Thunderbird and the American Express Leadership Academy: Teaching leadership, one NGO at a time

People fist-bump over a table filled with laptops

Every year, the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University and American Express host the American Express Leadership Academy. The academy takes emerging leaders from nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations and helps them become more effective leaders, allowing them not only to have an increased impact on their organization, but also to teach others how to be more effective leaders.

Launched in 2009, the academy has now served more than 296 managers from nearly 100 organizations. The five-day program provides practical opportunities to learn and build personal leadership skills while also building the organizational capacity of their organizations. 

“One of the philanthropic goals of American Express is to focus on the development of social-sector leaders,” said Thunderbird Professor Mary Teagarden, the academy’s academic director. “These participants are on their way to positions of senior leadership.”

Last year, 30 program participants came from 10 different nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations and represented seven countries or territories: Congo, Israel, Palestinian territories, Rwanda, Switzerland, Uganda and the United States.

Two of these organizations whose missions are to help underserved and marginalized populations are spotlighted below: Days for Girls, who works to increase access to menstrual care and education in emerging markets, and Oxfam International, a global confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty.

Days for Girls International

In 2008, Celeste Mergens was working with a family foundation on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, where she was assisting an orphanage. In the wake of postelection violence, the population at the orphanage had more than tripled, growing from 400 children to 1,400 children.

As she was preparing to return to Nairobi, Celeste went to bed with a question on her mind: “What were all the girls doing for feminine hygiene?” So, she sent an email to the assistant director of the orphanage.

His reply: “Nothing. They wait in their rooms until it’s over.”  

Recently, Days for Girls shared news of the heartbreaking death of a Nepali woman and her two sons, who died from apparent smoke inhalation while participating in the practice of chhaupadi — a tradition in western Nepal that leaves women and girls isolated in cattle sheds or small huts during menstruation. 

Days for Girls aims to prevent such tragedies. Their Kalikot project, started in 2017, works to shift the narrative around menstruation in Nepal from one of shame to one of celebration. The locally led team works to empower women and girls through distribution of Days for Girls kits and health education, while also working to shatter stigmas around menstruation by leading community conversations to tackle these harmful taboos.

Now in its 11th year (its 10th anniversary was Nov. 1, 2018), Days for Girls’ mission is to increase access to menstrual care and education for women and girls across the world. They develop global partnerships, cultivate social enterprises and enlist volunteers to create, according to their website, “a world with dignity, health, and opportunity for all.” 

With operations in the U.S., Uganda, Nepal, Lebanon, Philippine Islands, India and several areas in Latin America, Days for Girls employs two business models to manufacture and distribute reusable menstrual kits to women and girls: volunteer groups that make and distribute free kits and enterprise partners that manufacture and create kits for sale with the goal of returning a profit to the enterprise partner.

As with many global organizations, generalized support from headquarters to the regional areas can be difficult. Significant communications challenges occur because many of their volunteers and enterprise partners are located in rural areas of developing countries. With more than 1,000 volunteer chapters and teams in 113 countries and 105 enterprise operations in 14 countries, this isn’t unexpected.

Under pressure

Libby Daghlian, global enterprise program director for Days for Girls International, said the primary challenge was figuring how to grow the enterprise model in a way that maintains quality and also reaches the internal growth targets Days for Girls has.

“As we’ve been increasing our scale, we’ve discovered pressure points on how to support the enterprise partners once they’re certified,” Daghlian said. “What does that look like? Since (enterprise partners) operate similar to a franchise, we needed to look at what we were offering at the beginning and on a continuing basis.”

Prior to attending the American Express Leadership Academy, Days for Girls’ outreach was centered mostly on registration and certification of enterprise partners.

“We spent a lot of effort on training and coaching enterprise partners to get through certification (but) we just didn’t have much ongoing support for them afterward,” Daghlian said. “We looked to our time at the American Express Leadership Academy as a way to devise a strategy to address this.”

Along with Diana Nampeera, Days for Girls’ country director for Uganda, and Sarah Webb, global enterprise programs director (and who has since left Days for Girls), Daghlian arrived at Thunderbird’s original campus in Glendale, Arizona, not quite knowing what to expect.

“Our plan was to design a process where we could create and maintain an ongoing support structure for our hybrid business model, where we could help the volunteer groups serve women in immediate need while, at the same time, supporting our enterprise partners’ desire to run a business.”

They found the academy allowed them to not only accomplish that, but also come up with a plan to create a culture of communication to serve both sides of their hybrid model.

Location is everything

Days for Girls deals with two support structures for models that can overlap and, sometimes, conflict with each other. The volunteer chapters and teams make one-time donations of kits to women and girls in high-need situations such as refugee camps. 

Enterprise partners make and sell kits on an ongoing basis in any of the areas they’re located. The challenge has been balancing the desires of volunteers to help and the goals of the enterprise partners to create and maintain a business.

The volunteer model works well for refugee and emergency situations, where a for-profit model makes little sense. Nevertheless, there have been times volunteer groups have distributed kits to local populations, cutting into the activities of the local enterprise partner. This usually comes not as any ill-intended action, but more often from roadblocks in communications.

“Our volunteers and enterprise partners use a variety of communication methods,” Daghlian said. “One woman in Uganda connects via WhatsApp, while an enterprise in South Africa uses a high-speed, dedicated internet connection. That can create a challenge itself in communication logistics, which can affect how we support our people in the field.”

Why reinvent the wheel?

Daghlian said it was invaluable to connect with coaches who had experience, who understood business and what they were trying to accomplish. She and her colleagues knew something like this would benefit Days for Girls. 

