Making the Vision Real: Mary Ellen McNish, Fall Event 2012

October 13, 2012

You are here tonight because you are an investor in the work of the Hunger Project, because you support us in some way or, perhaps, a good friend invited you to be here to listen, to learn and to come to know for yourself the wonder of what The Hunger Project has to offer.

A lot of you know I’m just at the end of my first two years serving as your President and CEO. When I spoke to you at that first Fall Gala, I told you about my life’s journey and what it was that eventually led me here. And when I arrived, you welcomed me with open arms. You invited me into your communities and your homes. You shared your ideas and you helped me settle into a Hunger Project family that had been growing in strength for nearly four decades.

The journey The Hunger Project has taken is a case study in bottom-up social change: from challenging the mindset of “hunger is inevitable” ― that it’s just a fact of life ― to changing that mindset by concerted collective action. I am so very privileged to be part of it, and I hope you will leave this evening with the knowledge and the understanding that you want to be part of it too!

You know, when the Chair of our Global Board of Directors, Steve Sherwood, introduced me at that first Fall Event weekend, he said that everyone who met me in the interview process told him that I was “authentic.” And he said that when he finally met me he found that to be true. Then he concluded his introduction by saying, “So here is the authentic Mary Ellen McNish.” And so there I was being called up to the podium and all I could think of was, “What the heck does authentic really mean?”

Well I’ve come to know what it means. It’s someone who tells the truth ― even when the truth is hard to tell. So I have used this two-year period to learn absolutely everything I could about the work of The Hunger Project and about the people who make this precious organization come alive with hope and courage and commitment.

And I mean everyone: all of our office staff ― to Country Directors ― to Program staff in the field ― to investors from around the world ― to 385,000 volunteers ― and to the woman I met on the side of the road in Ethiopia, who was asking me to help bring clean water to her village (and who, when I asked, through an interpreter, how old she was, thinking she was in her 80s, turned out to be 46) ― and to the village chief I danced with in Uganda in celebration of the inauguration of the Namayumba Epicenter.

Every single person that I have met not only makes me a better President and CEO but, truth be told, makes me a better person. They give me a lot to look up to, they give me a lot to believe in, and they give me an awful lot to live up to.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that ending hunger and poverty is not rocket science. It’s a lot harder than that. You see, we are working to be catalysts. We’re working to empower people to overthrow the notion that they have no voice or no right to determine how they and their families live or what services they need and no say in how decisions that directly affect them are made. We are empowering people to overcome generations of dependency and years of failed development policies, policies that handed out aid with little sustainable impact.

See, this is not only about hunger. This is about sustainable social change. This is the real deal!

This mindset change doesn’t happen in internet time. It happens in village time. And, if it is forced on people from the outside, the mindset change doesn’t happen at all. It doesn’t take root ―it doesn’t work.

It was this focus on ensuring sustainability that made the Global Board say, “Ok! Let’s stop a moment. Let’s look at where we are. Let’s look at the situation around the world – let’s look at Africa, South Asia, and Latin America and let’s ask that very important question, ‘what’s missing?’ What’s missing now that if provided by The Hunger Project would enable the world to come closer to ending hunger and poverty?”

As a learning organization, we were committed to a truthful examination of reality, almost like peeling the onion. One of the things we discovered (and this is where the hard truth comes in) is that we were asking our country staff to try to do too much with too little. We found that in many places we were not attaining the long lasting social change that was our goal. And this was easily masked because we saw such immediate and positive improvements in the communities.

So, we need to do more to ensure that our programs have enough resources to function as they were designed so that communities are set up to end hunger and poverty sustainably for the long-haul. To address this, rather than engage in widespread expansion to new areas, we have to deepen the programs within our existing communities so they can be models of excellence for widespread replication. And that’s just what we’re going to do.

If we truly want to achieve our mission to end hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable grassroots, women-centered strategies and by advocating for their widespread adoption in countries around the world, then we really need to step up our game. Not only do we have to deepen our existing programs, we also need to prove their impact systematically― and this is difficult stuff to prove. Social change always is. And then, we need to share the results more widely.

We’re already making tremendous progress on some of these fronts:

  • We’ve undertaken pilot impact assessment studies in Malawi and Ghana with 1,000 household surveys that use emerging technologies like specialized iPods with trained country staff and local researchers collecting the data.
  • We are working with experts from Yale University and the University of Ghana on a randomized long-term assessment of our Scale-up initiative in that country.
  • Based on new science that shows that damage caused by malnutrition in the first 1,000 days is irreparable, we’ve launched new initiatives in all our programs to ensure good nutrition from the onset of pregnancy to a child’s second birthday.
  • Our own John Coonrod has relocated to Washington, DC for increased interaction with the development community.
  • Our Country Directors are increasingly on national and international panels and on policy advisory committees. For example, Tarcila Rivera-Zea from Peru was appointed a civil society advisor to UN Women and Country Director Rita Sarin was appointed to the National Committee on the Status of Women in India.
  • And, large international agencies like the World Bank (in Bangladesh) are now funding our work. This year UN Women became one of our largest investors, funding women’s leadership development in India.

So, with all this already underway, guided by our 10 core principles and secure in the evidence that our approach works and is becoming increasingly recognized, we want to take everything one step further. We want to be a catalyst for transforming the way the world does development.

This is a very tall order. It far exceeds the capacity of an organization of our size. But then that’s what The Hunger Project does ― it thinks boldly and then acts boldly.

And I’m reminded that in doing this work we also have to invest in our management and administration. We have to fund our core capacity, so that we are good stewards of your investment.

Mary Ellen McNish 2012 Fall EventWe are committed to doing this. We will do this! But we can’t do it alone. We can’t do it without you. We need your partnership.

We want to build on the successes of our Program Countries in raising funds from important organizations like the UN, World Vision, British Council and others. We want to build on the success of our investor movement in the United States and reignite our activists so they can reach more and more people to expand our fundraising and influence. We have now with us this evening nine corporate sponsors. And, that number is growing.

We want to build on the success we have seen in Great Britain, where THP-UK has teamed up with the indomitable Dionne Warwick to transform our brand and double our income in the UK with (so far) two magnificent, over-the-top concerts. We want to build on the success of The Netherlands and Sweden, where The Hunger Project has not only been awarded prestigious postcode lottery grants but has also built strong funding relationships with business leaders and entrepreneurs. And, we want to build on Australia’s success: there in exchange for large investments in The Hunger Project they are using our leadership development programs in India and Bangladesh as learning opportunities for women in business.

But, most of all, we need your leadership. We need you to be a partner with all those who have the courage ― the real courage and the real energy to know their rights and who stand up to demand fair treatment. As New York Times columnist David Brooks said just recently, “Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation.”

So stand with the people whom you’ll meet this evening. Empower the woman food farmer in Senegal, who walks miles to gather water and firewood before she’s off to the fields with an infant strapped to her back ― just like 15 generations of her family before her. Join the village IMAM in Bangladesh who decides he will not stop preaching for women’s rights even if they ask him to step down as IMAM. Rise with the local elected women leaders in India as they find their collective voice and change the future for their children, especially their girl children. Partner with the women in Mexico and Peru who face the double challenge of being women and being indigenous.

Let us step forward with each and every woman and man in every part of the world ― women and men who are working together to take on age-old inequity so that their villages and families can build lives with dignity. And, please remember the words of aboriginal activists, words which are the very heart and soul of this Hunger Project movement:

“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.”

And so, ladies and gentlemen, let us do the same. Let us all, as partners, work together.