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Sean Lowrie

By July 7th, 2023No Comments21 min read
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You have to identify problems first before you plan your future-forward decisions. Join your host Douglas Nelson as he sits down with the Vice President of Corporate Development at Carbin Minerals Inc., Sean Lowrie. Sean is the Director and founding CEO of The Start Network, a global network of non-governmental organizations that tackle crises through innovation, funding, early action, and localization. Sean helped the international aid system adapt to a rapidly changing world after leaving that role in 2019. Listen to Sean as he shares his experience with Start Network and how they would work with partnerships to solve big universal issues.

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Sean Lowrie

Our guest is Sean Lowrie. Sean was the Director and Founding CEO of the Start Network based in the UK, focused on civil society organizations and helping the international aid system adapt to a rapidly changing world. Since leaving that role in 2019, Sean has advised the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and acted as a mentor and advisor for CapitalW and Carbin Minerals, which is engaged in innovative ways to address climate change. Welcome to the show, Sean.

Thanks, Doug. It’s a pleasure to be here.

It’s great to have you on. There are so many places to dig into both your career and perspective on the social profit sector here in Canada. I want to go back to the beginning. How did a kid from Barrie, Ontario, end up playing such a significant role in the international aid community?

I did well in Math in high school and my high school encouraged me to go to engineering. I graduated from Engineering and took the first job that was available to me. Predictably about eighteen months in, I had this early midlife crisis and realized I felt no sense of purpose.

What was that first job?

It was technical sales. I was designing welding processes and selling machines to welding factories. I sold my stuff, traveled around the world, ended up in Sudan in the Nuba Mountains, met somebody who worked for UNICEF, heard what he did, and was inspired. Eventually, I got back to Canada and tried for almost six months to get a job in international development and couldn’t do it.

I gave up, went to a headhunter, and got a job with General Electric selling fighter jet engines. Before I was to accept the offer, some friends invited me for dinner who had come back from Africa and I told them, “You people in development are impossible. I want to work for a charity, but I can’t get in. I’m going to work in the military-industrial complex. To heck with you.”

It turned out that a priest in Swaziland had been looking for someone with a technical background for the same amount of time that I’ve been looking to get in. I had two job offers, one for the military-industrial complex and the other was volunteering with WUSC in a refugee camp in Africa. I took the volunteering path, the road less traveled, and here I am now.

To skip ahead a little bit, you also spent some time with CARE.

I was with CARE Canada for a few years during an exciting period. I went to London, England, in 1999 on a nine-month contract to disseminate a set of performance and human rights-based standards for humanitarian aid. That ended up being 22 years in London. I’ve just come back to Canada.

In our first conversation, I remember vividly because you told me about the Start Network and pulled together this incredible array of organizations to better international aid. One of the things I want to share or ask you to share with our readers is the idea of bringing together organizations of seemingly shared purpose to accomplish a common goal. Many outside the sector would see that is a straight line. You say, “We’re all going to go do this,” and everybody says, “Let’s go do this,” and it happens. Those of us in the sector know there are a few complications in that. Maybe you could walk us through the Start Network, how you pulled that together, and what you were able to accomplish through that.

It wasn’t my idea. There are lots of people behind this who deserve the credit. The story begins in the banking sector crash of 2008. The austerity in the British government wanted to write fewer larger checks to reduce their transaction costs so they could have fewer people. Those larger checks were going to the aggregators, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, and the UN organizations. The NGOs saw they needed to come together to create an aggregator so they could have the same check absorptive capacity as these larger organizations.

It was a pragmatic reason that brought them together. Once in the role, I realized that exciting possibilities existed. They had fifteen of the largest UK organizations together, which gave them tremendous scale. That scale not only could absorb larger checks and compete if they liked bureaucratically with the aggregators, but it also gave new business models. It created the opportunity for creating new business models and new ways of working that weren’t possible with single organizations. That was the exciting bit.

What does it mean to absorb a check?

