The University of Guelph hosted humanitarian and author, Dr. Samantha Nutt at the Leadership Call to Action event on January 18, 2017. It was open to students and alumni of the Master of Arts Leadership program and was a great evening of learning, catching up with friends and book signing.
Samantha Nutt has worked for almost 2 decades to make a difference in dozens of conflict zones after graduating from medical school. Although we may not always think of the leadership skills of activists and aid workers this group must work diligently “to build a business plan built on stranger’s good intent”, to motivate a team with pay below market value, without profit sharing or year end bonuses and to work in environments with a high risk of rape, extortion, disease, corruption and death. She told the rapt audience that “for better or for worse, it is unlike any other leadership challenge” and admitted that “some of my leadership lessons have been personally embarrassing” as she learned through trial and error building War Child Canada.
The leadership lessons that Samantha offered are deceptively simple:
Ignore the Blowhards which she described as “not allowing yourself to be limited by someone else’s assumption of what we are capable of”. She fought diligently to begin War Child Canada despite difficulties fundraising and gaining support from individuals unconnected to war zones an ocean away. She shared that she is still inventing her professional path and that she remains unwilling to settle. While she was in these war zones, she witnessed missed opportunities when other NGO’s focused on short term needs rather than long-term sustainability. War Child Canada has grown from a volunteer staff of one (she described herself with a phone and a backpack knocking on doors for 2 years) into a powerhouse that has raised more than $70 million.
“Leadership, no matter which path we are on is a test of endurance”.
If no one is listening, don’t shout – change the message and ask yourself who you are trying to appeal to? She gave a great example of fundraising at a Tragically Hip which coincided with a large meeting of world leaders in Winnipeg. She had an opportunity to speak between sets and donations slowly dwindled in. The audience of 80,000 was focused on the Hip and her message was drowned out by the Hip chants until Gord Downie saw her frustration and encouraged the audience to simply “put the money in the cup” . A half hour later, $350,000 was donated. This taught Samantha the importance of being flexible, adaptable and to “be in tune with how your message is being received”. She acknowledged that people want to hear a simple message and that the next generation of donors will ask more questions and want to be part of the change.
“Active listening is the only effective communication strategy”.
Write Your Why was the third lesson focusing on knowing what drives you. She thinks about those that “are brave in ways I have never been” describing a young girl she met in a rehabilitation program in the Congo who had been raped, abused and had the soles of her feet cut off. This girl wanted to know if Canada understood what was happening to girls like her in an environment where mining for Coltan (used in our phones and video games) led to violence and rape? Samantha shared that stories like this are her why. This is why she works to make the world a better place and why it is “never too early or too late to think of philanthropy”.
Don’t give to charity; give to change was her final message and she described a woman from Darfur who had fled, with her baby, to the safety of the bush only to witness the rest of her family being killed. She was illiterate and when Samantha asked her what had really helped her, she wrote her name in the sand and told her that now that she could write her own name, she wanted to learn to write her son’s name. Education is critically important and is the most important predictor of child mortality. Education gives mother’s the ability to support themselves and their families as “every additional year of education that girls attain, child mortality drops by 10%”.
Samantha Nutt told the audience that she had learned to live in fear but that “through giving back, no matter which cause, we can be unequivocaly proud as leaders” and that with “the right amount of initiative we can overcome apathy”.
In the words of Gord Downie, “Put the money in the cup” and donate to War Child Canada which helps to sustain local grassroots capacity and rebuild societies in relation to education, justice and opportunities which address the broader determinants of health. War Child Canada tries to have an academic, evidenced based approach as they discover the local needs and gaps through consultations with local families and children. When resources begin to dry up, after the short term crisis is over, War Child Canada “does what no one else is doing” and uses an “iterative approach” to form grassroots partnerships and to make their own role redundant as capacity grows.
The evening ended with thanks from Chuck Evans (my favourite professor of the Leadership program as well as being the Assistant Dean and Executive Director of Professional Programs), who spoke of the MA Leadership program’s goal to provoke thought and hope leading to action. He said that while Samantha’s book Damned Nations is not an easy read, it is an important read. He encouraged the audience to reflect on what we heard, talk about it, get angry, think, and “do something bigger than ourselves”. I am a couple of chapters into Damned Nations and am already feeling that this is another book that all Canadians should read. It is part of the CBC’s 100 True Stories that Make You Proud to Be Canadian list that I am working my way through and will certainly be a topic of conversation at our house.
“It is more helpful to provide ongoing small donations than a larger donation during a natural disaster”.