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Stars Foundation invests in organisations and ideas that transform the lives of disadvantaged children and their communities globally.

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The Power of Freedom

Posted by: Muna on 06 Oct 2015
in Blog

On Thursday 24 September I gave the keynote speech at the TrustLaw Awards, an annual ceremony hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to celebrate groundbreaking pro bono projects undertaken by legal teams with NGOs and social enterprises around the world. The keynote was billed as a brief conversation between Gayle Peterson and‎ myself on the traits that most epitomise Deliberate Leadership

This is an area Gayle has been researching extensively, conducting over 1000 interviews with leaders all over the world and which will be the subject of her forthcoming book Good, Evil Wicked: The Art, Science, and Business of Giving. Deliberate Leadership centres on the view that leaders need to act differently than they have in the past if we are going to solve the world's most pressing challenges. People who embody this leadership style use a combination of seven strategies - courage, collaboration, community, creativity, compassion, capital and candor - which Gayle explores in a case study on the Thomson Reuters Foundation and its formidable CEO Monique Villa. 

In our discussion, Gayle and I reflected on a number of key issues pertaining to our work at Stars, and to my personal style of leadership in helping to shape the organisation's approach to philanthropy.

Power dynamics

The area we explored most during our conversation was power, and the importance of understanding the delicate balance of power inherent in all relationships. In particular, we discussed how at Stars Foundation, we have built our whole approach to philanthropy in an effort to redress the lack of power balance in the funder/grantee relationship. You cannot escape the fact that, as a donor, you hold the power over the person you are giving money to. ‎

This is something we gave a lot of thought to when Stars was setting up its flagship programme, the Stars Impact Awards. Our conclusions informed the whole design of the Awards, which offer flexible funding, capacity building support and opportunities for networking and profile enhancement for our Award winners.

I shared how our approach to unrestricted funding puts decision-making in the hands of our Awardees, who we believe are best placed to decide how that funding should be spent. In addition, we don't ask NGOs to fit tightly defined funding priorities that we set. We have seen too many organisations waste valuable time and resource repackaging their existing programmes to meet donor requirements, often to the detriment of the important work those NGOs are delivering on the front line. And we seek feedback throughout our Awards process, which we listen to and act upon.

A good example of this are the fundamental changes we made to the Impact Awards following the findings of the Independent Review we conducted last year. For example, in response to the fact that we were often awarding NGOs in the same countries year after year (India, Nepal, Kenya, South Africa etc.), we have gone from accepting applications across 100 countries every year to focusing on just a handful of countries in the three regions we target, rotating these every two years. This gives organisations working in countries with less-developed civil societies more chance of being recognised by the Awards. 

Personal power

As CEO of Stars, I give a lot of thought to the position of power I occupy within our team and organisation. If I want to build an institution that individual team members feel invested in, and that allows people to‎ contribute their skills, energy and vision, then they need the freedom and the space to do this. This means 'relinquishing' power in some ways, handing it to the team and giving people the space to create and lead. 

When I think back to the early days of Stars, it was a difficult transition to bring on new members of the team (it's not for nothing my friends and family affectionately call me a control freak). I can tell you that letting go of areas of work that I had been solely responsible for, and allowing others to shape them and grow them took some serious adjustment. However, I quickly learned the value of allowing that to happen.

Looking at where we are today, I see just how much individual team members contributed to the organisation we have become. From the simple - like how we organise our files on the shared IT drive; to the complex - like how we select and assess award winners. From the essential - like how to be compliant with health and safety regulations; to the creative - like how we describe Stars and the work we do. 

Each part of the organisation has benefited from the input and direction of the people leading Stars. And while having a clear vision is essential, just as essential is giving people the freedom and the power to bring their talents to bear on the mission of the organisation. It results in a more motivated workforce, and a much stronger organisation overall.

During my 13 years at Stars, I have been slowly learning to let go of my need for control. This has allowed Stars to benefit enormously from the pool of talent it attracts. I often laugh at the fact that my daughter’s favourite song is Let it go from the film Frozen – maybe the universe is sending me a secret message so I never forget!