Companies have to know that, in a bigger pie, sometimes their share might be reduced. But a smaller piece of a bigger pie is still more pie. Click To Tweet

It costs the same amount for a donor to write a check for $100,000 as it does a $10 million donation or even greater. Donors like to write larger checks because it costs the same amount of money. They can get more money out the door for a lower cost. They’re looking for absorptive capacity and organizations that can handle $10 million, $20 million, $50 million, or $100 million at a time because it’s more cost-effective for the government to disperse the funds.

What absorptive capacity also means in humanitarian aid is having offices around the world with staff and the ability to address a large-scale need. Having a network of organizations that were connected together with legal agreements that allowed money to flow from the single aggregator to a population of organizations gave us collectively a capacity to absorb large amounts of funding. That was attractive.

Is that a bureaucratic way of saying scale and reach? Is that what you’ve got when you’ve got good absorptive capacity?

Yes. It’s also a quality. At the time when we formed Start Network, we added up all of the offices and staff. The network of fifteen UK headquarters could program money through 200 countries and territories through 5,000 local partner organizations and 250,000 staff. It was quite a large collective capacity. These were frontline organizations that were in touch with the affected population. One could have a great deal of confidence in the work that we were doing that reflected the needs of the local people.

That’s powerful because that is one of the challenges, whether it’s international aid, health, or community services that are provided in downtown Vancouver. You want organizations close to the problem to understand and be responsive to the community. Often those smaller organizations don’t have the ability to advocate for system change or scale the solution if they come up with one as they come up with them to larger populations. The idea about buying the Start Network sounds like it was to capture the best of both being large and being small.

That’s exactly it. It was the best of both worlds. You had the small local organizations comprised of and in touch with the local people and you had a collective capacity that could absorb a large amount of funding and do things in interesting ways that could address the fundamental incentives of the system.

What were some of the challenges that you and the team faced in putting together that collective network at the beginning?

The big incumbents didn’t want it. They wanted to be in the room because it was interesting and might go places, but they were not sure they wanted it because it would have competed against their own position. They were confronted with the reality that the collective was going to be more attractive to their government donors than the individual organizations. One of the things that we tried to argue was that your share of the pie might reduce, but it will be a bigger pie. A smaller piece of a bigger pie is still more pie.

I’m sure everyone came along on their own realization of their journey about the same time. How did you bring that consensus or group together to that moment and say, “We’re ready to go.” I had imagined that there were some tense moments leading up to that.

It wasn’t my idea. There were lots of fraught negotiations at the beginning. The legal agreements that I inherited when I came into the role were risk-averse and heavy because they hadn’t done it before. For the whole nine years that I was there, it was a process of going out in front, identifying opportunities, crafting experiments, and giving the member organizations these immersive experiences and new ways of working. That eventually led to a collective agreement to do these new things at scale. Also, it gave experience inside the member organizations of working differently.

One of the challenges that we see in our work at The Discovery Group is if you ask donors or funders whether they think a charitable organization should work together, they always say, “Yes. That will be much more efficient.” The results are quite mixed on whether that is more efficient or not, but everybody says it’s a good idea, “We should have it as a good idea.” Other than that initial self-interest, what gets in the way of organizations partnering effectively? Is it that they don’t know how or they genuinely aren’t ready to do it?

It’s both. We adopted a partnership brokering mentality in this small team in the center. We became certified partnership brokers and activists as independent third-party to help facilitate the discussions and arrangements between the members. The first thing is recognizing that partnership, particularly a partnership at this scale, requires competence, expertise, and the role of an independent broker. One of the other challenges is that the processes inside the larger organizations were encumbering. They slowed us down a lot.

For a large organization to commit resources to work through a collective, they need some degree of predictability. That requires the collective to do lots of planning in advance, but system change and collective action are emergent. It’s not linear. We had this pressure from the larger organizations to plan things and nail down the uncertainty so that they could organize themselves and deploy their resources to participate. I often found myself as the director of this dancing between providing enough certainty that they could allocate resources and trying to preserve this space of flexibility so that we could work emergently.

