Member Profile: Carol Jenkins, World Learning

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September 07, 2016

Member Profile: Carol Jenkins, World Learning

Carol Jenkins (at left) in Cairo, meeting with participants from the USAID-funded STEM program, which is developing a network of five high schools focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math education.

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 Carol Jenkins, the President of World Learning. World Learning is a nonprofit organization empowering people and strengthening institutions through education, sustainable development, and exchange programs in more than 60 countries.

Q: You’ve been with World Learning since 2007 and stepped into the role of president at the beginning of this year. What’s the biggest difference for you in this new role?

A: When I first joined World Learning it was immediately apparent to me that I had stepped inside a very unique organization—we teach development and we do development. World Learning tackles human development challenges through direct engagement with local individuals and institutions via the NGO arm that I now lead, and through teaching the theories and models of development via accredited academic programs (The School for International Training, which is a graduate school, and SIT Study Abroad). These aspects of one organization are incredible assets, but as you might imagine, they also represent some very real operational, financial, and strategic challenges since an educational institution and an NGO implementer are quite different. Over the past several years, our organization has grown substantially, both in terms of revenue, and also in terms of the diversity and scope of our work. As such early this year, our CEO, Donald Steinberg, made the decision to elevate my role as president of the NGO programs while simultaneously elevating the role of SIT’s provost to president of SIT.

As president of the NGO portfolio, I find my time and energy are focused less on day-to-day operational matters and more on ensuring that our strategy is articulated and dynamic, and even more importantly, that we are executing on it. We need to keep moving toward a set of objectives, aligned with our mission. Key to success in this new role is to ensure that I have excellent managers and leaders in charge of our technical and support teams. And my job is to support them, guide them, and get out of their way! I learned that from some amazing professional mentors who did this for me during my career and it certainly paid off. This new role also requires constant focus on ensuring that our financial viability is secure. This means careful, constant attention to new business development, fundraising, marketing/communications, IT, compliance, and accountability.

It’s a huge responsibility, and I am honored and humbled by it.

But, to answer the question very directly—what is the biggest difference in this new role? Coming to terms with the reality that I can and must solve my own problems—the elusive buck, well, it stops with me now…and—wow—that requires a mental shift.

World Learning operates 60 global development and exchange programs in 24 countries, working with local partners. What are some of the operational challenges/issues you face?

It is truly an honor to do the kind of work we do around the globe. For World Learning everything we do is in partnership with local institutions, universities, host governments, donor governments, other NGOs, corporations, foundations, and with so many individuals. And partnerships, like all relationships, require care and nurturing to ensure that expectations are understood and that transactions are transparent. There are so many competing interests, and sometimes it is really difficult to satisfy everyone. I strongly believe, however, that our responsibility is to ensure that at the end of day the individuals or institutions who we work to support through experiential training, curriculum development, civic education, or other interventions must see the benefit of our work and experience sustained change in their lives and institutions. We can never lose sight of the reason we do what we do.

Doing this work in a constantly changing, ever more dangerous global landscape, requires us to ensure that we provide staff with the tools and resources needed to cope in very difficult and often very challenging operating environments. The safety and security of our staff and partners is critical. Also ensuring that we are compliant with donor requirements is central to who we are as an institution. Further, we must be compliant with local laws and requirements—we are only allowed to operate if our host countries welcome our engagement. We do not take their support of our work for granted.

And finally, I am challenged with how to not only acknowledge our field-based staff—most of whom are citizens of the countries where we work—but to also find ways to fully embrace their talent and skills within World Learning’s organizational structure. World Learning is a US organization and is not part of an international federation. Many of our line managers are based at our headquarters in Washington, DC. This year, I placed one of our key vice presidents in Amman, Jordan, and I’m excited with what this means for us. It is my desire to create a sustained organizational structure that is not US-centric in terms of managers.

In addition, I continue to strive to expand our donor base, because we believe that diversity sharpens our technical competencies. Last year we launched World Learning Europe in London; we are already engaging in relationships with new donors, but as many other NGOs know, with these new opportunities come new challenges that must be addressed.

Learning and professional development are the common thread across your organization’s programmatic work—whether with students in formal educational institutions, or professionals in structured exchanges and training programs. What kind of learning and development opportunities does World Learning offer to its own employees?

World Learning is fortunate to have a very rich history with deep roots in experiential learning as a multiplier force for positive change. In 1932, our founder, Donald B. Watt, started our flagship program, The Experiment in International Living. He believed in the power of a simple idea: “People learn to live together by living together.” Thankfully, we have sustained the experiential approach through all these years across our diverse portfolio, and this extends to how we engage with staff as well.

In our Washington, DC, office we have about 150 staff, nearly half of whom are under the age of 30, and in our country offices around the world, our staff is also relatively young. And, in case it wasn’t apparent, I am several decades older than that! I am still learning about the expectations of our employees. Thankfully, however, the World Learning staff are typically not shy about sharing ideas and pushing us to embrace new ideas.

The expectations for professional development of our staff are not the same as my expectations when I started out in this line of work. I must admit that I continue to believe that one’s own development must be owned by the individual, and I encourage our staff to own it. I do believe, however, that leadership at World Learning needs to do what we can to support staff in their own growth. This is done by managers who coach staff on a daily basis—good managers don’t wait until the annual performance review to engage, it must be continuous feedback and constant engagement. In my own experience, that has been the best professional development I ever had—having a really good boss.

Because World Learning runs participant exchange programs bringing professionals, youth, and students to the US from a variety of countries, we also have the opportunity to meet and engage with these amazing people. Staff are invited to participate in meetings to hear people from all over the world talk about their new ideas to bring about positive change in their communities when they return home. This provides a very unique opportunity for learning.

As for formal programs, World Learning offers discounts to staff and family members who wish to participate in our education offerings. We also have a professional development fund to which staff globally can apply to support their ideas. Additionally, we offer online training opportunities to staff and do our best to encourage interested staff to take advantage of the many think tanks and associations in Washington, DC, who convene events on an array of topics relevant to our work. We also encourage our staff around the world to submit thought papers and participate in industry conferences.

What advice would you have for those working in the NGO or nonprofit sectors who are trying to foster a learning culture within their organizations?

Most importantly, it has to be authentic. I have been on the receiving end when an organization rolls out “The Learning Policy” but the behavior of the managers and leaders clearly does not inspire, model, or value learning. That kind of approach is a recipe for disaster, in my opinion. Also, don’t promise your staff what you can’t deliver—be realistic. And finally, formal staff development programs are not the only way to do this, as I hope I’ve shared. Learning and staff development is more than a “thing” that happens to someone. It’s the daily coaching and mentoring that should be encouraged across the organization. And again, encourage staff to take ownership for their own development.

What do you perceive as the value of InsideNGO membership?

On behalf of the World Learning staff who participate frequently in InsideNGO activities, I want to say a hearty thank you for the quality of expertise you provide to us. The ability to engage in real-time discussions with other professionals who are tackling similar issues is invaluable. You have stayed focused and committed to convening NGOs on the most relevant topics and challenges we face as we operate in very complex environments in an increasingly difficult regulatory environment.

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