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Plan International Canada With Lindsay Glassco, President & CEO

By May 29th, 2024No Comments26 min read
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Discovery Pod | Lindsay Glassco | Plan International Canada

The mission is clear: to advance child rights globally with a steadfast focus on empowering girls.  Dedicated to building a just world, Plan International Canada translates that mission into action. Join host Douglas Nelson as he sits down with Lindsay Glassco, President & CEO of Plan International Canada, shedding light on the organization’s unified global strategy and values and highlighting their tireless efforts across diverse contexts to address the challenges faced by girls and communities worldwide. Don’t miss this engaging dialogue about realizing Plan International’s vision for a more just and equitable world.

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Plan International Canada With Lindsay Glassco, CEO & President

On this episode, we have a very special guest that I am excited to share with our readers, Lindsay Glassco. Lindsay is the President and CEO of Plan International Canada. In our conversation, she shared the richness of her deep experience in the humanitarian aid sector that has taken her around the world in different roles from the IOC to Care International, and work with Global Affairs Canada. As CEO of Plan Canada, Lindsay talks about the commitment her organization has made to measuring impact and reporting on that impact to institutional and individual donors.

She talks about the changing face of Canadian philanthropy and what it has meant for the messages that resonate with donors to play in Canada. In the second half of our conversation, Lindsay shares her great advice for what it takes to take that step into your first CEO role or executive director role and organizational leadership and what leaders can do to be successful by being themselves. If you’re interested in humanitarian aid, if you’ve ever been a donor to Plan Canada, or if you are a person committed to leadership in our sector, you’re going to want to read my conversation with Lindsay Glassco.

Welcome to the show, Lindsay.

Thank you. It’s very nice to meet you.

It’s very nice to meet you too. I’m looking forward to this conversation. Plan International is one of the largest charities in the world, active in 80 countries. For our readers who may not know, what is Plan International and what’s the great work that you do?

Plan International is a member of a global organization. We’re dedicated to advancing child rights and equality for girls in particular. We work in over 80 countries around the world. Girls’ rights are at the heart of everything we do, face distinct barriers and challenges simply for being a girl. Our programs tackle all of the challenges and barriers that they’re facing.

As a global organization, you have that mission for young people and young women in particular. How does it work creating the strategic direction for the Canadian part of Plan International Canada under that international umbrella?

Being part of an international organization is interesting. You can imagine, that we’re all led by a five-year global strategy, which was developed basically through a full year of consultations at all levels of the organization and led by the communities we serve. The philosophy of one plan globally is one plan, which means all of us are guided by the same set of values and those values inform our work. We’re unified by global policies, global structures, working groups, steering committees, and communities of practice like any other large organization. It’s from that global strategy that in Canada we then build off of. Every entity globally has a value added to the federation. That’s where in Canada we look at the value that we can add to affecting change globally. Our strategy is built from there.

I’m sure it runs right through your desk, how do you ensure that the objectives and operations of the global organizations? How do you stay in alignment with those global operations?

It’s basically through all of the working groups and structures that I discussed that create that space for ongoing dialogue. it’s through those continuous conversations that we start to understand and respect the distinct context in which we’re all working and how we can complement each other, “What are our different strengths? What are the different values we bring to the organization?” As much as we’re aligned, there are many differences. We work in different markets, we’ve got different cultures and very different realities in which we have to work.

I imagine the different types of fundraising and fundraising programs that support your work too.

We’ve got a whole variety of different cultures with different mindsets around what it means to be a social impact organization. Some markets are much more dependent on institutional funding, others are more dependent on foundations, others in the corporate sector, and others on individual giving. Plan is known globally for child sponsorship. It’s one of the bedrock of the organization and one of the key areas of programming and fundraising that we’re well known for in every market.

Challenges Of Child Sponsorship

That sponsor child type of program that ongoing giving to support the mission of an organization has been the major trend of the last decade across the social profit sector, certainly in the aid sector, in the humanitarian sector, Plan International was one of the first to do that. Are donors responding the same way to that messaging as they did many years ago?

