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New ADRA President Shares His Plans for the Agency


Jonathan Duffy, ADRA’s new president, talks to Spectrum about his vision and priorities for the agency, and the changes he hopes to make.*  Duffy says he plans to strengthen ADRA’s relationship with the church and work to bring back the confidence of the staff after the turmoil and mass dismissals of the last few years.

Duffy was most recently country director of ADRA Australia, where he served from 2008. Before that he worked for 28 years in health services management and promotion. From 2001 to 2008 he was director of health for the South Pacific Division. He replaces former ADRA president Rudi Maier, who was asked to step down in June 2012.

Question: When did you officially start your job as ADRA president?

Answer: There were delays, and I couldn’t do anything officially until I had my visa. After I got it, I flew over from Australia on January 20 and started immediately after that. I am hoping to close on a house in June, and my wife is planning to join me shortly.

Question: This is your first time working outside of Australia. What do you think of living and working the US?

Answer: I enjoy it here. Moving countries has its bureaucratic challenges, but the transition is easy in some ways.

It takes a little while to understand a business and what makes it work. And maybe it’s taken me a little longer to learn my way around the ADRA headquarters because I have had a number of meetings overseas. But ADRA is ADRA.

Question: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of your selection as ADRA president? How did this come about? How did you feel when you got the call?

Answer: It might have been Greg Young, ADRA’s South Pacific division director, who first talked to me about it. After the board meeting [when Rudi Maier was asked to step down as president], everyone was asking each other: “Are you going to go for it?” A seed was sown there.

I had served on a number of committees for ADRA International since joining ADRA, including a working group focused on helping ADRA work together more synergistically. People began to mention my name as a possible candidate. I had a number of conversations with different people, and things grew from there.

I knew the role of president was big task. I prayed about it, and my wife and I talked about it.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed when the board decided to really go through a proper search process for the next president. Of course, that was obviously the right thing to do, but it meant I had to actually put my name forward as a candidate, and not just wait to be called!

It was a hard decision. My children are adults, but are not yet fully settled in life. Was this the right time to leave them? My father is in a palliative care unit, dying. We had to sell our house. This is a big change for my wife and me.  There are financial implications too. I am actually paid less money than I was as CEO of ADRA Australia. And my wife, who is a pharmacist, can’t work in the US without going through re-training and re-sitting exams.

But I thought that if I didn’t apply, that would be excluding God from the process; whereas if I put my name in, than God could still decide. You have to make yourself available to God, and be willing to be used the way He wants. I didn’t contact anyone in the US, or within ADRA. I deliberately stayed out of political discussions. I just put in my application, and got asked for an interview. I think my wife thought it was unlikely I would get the job.

I was very humbled when I got the call.

I was in Canberra for some meetings. I got the call in the middle of the night. I was told that the board had met and wanted me to take the position. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I jumped in my car and drove the five hours home so I could catch my wife before she went to work and tell her in person.

I hadn’t even asked about the terms of the job. I just thought that if God wanted me there, I had to go. I felt at peace.

Don’t think I am a religious nut; I have a fair degree of business acumen. But I do have faith. And I am willing to get on my knees to ask for divine wisdom to help ADRA succeed.

The task is huge. I am daunted at times. Why was I chosen? I could come up with a half dozen names of people who would be better. But God doesn’t call you without equipping you. I have to let God use the skills I have, and let Him make up for the void of skills I don’t have.

Question: What are your priorities for ADRA?

Answer: 1) Restore a positive culture within the agency.

2) Strengthen ADRA’s relationship with the church.

3) Establish our reputation within the development sector as an agency of excellence.

4) Help ADRA to work as a true global network.

My plans within the office here are to create a positive culture, and create the opportunity for people to genuinely succeed. I want to give them a clear vision, make sure they are resourced to perform the functions required of them, and make sure they are empowered. We have some good people here in ADRA, but I don’t think they have been given the right tools to achieve. That is my goal for ADRA internally.

My priorities also include helping ADRA to strengthen its relationship with the church. I bring a paradigm shift in relation to that. ADRA has a worldwide reputation for doing project implementation very well. But how does that actually engage with the church?

There is no point running great projects to alleviate physical need, if our church members live in great spiritual need.

ADRA is not just about doing the projects – it is about being a voice and an advocate for the church, and bringing hope and healing. How do we help the church to engage more effectively?

ADRA has many funding sources, and to be true to the donors and stay within the parameters of the grants we are given, we can’t spend money on the church. But we can work with the church to create simple programs so churches can help their communities. We have never really tapped into that. There are so many simple things we can do. We haven’t adequately resourced our church members to make a difference in their own communities.

I think the biggest resource we have is our church membership. It’s not about money. It’s more about time. They can do the work themselves, if we just help with the structure.

That means we have to form partnerships with existing church agencies. We don’t want to undermine what they are already doing, but to be collaborative. It’s our job to become relevant to the church.

