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The Alumni Interview: Ken Phillips

Ken Phillips has a long and distinguished career in the non-profit world. And it all started with AIESEC.

photo (2)His first involvement with AIESEC was in the United States at Princeton University. In his first year as a member, he raised two traineeships with US companies, one in engineering and the other in energy. After a traineeship in Switzerland, he served as Princeton’s LCP in 1961-62. The following year, he founded a local chapter at the University of Michigan, and in 1963-4 he chaired the National AIESEC Conference in Ann Arbor. He was then elected AIESEC-US President in 1964, and again in 1965. During his tenure as NCP, revenues and participants increased by 50%, reaching nearly 70 LCs and 525 exchanges each way. He was then elected as an AIESEC International Councilor for several years. In 2009, he provided consulting support, pro bono, to the AIESEC-US board via its Good Governance Project. He served as chair of the AIESEC-Boston Board of Advisors from 2010 to 2015. He has also chaired AIESEC Alumni International (AAI) committees in Strategic Planning, Branding, Governance and Virtual Decision Making, Leadership and Succession, Nominations, and the Global AIESEC Leadership Initiative (GALI). Currently, he is a member of the AAI Board of Advisors.

Ken has 25 years of executive experience in planning, managing and getting results for non-profits, as Head of Organizational Development for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva; Chairman of InterAction in Washington, DC; President and Executive Director of Plan International USA (Foster Parents Plan); Vice President of Development of Save the Children; Project Coordinator at the Institute of International Education; and President of AIESEC in the United States. He holds two MA degrees: in literature (University of Michigan) and economics (New York University). For the past 20 years, he has been providing training and consulting in strategic planning, financial sustainability and organizational development for non-profit organizations.

How did you get involved in the Non-Profit World?

I received two job offers when I finished my term as NCP; one was from a bank and the other from the International Institute of Education. I decided to follow my passion and went with the latter, building on my dreams for a career in international development created in AIESEC.

What skills & attitudes are needed to enter this field as a fresh graduate?

Right now, there is a strong emphasis on technical training and skills, but I think broader awareness and general education are more important. The ability to learn and think critically, to reflect on the past, to behave ethically, as well as to develop actual leadership skills – these qualities are missing from most curriculums.

AIESEC provided me with a lot of these missing pieces, including strategic thinking, entrepreneurship and a ‘get it done’ attitude. It provided space where I could try new things and fail. Obviously failure is not good, but it’s a great teacher and mistakes have smaller negative impact than, say, later in a career, when the stakes are higher. But more, it gave me space to innovate and strengthen my leadership skills and learn to focus on getting tangible results.

For alumni who might want to switch fields and start a new career, what skills are the most transferable and what other advice would you have for them?

The New York Times recently had a great article on cultivating the art of serendipity. Some call this luck or karma. I think this is an important skill for everyone to use, and it can be especially helpful for those wanting to make a change in career direction or reactivate their AIESEC passion to have an impact. Serendipity is keeping your eyes open, seeing connections and opportunities rather than chaos and barriers. It can enable you to step to something new. Volunteering, whether with AIESEC Alumni or another cause, is a great first step, and once you start, new networks and opportunities present themselves. Then it’s up to you to take them, or not.

The AIESEC Leadership Model is a good startup point. The concept is: AIESEC develops leaders; AIESEC alumni lead. The AIESEC Leadership Model has a focus on three elements – being self-aware, being solution-oriented, and empowering others – all based on AIESEC Values. AIESEC developed it; we adopted it.

My advice to alumni around the world is to go back to our roots in AIESEC. The keys are to capitalize on serendipity that comes our way, build on the leadership we experienced as students, and step up to new opportunities to have an impact. You can create a track record that leads to new opportunities and new careers.

As things stand today, where are the greatest opportunities for impact in the non-profit world?

There are issues everywhere: inequality, racism, poverty, violence, and greed. Just give local newspapers a read and you see what’s going on.

The anthropologist Karl Polanyi has broken societal action into three forms of interaction:

  • Reciprocity: A form of non-market exchange, like barter, where a return is eventually expected, but not necessarily immediately. We just help people, family, clan, those in need. That’s our job.
  • Redistribution: Where a government or religious or other authority collects and redistributes resources on a needs or merit basis for the overall good of society or the specific group.
  • Market-Exchange: Where distribution of wealth is ruled by the forces within the market. Everything is for sale.

In our capitalist society especially in the last 25 years, the market has become more dominant, and the first two types of interactions have been diminished. It’s up to us do something about this and reverse this trend, whether we are part of the top 1%, 20% or the rest. A well-functioning society needs to respect and support all three interactions among people.

