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Looking for Lessons in the ADRA Leadership Change [extract]


During the past several years, Spectrum has been following the management, personnel and board changes at ADRA International, and the ensuing turmoil at the agency.

We have published a number of news articles online as events unfolded. (See links to previous coverage here.)

This summer, reporter Alita Byrd took a closer look inside the ADRA headquarters, talking to employees past and present, board members and others, trying to decipher what has been going on behind the scenes and where the organization is headed. A comprehensive 13-page article of her findings appears in the latest issue of Spectrum, volume 40, issue 3, summer 2012. To obtain a copy of the journal, or to subscribe, email midori[at]

An extract of the longer article appears below.

Looking for Lessons in the ADRA Leadership Change [extract]

At a specially convened meeting of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International Board on Sunday, June 24, 2012, Rudi Maier was removed from his position as president of ADRA International. In his 621 days in the president’s chair, thirty-three of ADRA International’s seventy-eight staff resigned or were fired, including all the internal auditors and all but one member of the planning department. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a major funder, terminated money for a large project in South Sudan. Donor Versacare asked for $86,000 in grant money to be returned after ADRA repeatedly failed to provide reports on how it was being spent.

The turmoil at ADRA Intl over the last two years is only a fraction of the whole ADRA story—the story of providing water systems for villages in Ecuador, of developing energy-efficient straw bale homes to keep families in Mongolia warm, of providing clean water, shelters, and much more for thousands in Haiti, and the list goes on. But because the turmoil has had—and continues to have—an impact on funding and the ability of ADRA Intl to get things done, and because it has diverted the agency into survival mode instead of planning for its future, it merits examination.

Change from the top down

At the General Conference Session held in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010, Elder Ted N.C. Wilson was elected president of the worldwide church. No one knew it yet, but this heralded big changes for ADRA. First, in the reshuffle of duties for General Conference vice presidents, Wilson removed Lowell Cooper as ADRA’s board chair, a position he had held for ten years. He also removed Pardon Mwansa, who had been vice chair for five years. He named Geoffrey Mbwana, a new GC vice president who had previously served as president of the East-Central Africa Division, as ADRA’s new board chair, and GC vice president Ella Simmons as vice chair.

On October 4, 2010, the board of ADRA met for its regular autumn meeting. On October 11, during the autumn Annual Council meetings at the General Conference, the ADRA Membership Committee informed members that they had been appointed or reappointed to the board, and invited them to a special board meeting called for the next day. With less than twenty-four hours notice, only two of the thirteen lay members on the thirty-seven-member board were in attendance. Most of those present were division presidents, who command a place on ADRA’s board by right of their job title.

At the meeting, Wilson announced that he could not support Chuck Sandefur’s continued tenure as ADRA president, claiming depressed morale and finances at the agency. Wilson proposed a replacement: Rudi Maier, a professor of mission at Andrews University’s Theological Seminary.

Maier was telephoned directly from the meeting, and immediately accepted the position. No search committee was formed, no pool of qualified candidates was created, and no interviews were done.

Soon after relocating to Maryland and taking up his position as ADRA president, Maier mentioned to a staffer that Wilson had originally called him back in July, soon after the GC Session, and offered him the job as ADRA head.

Red flags

At first, Maier seemed like a potentially good choice to lead ADRA. He had more international development experience when he arrived than either of his two immediate predecessors. He boasted a doctorate in sociology and international development from American University, and a master’s degree in South Asian languages and culture from the University of Chicago. Maier also had experience at ADRA.

But a cursory reference check by the board might have thrown up some red flags. Maier had helped to develop Andrews’ master’s degree in international development, and had been the initial director of the program. But he was later removed from his position because of a multitude of problems, according to a former administrator at Andrews. One former ADRA employee with many friends who had studied under Maier at Andrews said, “The poor man just has the worst interpersonal skills I have ever seen. He says the worst possible thing to anyone in any situation.”

Maier’s presidency began on October 12, 2010, and he soon formed a small “inner circle” of trusted staff. These were the only people he took advice from, or discussed decisions with. Many senior staffers working on major big-budget projects complained that Maier never consulted with them, or asked for updates.

