President's Report


April 22, 2008

By: Jill Lester, President & CEO

Introduction – My First 100 Days

It is my great real pleasure to provide the Board with my first report. As I’ve expressed to gatherings of Hunger Project staff and supporters around the world, I consider my appointment to be a real gift.

A key focus during my first 100 days has been to listen and learn. And what I have heard and learned is truly inspiring. I have had the great good fortune to travel to India, Ghana and Bangladesh to see The Hunger Project's wonderful work first hand, and I have met with staff and investors in the US, Europe and Australia.

In dozens of villages, I have seen how our strategies are transforming and empowering lives. And I have been overwhelmed by the commitment and enthusiasm of our staff and our investors. This experience has transformed me from someone with an intellectual and philosophical appreciation of The Hunger Project into someone profoundly convinced that we really do have the right approach.

Overview of our Achievements from Around the World

I am honored to update the Board on the breadth of achievements by our teams around the world from October—before I had joined the organization—up to the present moment.

  • Our highest organizational priority is demonstrating scale-up in Ghana. We have learned important lessons, built managerial and organizational capacity and produced significant results as we take the leap from the Year One pace of four new epicenters per year to the Year Two pace of eight per year.
  • Our programs are continuing to expand in all our program countries, and we are growing in policy influence, particularly in India and Bangladesh.
  • We’ve built on the first steps we took last year towards establishing a world-class system of monitoring and evaluation.
  • We completed 2007 as our best-ever year in fundraising, particularly in our partner countries, which achieved 74 percent growth in money to global programs over 2006. That strength is carrying into 2008, although we are acutely aware of the growing financial crisis that has already affected some of our investors in the US and is beginning to have global impact.

The Current Social, Political and Economic Environment

As we expand our programs, we need take into account the landscape for development within which we work – both the external conditions and factors within our own global constituency.

  • The world food crisis, triggered by rapidly rising prices in basic grains, is having direct impact on the populations with whom we work, increasing hunger among those struggling to survive on meager incomes.
    • We need to increase our emphasis on the distinction between extreme poverty and hunger in both our programs and communications.
  • The financial crisis, that began with the credit markets in the US, has already hurt some of our investors and is going to be felt globally, with consequent impact on both individual and corporate investments in The Hunger Project.
    • We need to try to "cushion" impacts by diversifying our revenue streams and the opportunities for collaborative partnerships.
  • Global warming is increasing the frequency of “natural” disasters that strike the areas where we work, hitting us every year over the past four years.
    • We need to empower the villages where we work in a process of disaster preparedness planning and consider, from our own planning perspective, whether we should also plan for occasional direct interventions, depending on the scale of the incident.
  • Upcoming elections in countries ranging from Ghana and Bangladesh to the US could offer both new hopes and new risks. In Bangladesh, the conflict between the rising tides of both women’s rights and Islamic extremism has resulted in street violence and fuelled our concerns for the safety of our partners.
    • We need to continue to play a leading role in advocating electoral reforms in Bangladesh.
  • The age demographic of our longstanding investor base in the US is shifting from the most productive years to retirement years, calling upon us to broaden and diversify our investor movement. There are encouraging examples of increased leadership by youth, such as Hannah Salwen whom you will meet at the board meeting and who—at age 15—convinced her family to move to a more modest home and contribute the proceeds to ending hunger in Africa. We need to explore whether there might be value in developing a “Youth Chapter” of The Hunger Project in the US and Partner Countries, as well as the potential to mobilize volunteer youth in our program countries, as is being demonstrated successfully in Bangladesh.
    • We need to explore whether there might be value in developing a "Youth Chapter" of The Hunger Project in the US and partner countries, as well as the potential to mobilize volunteer youth in our program countries, as is being demonstrated successfully in Bangladesh.

Against the backdrop of these conditions, let’s review our achievements around the world.

Scale-up: meeting the challenge of capacity

Earlier this month, I visited Ghana where I saw first-hand the impressive impact of our Epicenter Strategy. We are overcoming challenges we have encountered during an unprecedented scale-up designed to demonstrate that our strategy has the capability to transform the lives of people across the Eastern Region and, ultimately, across Africa.