You’ve got this, “We’re willing to participate in this experiment and do things differently as long as you tell us exactly how it is going to turn out.” Years ago, I worked with the Vice President of Research at the BC Cancer Agency and her line about that was, “If you know the answer, it’s not research.” It can be difficult. I’m curious. As you start to broker these deals and it starts to work and roll out, you see the potential in something like the Start Network, as it becomes. Was there a moment or project where you thought, “This is the example? This is working. This is the proof point that we need to accelerate more partnerships like this.”

Big-scale partnerships require competence, expertise, and the role of an independent broker. Click To Tweet

Our flagship product was the Start Fund, which was a collective emergency response fund. We defined rules for how that money was dispersed to incentivize rapid decision-making. We shifted power so that the frontline organizations were deciding how that money was spent. They have had 500 allocations, so the collective weight of that experience is quite powerful. Every crisis that we intervened in, we were so fast and early that it proved again and again that this way of working was more effective than the traditional model. Perhaps a better or different example was obtaining insurance. It’s because we represent such a large collective that I could talk to the insurance industry in London about insurance-based models for humanitarian aid.

That led us eventually to participate in a number of high-level forums with the insurance industry, governments, and multilaterals about disaster risk insurance. Before I left, we had signed the deal for drought insurance in Senegal. It’s technical, but essentially the policy would pay to the member organization if a trigger was surpassed. That trigger was moisture content in the soil and vegetation covered, which signal the emergence of a drought. We were able to insure against drought. We got the payout when a drought was occurring in Senegal. That allowed the organizations in the country to move much more quickly than they would have been. They could stabilize the situation before it went from a drought to a famine, for example.

Finding those new ways of operating in the sector is something that we have seen in Canada. A lot of the national health organizations and many of the Canadian international organizations as well have been trying to find new models and ways of doing business to greater or lesser success. I’m curious. After having spent years working outside of Canada in the sector and now coming back, what are your observations about the role of the Canadian social profit organizations in society?

It’s early days, so my opinion is relatively uninformed. The charity sector around the world in the West is on the back foot. Space for civil society is constricting worldwide, which translates differently depending on the regulatory and governance context. It’s reverse in Britain and it’s the same in Canada. That has resulted in a defensive inward-looking charity sector. In times like this, what you need is to innovate your way out of a problem. One needs a vision and narrative for what society could look like and practical initiatives to advance the practice in that direction.

If there was a headline, it would be exercising agency. There is agency in the charity sector. We found agency in the Start Network by working together. It gave us collective might. We also did practical things using funding mechanisms that gave us attraction. We had collective might, we were able to project a narrative about more locally-led and anticipatory-type interventions, and we had funding products and practical work to give us credibility. We weren’t advocating. We were protecting a narrative and vision and doing something about it.

One of the things that I’m sure our readers have already caught on to and I have heard in other conversations with you is you keep coming back to specific steps, practical projects, and identified vehicles. It’s very practical like, “Let’s do something about it.” I’ve also heard you say that social profit organizations are good at identifying problems and sometimes raising awareness about those problems. From your experience, what gets in the way of transitioning from, “There’s a problem over there,” to, “Here’s what we’re going to do about it?”

Part of it is having that vision for what the future could look like. Identifying a problem is a reactive posture. There’s a problem, injustice, and suffering. Something needs to be done about it. It’s a valid reaction, but it’s not a strategic reaction. It’s a tactical reaction. A strategic response is, “What are the issues that have caused this? What could the future look like? What initial steps can we take to take us in that direction?”

Is it that there are too many crises or injustices that organizations are constantly in that reactionary mode? How do they make the space to look at those underlying issues or address that future? What would that look like in an organization?

It needs to be constant. It’s part of the ethos of the organization. It’s an eye on the future. What is a future that we would like as a normal future? What is a future that we would like to see? What is a plausible future that we could make happen if we worked in this direction? It’s not annual or a five-year. Some organizations do that well. The International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement does that very well. They have ten-year strategic plans that are founded on future techniques. It can be quite an inspiring exercise, but I would argue it needs to be constant activity in the organization to keep an eye on the future and keep in touch with what futures are possible and what we can do to push in that direction.