Under Maier’s tenure, weekly staff meetings became worship services. Regular meetings of all bureau chiefs also ended, as Maier removed that rung of management. At a meeting of the administrative committee, Maier told attendees that would be the group’s last meeting.

Dissolving all the regular channels of communication in the agency, and not replacing them, meant it was difficult for Maier to communicate any ideas about ADRA’s strategy and direction to his employees.

During a phone board meeting on February 10, Maier had two of the vice presidents, Gideon Mutero and Mark Webster, removed, and replaced with Ken Flemmer as vice president for programs and Robyn Mordeno as vice president for finance. Mario Ochoa was executive vice president, but his title was changed to vice president for network relations. A press release called the three “ADRA’s new leadership team.” As it turned out, vice presidents Mutero and Webster were only the first to be let go.

Just a lottery?

On February 22, 2011, Maier, Flemmer and Ochoa spent the day firing 20 percent of ADRA Intl’s workforce, and reassigning (often demoting) a number of other staff members. Many of the people let go were experienced staff members working in senior positions. They were told their jobs had been eliminated, effective immediately. By the end of the day, their email accounts had been terminated, they could no longer log in to the network, and the locks on their office doors had been changed. There was no chance for handovers or even to let project partners know what was happening. According to employees, there was no obvious criteria or reasoning behind the downsizing decisions.

Two days later, ADRA Intl leadership called a meeting of all staff at the Spencerville Church, just a short drive away from ADRA’s offices in the GC building. Maier read a prepared statement, explaining that the seventeen people had been let go because of a decline in current and projected revenue from funding sources.

After Maier read his statement to the staff, he opened the floor for questions, and was immediately asked about the criteria for laying people off: was it performance-based or just a lottery? And from there the questions kept coming, but no satisfactory answers were provided. Finally Maier cut them off. He told the staff to take the following day, a Friday, off work to “heal.”

“At that point everyone lost respect for him,” an employee who later resigned, said.

At the time of the firings, a nine-member proposal team was working on the largest funding proposal ADRA had ever done, worth more than $50 million for a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was due that Friday—the day Maier suggested everyone take off. He had fired more than half of the team spearheading the proposal.

In June 2011, ADRA Intl’s audited financial statements for 2010 were released. They showed it to be ADRA’s best year ever in terms of funding. Total revenue for the year increased by just over $18 million to $77,543,276. ADRA’s assets grew from $33 million in 2009 to $42 million in 2010.

It was, as one board member put it, “a total rebuff of Rudi and friends’ assertions that ADRA was bankrupt when he took it over.”

When vice president for finance Mordeno was asked during a board meeting this year whether the reduction in force had saved the agency money, she answered “No.”

The fallout

The impact of the February 22 firings was felt far beyond the seventeen people who lost their jobs. First, the initial press release listing ADRA’s financial difficulties as the reason behind the reduction in force painted a worrying picture for ADRA’s funders and partners.

Second, the ADRA staff members who were let go, as well as many others who resigned in the wake of the firings, went to work for other development agencies all over Washington, DC, and beyond, taking their story with them.

Third, some of the huge goodwill and credibility ADRA enjoys among Adventist church members around the world was lost, thanks to the lack of transparency around the reorganization of the agency.

And fourth, the way the firings were handled meant that ADRA’s outside contacts were left in the dark. People managing projects around the world could no longer get in touch with managers at ADRA Intl. Because the people let go were told they had to be out of the building by 5 p.m., donors and projects were left hanging.

Longer term, ADRA Intl’s mission has been obstructed. There was no real consideration given to how ADRA would continue to operate after letting so many key people go, a current staff member said. “The quality of our work has suffered because we are being stretched so thin.”

In addition, firing its technical staff was a crippling blow to the agency’s ability to attract funding. The HIV/AIDS specialist and the gender integration specialist positions were eliminated. Subsequently, the nutrition specialist resigned. “Without that kind of technical expertise it is impossible to argue our skills in those areas,” the current employee noted.

The board behind the scenes

How is it possible that ADRA’s board appointed a president without a search process? How is it possible that the board let its previous decisions, such as a licensing initiative, be revoked? How is it possible that the board allowed the ADRA administration to fire 20 percent of its senior staff for “financial reasons,” without any board input?

