are looking at mobile apps, video learning, tablet-based literacy tools, online courses, educational games, remote teacher training, online assessments and teacher monitoring tools for Syrian refugee children. All the education gains made in Syria in the decade preceding the war have been wiped out according to the United Nations. One in three Syrian schools have been damaged, many of them destroyed. But technology can help Syrian children catch up on years of lost education – which is of vital importance to future leadership and prospects for peace in the Middle East.

We’re using digital for safety too. We’re piloting a digital fire alarm based on heat detection in the slums of Bangladesh. When the temperature in a dwelling dramatically rises, the Lumkani instantly sends alerts to the local emergency services as well as devices in surrounding households for rapid response – essential in slums where the smoky environment renders traditional smoke detectors useless. Fire in these conditions can be voracious, killing thousands each year and devastating for those with little or no insurance.

There’s a misconception out there that big NGOs use up a significant proportion of their funding to prop themselves up, when more could be going to people in need. How does World Vision manage administration costs?

Right now, 81% of all our funds go to field programs and advocacy work. This includes our work here in Australia with Indigenous communities, and our global programs that benefit children and their communities, as well as the coordination of disaster relief and humanitarian crises. Another 10% goes towards fundraising which is needed to generate donations. Public fundraising includes the cost for gaining long-term supporters so that our work can continue. Finally, 9% goes to transforming ourselves for greater impact, administration and accountability – including digital transformation, HR and management, and running our supporter service centre. We take this very seriously – people need to be confident that the funds they give us in trust are being used wisely and going to those most in need. However, I also want donors to understand that for us to increase our effectiveness, we must invest in our future to be more and more effective in the field. We achieve all that and still send 81% to the field.

How do you ensure that funds are not used by corrupt governments and systems?

World Vision, like all responsible NGOs, employs robust controls. We spend significant time consulting in communities before we start, to ensure that our work and any funds reach the most vulnerable children and that all community leaders are signed on for that. If we can’t get comfortable we don’t go there. All our work is subject to regular internal and independent audits and evaluations to help protect our funds from getting into the wrong hands. We have rigorous internal controls aimed at ensuring that assets reach their intended beneficiaries and are used in compliance with the law and donor requirements – this includes strong security systems and comprehensive training of staff. Our hiring processes, including background checks, aim to ensure that we employ people who are qualified, committed to our values and pose no risk to our partners, communities or programs. World Vision has led the way in using digital technology to speed up the safe distribution of aid in emergency and non-emergency situations. We have strong systems in place that track and monitor how our aid including cash, food items, and non-food items are distributed. Any reported breaches are overseen locally and globally, immediately investigated and appropriate measures put in place to ensure they don’t happen again.

How are you engaging the next generation of donors, and why is this important?

By 2020 it’s predicted that 75 billion devices will be connected, generating trillions of interactions every day! The next generation is immersed in this brave new world – but to them it’s not new, it’s the reality they’ve grown up with, and the future they are bringing into the present. The rise of the ‘millennial giver’ is bringing all sorts of changes, with innovations like direct giving, crowd funding and other new platforms. In response to this, World Vision is digitising the ways donors connect with us and actively seeking to remove pain points; one-click giving is a priority! Oh – and of course that’s easy to see in the real world; when my kids were visiting communities in Vietnam this year, they found the young teenagers in our programs with no language in common wanted to connect with them on Facebook!

In the age of fake news, actions speak louder than words: the challenge for World Vision, and indeed all big organisations, is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the work we do, to build trust, and build real relationships. One of the things that has blown me away since becoming CEO of World Vision is just effective our work is. For instance, in the 10 seconds it takes you to read this, World Vision will have reached another person with clean water. Every 60 seconds, somewhere in the world, a family receives the tools to overcome poverty. Of the malnourished children World Vision reaches, 89% of make a full recovery. This is work that I believe in with all my heart – and for us to continue this work, we must capture the hearts and minds of the next generation. Social media, with its immediacy and demand for honesty and authenticity, as well as capacity for conversation, is a great avenue for us to engage with the next generation of donors. It helps us raise awareness and tell the stories of the world’s most vulnerable in new ways. We recently launched a new Twitter handle, @WVAnews, which allows people to get stories about our work - both the need and the impact as they break. We are increasingly using platforms like Facebook Live to bring stories from the field to donors in real time.  