The AIESEC model is as relevant today to inspire action for us as alumni as it was for us as students. The world faces huge problems. Government cannot solve them all. Business will not do it. There are so many needs for action that the greatest opportunity is quite simply to pick one and do something about it.  By stepping up for social action, we can have an impact!

What are the differences & challenges in the Non-Profit world from country to country?

The role of NGOs, with their vision and mission, their caring and sharing, is so important. Some things are universal, such as challenges of engaging donors and volunteers and operating effective and efficient organizations. There is a science for civil society (i.e., for NGOs) in leadership, management, planning, fundraising, and development that applies in most places in the world. This science of NGOs is what I have been learning and practicing, and then teaching and facilitating in my work, courses and consultancies around the world for more than fifty years.

Almost everywhere that NGOs are allowed to work they are making a tremendous difference in the lives of people. NGOs work in unique ways to hold others accountable and to advocate for improvements. What NGOs do today is to broaden the caring and sharing people instinctively feel for those near them to much larger populations. The vast majority of people want to help others and the challenge is the same in every country – to find out how to enable people to have their dreams for a better world come true.

But the differences are vast depending on local realities – different needs, communication methods, marketing and fundraising techniques, volunteering, role of governments, tradition of philanthropy, etc. Some governments support NGOs with grants, contracts, tax policies, workplace campaigns, and other ways; other governments oppose NGOs through repressive policies, enforcement and intimidation. You have countries such as the Netherlands and Canada, which strongly support NGOs, other countries, which haven’t the resources to help, and some countries, which have a fear of NGOs and work to reduce or eliminate their effectiveness.

Fundraising techniques also vary greatly depending on income levels and conditions of the country in business, marketing and finance. For example, monthly donations, credit card payments, direct mail, benefits, walks, bequests, etc. work well in some countries but are unthinkable in others. Volunteering is different country by country. Many Western European and North American countries have strong volunteering traditions, while countries where volunteering was mandatory have serious barriers to volunteering today. In countries with low income and low government services, volunteering is often at the highest levels with people regularly stepping up to take care of their neighbors.

I find that everywhere there is great potential in skills and experience exchange between NGOs and businesses. NGOs have much to teach business about vision, mission and motivation, while businesses can teach NGOs about structuring and executing strategy, as well as branding and marketing. I’ve seen this in a thousand ways since I first heard it from Peter Drucker 40 years ago.

A major challenge is to have an active civil society of NGOs, associations, clubs, religions, informal groups, and individuals that work together to advocate with governments for better policies, funding and practices and with business for better employment, tax, sourcing, environmental, and social responsibility practices.

What made you decide to start the GALI initiative?

GALI is the Global AIESEC Leadership Initiative. David Epstein led the way with the Transformation Project which is changing AAI into more a purposeful organization with three components – helping AIESEC, facilitating personal and professional benefits for alumni, and doing something for the good of the world. At the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the AIESEC Germany Alumni Association in Mainz in November 2014, Arnould de la Bouyage, who was French NCP when I was US NCP, suggested that we organize a conference like The World Economic Forum in Davos to come together and try to solve global problems. We took that idea to the AAI Congress in Porto last March, then to AIESEC International leadership in Rotterdam in July to develop and refine the idea into a ‘leadership in action model’ for alumni in conjunction with AI. Then Andrew Rowe, AAI’s President, took it the AAI Meeting in India in August where it was strongly endorsed. There is a remarkable coming together of AAI and AI in a focus on responsible leadership as the critical issue! I’ve worked on this because I believe AIESEC alumni, one million of us with leadership experience and common values, can make a real difference in the world.

The goal of GALI is to get more alumni to lead in new ways in individual and group initiatives. We are currently looking for alumni to step up as GALI Pioneers in hundreds of cities – alumni who will develop and lead initiatives with other alums to create something new to make this a better world. As the AAI slogan says, “Leadership under AIESEC values DELIVERED for life.” Click here for a link to the GALI presentation.

At an ALUMnite in Bogotá last June, several alumni came up to me asking what they could do – they have a great job, make good money, but they were missing the passion which they felt back in AIESEC. I felt that we could so something bigger with initiatives at the local level, where each person understands the realities and challenges on hand, which will enable them to work together towards resolving pressing issues. At the same time, these individuals can come together and develop a body of knowledge about leadership in action that can be shared across borders. 

So far we have initiatives 8 cities and my hope is that in a year, we will have 100 to 200 local initiatives around the world. Meanwhile, AI is implementing its new YouthSpeak, a program of research and advocacy for its members around the world. These two movements – YouthSpeak research and GALI initiatives – will come together in the first AIESEC Triennial World Citizens Forum in 2018. We will bring together 300 to 500 global leaders from business, academia, civil society and government along with AIESEC youth and AIESEC alumni leaders to address critical global issues, identify changes needed to improve responsible leadership, shape actions for impact, and empower people to act for a better world. There will be achievement awards for demonstrated leadership in action, and planned outcomes to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What were the most interesting jobs/contracts in your career as a consultant and why?