Since the Board’s last meeting, in the Eastern Region of Ghana:

  • We have officially declared the Atuobikrom Epicenter to be self-sufficient.
  • We have inaugurated the second of the four “Year One” epicenter buildings, and the people of the third and fourth clusters are nearing completion of their epicenter buildings.
  • 18 newly mobilized clusters of villages have organized themselves as epicenters, nine of which have entered the construction phase.
  • The pace of mobilizing in new areas has been increased over our original plan, as we incorporated the important learning that the initial mobilization must take place at the community’s own pace to ensure maximum future success in the community.

A pre-requisite for these achievements has been the hiring of a greatly expanded program staff in the Eastern Region, and training them to fully understand and independently provide many of the same kind of leadership skills that, in the past, were provided largely by the country director. In March, Dr. Tadesse completed an intensive four-day training session with all program staff, culminating in their recommitment to meeting the ambitious goals of scale-up under the leadership of Dr. Naana.

Progress across Africa

In the epicenter-by-epicenter reports from all eight African countries, in addition to our scale-up work in the Eastern Region of Ghana, we have registered the following achievements:

  • During 2007, our African Woman Food Farmer Initiative (AWFFI) issued more than 11,818 loans totaling US$904,260, bringing the cumulative total to $5,702,226 disbursed to 95,326 partners, with the average loan size of $60. This does not include the loans issued by the 17 officially-recognized epicenter banks.
  • Four new epicenters have been mobilized, one has entered the construction phase, and five have inaugurated their epicenter buildings.

There are now more than 100 epicenters in this process across Africa.

Strengthening Local Governance in India and Bangladesh

While I had read the details of our women-focused, bottom-up strategies in India and Bangladesh, the full impact of our work on the vital issue of good governance really became evident when I personally interacted with the dedicated staff, partner organizations and volunteers in these two countries. Finding ways to clearly and compellingly communicate these strategies to potential funding sources, without oversimplifying or losing their essence, is a major organizational priority for this year.

In both countries, I learned of the breadth and depth of our recent accomplishments.

  • In India, I met with the staff responsible for all 14 of our state programs, and with leaders of 30 of our largest and most dedicated NGO partners. We carry out a five-year empowerment program of newly-elected women local government representatives. The program is synchronized with the five-year election cycle. Since elections are held in different years in different states, we heard in detail about the achievements during each phase:
    • We have undertaken massive pre-election campaigns across two states to empower women’s participation in the electoral process.
    • Four states are conducting Women’s Leadership Workshops, Follow-up Workshops and on-demand skills training workshops for newly-elected women leaders.
    • Five states are in the process of building federations of elected women leaders for mutual empowerment and advocacy strength. I met with 85 members of 12 federations of elected women representatives from across eight districts of Rajasthan, who shared their triumphs in overcoming corruption, successfully demanding access to the benefits available in government programs, halting child marriage, and improving the quality of schools and health programs.
    • India also reported on their pioneering success in bringing bottom-up planning to the tsunami-affected areas of Tamil Nadu. The “people’s plans” which were displayed at the last Board meeting, have now been 65-90 percent implemented, trainings in disaster preparedness have been developed and conducted, and a documentary film is being created about the success.
  • In Bangladesh, I joined a delegation of some of our investors from the US, Australia and Europe who met with the staff and our dynamic Youth Ending Hunger volunteers, traveled to remote villages in North Bengal, and participated in our second annual meeting of our new Unleashed Women’s Network, a team of more than 1,200 women leaders we’ve trained in legal and reproductive rights who serve as resource people and advocates in the villages where they work. The scale and enthusiasm of our volunteer movement in Bangladesh is extraordinary. During the past six months, we’ve trained more than 7,000 new animators, held a reunion attended by 15,000 of our animators, formed 123 new income-generating cooperatives and delivered income-generating skills training to more than 1,200 people. More than 600 of the 1,200 women leaders were trained in just the last six months, who in turn have carried out numerous campaigns of action, including halting more than 300 child marriages.
  • The greatest opportunity before us in Bangladesh is the package of strong reforms in local democracy which The Hunger Project has helped formulate and which the interim government may institute within weeks. These would expand resources, accountability and decision-making autonomy for the level of government closest to the people—the union parishads, and establish a 40 percent reservation for women.

