By Lucy Morris

I joined EveryChild as a Programme Manager at an exciting time. They had made the big decision to shift from implementing their own programmes through EveryChild country offices, to working in partnership with national organizations.  My job was to lead one of two programme management teams in scoping new countries and national partners in Africa and Asia, and to develop new multi-year programmes to tackle child abuse and neglect.   

What I didn’t know was that just over a year later, after having established 10+ new partnerships, the organization would take another, even bigger strategic decision to exit from all of its programmes over the following four years, and to hand over its remaining assets to a new network of national organisations that it had helped to establish called Family for EveryChild. In practical terms, this meant exiting from 10 partnerships and closing or localising our remaining eight country offices over the next few years, and making the majority of staff redundant including me.

I received news of this decision via email while co-designing a new pilot project together with a partner in Ghana.  This made it particularly difficult to navigate, as the partner was understandably disappointed.  They had already invested time in building a new working relationship on the assumption this would be a long-term engagement.  Now plans had changed, and there were no guarantees that EveryChild could help to scale up the project at the end of the pilot period.  But after the initial shock had subsided and we’d had a chance to re-group as a team in the UK, then several things became clear:

  1. The role and skillset of the Programme Management Team would need to evolve, as we became change managers as well as partnership and programme managers, and developed new skills in programme exit
  2. The way in which we went about the transition mattered, both to our partners and to us as a team and organization
  3. Change could be an opportunity and a positive experience – even if it wasn’t what we had originally expected, and even though some of us had had bad experiences of organizational change processes while working with other INGOs in the past.

Fast forward four years to 2016, and Family for EveryChild was legally independent, EveryChild had indeed closed its doors for the last time as planned and there were early indications that much of the work of our partners work was continuing.

What helped with the transition?

EveryChild’s senior management had been wrestling with the profound question of how to shift power and to have most impact on the lives of children as a medium-sized INGO for a while.  Inspiring leadership and a Board that was willing to take a risk in order to live out the organisations values, were key factors in making the transition successful.

Having a laser focus on our organizational purpose and mission was highly motivating – even when planning for exit. Ultimately this wasn’t about us, or even about our partners – it was about the communities we were there to serve and what was in the best interests of children during the transition.  It helped being aligned behind a core message: that to have most impact, we needed to work differently.  That one medium sized INGO – even one working in partnership – could only ever have limited impact, and that this transition was a way to create even more, lasting change.

Although the decision to phase out had already been taken, it helped to engage partners in key decisions that they could still genuinely influence. In practice this meant questions of how and when our engagement would come to an end, and whether there was any additional capacity strengthening support they would find useful.   A set of three core ‘exit principles’ guided these decisions, which became our common touchstone and provided comfort to staff and partners that this would be a careful, respectful process, and that we weren’t simply walking away.  These principles were:

  • As far as possible ensure that the work we have done is sustainable – this could be a continuation of services or lasting changes in children’s lives
  • Ensure that exit does not have a detrimental effect on the children and communities where we work
  • As far as possible, ensure that expertise and momentum for change in the country is not lost

Adapting our partnership approaches and toolkits to incorporate responsible exit processes, and continuously updating them on the basis of real-time feedback also helped – for example responsible exit indicators, end of partnership calls, six-month post-exit calls, end of partnership summaries and exit checklists [1].

It was tempting to hold back on information, and only share updates with staff and partners when there was a significant change.  However, we found that this became a source of anxiety and led to people trying to fill in the gaps in communications. During this complex process it was much better to regularly drip-feed even small bits of news – even if it was to say “we don’t know the answer to that yet, but we expect to have more information by x date.”

Staff care and opportunities for staff development during the transition as well as outplacement support were critical, as most people were working themselves out of a job. Change can trigger transformation and huge personal and professional growth, and can be an opportunity for staff to take on more responsibility in the short-term, which was the case for many staff.

Finally, developing personal resilience was also important.  My mantra during this time was “hope not fear” and I found there was always something to appreciate and celebrate – even on the most difficult of days. This turned out to be an important lesson for 2020, too. 

[1] The Stewarding Loss initiative has developed publically available resources and toolkits for organizational endings, which are relevant for INGOs too.

If you would like to discuss how INTRAC can support you when it comes to exiting responsibly, please contact us.

This blog is the eighth in our series on the topic of responsible exit, taking into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic:

No. 1: Living our values in the distress of exit (July 2020)
No. 2: Exit can be a good thing for local civil society (September 2020)
No. 3: There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in exit planning (October 2020)
No. 4: If you can’t exit well, at least exit less badly (October 2020)
No. 5: In Ethiopia, exit presents real challenges for civil society (November 2020)
No. 6: A cautious welcome to the localisation agenda (December 2020)
No. 7: Ending well (December 2020)
No. 8: What working with EveryChild taught me about responsible exit (December 2020)