WHO IS LAURA WALKER MCDONALD?
“Brand yourself as knowledgeable in the thing you want to work on, it would help you go where you want to go.”
Why do large multilateral organizations require long, online registration processes for organizations that apply for RFPs, when a thoughtful meeting or conversation could result in more positive outcomes for both parties? Unfortunately, it’s (usually) the rules of the institutions themselves, or the bureaucracies which represent them, that prevent this conversation from happening.
Laura Walker McDonald is the CEO of Social Impact Lab (Simlab), an organization that designs, implements and measures the impact of inclusive technology projects, and explores new ways that technology can facilitate and simplify project objectives. As CEO, Laura is often hesitant to work with large multilateral organizations because of the RFP registration processes, which can be taxing on the limited number of Simlab’s employees. Instead, she prefers to work with partners that “understand what it’s like to work with smaller organization with no core funding.”
Laura explained that there are two sets of barriers which she encounters as CEO. The first is considered the “Above the Line” deliverables that are her priorities (i.e. what types of projects the organization should focus on, ideas for expanding into new markets and territories, etc.). The second barrier is the “Below the Line” operations that enable the organization to function. Unfortunately, Laura remarked that below the line barriers have a tendency to consume her time.
Laura is truly passionate about ICT4Development and monitoring and evaluation. In fact, her goal for 2015 is to try to improve the way in which Simlab’s partner organizations and clients share their evaluations. Simlab hopes to have access to these evaluations, synthesize them, and develop action items for future ICT initiatives.
Before joining SIMLab, Laura worked for the British Red Cross on international humanitarian policy and learning, focussed on quality and accountability, innovation, urbanization, cash transfer programming and civil-military relations, as well as strategic planning.Drawing on her expertise in humanitarian aid, human rights law and international development, she brings a cross-disciplinary approach to communications, innovation and information management.
You can connect with Laura here:
IN TOR 078 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- Agile Development and how it can be adapted from software into project management for international development.
- The challenges of presenting better ways to work and communicate in the face of the “machine of international development.”
- The “above” and “below the line” deliverables for any project and how a CEO can best deal with both.
- On the necessity to endure the time (and cost) to find a collective mission.
- Laura’s personal view of balance and “pacing yourself.”
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- British Red Cross
- Hewlett Foundation
- Open Society Foundations
- Stanford University
- Project management
- Agile development approach
- Inclusive technology
- Bureaucratic and hierarchical barriers in international development
- Human rights and civil liberties
- User feedback
- Request for Proposal (RFD)
- Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT, ICT4Development)
- Washington, DC
- Brooklyn, NY
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
What Simlab is
Helps people in inclusive technologies: things easy to access. Twitter is an example.
How can international development get information from the people in the field, what would the best technology solutions would be for communication.
It branched from FrontlineSMS work.
How to lower barriers between people. Mobile has helped.
Works across the development spectrum.
Inheriting an organization in the middle of its unfolding
Agile software development background. Lots of post-it notes (“we carry boxes of them to Kenya because they’re so hard to get“).
Agile: project management with minimal planning, strong focus on execution, nothing set in stone, always focus on the solution, the “key 3 things we want to do.” Constant feedback, “user acceptance,” users drive the direction of the projects.
Barriers of agile development for a bureaucracy-friendly sector
Interaction and ethos challenges. It’s hard to deal with hierarchies, NGOs are very protocol-focused, lots of stages, feedback was almost impossible within the scope of a project.
But new approaches have proven themselves on the field. Blogs are starting to affect how projects are directed.
Strategizing on inclusive development
“Above the line” deliverables: what clearly defines an organization and a project for people inside and out.
“Below the line” deliverables: the learning, often implicit; the partnerships, know-how and specific, tested courses of action.
“If you’re the CEO, both are your problem.“
Technology in the help of agility and inclusiveness
Appropriate use helps not just communication, but consensus and trust building.
Evaluations gain more impact, helps organizations improve.
Laura sees more projects with more actionable information ready to be shared across the global community.
Jumping into the lead position
Natural evolution. Looking to bootstrap FrontlineSMS.
The need of a new entity, with more margin of action. Simlab could focus more on project management, FrontlineSMS stayed on tech issues.
Simlab is “platform-agnostic.“
A big retreat with the board, reunion (some are in Kenya, Brooklyn, London, DC, Tanzania, Stanford).
There is a need for independence and interconnection.
Legal setups was time consuming, necessary for peace of mind.
Organizations have provided help to clear it out: UNICEF, Hewlett Foundation, Open Society Foundations.
“I was a little undirected.” Got a law degree, languages. At a London practice, Laura felt something was missing. Looked back into human rights and civil liberties.
Nottingham, Warwick offers, ends up at British Red Cross. Huge experience.
’10 Finally at FrontlineSMS, increasing use in Haiti. Interviewed at a pub, started next day.
“I found out investing in my online brand really paid off.” Twitter, personal site. Her employer was a follower.
What makes Laura tear her hair
“We have all the problems we could have, and the computers are not working right.“
Having many plates to juggle, was frustrating, it keeps you from doing good stuff.
The intersection of a personal vision with the “machine that is international development contracting.” Small organizations are still requested to comply with a lot of requirements, with no funding guarantee.
Funders can block work, the right partnerships are essential.
“It is definitely a marathon, not a sprint.” Having a balance, it’s okay to be a little selfish if you want to be available on the long run. Take holidays, pace yourself.
“A person with a healthy personal life is better at work.“
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