Motivated by his own past, CEO Rodney Ferguson has positioned Winrock International to offer solutions to the world’s most challenging problems
Interview by Chris Warren
Long before Rodney Ferguson became President and CEO of Winrock International, he was keenly aware of how development work can transform lives. As a young boy growing up in small-town Alabama, Ferguson was surrounded by the benefits of one of history’s most successful development initiatives. “We had electricity because of the New Deal. We had agricultural self-sufficiency because of the New Deal,” he says. “And my family was literally saved by the New Deal because my grandfather received agricultural subsidies during the Depression and World War II that allowed him to farm and feed his family.”
Though he left Alabama after college, Ferguson’s career has been animated by those early personal experiences and the conviction that disadvantaged people can better their own lives when given the right mix of resources, knowledge and opportunity. Indeed, for over 20 years Ferguson worked with a long roster of universities and nonprofits – everyone from the State University of New York (SUNY) to the MacArthur Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts – to develop and implement innovative ways to empower people around the world.
Since becoming CEO of Winrock in April 2013, Ferguson has continued that mission; setting the organization on a course to become the most impactful development force in the industry. Approaching nearly three years on the job, Ferguson recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview in his Arlington, Va., office. Surrounded by mementos and photos from his travels to Winrock projects around the globe, Ferguson shared his thoughts on why a rapidly evolving development landscape demands internal change, what he’s learned since becoming CEO and why Winrock is uniquely positioned to deliver solutions to many of the world’s biggest problems.
It has been almost three years since you arrived at Winrock. Looking back, what was it that first intrigued you about coming here?
Earlier in my career, I was attracted to the nonprofits that had the opportunity to make the biggest impact on the ground. And I was especially attracted to those that worked with the most disadvantaged populations. For example, one of my larger clients was the State University of New York. People say, ‘What does that have to do with the disadvantaged?’ It was attractive to me because it was a university system that was trying to educate both the elite and those in the poorest rural and urban areas of New York. I guess I’ve always been attracted to organizations that knew their mission was difficult.
So the fact that Winrock tackles big challenges was a major draw for you?
First and foremost, I was attracted to the work and the vision. How we adapt agriculture to climate change, how we create markets to limit carbon emissions, how we eliminate child labor from supply chains, how we educate children in a war torn conflict zone like South Sudan. It sounds pretentious when you say it, and I’m very humbled by this, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that the most important problems in the world are addressed by this organization. And not just around the world, but also here in the United States.
Not only is Winrock working to solve complex problems, it also faces a quickly changing development environment. What do you see as the most important changes?
To use a big, fancy “McKinsey-esque” word, the world of international development is becoming disaggregated. For most of the post-World War II era, funding for development was coming out of Washington and Moscow. We had the Peace Corps, we had USAID, and Moscow had its projects. But now the money is coming from everywhere. The vectors are just crazy. The Gates Foundation competes with USAID in its levels of funding. You also have the Chinese in the game now. People may not like their definition of development, but they are building bridges, they’re building roads, they’re building hospitals, they’re building all kinds of stuff all over the world. And they recently announced the formation of their own development bank to rival the World Bank. You also now have sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. So instead of a world where funding vectors were pretty predictable, you’ve got money flowing from all over the world. And that increasingly includes companies that realize that elevating the world’s poor is part of developing new markets.
What implications do these fundamental changes have for Winrock’s organization and strategies?
We have to disaggregate our organization. First of all, we need a more field-focused organization in order to meet funders and beneficiaries where they live. We must also move beyond a patronizing model of international development. There has historically been a notion that a deserving person, not living in a western capital, doesn’t know how they can best meet their own needs.
Can you give me an example of a change you’ve made to adapt?
One is that we have elevated the role of communications and branding for the organization. In this multi-vector world I described, you’ve got funding coming at you from all points on the globe and new players constantly coming in. A perfect example from earlier this year was when the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is the nephew of King Salman, announced that he is going to give all of his money away, a la Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. And it’s $32 billion dollars. Prince Alwaleed is going to focus on the Middle East, but extending that into the Sahel in Africa. Suddenly you’ve got a player, on paper at least, almost as big as the Gates Foundation that popped up overnight that’s going to do educational, agricultural, and environmental development work from the Persian Gulf across the Muslim world. Look at what Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg just did. Their recent commitment is valued at $45 billion. Through our marketing, communications and branding, we have to be in front of all of these major funders. The prince in Saudi Arabia doesn’t know us from Adam today. But I hope in three or four years that he will know what we do and what we can do for vulnerable populations in the Sahel, for example, where we are already working.
Does this evolved development environment also explain Winrock’s increasing emphasis on pushing resources, personnel and expertise into the field?