It’s a great question because child sponsorship has a different meaning to different people in different markets. Here in Canada, we’re starting to see a little bit of a difference in younger donors than our traditional donors. Traditionally, we’ve had donors. We have over 90,000 loyal child sponsors who support the program and they love the organization. They’re truly engaged and follow the life trajectory of the child and the community that the child is living in.

They think of child sponsorship as a great wonderful tool to teach children and their grandchildren about their privilege and the lives that children experience in other parts of the world. They’ve been very engaged over the years with us. Now what we’re starting to see is a younger generation of donors who have a different set of expectations. They’re much more driven by issues, for example, more thematic interests in health, education, or climate change versus wanting to have that one-to-one connection.

They have some concerns about the marketing of sponsorship programs. They start to talk about the White gaze, White saviors, or what it means to be shopping for a child we’re very sensitive to these optics. Here in Canada, we’re actively addressing them. Coming back to your first question around alignment, this is an interesting example of where globally we’re all aligned around the need for child sponsorship, but the level of urgency in which we want to reposition and modernize it is different because, in Europe, it’s a growing product. Europeans still love it. Here in Canada, we’re starting to see a decline with a different set of expectations around it.

It’s interesting and it matches trends we’ve seen in a lot of different sectors of the social profit sector that younger donors want to have a broad impact in a thematic area as you described it. They often think of themselves as one of many having an effect on a large issue rather than seeking one-to-one relationships either with the child they’re sponsoring or the institution they’re giving to. It is such a different orientation for philanthropy. It’s been fascinating from our perspective here at the Discovery Group to watch how different organizations have adapted to it. Have you noticed that this is changing in the conversations that you’re having with donors or that your team is having with donors?

The one thing about child sponsorship that’s always misleading is it’s while we call it child sponsorship, it’s sponsoring a community. The funding goes towards the child’s community. The child is the representative and allows for that feeling of one-to-one connection. What we’ve learned is the importance, and I’m sure every organization out there talks about it, of emphasizing the impact of the community-wide approach and telling those impact stories. Whether it’s about the school attendance rates or how many birth registrations there are in a community as a result, or access to improved water and sanitation and not just the outcomes of projects, but how they’re impacting and changing people’s lives and behaviors and telling those stories is important. I don’t think there’s one organization out there that’s not starting to do a much better job at that.

It has been remarkable to see how organizations are communicating, not only with those they want to be their donors to hold onto but also through their stewardship and their donor relations teams, the conversations that they’re having about the impact of donations. The question that I think most donors are asking and the best organizations are answering is, “What happens when I give?” Not the mechanics of tax receipts generated and, “I get a nice letter from Lindsay,” but, “What changes once I make my donation?” The organizations that are able to answer that are doing quite well and the organizations. Those who don’t answer are struggling. When donors say, “What does it mean to make a gift to Plan International Canada?” What are the answers that you give them?

We have an entire accountability framework. It would impact areas that we report on annually. It depends on whether the donor is interested in health, education, youth leadership or protection from violence. These are all thematic areas that we work in. We break it down depending on their interests and which aspect of our programs they’re giving to. If you take for example, education as one area that we work in, we talk about the reach and how many people we reach through education programs, but we also then talk about how many people or how many students as a result of our education have graduated from one level to the next.

We talk about how many teachers have been trained and then how many of those teachers after completing their training program have moved on to the next step. It’s not just numbers, but it’s actual outcomes and impacts at the next two levels up. It is a lot more challenging to gather the metrics and to be able to tell the stories. We do tell the stories and we try and cater them to the donor’s interest because every donor has a different interest in child rights and girls’ rights, which aspect of girls’ rights they’re interested in.

I love that answer and the approach because one of the things I want to underline that comes out of your answer is it’s not the fundraising department’s key talking points that are the answer donors are looking for. What you described is an institutional commitment to accountability to all funders, including donors, and accountability to the individuals you’re seeking to benefit. It takes that organization-wide commitment to being able to answer that question of, “What happens when I make my gift? What happens when this money is deployed in the community?” It sounds like you’ve done a lot of that work at Plan International Canada. Has it been deliberate or is it an extension of the work you’re doing in the community on a daily basis?

