FCAB Country Director
These last three years working on the Foundation for Charitable Activities in Bangladesh (FCAB), the non-profit founded by my late father Abdul Majid Khan have taught me much about international development, public/private partnerships, managing people, time and resources. His sudden death in a car accident in our hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2014 was especially traumatic for me, his only daughter and the eldest of four as we were particularly close, but I was thousands of miles away in Bangladesh at the time.
Yet when my father first shared his dreams for FCAB -that it would enable Bangladeshi-Americans to support Bangladesh’s development, starting with a clinic in his birth village of Bagdumur, I was not very encouraging. I warned that it would be impossible for an engineer not based in Bangladesh to run a clinic in a remote village there. I thought I knew it all – after all I had been working in Bangladesh for the last four years as General Counsel of the world’s largest NGO –so of course I knew better the difficulties of humanitarian work in Bangladesh! My dad didn’t respond but continued on his way, filing for 501 c 3 non-profit status, putting together a Michigan Executive Board, and preparing to register as a Bangladesh international non-governmental organization (INGO). But he never brought it up to me again so sadly I never heard his plans firsthand.
After he died I was left to piece together not only FCAB, but to try to make sense of this gut-wrenching loss which shattered my world. My mom had left everything of his as is, including the trash. In my search for meaning and attempt to get close to him, I literally went through his trash and his boxes of FCAB files which I learned later were found in his car’s trunk. In the garbage, I found his draft remarks meant for the Ann Arbor Bangladeshi-American community introducing FCAB (it is under Founder’s Notes at www.fcabd.org). It was a call to action to give back to their country of origin from their adopted country. While it did not replace talking to my dad about FCAB, this priceless find was my inspiration to serve him through helping realize his dream.
His files containing shards of broken windshield glass were as emotional, but more direct in outlining his plans for FCAB. I still refer to these founding documents as a guide to move forward and as life lessons from my father who is no longer around to pass them on.
Here are the top ten lessons thus far from my Bagdumur and FCAB experience:
- Process, process, process – routine and moving from 80/20 to 20/80
- Prioritize and pace locally sustainable initiatives
- The littlest things can have the biggest impact
- Statistics don’t matter as much as specifics
- Being a lawyer helps
- Respect people enough to instill and insist on accountability
- Use challenges and opportunities wisely to build capacity
- People first, then organization – pick partners carefully
- The buck stops with you – leading is following
- Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it
Starting an INGO in Bangladesh, the world’s development Mecca has taught me the importance of good governance. Despite our humble status as a start-up, my first lesson is that establishing the right processes and routinizing core functions from the beginning are key to long-term sustainability. Especially because my own commitment to FCAB is so personal, in order to grow it must have the right processes in place to protect against being a cult of personality.
Often organizations take ad hoc actions without an end vision. FCAB was originally structured to build bridges between the US and Bangladesh. Despite my reservations about my father’s plans for FCAB, he actually set it on firm footing by creating legal registrations in both the US and Bangladesh and initiating and meticulously recording financial and program processes which we are now building on. Institutional knowledge or organizational operations should never lie with one or two individuals, but a system must be put in place which directs the proper flow of information and work.
Our team discovered that another essential key to process was to transition from a reactive to a proactive organization. FCAB for much of its beginning has been reacting to opportunities and challenges with limited ability to plan ahead. While fortunately we have had many good opportunities to react and adapt to, we have not always given the necessary attention to our long-term needs. We are now mindfully trying to move from an 80/20 reactive/proactive stance to a 20/80 proactive focus by gradually shifting from 60/40, 50/50, 30/70 reactive positions to our ideal of 80% proactive strategic planning and 20% reacting to events. Our capacity should increase to meet our changing focus.
Our second lesson is that no matter the intervention, unless the village owns it, it won’t last. FCAB began by asking villagers, particularly women their concerns. Then we hired Dhaka University researchers with input from the University of Michigan to conduct a public health survey of each resident as a baseline from which to design programs and measure impact. The trick has been to balance villager’s current needs and abilities with FCAB’s desire to innovate quickly. Eventually those initiatives that villagers find useful and are willing and able to independently manage and fund will last because they have the ownership interest to continue them. Therefore, we try to prioritize and pace such locally sustainable projects.
The next lesson was that the simplest change can have large impact. One day an adolescent girl approached our Project Manager to request that we keep a daily newspaper at our center, explaining that men and boys could go to the tea shop or elsewhere to get their news whereas village women had few opportunities to know what was happening in the world. Now thanks to her suggestion, a dollar-fifty monthly investment is having a significant effect on Bagdumur’s women.
We also saw that statistics do not matter as much as specifics. Bangladesh has among the best socio-development indicators, particularly in maternal and child mortality, beating out its neighbors. Yet in our village less than 4 hours from the capital city, our survey found that 6 out of 7 lactating mothers last year gave birth without any skilled birth attendant leaving them and their child vulnerable to many risks.
I realized that being a lawyer actually helped me do development. A lawyer’s training in attention to detail, writing and communication skills were surprisingly useful to FCAB.
Another lesson that our team quickly grasped was that we had to respect the people we worked with enough to instill and insist on their accountability. Too often the ‘donor patronage’ culture encourages a patronizing attitude where ‘beneficiaries’ are not expected to be part of the development process other than as aid recipients with no expectation of their own accountability, often breaking down the accountability of the service organization itself. Since my father is now buried in Bagdumur according to his last wishes, I have no exit plan. We fully expect the villagers to play a vital role in their development and be accountable for their responsibilities. It is FCAB’s duty to practice and nurture such accountability. Many organizations operating a more typical client/patron model may find this difficult or ignore it altogether.
We recognized early on that it was best to use both challenges and opportunities to strengthen our organizational functioning. When there was a robbery in our clinic we were forced to engage more closely with the local government, including various agencies like police, health, water/sanitation, etc. This engagement helped increase our program capacity as well as resources by linking us with existing government initiatives. This public/private relation has been mutually beneficial for example by holding the community clinic next to our center accountable to the public as well as expanding our own services. We have used high-profile visits to build our team’s capacity, broaden our credibility as well as bring expertise through partnerships.
As we expand our programs or seek new funding we are careful about our partners. We look for results-oriented innovators who are more focused on serving people than branding their organizations.
Finally, my personal lessons are that the buck stops with me. As the daughter of Bagdumur, I am ultimately responsible no matter who our partners are or who messes up. While much emphasis is given to becoming great leaders, very little attention is paid on how to be good followers. But it is the following – the listening and responding that truly determines success.
And most importantly – be careful what you ask for, as you may just get it so be prepared. Ever since I can remember I have prayed for the opportunity to serve and contribute to Bangladesh. I just never imagined that it would be like this and that my father had known better all along, giving me the chance to fulfill both our dreams.