Notwithstanding his previous statements about the importance of transparency, board chair Mbwana (as well as vice chair Simmons) did not respond to repeated requests for information for this article. Failure to answer questions about the decisions of the board and plans it is implementing brings even greater concern to the many ADRA stakeholders.

“Unfortunately in light of the fluidity of the present situation at ADRA and the uncertainty over the potential outcomes of recent decisions made, we are not at this point able to nor at liberty to comment,” the GC’s legal counsel, Karnik Doukmetzian, stated on behalf of ADRA officers and board members.

Maier and Wilson were also asked to comment for this article, but both declined.

This atmosphere of secrecy and concealment is nothing new. According to several ADRA staffers (who spoke to us on condition of anonymity), Maier was always suspicious of his staff’s loyalty, and he would often call people into his office and accuse them of not being supportive of him.

Maier was absolutely insistent that his staff not speak directly to the ADRA board without his prior approval, in contrast to the previous administration, during which bureau chiefs were regularly invited to board meetings to make presentations.

In the case of ADRA’s internal auditors, who were required in the course of their jobs to report audit results directly to the board’s Audit Committee, Maier tried to change the relationship so that they would report to him instead, undermining the independence of the internal audit.

Shortly after ADRA’s 2010 audit was completed, the bureau chief for internal audit and financial compliance resigned, citing an environment that did not allow internal audits to be performed in accordance with professional standards of independence and objectivity.

ADRA Intl’s other two auditors, Roger Keaton and Titus Biyete, also resigned one after the other, leaving only the administrative assistant in the internal audit department.

Downward spiral

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise tipping point for Wilson, who had continued to support Maier for more than a year and a half, but on June 5 – shortly after two more resignations came through (making a total of thirty-three out of seventy-eight staff who were fired or resigned between February 2011 and June 2012), and not long after fifteen staff members sent a letter to the board asking for its intervention –  Wilson put in a call to Maier and told him to resign as president. Though it was not Wilson’s job to hire or fire Maier, he was personally involved from beginning to end.

The following day, Maier received an email from board chair Geoffrey Mbwana, reiterating the directive. Mbwana said that if Maier did not do as asked, a board meeting would be called to decide Maier’s future.

Maier did not resign. So on June 14, Mbwana asked him to leave the office, and suspend any involvement with ADRA matters in anticipation of the special board meeting called for June 24.

Reign over

On Sunday, June 24, the board met. Members could call in to the meeting if they were not able to be present in person. According to one board member, just over half of the members were in the room or on the phone, more than enough for a quorum. Maier was given an opportunity to speak to the board and answer questions.

The vote to dismiss Maier as ADRA’s president was definitive, though not unanimous.

A seven-member search committee made up of ADRA board members and ADRA staff was formed and tasked with conducting an international search to come up with three names from which a permanent president can be chosen. A job description has been carefully drawn up, and input sought from across the ADRA network and church community.

On July 3, ADRA announced that former General Conference Treasurer Robert Rawson will serve as acting president.

It is clear that the board is acting much more cautiously than it did when selecting Maier as president. But what safeguards can be put in place to ensure that the board continues to act more responsibly in the future?

ADRA staff members, past and present, say they are hoping to see governance improved and greater oversight from a stronger, more experienced and more involved board.

Looking ahead

All of the ADRA staff members I spoke to, both current and former, complained that ADRA’s focus and strategy was not clearly defined.

In his first days as the interim president, Robert Rawson told the Adventist Review that he was not charged with creating a new vision for ADRA Intl, but preparing the staff for the transition. The permanent president’s immediate task will be to focus the agency. Staffers hope a qualified and capable president will soon be in place to help move ADRA forward.

But that is only a beginning.

Current and former staffers agree that dismissing Maier from his post was an important and necessary move—even late as it was—in helping ADRA Intl to regain its footing. But they believe that ADRA’s difficulties run deeper than ADRA’s top officer. Big changes the length and breadth of the organization are necessary if ADRA is to remain competitive, they said.

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