One of the things I’ve observed, particularly as national organizations and more local organizations have responded to the pandemic, is some organizations treated that future-forward, creating the world that we want to see as a luxury. “Let’s first deal with what’s right in front of us and either earn the right or create the space to look to the future.” Other organizations said, “Despite what’s happening, we need to keep our eye on the future.”

If you skip ahead from March of 2020, the organizations that had their eye on the future, in general, are fairing much better. Their leaders are less burned out, they have had less turnover, and their revenues are less impacted regardless of whether it was an arts organization, health organization, or post-secondary. Those future-forward or future-looking organizations have proven to be much more resilient, generally speaking, than those that were like, “Let’s focus on meeting payroll next Friday.” If you’re focusing on meeting payroll, you’ve got other problems.

Those that are focused very much on the immediate time and view medium or long-term planning as a luxury are struggling. They tended to be the ones that stopped at some point during the pandemic and asked themselves, “Does the world need us to be doing this anymore?” Instead of moving forward, we’re treading water for some period over the years. It’s fascinating to see and talk to leaders. If their organization was future-forward, they are still future-forward. The ones that we’re going to get through this immediate crisis are still looking for the space to be future-forward.

They know they want to get there, but there’s no clear pathway for the organizations to look, talk, or move in that future direction. The reason that is interesting to me, at least, is that’s not necessarily what I would have predicted in response to immediate crisis organizations that are focused on, “Let’s do what’s right in front of us. Let’s get it done. Let’s move forward.” They are going to be more successful than organizations that say, “We’ve got this ten-year vision or Pole Star that we’re pursuing.”

It turned out to be the other way in many cases. It’s not all cases but mostly. Given that you spent nine years or longer than that thinking about these kinds of issues, what have you seen? What elements of organizations or collectives of organizations were successful in moving things forward from admiring the problem to getting things done? How did they do that over a period of time rather than in a single instance?

Sean Lowrie Click To Tweet

Having that eye in the future and a narrative about the type of future that you’re trying to co-create enables all of the people in the organization to make independent decisions. It empowers more autonomous staff. This work can’t be directed as much as enabled. One is to have a narrative about the future that empowers the whole staff, stakeholders around the organization, funders, and potential stakeholders to be inspired and take decisions.

The organizations that I’ve been most impressed with have great depth. It doesn’t matter who you speak to from the organization. They’re inspiring because of the autonomy that they have. They have been given a direction or helped create a direction and they have a framework within which they can take the initiative. That leads to pleasant interactions with people. It’s the difference between having interaction with somebody who is constrained and is able to give you the rules and somebody who looks for the possibility to engage, connect, relate, and work with you.

What are the characteristics of leaders in organizations that created and enabled a workforce versus directed one? What does that look like on a day-to-day basis or in the weekly team meeting? Maybe they don’t have weekly team meetings.

The weekly team meetings are curated in a way that creates community, trust, and safety. You can’t create trust. Trust is a byproduct of other things.

What things?

It’s meeting expectations and not overpromising, to be simplistic. It’s delivering on your promises, allowing people to make mistakes, not looking for scapegoats in the organization, and celebrating mistakes or failure as learning opportunities. Those things make it a safer and more empowering organization to work in.

People seem to be more pleasant to deal with anyway because they do have that agency and ability to make decisions and move things forward.

In these types of environments of high uncertainty or turbulence, you need people in the organization to create stuff when they’re meeting people from other organizations and stakeholders. Those people from other organizations, stakeholders, and donors have their own reality and story. Your organization’s narrative is never going to dominate that interaction. You needed to find a space in the middle. If you don’t equip them with the space, permission, and culture to allow them to co-create in every interaction, then it’s not going to work.

I wanted to change course slightly here and ask you this. A lot of the readers are leaders or people who are seeking leadership positions in the next little while in the sector. It’s for someone who has read what you’ve said about the need for that future focus for organizations to be successful. If people are in an organization or leading an organization where they realize that it’s not future-forward or it could be more future-focused, as a leader in an organization, how do you start to move the horizon away from the end of the quarter or the fiscal year to something much further ahead?

