Member Profile: Marc Rahlves, Nuru International

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December 06, 2016

Member Profile: Marc Rahlves, Nuru International

A Nuru Kenya healthcare worker pays a home visit to a Nuru farmer.

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing

Our Member Profile blog series features InsideNGO members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. Here we talk to Marc Rahlves, the Chief Operating Officer at Nuru International. Headquartered in Irvine, California, Nuru International is a social venture on a mission to end extreme poverty in remote, rural areas. It establishes sustainable community development projects, such as Nuru Kenya and Nuru Ethiopia, that deliver sustainable, holistic programming – in agriculture, financial inclusion, healthcare and education – to engage all household members in building resilience and ending intergenerational poverty. Since 2008, Nuru has enabled over 100,000 people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. The team is looking forward to establishing its third project in Nigeria in 2017.

Q: You began your career in the private sector. Tell us a little bit about your path to Nuru.

A: I spent almost a decade in management consulting at Bain & Company before moving to South America to join the senior management team of an education nonprofit, Fundación Escuela Nueva, in Colombia. Since I found the work and environment very rewarding, I decided to stay in the social sector. After Colombia, I worked in New York for a few years on nonprofit consulting projects with The Bridgespan Group. At the end of the day I missed being in the action and owning my decisions, so when Nuru International offered me the opportunity to join as their COO, I gladly accepted and never looked back.

What are some of the specific operational challenges/issues you face in your role?

Funding is always a high priority and not as predictable as we would like, requiring some flexibility and the ability to make intelligent trade-offs.

Another challenge is building systems and structures without creating unnecessary (perceived) bureaucracy and minimizing interruptions to programs and operations.

Last but not least, we need to protect our team from burnout. Nuru works in challenging environments that often create stressful situations and require a lot of comfort with ambiguity. In addition, our staffing model is fairly lean, and the operational tempo is high.

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

Nuru was started by a special operations veteran, so doing a lot of scenario planning and using adaptive management techniques is part of our organizational DNA. We also proactively communicate challenges to our staff as we identify them.

In order to create buy-in for more structure, we first focus on gaps identified by staff to relieve pain points. Some examples of these gaps have been issues related to decision making and professional development.

This year we launched an organization-wide resilience program that includes several components including training/education, staff assessments (with Birkman), external resources such as professional counseling via ComPsych and Interhealth, and transition coaching.

In mid-2015, Nuru accomplished a major organizational milestone with the full exit of expat staff from Nuru Kenya. Tell us a little bit about that process and how things are going, more than a year later.

Overall, we are very pleased how strong the Kenyan team is performing. Kenya has taken the foundation that we built together and improved on it. Management is able to function almost autonomously, including in key areas such as budgeting and strategic planning, and has overseen the expansion into a new district and the launch of local, farmer-run co-ops. All programs continue to have impact, and the teams have found new synergies, for example, creating a market for farmers’ maize by selling it to Nuru Social Enterprise. They are also innovating to successfully address past challenges, including increasing loan repayment and moving to a cashless system.

What were the major lessons learned from that experience?

First and foremost: Local leaders, equipped with the right tools and skills, are able to run an organization at scale and affect change in their community. We invested a lot of time and effort in developing and empowering the local management team. Planning for a successful and gradual transition was also a key success factor and began more than a year earlier.

There are several more lessons that we have summarized and can share with others that are interested.

What do you perceive as the value of InsideNGO membership for your team at Nuru?

I believe that especially for our operational teams there are great professional development, networking, and mentorship opportunities associated with the InsideNGO membership. The salary survey has been a key building block for our compensation strategy, and several other threads and discussions provide valuable information to help improve how we run the organization.

When we launched Nuru, we did it with a goal of making a tangible contribution to the field of international development. InsideNGO provides us a space to share our own learnings with the sector, and to continue learning from those who have gone before us.

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