Member Profile: Barbara N. Turner, URC/CHS

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Member Profile: Barbara N. Turner, URC/CHS

Barbara Turner visits with project staff in Uganda.

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing InsideNGO

Member Profile is a series on our blog that features InsideNGO members talking about the work they do and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. Here, we talk to Barbara Turner, the President of University Research Co., LLC (URC) and its non-profit affiliate, Center for Human Services (CHS). Together, they work to empower communities and systems to adapt change that matters in health, education, and social services.

Q: You’re at the helm of two organizations, University Research Co., LLC (URC) and its non-profit affiliate, Center for Human Services (CHS). And URC-CHS works in over 45 countries and the United States. As a leader, how do you balance—or juggle—those responsibilities?

A: The most important thing driving the work of both URC and CHS is our shared mission to improve health and education systems worldwide. Both URC and CHS specialize in evidence-based, sustainable solutions. We’re not just delivering aid—we’re trying to improve systems so that they work for the people they serve. For our staff, who work on projects managed by both companies, the dedication and the technical approach don’t change. The work done by each of our two organizations contributes to the goals of the other.

Where URC and CHS differ is in their approach to business operations and client oversight. URC, our for-profit firm, manages contracts that are bound by rigorous US government requirements for things such as salary levels and reporting. CHS, our non-profit affiliate, works only on private grants or US government cooperative agreements that provide us more flexibility in those same areas.

That being said, while the accounting for the two sides of our business are done separately, our commitment to rigorous management and compliance is the same for both.

What are some of the biggest operational challenges/issues you face in your organization?

Like most organizations in our industry, one of our biggest challenges is retaining staff, especially those who work on projects with a known end date. We have been fortunate to maintain a presence in many countries over many years, but there are always periods of uncertainty. Our goal is to keep our best staff through periods of transition whenever it’s possible.

We also work very hard to ensure the consistent application of our compliance regulations in the 45 countries in which we work. The rules can seem arcane even to those of us in the US who are used to robust financial regulatory structures. But in some countries, where local financial regulations are weak, it’s very tough to impress on people the importance of adherence to established practices around things like competition and documentation. Until you’ve undergone a US-style audit, it’s hard to really grasp why all of that extra work and back-up is necessary. We commit significant time and resources to provide ongoing training for all of our staff on what’s required, and why.

What strategies/tactics do you use to respond to these challenges?

One of URC’s greatest strengths is our expertise in quality improvement. We focus on quality improvement to continually strengthen our own internal processes just as we do for the health and educational systems and facilities with which we work. What that means is that we operate in an ongoing cycle of implementing processes, seeking feedback, making adjustments, and rolling out new, strengthened processes. We are always looking for ways to improve what we do.

Technology is an important facilitator of that improvement cycle. We increasingly leverage technology to help bridge the gap between our headquarters teams and teams in the field. For example, we have a thriving intranet that staff around the world can use to collaborate on the development of technical documents, and to access tools and forms, process and policy descriptions, and the latest URC news.

We’ve also invested in sophisticated webinar software and hardware, so that we can host interactive meetings with staff and partners around the world. It helps us create a sense of belonging to “one URC,” even among geographically disparate staff, and keeps us abreast of local context and challenges on the ground. We can use that awareness to adjust our policies if needed, and to develop trainings on things that our staff find challenging.

How do you foster professional growth and development among your teams?

The growth and development of our staff is a top priority for us.

We expect a lot of our staff. They have responsibilities that range from developing technical strategy to ensuring financial compliance. Most are exposed to a variety of challenging new work environments through their travel. They are expected to give presentations at industry events and conferences, and many publish regularly.

We consistently hear from our staff that these challenges create learning opportunities that are among the most valuable aspects of their experience here. To support them, then, we offer regular trainings on topics ranging from compliance when hiring consultants, to giving an effective elevator speech. We want our staff to have the tools they need to learn and grow as professionals, and to remain the best in the business in what we do.

We also have a multi-tiered reward system so that we can recognize “on the spot” jobs well done, as well as sustained excellence.

Let’s talk about fraud—always a hot topic in the non-profit sector. You’re speaking on a panel at our annual conference on fraud and corruption. What kind of organizational practices and behaviors have you instituted at URC to help mitigate risks in these areas?

Just as in healthcare, prevention is the best medicine against fraud. We create systems and standardized processes that help eliminate the opportunities for fraud. The possibility of an audit—internal or external—is not as worrisome if you know you have strong systems in place to prevent mistakes, whether they’re careless or intentional.

Another important piece of our fraud prevention effort is consistent messaging from management that we will not “shoot the messenger.” We want people to feel comfortable reporting concerns, so that we can find and fix problems early. For that to happen, staff have to feel like they can raise the problem without fear of repercussions against them for doing so. That message—that not only won’t you be punished for coming forward, but in fact that it’s your responsibility to do it—is a key part of all of our relevant trainings.

Finally, we work hard to make sure that our required policies are feasible in local contexts. For example, we’ve created checklists, which are field tested and translated into multiple languages, to take the guesswork out of operationalizing key procedures. We’re currently developing an e-tool that systematizes the local procurement process. Like Turbotax, it ensures you have the documentation necessary at each step before allowing you to advance to the next step, making consistent application of our procurement process as easy as possible for our teams.

What do you perceive as the value of InsideNGO membership for you and your organization?

Our industry seems to get more complex and more competitive with each passing year. For URC as an organization, and for myself, InsideNGO provides valuable opportunities for exchanging experiences and real-life lessons learned with organizations and leaders facing the same challenges we are. Our businesses are often in competition with each other, but most of us share a goal to improve the world around us. InsideNGO makes us all better at the work that we do.

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