Breakthroughs in Latin America

  • Bolivia has faced natural disaster in the past six months, as floods ravaged many of the areas where we work. Although our team considered that short-term government aid was adequate, there was not nearly enough commitment to mid-term rehabilitation, and they have launched a campaign to meet this need. This situation has led us to begin developing a policy for guiding the appropriate response to natural disasters by The Hunger Project in the future.
  • Mexico faces invitations to work in far more areas than could ever be mobilized by its own staff, and so has launched a new strategy—taking a page from India’s playbook—by training the trainers of other NGOs and government agencies. This strategy is already producing significantly expanded results in three states.
  • Peru has just hosted the First International Forum of Indigenous Women from across Latin America, in preparation for expanding its advocacy at the upcoming UN Indigenous People’s Forum and increasing the network’s direct impact in education, health and nutrition.

Progress in Monitoring and Evaluation

A top priority for the organization is to put in place a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system in every one of our program countries that is consistent with our bottom-up approach. Our M&E system must also be consistent with our aspiration that it be world class and provide us with strong evidence that our programs fulfill our objectives and do indeed transform lives and free people from hunger in a sustainable way. Given that most M&E is inherently top down, we face a number of challenges.

At the last Board meeting, reports were provided on the innovations in quarterly data collection now underway and being recorded in our new online monitoring system. This work focused initially on Africa. During this period, and during the time of my visits in India and Bangladesh, we achieved conceptual breakthroughs in how to measure the impact of our complex strategies in these countries, which will be incorporated into our overall system with data collection beginning in May.

Fundraising Milestones

Last year was a breakthrough year in our funding, particularly in our partner countries, which increased their funding of global programs by 74 percent. This increased their share of global funding from 25 to 34 percent. More than 35 percent of partner country funding is from institutional rather than individual sources. Partner country fundraising for 2008 is already 45 percent ahead of where it stood at this time last year, and there are great prospects for further growth.

The US had significantly slower but still significant growth at 13 percent in 2007, while still falling short of reaching the target. This outcome resulted in large measure from the commitment of our high-level ($25,000+/year) investors who provided 61 percent of US funding. As we entered 2008, the US fundraising team targeted 10.5 percent growth for 2008. To achieve this will require successfully confronting two challenges: the financial crisis, and the retirement of Laura Burt, our longest-serving and one of our most successful fundraisers. In addition, we have mourned the passing of two of our most generous investors—Les Traband and Anne Petter.

To date, the US is 8 percent behind where we were at this time last year. I will be meeting with our head of fundraising, Lee Stuart, and the US Fundraising Team to develop strategic steps to increase, or at least maintain, our fundraising capacity in the face of current challenges.

Plans for Our Fall Event

Our plans for the 2008 Fall Event on October 18, 2008 at the New York Hilton Hotel are well advanced. This year’s event will once again be the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger which was last awarded to Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006. This year, we seek to expand participation in the Africa Prize by carrying out a broad-based call for nominations with the specific focus of civil-society leadership for women’s empowerment.

Financial Management

This year, for the first time, all program countries completed their audits by the end of February. We conducted our consolidated audit in March, and the auditors have delivered their draft report in time for this meeting. This is a great breakthrough from last year, when the complex process of consolidation was not completed until late in the year.

The Hunger Project’s New Phase – Building a Learning Culture

As stated at past meetings, our third era successfully pioneered affordable, replicable and effective bottom-up, gender-focused strategies that empower women and men to end their own hunger. We have now entered a new era where we will seek to more strongly influence the development approaches being followed by multilateral institutions and governments.

In the past, new insights often resulted in dramatic redesigns of our programs. In this new era, the lessons will be as numerous but perhaps less dramatic. It will require more broadly-based discipline, greater professionalism and more systematic practices to capture, share and adapt these lessons. In turn, this will require staff to take ownership and feel accountable.

Such a culture of continuous improvement is known in the literature as a “learning organization;” it is my intention to introduce these approaches and learning culture throughout The Hunger Project.

I have begun laying the groundwork for The Hunger Project to become a learning organization by instituting a system of key performance indicators, regular management meetings with department heads individually and as a team, and regular weekly communications with the entire global staff.

I have intentionally not moved to fill vacant key staff positions until I gained a firmer understanding of the current organization critical skills gaps, and the need for greater clarification in roles and accountabilities. I have, however, already taken the decision that the organization has reached a stage where it would greatly benefit from the creation of a dedicated human resources role.

I am also keenly aware of the need for the organization to develop a 3-5 year strategic plan to give clear direction to our work, share with partner countries so that their planning can be more closely aligned with our strategic objectives, and ensure that we focus all our resources and energies on those activities, program and advocacy that add most value to the fulfillment of our mission: the empowerment of women and men to sustainably end their own hunger.