It’s interesting because the communication of it has been deliberate. In order to do what we do, we’ve always had to have very strong accountability frameworks. We’ve always done extensive monitoring and evaluation of our programs. Even to get institutional funding from donors, you have to be able to demonstrate impact and an organization of our size. We would not have the institutional relationships we have if we couldn’t demonstrate impact. That is what secures funding.

Discovery Pod | Lindsay Glassco | Plan International Canada

Plan International Canada: To do what we do, we’ve always had to have very strong accountability frameworks.

What we have not been good at over the years is communicating that impact to donors. This is part of running an operation where two different sides of the house are not always doing a great job at talking to each other because you have your programs team who know the programs well and who monitor, evaluate, and report back to governments and institutional funders, but don’t do traditionally a great job of then packaging that, handing it over to the communications team and communicating it out to individual donors.

That’s what we’re getting much better at. We’re getting much better at trying to remove the technical aspect of what we do because it is very technical and putting it into simpler terms and everyday language that’s not all around international development discourse that people can understand and better digest. One of the things I do want to mention is the effect of the combination of what individual donors are providing with the institutional donors has a multiple impact.

Let me explain that briefly. If you’re sponsoring a child in a community, we’ve been in those communities for years and we’ve developed those relationships with community volunteers and community elders. As a result of those relationships, we’re then able to develop relationships with the government. As a result of those relationships, we’re then able to secure institutional funding. It’s that leverage ability and that combined impact that allows us to take programs to scale and to be able to report on programming at a whole another level. For me, that’s super exciting and it’s something that we’ve been focusing on a lot more.

You’ve opened up a new door and I want to walk right through that. One of the issues that we hear certainly in the humanitarian sector in health, education, and social service, the whole gamut of the social profit sector is this issue of organizations that are large and have significant capacity needing to feel the need to justify their size. Smaller organizations are more adept at being able to define their smallness and equating that with speediness and flexibility as a strength. I hear a lot of larger organizations apologizing in not many words though sometimes for their size, “We’re big, but.” What you described is that leverage ability to scale, which I think is a great advantage and the value proposition of larger organizations. How do you make sure that the value proposition of that leverage ability of scale as you described comes through to donors, both institutional and individual?

I’m not sure I’m going to answer this question properly, but I think at the institutional level, they understand it intuitively because our relationships with them are based on scale. The larger we are and the more history, the longer we’ve been around, we’ve got years and years of proven results in a whole number of different countries and communities where we’ve been able to demonstrate that we’re accountable, compliant and responsible with donor funds. With individuals, it might be a bit more challenging because there’s always an expectation for accountability, especially in our business. There may not be as deep an understanding of what it takes to monitor a program and be able to demonstrate results. It’s quite complicated and technical and it requires a deep level of expertise and resources. It’s the importance of stressing the years of experience, the different types of communities we work in, and the diversity that helps bring relevancy to what we do.

I think you’ve answered it very well, which is how you take advantage of the size and the scale of your organization to communicate the value that you can deliver to the individuals that you’re working with or the representative children who are in the sponsorship program. There is so much to own and to value in large social profit organizations that can act around the world, that can act in a significant way. We downplay it to our apparel. You made a good case for both at the institutional level, which as he said is intuitive and individual donors, the opportunity to connect the storytelling that your your team does to the potential that the scale offers can be a powerful tool to leverage those donations.

When you are managing programs in many different countries, there are many lessons learned that you can capture from other experiences. You might pilot something in one country and find that it’s incredibly successful, bring that concept and that modality to another country and it can just take off. There are huge benefits and advantages to being able to share best practices and learnings. That also goes for things that don’t go well, but that sharing of experiences across countries and both urban and community rural settings is truly helpful.