All this does not mean I am ignoring other aspects of our reputation, and the good projects that we do. ADRA impacted 30.5 million lives around the world last year. We have a presence in over 125 countries. We won’t walk away from that! But I just want us to also ask how can we inspire and resource church members to become agents of healing.

My vision is to strengthen ADRA’s relationship with the church without compromising our reputation in the professional development sector where we have done so well. We won’t compromise our government funding. But I think we can do both. This is just adding a new dimension. We are a business, and also a ministry of the church.

That is something that I did as ADRA Country Director in Australia, where now 25% of churches are in an ongoing program that links them into their communities. Social welfare services refer people to them. That brands the church very strongly.

I have floated this idea at the ADRA International President’s Council, and received very good support.

Question: Beyond empowering ADRA staff and strengthening ADRA’s ties with the Adventist church, tell us about your other priorities.

Answer: ADRA needs to restore its public image as a professional agency of development. That is something that happens slowly. The best advocate for our abilities is our staff. As they feel motivated and empowered, and get on with their work, they grow our reputation.

Also, ADRA hasn’t been as successful as I’d like in winning grants. Grants resource us to actually do the work.

Other agencies can do these things, like food safety and sanitation, but we should be there because we are wholistic in our approach.

We don’t have to be evangelistic to be spiritual. I am not saying ADRA has to be an evangelistic arm of the church, but it can be a seed-sowing arm of the church.

We understand the difference. I am not talking about proselytizing. I’m not a minister – I’m a professional person and want to be professional. ADRA is a professional development agency; but it is a professional Christian agency, and we need to define that difference. We do not proselytize, but we show compassion. Christ healed all 10 lepers – everyone who needed healing.

And the final element is for ADRA to be able to work as a true global network. That sounds obvious, but is not always. All the different ADRA offices and projects struggle for their own survival, and their own overheads.

Changing trends in international development mean more funding is available at post. The roles between donors and country offices are shifting. And it’s not just country to country anymore – there is a more regional approach. Different partners mean different requirements around reporting and evaluation. We need more synergy between ADRA offices. There is a goodwill within the agency to work as a true network, but we will need to be more intentional about that.

Question: There was a long-term project in place to license all the ADRA offices around the world, but that was shut down under Rudi Maier. Are you saying there are plans to re-start that project?

Answer: Yes, there will be licensing, but also ongoing accreditation. We have implemented a new system called CORE: Country Office Review for Excellence. It’s like an accreditation, or ongoing review, process.

So as a beginning point, a country office will have to meet certain criteria (good financial system, proper HR guidelines, etc) in order to be licensed, and then within two years will be in CORE. Offices will work to bring themselves up to a common standard. Yearly CORE reports showing progress will go to division and regional offices. Assistance will be available to help offices that need it. We hope the system will be more like a coach to help, rather than a police officer to oversee.

Under this system, anyone who partners with an ADRA office can have confidence that it meets certain standards.

We are trying to find more ways to be consistent and find platforms for sharing and working together. We just had a marketing expo in Bangkok. This was the first time all the marketing, communications and fundraising people had come together. In many of the larger offices, creative teams have developed great resources or campaigns. Without much work, those campaigns could be telling an ADRA story, rather than just an ADRA Canada or ADRA Germany story. Then smaller offices, who don’t have those teams, could use those resources, too. For instance, many African countries have large Adventist church memberships. How are they being challenged to make a difference in their own communities? We need to work better at communicating to people in our own countries.

Question: How would you describe your leadership style?

Answer: I like to view it as empowering.  Consultative. I like to get a broad scope of opinions. I am happy to be democratic – but of course I can’t always be, because ultimately I have the responsibility. It’s not always about a popular vote, but where possible I like to consult widely.

I am not the solution for ADRA. I put in place the resources for others. But where it’s required to take the lead, I do.

Question: How has your past experience prepared you for the job of ADRA president?

Answer: I worked in health services for years, and in the health promotion setting before that. I gained a lot of skills in dealing with clients face to face. People might come to you to talk about diet or exercise or a stop smoking program. But what they really want is to talk about their lives. You develop strong people relationship skills and good listening skills. Those have helped me as I’ve gradually taken on more leadership. I have tried to learn from people that I have served under – both good and bad points. Of course I make my own mistakes. I am not perfect, but hopefully I have learned.

In working in management for two Adventist hospitals, I was very business-focused, dealing with branding and positioning in the market.

I have often been given agencies or departments that are struggling financially, and it has been my job to give them a more positive platform to move forward. I have learned from failures, and the units I have run have been able to grow.

When I worked as division health director [for the South Pacific Division], that was a different paradigm for me. Up until then I had worked at health institutions, where you basically have to create your own budget. If you don’t bring the money in, you don’t exist. It was running a business. I went from a business-oriented world to the church approach, which is more based on relationships. You have to get cooperation and bring people on board with you in order to bring about change. I learned about engaging local churches, pastors and presidents.

So my background covers two very different areas: hardnosed business where you fight for survival and are forced to generate income, and church administration where it’s about engaging people and promoting cooperation.