Absolutely. A lot of what we are doing goes back to having a field focus. For example, we are moving staff to the field. It’s a 10-year process, but we have slowly transitioned about half a dozen positions from headquarters to our field offices in Nairobi and the Philippines. That will continue apace over the next decade. Ultimately, it’s about getting people closer to the work we’re here to do. It’s the same concept as businesses knowing their customers. Our customers are the people who are benefiting from the work we do with them in communities and countries around the world. There’s also a practical element to it. If you have a regional project in the Sahel or East Africa, it’s much easier to think about how to organize it from East Africa than from Arlington, Va., or Little Rock, Ark.
Are there also changes in how new and existing funders decide which projects to support?
Yes, another external reality that we are dealing with is that money is no longer seen as best spent within the boundaries of a specific country. That’s the nature of today’s problems – whether they’re environmental, water, migration or climate change. They do not respect borders. Increasingly, money is going to be focused on solving regional and global problems and we have not been set up as an organization to tackle those problems. We have ceded that ground to our larger competitors, the Nature Conservancies, the World Wildlife Funds, the Conservation Internationals. They are seen as organizations that can address global or regional challenges, and I want Winrock to be able to play in that space.
What sort of internal changes does that require?
There was a strategic decision made many years ago that we were going to broaden our base and become a large NGO. And we have to determine whether we need to retract that decision or go forward. We either have to become smaller and more focused, which has its own set of challenges and risks, or we continue to grow in smart ways to meet challenges that are becoming bigger and more geographically dispersed. I don’t see any reason to reverse course. We have to be able to implement our projects at scale. That sounds more like a managerial objective than a vision, but actually it’s not. We have to first and foremost manage projects well. Funders deserve to have their money well-managed. More importantly, we have to do what we promise when we take their money. We have to achieve results. When I took over the organization, we did not have the systems in place to manage those large projects.
What are steps you’ve taken to change that?
Well, it’s not sexy. It’s not fun all the time. It’s not the emotionally satisfying part of this work. But in many ways it’s the most difficult and important task we face. It’s a license to operate. As a start, we made some key hires and we elevated the operations capacity from a vice president of operations to COO of the organization to try and send a signal that this was incredibly important. We also revamped and made improvements in our compliance function. I also brought on a very senior, experienced auditor. And I’ll say this because I think it’s important to convey here; this is very much still a work in process. This is a decade-long transformation. There is a lot you can do in the first couple of years. And I think we have accomplished a lot. But there are still years of work to go.
Isn’t one aspect of successfully implementing large and complex projects being able to work well across all of Winrock’s many areas of expertise?
Of course. The world is moving towards this concept of integrated development, which is that no problem exists in isolation. For example, a really hot topic now in development is resiliency. How do you create resilient communities, resilient countries and resilient regions? And resiliency just means building communities, countries and regions that can withstand systematic shocks, like droughts, crop failures, natural disasters, wars, massive migration, whatever. Winrock is already engaged in a lot of the major threads that comprise this new integrated development approach. Some of our scientists have been proponents of the systems approach to environmental challenges before it was the default solution. So as a result, we are in a great position to take advantage of this emerging priority in development because we have resilient agriculture, we have a climate change practice, we do methodology development as part of our American Carbon Registry work and we have agricultural work that focuses on improving yields and improving market access. This resilient agriculture approach provides us an opportunity to integrate these things in such a way that they are very attractive to donors. And this is probably a better way to do development anyway. That’s why we have to create a more collaborative culture wherever we can see the benefit of working together across silos to be able to offer better solutions.
Besides increased collaboration, what would you like the defining characteristics of Winrock’s workplace culture to be?
I think the workplace culture has to be defined by a relentless focus on whether or not we are meeting the objectives of our beneficiaries while maintaining the standards of our funders. That is the culture we need to create. To do that, though, I understand that we have to have the best workplace culture in the industry. Part of that is making sure that everyone remembers that all of their work is about improving the lives of beneficiaries around the world. It’s about making sure our mission and purpose is front and center every day. Part of that is achieved by having a greater field focus. But it’s also important that we do a better job of communicating internally, sharing knowledge about our successes and challenges and encouraging everyone to contribute their ideas and passion to make Winrock a better place to work and more impactful.
As CEO of Winrock and a lover of history, you undoubtedly have become a student of the organization. What past achievements make you proud and what aspects of Winrock’s legacy are important to preserve into the future?
There is a lot to be proud of. But Winrock was in a position to play a significant role in the Green Revolution, which still remains one of the signature accomplishments of scientific development in the 20th century. I think the Green Revolution prevented death and misery at a level unmatched by virtually any other social or scientific movement ever. It is equally important in my mind to the development of vaccines in the middle of the 20th century, and Winrock was part of the Green Revolution. One of Winrock’s founding board members is Norman Borlaug. His work and the work of other people helped save as many as a billion lives. Winrock was in a position to play a significant role in that. So what’s the connection to today and the future of Winrock? We have inherited a legacy of people who dream very big and who accomplish enormous things. I fully expect that to continue.