Challenges Of Running A Social Profit Organization

The issues that Plan International takes on around the world are complicated at the local level and very challenging to deal with at the level of society and incomprehensible at the level of the globe. You do that work every day. The conversation around social profit organizations has taken on a bit of an edge in the last couple of years. That expectation that you’d be able to solve the unsolvable for a very minimal amount of money. I’m curious how you as CEO think about managing that expectation of cost per dollar raise versus solving those big intractable social issues that Plan International is set up to serve.

I love that question because it is so true that running a social profit organization is as complex as running any business, but we’re expected to do it on a shoestring. Like any business, we still have those practical challenges of balancing expenditures against revenues, continuously adapting and innovating to keep pace with global trends as well as the Canadian marketplace. We have to modernize to stay relevant, but we have to do it all on a shoestring. I don’t even know what the minimum or the industry standard is now, but it’s traditionally for a while been there’s been an expectation that all operating spend doesn’t go beyond 20% of your revenues. I think 80% is expected to go to programs. Fortunately, I’m quite proud to say that at Plan we’ve got 84% of our funds raised going to child rights programming.

Running a social profit organization is as complex as running any business, but we're expected to do it on a shoestring. Click To Tweet

Coming back to the question, we need to continually invest in marketing, service, delivery, technology, skills, and talent, unlike the private sector, we can only invest what we earn in real-time. We cannot borrow money. We can’t take out loans. We have to be very nimble with the way we spend. We always keep the donor lens in mind at all times, which helps us with spending. Every time we’re thinking about any expense, the question is always there, “Is this justifiable to the donor?” We always focus on impact. What are those activities that have the greatest impact? We make sure that we prioritize them. In fact, within Plan Canada, we’ve literally completed a midterm strategy review and we’ve had to deprioritize some of the activities and simply stay focused. We always look for new and innovative ways to find operational efficiencies.

We’re not unlike others. We’re starting to think about how we can use AI to save on some operational costs. We’re looking at strategic partnerships all the time. We’re also exploring innovative finance models. We’ve talked about grants and donations, but we’re also experimenting with social impact bonds, which are results-based financing mechanisms. We’ve also created a for-profit subsidiary consulting business called Plan Catalyst.

We’re always looking for innovative ways to reduce costs. I have to say we have an excellent board of directors who I think of for this particular question you’ve asked because they’re incredible advisors and they have deep experience in the business sector. They also help us with the balancing act. They always are the ones to keep us focused. They help manage those risks. They’re always wearing the governance hat. Those are some of the things that we do to try and manage that tension, but it is a balancing act.

When I think of technology alone and the pace of change within the marketplace, people are used to going to Amazon and buying a book and a minute. They expect the same level of service from us. We have to be able to provide that service delivery model with the same level of speed and expertise, but not with the same budget.

The CEOs that we work with through our work here answer the question around, “What are your admin costs? What are your overhead costs or cost-per-dollar rates?” However, that question is characterized. Our advice is very similar to what you did. The first response out of your mouth should be talking about the impact your organization has. This is the work that we do. This is how we know that it works because that ratio, whether it’s 16/84, whether it’s 40/60, or wherever it ends up, is only relevant if that money going to the program is making a difference toward the purpose.

Ensuring that you’re making a difference and moving towards a purpose has a cost to it. One of the things that we’ve seen as a trend, particularly in some of the larger health organizations, is scaling back some of the impact measurements because as a way of saving costs and reducing overhead costs for the organization, but then it makes it much more difficult to talk about the impact it makes it much more difficult for donor accountability if you don’t have that work as a part of your organization. It is a very tricky issue. I appreciate you sharing how you approach it there at Plan.

I’m not going to lie, it’s always a daily challenge.

There are different themes and waves of what the question comes like depending on what’s in the news. The question around compensation in our sector and had the experience earlier in my career where my salary was in the newspaper for five years in a row. It was compared to two other organizations in British Columbia. By the fifth time, I was numb to it. I was annoyed that I was the lowest of the three that they were choosing to profile every year. It shows when organizations aren’t able to counter the impact they’re having, they’re subject to those questions and are responding at the level of those questions they’re coming at rather than being able to elevate the purpose and inspire donors with their responses to those questions.