Both of these are required in the role of ADRA president.

Question: You have been country director of ADRA Australia since 2008, but other than that you don’t have any real international development background. Is that a problem?

Answer: I did my masters degree in public health, focusing on health promotion. I learned about program planning, statistics, needs analyses and so on. These program skills are the same as in international development. If you are working on a program focused on HIV/AIDS or food security, there are lots of common elements. I understand the technicalities.

I was also on the ADRA Australia board for eight years, and was on a special subcommittee evaluating programs and projects. In addition, the programming I’ve done has not all been corporate – I have also worked on school and health programs.

So it’s a different sector, but there are many commonalities.

Question: Are changes being made to the rules that govern the ADRA board to ensure its independence? Is the membership of the board undergoing any changes?

Answer: I have only been at one board meeting so far. But if we are going to be serious about having a real board of governance, it is going to have to meet more than twice a year for a few hours.

In the bylaws there is a provision for an executive board: a smaller group that meets more frequently and is more involved with ADRA’s activities. The board understands this need, and we have a basic agreement to instigate the smaller group. Now I need to get busy with the board chair to draw up membership.

I also want to set up more subcommittees, and the board agrees. We need to look beyond business and finance.

The board wants to be stronger and more engaged. Its members want to be able to hold the ADRA president accountable for getting them better information to make better decisions.

We are planning a board retreat for next year, where we can focus on several elements. First, we will bring in some theologians who can help us look at the biblical responsibility of compassion and talk about what our role is. We will have an honest discussion about ADRA and relationship to the church. We will find the ground we agree on, and hold each other accountable.

We also plan to help educate the board on the development sector and how it works, so they feel more empowered to ask the right questions. We will review trends in the sector and talk about our vision for where ADRA fits in.

We will also talk about governance, and the duties and responsibilities of a board and its members.

Question: So do you plan any changes to board membership?

Answer: I am conscious of the large number of board members. But I have no specific plans. I am too new to tackle everything.

Question: What changes have you made at ADRA? What changes do you anticipate making?

Answer: As far as structure goes, I told the staff I wouldn’t make any changes until I interviewed them all. We often rush out to use consultants, when the knowledge really lies within. Besides, I wanted to get to know them, and find out about their families. I wanted to hear their career aspirations, and their dreams for ADRA. I want to be able to pray for them individually.

There is nothing worse than a new president arriving and thinking he knows all the answers. My job is not to know all the answers but to facilitate the process so we can get the answers.

So now I am feeling that there is a cautious optimism in the office. The staff are saying: We like the rhetoric but we would like to have a little time to make sure the actions match.

So we can move ahead – cautiously – and slowly confidence will build, morale will be rebuilt, a culture of positive affirmation will be strengthened, and we will move toward a strong strategic future.

One thing I got from the staff is that they are keen to see the agency move ahead. They are keen to perform well, to have benchmarks, to have detailed job descriptions, to have their work defined.

They have been hurt, but I haven’t had to come in and work on the healing. [Acting president Robert] Rawson did a good job with that. Now we are ready to work and create a positive future for ADRA.

There is general agreement that we need to look at a different structure for ADRA.

Previously there were bureau chiefs. Then it was changed into a more flat structure, with directors, but no one person was responsible for specific things. Now people understand you need one person with accountability.

Once the structure has been put in place, we will have an Executive Committee, made up of what will basically be departmental directors (we haven’t decided on the name yet) , the president and vice presidents. I will chair this decision-making body, which will have representation from across the agency. The vice president for programs (we are recruiting now for this position) will be the committee’s secretary. The committee will oversee programs and look at the donor office side of ADRA.

A good thing that Rudi Maier did was to set up the Network Committee – a meeting between regional and divisional directors. It was initially set up as an advisory committee, but I am making it an executive committee. The Network Committee looks at global issues, policy, strategy and how ADRA operates as a network. It will oversee the international network side of ADRA.

Question: What changes have you made in your senior leadership team?

Answer: My senior management team is down a little right now. We created the position of vice president for HR and leadership development, so we could recruit more effectively and help young people build their own careers. We have got to be serious about recruiting, nurturing and investing in the right people. Mario Ochoa has taken on this new role.

Robyn Mordeno is still the vice president for finance.

And we are recruiting for two other vice president positions: vice president for programs and vice president for world network.

Question: Any other changes you are contemplating? Anything else we should look for at ADRA coming up?

Answer: I am trying to look at change from an evolutionary point of view rather than a revolutionary point of view. There are changes. But they are taking place at a pace people can hopefully cope with.

Yes, ADRA will look different in three years, five years and further down the line. Hopefully people won’t be traumatized by it.

I am hoping to take the church on this journey. Church members will look back and feel they are growing as agents for social change.


*This interview was conducted on May 8, 2013.

Previous ADRA coverage includes our interview with ADRA's longest-serving president Ralph Watts and an extract from Looking for Lessons in the ADRA Leadership Change.


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