I have worked for five major international NGOs and then as a consultant for over 50 clients that has taken me to more than 70 countries, each and every one of them with interesting and rewarding aspects. My experience in so many different cultures was … like living AIESEC all the time! I’ve been so fortunate in my work and I do think I have contributed to improvement in many people’s lives.

The most interesting situations in my career have often come from serendipity plus networking and seizing an opportunity. While on one project, for example, I helped another organization with their governance on the side. This involvement led to new connections and another contract. In my career, new work often came to me, and positions were actually created and tailored for me.

At a chance meeting waiting in line for lunch at a conference a year ago, the guy next to me and I chatted. I told him what I do, and he said, “Hey, we should do something like that. Would you help us develop our plans in Colombia?” We agreed and I was soon in Bogota for ten days facilitating their strategic plan for 2016-18. It was a perfect contract as I was also able to participate in the ALUMnite in Bogota where 120 alumni came to hear what I could share about social enterprise and GALI plans. One of my themes on that trip was ‘Networking with Purpose.’

As another example, I led a large association of NGOs in the development and adoption of a comprehensive code of behavior; this led to an assignment as an expert to guide new NGO Resource Centers in Eastern Europe as they drafted their own NGO code of ethics; this led to contracts with American, British, Swedish and Swiss donors to provide training and consulting with new and developing NGOs in the region.

Yet another example was with the board of an association of NGO members, where I continuously butted heads with another board member. When he retired from his position, he recommended me for the position.

Which non-profit(s) do you feel are best aligned with AIESEC values?

Most non-profits are focused on a relatively narrow range of interests. AI and AAI are focused on leadership for a better world. Who should we support through our leadership initiatives? In terms of picking one organization, I would say the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer the most comprehensive set of global priorities. Supporting the SDGs is now part of AI’s strategic plan. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics/sustainabledevelopmentgoals

What role or influence did your parents have on you while growing up

My father was in business and he always said to me, “I don’t know what you’ll do when you grow up, but I want you’ll do it well.” My mom was more religious and she always said, “I don’t know what you’ll do but I want you to do something good and worthwhile.” These two influences come together in my personality and my work.

If you could live your life all over again, what would you do differently?

There are a thousand changes I would have done, especially in interacting with other people and spending more time with my kids. I would love to have gone on more international work trips while bringing my family along with me. Coming home after work in a poverty stricken area of the world, I would become sharply aware of the excesses of consumerism, meaning that I would not buy my kids the latest, shiniest new toys or even pair of shoes when they didn’t really need them. Maybe I was too hard in this way, and they didn’t really understand why. But now I am so proud of them and happy with how their values evolved over the years. Now when they travel, instead of resorts, they want to see how local people (rather than tourists) live.

With other people, I think I was usually too focused on the goal. This made me abrupt and inconsiderate of their situation.  I would try to find a warmer combination of focus on results and consideration of others.

Which personal encounter had the deepest impact/inspirational effect on you and why?

I’ll tell you a story from when I was young. I was fishing on a beach with friends along with other people. We saw a kid who was being washed away by the tides and was screaming for help. Everyone was shouting to have someone call the authorities. Jumping in would have put yet another person in danger. I went along a row of parked cars looking for something. I found a tube, ran with it into the water, and ended up saving the kid. I wasn’t brave or heroic; I just did some things right. As I look back on it now, I see this as an example of Six Simple Steps for Leadership:

  1. Identifying the problem,
  2. Deciding to do something,
  3. Analyzing the situation,
  4. Looking for a solution,
  5. Mobilizing resources, and
  6. Acting to implement.

To go back to some earlier questions, I want to say that these simple steps are what people can do to activate their own leadership in new ways and to initiate something important outside their normal daily lives. Having a track record of stepping up to identify a problem (large or small) and achieving results (large or small) is the most important transferable skill you can have whether working in non-profits, business or government. It comes from ‘doing it’ as we did in AIESEC and not just from a course or lecture.

Where have you not visited yet, but wish to do so during your lifetime?

I am working on a book for smaller non-profits based on everything I have learned in my career about NGO development, leadership, planning, fundraising, etc. To test it and get more case examples, I want to visit more countries especially in Latin America and Asia as well as Eastern Europe. Besides that, hopefully, for many years to come, I want to continue what I am doing right now with my family, with new clients and also with more ALUMnites to talk about GALI.

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