We need to do a better job at reminding individuals that running an organization in the not-for-profit sector or social profit sector as you’re referring to it is no different than running a business. It is running a business. Would you want a group of individuals running RBC that didn’t have expertise and qualifications that allowed them to do that? If you want that expertise and qualifications, you have to be prepared to pay for them. All the accountability measures that are expected of social profit organizations come with that level of sophistication and it’s unrealistic to expect otherwise.

Inspirational Story And Career Path

Let me jump off from there. Speaking of being an expert in your profession, I want to turn the conversation to your career a little bit. Before you joined Plan International Canada, you were in Geneva acting as the Secretary of General of Care International. You’ve got deep experience in the humanitarian sector. My first question is, what drew you to the work in the first place?

It goes back to childhood and a whole series of different events and people that have influenced me. I would say my very first job in this sector, in particular, was a two-year experience I had in rural Africa in Lesotho where I was a volunteer teacher for two years. I was in a rural setting in the mountains with no water and no electricity. I lived there during one of South Africa. I learned about Africa. I witnessed firsthand a rural village dealing with significant food insecurity where villagers I had come to know very well were starting to lose their livelihoods. The goats and sheep in the village were dying. The water that we collected at one point was a 15-minute walk away and became a 1/5 walk away with this drought.

That experience, I think was a pivoting point in my life when I decided that this was an area that I wanted to better understand and work within. Those two years I had in Lesotho were significant for me because I was able to help my village. In particular, the headmaster and I at the school that I was working at, did some applications for funding. We got funding from the Canada Fund and we got food aid for the school and for the village. We were able to turn the school from a day school into a boarding school. We were able to get a water system in place. By the time I was leaving, there was a road that was being built b because my village was an hour and a half walk from the closest road. It made me realize even as an individual, as a teacher, I was able to have an influence and facilitate a number of these different processes around development. They were inspirations for me to do something more. That’s what led me to go back to school and do a Master’s in International Development. It was the start of my career in this sector.

Advice For New CEOs

How often do you go back when issues are coming across your desk or you’re encountering them as the leader of a very important organization? How often do you go back to thinking what that younger version of yourself applying for the Canada Fund, working right on the front line in that village in Lesotho, how often do you wonder what advice she would give you as CEO?

I think about those days all of the time because what I learned there, literally reflects on daily. They’re constant reminders because what I witnessed there, the development that I witnessed, it all came from the ideas and the expertise of the people in that village. I was the conduit. I happened to speak English and I happened to have ties to the Canadian embassy and the Canadian funding. The ideas, proposals, initiatives, and community involvement all came from the people in that village.

When I lead an organization like Plan Canada and we talk a lot about the concept of localization and decolonization and what this means for the sector, it comes back to that. The capacities and the expertise sit in all of these local communities. We don’t need to dictate. We don’t need to tell anybody how to do anything. We can facilitate and do our best to help perhaps build some capacities, but for the most part, they’re there. It’s a reminder of the importance of respecting people, cultures, and communities that have been in place for years.

Discovery Pod | Lindsay Glassco | Plan International Canada

Plan International Canada: Respectful collaboration is key. We can support local communities by facilitating and capacity building, not dictating solutions.

I love that you do reflect on it. I thought that might be the case given the vividness with which you recounted some of the details when you were sharing that story initially. I think it is such a great analogy for leaders and many of the exceptional leaders that I’ve had to chance to work with or to have on the show often have one of those vibrant moments earlier on in their career that act as that touchstone that they return to over the course of their leadership journey. Our readers are interested in what it takes in order to become a CEO or a senior leader in our sector. What advice would you give to someone who was feeling like in their career, they were ready to take that step and be in that executive director or CEO role?

I have so much advice, but I think I get asked this question often because I do so much mentoring with youth and with others. For a new CEO, I would say right now with the rapidly changing complex world that we’re working within, change is the new normal and we all know that. I think adaptability and agility for any CEO are key. To come into a position with, let’s say, a very open approach to listening to perspectives and ideas, to be willing to be flexible is important. Embracing the different ideas and innovation, digital transformation, the ability to pivot and adapt quickly is a skillset that I think every CEO has to have right now. Coming in with an openness and courage to be able to go outside of your comfort zone, not just accept the age-old defense of, “This is how we’ve always done things,” but to be ready to embrace change, I would say would be my number one piece of advice.