There’s a fair amount of future techniques available in the public domain and there are a couple of organizations out there that promote this practice. You could get somebody or get yourself to do a bit of research on some of the techniques. The second thing is there are organizations and consultants that would facilitate a future-forward-looking exercise. An easier, more practical, or lower-budget way of doing it is to find thought leaders in the spaces that you’re concerned with and invite them for a chat or have them come and talk to your organization, board, or staff. You bring in several of these people. What I found inspired and engaged the members of the Start Network were these provocative forward-looking speakers who would come into our events and shake and challenge our thinking.

That began to unfreeze the ice and allowed us to begin to have conversations about possibilities, “What might be possible?” One fellow I came in and brought the Valve employee handbook into one of our events. Valve is a software company from Silicon Valley that creates games. They have a famous employee handbook and a flat organizational structure. The handbook is called Welcome to Flatland. It’s very inspiring. He brought this into our event and that idea was like a virus. It passed through our network. Many of us downloaded the handbook, read it, and tried to apply some of its ideas in our work. A few of those would begin to unfreeze thinking.

Start thinking about the future and find ways to have that conversation either in a different tone of voice or place. What I’ve observed are organizations that are struggling with setting that North Star or the Pole Star for themselves need a change in location or need to stop trying to do vision sessions over Zoom.

Also, diversity in the conversation creates better futures. Maybe this is something that should be done in collaboration with other organizations. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect every single organization to be able to do it themselves. It’s possible to create a collective vision. Name your sector. Where should the sector be in five years? What could be possible?

Focus on possible. It inspires board members, teams, stakeholders, donors, and everybody to be thinking or believing that they’re a part of a positive change that is perhaps not inevitable but possible. Putting that big future vision on the table means a lot for the energy involved in getting through the day-to-day or each week. As we come to the end of our conversation, I’m curious. At the beginning of 2022, what are you most looking forward to? What are you most hopeful about when you think about the larger social profit sector?

Trust is made by delivering on your promises. It's being able to make mistakes without looking for scapegoats in the organization. Click To Tweet

There are new business models that are available or becoming available. There is a sense of impact investing, particularly from the climate space as a result of the wave of realization about equity issues that are so deep across society. It feels like there’s a lot of capital in the environment arena that’s pushing towards impact. There’s a lot of awareness about diversity and equity that create possibilities for different business models. We used insurance. Who would have thought that insurance could fund humanitarian aid? It’s becoming more prevalent in international humanitarian aid. That’s a real opportunity. There are high-level shifts in our understanding that are translating into capital that charities and nonprofits can use.

With your engineering mind in full gear as I know it always is, what is a practical or tactical idea for a leader reading this that said, “I’m interested in better understanding these business models.” How can they get started? What would you say they should do first?

I’m looking at the business model canvas book that I have. It gives you a step-by-step process to explore different business models or create new business models. I would look to social enterprises that are starting. There are early adopters out there. I would look to see what others are doing.

It is indeed exciting to see what might be possible in the sector and what these alternative or new emerging business models will look like. In the meantime, for organizations that aren’t ready to pursue those but are pursuing their missions and existing business models, you’ve given everyone a lot to think about in terms of how to be a better partner, how to pursue collective action, and how to think about the future in a way that is going to meaningfully advance their organizational purpose. Thank you very much for being a part of the show.

It’s my pleasure. Thanks. That was fun. I enjoyed it, Doug.

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About Sean Lowrie

Sean Lowrie feels privileged to have worked international humanitarian aid for 3 decades. Over that time, he worked with charities, charity alliances, the UN, academia, as freelance management consultant and as a CEO who raised over $250 million for a global network that he founded. Most of his work was entrepreneurial and focussed on system change, strategy, innovation and futures. Educated in Applied Science at Queen’s, he later retrained as a Social Scientist in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, and now is embarking on a new transition to climate finance. Currently he is writing a book about system change, advising start-up ventures at UBC, and consulting with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.