“As an organization, we’d been so focused on registration and training for the enterprise partner certifications we overlooked the ongoing support,” she said. “Our coaching experience from Thunderbird was so positive that we took the idea and incorporated it into our process.

“Days for Girls has always had a strong element of the human touch. In fact, chapter leaders can call Celeste (Mergens, the founder) directly. But over the past couple of years, we’ve been moving away from that as the organization has grown. We realize now that we need to get back to this if we’re going continue to succeed.”

So, how has it panned out?

Daghlian’s team put together a plan to pull in funding to hire full-time staff dedicated to coaching the enterprise partners. The three enterprise coordinators, as they’re known, work in the country they oversee.

“Their sole purpose is to conduct site visits and make the phone calls. They collect monthly reports and act as the liaison between the enterprises and Days for Girls,” Daghlian said. “We’re already seeing more engagement and better sales results. The ROI of sending me and my team members to Arizona for a week is already being seen.”

“Being in the same room as organizations with similar challenges or which had already overcome such challenges isn’t anything we would have gotten at a big conference. It’s been totally worth it.”

How worth it?

“Our improved communications helped us coordinate and reach our 10th-anniversary goal of giving out 100,000 kits between Oct. 11 (International Day of the Girl) and our Nov. 1 anniversary. The American Express Leadership Academy was instrumental in helping us make that happen.”

Oxfam International

While Days for Girls seeks to empower teens and adolescent girls, Oxfam International’s project seeks to assist the other end of the age spectrum by helping women learn to invest money to bring a return on the investment, something that local savings clubs do not offer. 

Ismail Abu Arafeh and two of his teammates, Mohammed Sawafta and Pierre-Olivier Laforge, came to the American Express Leadership Academy to improve, vet and validate their project for Oxfam.

The Women’s Investment Cooperative is designed to teach women about investing, including topics like investing strategies, investment evaluation and selection and evaluating performance and ROI.

“Traditionally, women in Palestine have been in charge of savings for the family through what is commonly called a Village Savings and Lending Fund (VSLF),” said Ismail Abu Arafeh, economic justice program manager for Oxfam International in Jerusalem. “These funds are a safe way for local lending needs, which have no-to-very-low interest earned on savings.”

Oxfam’s initiative is to take the concept of pooled savings and teach about investing in order to bring a higher rate of return.

“The cooperative holds onto the money and makes collective investment decisions; they maintain total control of how the money works for them. This is a very new idea for the region, so the majority of our pilot program is to create a system that runs the entire spectrum of investment education, from what investments are, all the way through understanding management fees and return on investment.”

What goes up, might go down

One of the biggest challenges ahead, Abu Arafeh says, will be educating participants that their investments can lose money.

“This will require a shift in the participants’ mindset, since investing is obviously only for those who have the ability to tolerate risk,” Abu Arafeh said. “Because the VSLFs have no risk, this is a new concept.”

To help overcome the initial fear of losing their investment in a new program, Oxfam has entered into loan guarantees to offset losses for a set period of time. Once the program has been running for a while and they are confident the groups understand everything, Abu Arafeh says the guarantees will be rolled back.

“We will work to mitigate the risks as much as possible and help them make informed (investment) decisions,” he said. “At some point, we’ll phase out the support. Our goal is to see the Women’s Investment Cooperatives become completely independent of Oxfam or any other subsidy.”

So how has the American Express Leadership Academy contributed to their project?

“One of the great things about the American Express Leadership Academy is the ability to get an unbiased review of your project. The different layers of scrutiny were good for validating the idea and encouraged us to move forward with the plan.”

Abu Arafeh says that participation has been beyond expectations so early in the program.

“So far, there are 153 women across 11 of the region’s VSLFs who have invested $45,000 into the program. These investment cooperatives just received approval from the Ministry of Labor, so the next step is for the cooperatives to open a bank account.”

At that point, he says, the funds from the 11 clubs will be combined into a single fund and the Women’s Investment Cooperatives can begin investing. But the American Express Academy has benefitted Abu Arafeh more than just at the project level.

This time, it’s personal

“The week we spent in the program was invaluable not only for the assistance with the investment project, but also with my own leadership style. It may not seem like a lot of time, but the five days spent there made a huge difference,” he said.

“A big change was how I give and receive feedback. Prior to the program, I had no structured way to get feedback. One of the things I learned at the academy was that management is a process, and that I need to relate feedback in a constructive way in order to have a two-way dialogue.”

“Now I give immediate feedback, which is something I didn’t do before. My experience at the leadership academy fundamentally changed how I manage and lead my team.”

The academy also contributed in another way, he said.

“Coaching is another area in which the academy helped me. I am much more aware of how I interact with employees. Before the program, my ‘coaching’ was just giving people answers,” he said. “Now, I am more inclined to ask questions about the situation, even if I know the answer. I try to coach them to arrive at the answer on their own. I still have to work on this, but I’m so much better than I used to be.”

So, what does he think of the program?

“The American Express Leadership Academy wasn’t just career-changing for me, but was a life-changing experience. And to think this was all from a weeklong program is amazing to me. It’s not just business, but it applies across my everyday life,” he said.

How so?

“My sister called the other day asking for some information, and my immediate inclination was to give her the answer, but decided to apply the coaching process I learned,” he said. “After a few minutes of questions and conversation, she came up with a solution on her own. The process worked so well, in fact, that she ended the call saying, ‘Honestly, I don’t need you’ and hung up.”

If you know of a nonprofit organization that could benefit from the American Express Leadership Academy, contact Debisu Hyde, key account director, at

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