It’s important to be authentic. I talk a lot about authentic leadership. Leading from a place of honesty and integrity has always been important for me and it’s worked for me. It comes back to courage. Being courageous enough to walk in your own shoes and not try and conform to a set of expectations that have been laid out for you. For the most part, everybody wants to be led by someone who is real and somebody who is human, and someone who they can relate to. The more approachable you are as a leader, the easier it will be to lead. To be open and vulnerable, to show some vulnerability can always be a great benefit because people will trust you. They’ll connect with you. Relationships will be stronger. That trust and that environment build respect. I think it builds success. Those would be two of my first pieces of advice.

Discovery Pod | Lindsay Glassco | Plan International Canada

Plan International Canada: Approachable leadership fosters trust, connection, and respect, paving the way for success. Openness and vulnerability are key strengths in a leader.

Anyone who’s been in the role of an organizational leader for a new period of time knows, it’s certainly not about knowing the right answer all the time because that’s an impossibility. You’re not going to be able to know the right answer. But being able to hold space for people to explore it and propose the right answer themselves goes a long way to building that organizational leadership and building that trust that you’re talking about.

I also think you need to take care of yourself. Being a CEO is not without some from time to time, and given all of the global changes we’re seeing, and quite frankly the chaos surrounding us. It’s a time when we need to be resilient. We need to prioritize self-care and support of our teams.

You mentioned how the number of people that you mentor and you’ve thought about what it takes to be a good leader. It’s very clear. When you’re having an especially challenging day, who do you turn to for advice?

I have a group of supporters or mentors, advisors, I don’t know what to call them. I think they’re traditionally called your kitchen cabinet. It’s a mix of I have a wonderful board who have a whole variety of different expertise that I turn to for different questions. I have a lot of close friends and family members who I turn to who have known me forever. They understand what motivates Lindsay and what challenges Lindsay. They are good on many friends for advice.

My executive team as well. hen you’re the CEO, you can’t always go to your executive team for all advice. I have a very trusting team who I rely on heavily. There’s not a lot that I can’t communicate with them, to be honest with you. it’s a mix, but I think it’s important as CEOs that we have a few different networks that we rely on. It helps keep perspective. I think it’s important that not everybody you speak to is working in the same sector. I talk to a lot of CEOs frequently, but I think as important as speaking to other CEOs within the sector, it’s important to speak to people who are not in the sector.

CEOs benefit from cultivating diverse networks. Talking to peers within and outside the industry fosters broader perspective. Click To Tweet

I find it when you have a conversation with particularly A CEO and a publicly traded company or a Crown Corporation, and you explain some of the dynamics happening within the social profit sector within the organization, you’re leading, you get tilted the head in a roll of the eyes like, “That is far more complicated than what I have to deal.”

 My board is the one who told me. The joining plan turned out to be way more complex and complicated than we ever imagined, much more going on here than a for-profit board.

As we come to the end of our conversation, I want to ask you my favorite question to ask our guests because we see the social profit sector doing its best work when it’s rooted in abundance and not in scarcity. Lindsay, what are you looking forward to?

I’m a determined optimist. I’m going to tell you that I’m looking forward to the day that empowered young girls are living life to their full potential the day when they have equal access to health services, education, and protection, and when their voice is valued and when they can speak their mind I will say, I’m always inspired by young people. I believe they’re at the forefront of change there’s much we can learn from when we listen to them.

I’m looking forward to seeing more people respect young people and give them the platforms that they deserve. Within the sector, I’m looking forward to seeing continuous innovative shifts, whether it be through EI or innovative finance mechanisms because we’re transitioning from doing things in a very traditional way to embracing innovation. That’s exciting to me.

I’ll add what I’m looking forward to, which is seeing Plan Canada continuing to evolve and do its great work here in Canada and around the world. Thank you so much for being on the show.

I enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much.

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