And in shopping malls around Australia we’re now using Virtual Reality (or VR) pop-ups. Our 360 goggles allow supporters and potential donors to ‘walk’ through a virtual refugee camp. In this way we can use technology as a window to our work and enable greater understanding and compassion for others.

How does information communications technology (ICT) benefit micro, small and medium enterprises in developing countries?

The short answer is, it’s of huge benefit. Through new and traditional forms of ICT, small business people have greater opportunities to expand their businesses, grow their customer base and access critical market information, new innovations, new production technologies and finance. The great news is that women entrepreneurs are especially likely to benefit from the ways that ICT can overcome constraints when it comes to accessing finance, skills and training.

The availability of technology often grows at uneven rates. In my view, it works best when the actual embedding of digital into development programming runs at the pace of infrastructure. World Vision’s Livelihoods Academy, for example, is an online learning model to assist small business people in developing countries. It works by capturing the learnings of field-based staff from across its development programming around the world. World Vision partnered with Dynamind eLearning to design an award-winning Project Model Accredited Learning and Support (PALS) approach that promotes peer-to-peer learning and coaching. The PALS approach is constantly evolving based on participant input. Using the Moodle platform, it supports World Vision field staff working directly with communities. So far over 300 certified staff have supported more than 200,000 smallholder farmer households to increase their economic resilience, which is a great result. 

You’re the first female CEO of World Vision Australia. Given that so much of the focus of WVA’s attention is on empowering women and protecting children, do you feel that as a woman you bring a different perspective on development work?

I’ve always championed opportunities for women in my career – challenging myself and others to test possibilities, push the boundaries, advocate for equality and be willing to say yes when asked. What I wasn’t quite prepared for is the disproportionate level of disadvantage women and girls in developing contexts have in comparison to women and girls in Australia. For example, every single day 507 women and adolescent girls die from pregnancy and childbirth complications in emergency settings. When I visit the field, I meet the faces behind this and confront other sobering statistics. I am a mother who had birth complications, and I was once an adolescent girl, and when I meet these women I am disturbed by the fact that it is only where we were born that divided our fate. When I hear from a mother who has watched her young son or daughter die in conflict, or from a preventable illness, or malnutrition, I am emboldened to advocate, to challenge and to push boundaries. When I am with her, all I can do is hold her hand and listen to her story as the tears run down her face and mine.

As a female CEO in Australia, I am passionate about supporting girls and giving them the tools that will empower them and break stereotypes and trends that discourage them from aiming high. It breaks my heart to meet adolescent girls in conflict zones who are 90% more likely to be out of school when compared to girls in conflict-free countries. Girls are often kept out of school due to concerns about safety; violence, rape, abduction and trafficking to name a few. So nothing makes me happier than seeing young girls having the confidence to lead younger children in one of our Child Friendly Spaces, or teaching their families about hygiene and other life skills they’ve learned in our centres in refugee camps.

Most of the world’s small farms are actually run by women. Women are largely responsible for feeding families and communities in developing countries and even better, they are 70% more likely to invest any returns into things like education and healthcare for her children. For every dollar a woman earns, she invests 80 cents in her family. I’ve met women with almost nothing who give away the first calf from a World Vision-funded cow to another woman so that her kids can have milk. World Vision is now deploying, in partnership with the Australian Government, a program for micro, small and medium enterprises (also known as ‘the missing middle’) which are the engines of innovation and employment in developing countries with a priority on women entrepreneurs. Recently, World Vision provided a micro-finance loan to a Sri Lankan woman named Nisanthi running a coir-processing business [note: coir is a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconut]. She now sells more than two tonnes of coir a week, some of which is exported internationally – creating employment for many women in her community. Today’s aid recipients are becoming tomorrow’s trading partners. 

It’s my great joy to partner with donors to help them make a big difference in the lives of the most vulnerable on our planet. Investing in women in developing nations does just that, providing multiple economic and social returns with far-reaching positive consequences. At World Vision, beyond and including child sponsorship, we have the scale of programming to leave a rich legacy of social empowerment and I get to make that happen for women and girls. I have one of the most exciting jobs in the world!