Fifty Lessons Learned from a Decade of Service in International Development

New York, N.Y.  I recently had the honor of addressing the Fellows of the New York City New Leaders Council (NLC) as part of their 2010 Institute. Other presenters included Jeffrey Plaut, founding partner of the Global Strategies Group, Elizabeth Caputo, chair of theDemocratic Leadership for the 21st Century, and Stephanie Berger, president of Berger-Hirschberg Strategies in Washington. My own topic was “Lessons in Non-Profit Management and International Development.”

The purpose of the symposium was to train and support the next generation of progressive political entrepreneurs. Mark Green‘s former campaign staffer Keith Dumanski had recommended me to the New York Director of the NLC, Daniel Getman, and here I was: ready to give life lessons.

Conferring with Togolese government officials two hours north of Lome in a small village.

An awkward thought crossed my mind the morning of the presentation. Who was I to give advice? I was still learning. My mentors were Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Guyana’s former presidentCheddi Jagan, and an activist and inspiration to me known as Betty Millard. My own parents, Stan Luce and Fran Alleman-Luce, had played a large role in who I had become. But then I realized why I was speaking. They are all sadly gone now.

Is this how people get old, I wondered to myself? They watch their mentors fade away? I had left Wall Street the first time at the age of 24 — to battle religious extremism, with the support of Phil Donahue. I co-founded Fundamentalists Anonymous and we were generously supported by Hank Luce, who chaired our Executive Committee. I know first-hand that young people can impact society. At 30, I was asked by Hank Luce to run against Alphonse D’Amato in the Republican Primary, to spend him down. Political mastermind Hank Sheinkopf came on board to strategize. After two years, D’Amato was tragically re-elected and I returned to Wall Street.

But I did not like the world of finance. Adopting my own son in Indonesia in 1996 led to the founding of Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW), and then to writing for the New York Timesand BBC. This led to writing about Thought Leaders and Global Citizens for The Huffington Post andDaily Kos, which in turn led to the creation of the Jim Luce Stewardship Report. 350 stories later, at the age of fifty, I guess I am now in a position to pass on what I have learned along the way.

My assignment had been to deliver information in the most illustrative way possible. I was told the NLC Fellows were hungry for practical information that they can put to immediate use. Their Curriculum Committee chair asked that I put my lessons within a “real world” context. “Share your lessons learned, memorable experiences, and your quest for additional knowledge, opportunities, and experiences, all of which will serve to better connect you to the Fellows and enhance your ability to get your information through,” he advised me.

With his words, “Don’t be afraid to be provocative and tell it like it is,” I drafted Fifty Lessons Learned From a Decade of Service in International Development. Here is what I told them:

1. Have a Passion. I founded Orphans International Worldwide after meeting my son in a destitute orphanage in Indonesia when he was only ten months old. He is now 16 years old. My son gave me the passion to build a network of orphan care around the world.
2. Have a Plan. From 1997 to 1999, I wrote the organization’s Initial Report. I had had a good idea that was now on paper — the first step. You will be required at every turn in your leadership to have a business plan.

3. Don’t Rebuild the Wheel. There are groups for everything. Do you need to start a new group, or can you connect and contribute to an existing non-governmental organization (NGO)?

4. Have a Day Job. I had begun when working in finance. In fact, I left the World Financial Center two weeks before 9/11. Bottom line: you must be able to pay your rent at all times.

5. Two Models. There are two models of saving the world: NGOs that are jobs, and NGOs that are missions. They are very different. Chose carefully which world you wish to live in.

6. Have Funding. When my mother passed away, she left my portion of her estate to help children. Your own funds will soon evaporate and you must then have some other source of funding. You will need to eat.

7. Have a Budget. When an NGO has no assets, budgets seem to be nonsense but are necessary nonetheless. They do not guarantee funding, as you cannot guarantee how much you can beg in a given year. But at least budgets give you funding targets to aim for.

8. Have Connections. I began in Indonesia, Haiti, and Guyana because I was well-connected in those nations. Connections really matter.

9. Have a Speech. I joined Toastmasters International and learned how to give my stump speech. In the corporate world they have the Elevator Speech. My stump speech today is almost identical to my original. Toastmasters works.

10. Have Marketing. I came up with two themes over a decade ago that we still use daily: “Raising Global Citizens” and “International, Interracial, Interdenominational, Intergenerational, and Internet-connected.” The reason we use these tag lines is because they are effective.

11. Have a Website. Without a website, you do not exist. Without a good website, you have no presence. Our OIWW site is being re-worked as we speak. My new Stewardship Reportwould have cost over $75,000 if I had paid real money. You need to beg or borrow to put up the best site possible.

12. Pay Out of Pocket. Donors hate administrative costs. Be prepared to pay for them yourself — or build a Board to cover your group’s admin. You can then brag that every dollar raised goes to your programming. That is what donors want.

13. Have Good Judgment. When you fly into a new country, you need to assemble a board and staff in days. You must be able to identify people with character, speaking a different language, in a matter of hours. You have to understand people — who they are and what they expect.

14. Have Trust. You must trust these people with your money and oftentimes, with your own life. I have almost died several times in Haiti alone. But Haitians protected me each time. I estimate 51% of the world is trustworthy.

15. Have No Trust. People have their own needs which will trump your needs almost every time. You will get cheated time and time again. I estimate 49% of people will cheat you. Know this.

16. Build a Team. Begin to put out your message. Building your core is a numbers game, like dating. My old church used to say if you “Stand by the piano and explain your mission, people will join you.” But no one did. Did I have the wrong mission? No, I concluded, I had the wrong church.

17. Build a Good, Small Board. You do not need a big board. Start with three people. Board members must be committed and pay to be there. If they don’t, get rid of them. Never be the nice guy on the board. Bad board members are like cancer — they will slowly kill you. Cut them out.

18. Pay to Play. You need people to attract people, but you need to transition these people to solid contributors. If they don’t pay, don’t let them play. Just forget them. Walk away.

19. Use Social Media. Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin are where it’s at. These connections are not your true friends, they are your “Facebook friends.” They will not help you pay your rent. They might not even contribute. But from them will emerge your most trusted inner circle.

20. Accept Losing People. Be prepared to lose team members — constantly. Keep building. People change. People hold you up as Perfect and are easily disappointed. Don’t let them get you down. You will move forward faster than you move backwards.

21. Accept Getting Had. You will get cheated, repeatedly, by locals in the field and people here at home. Guard against it, but do not be paranoid. Plan to lose one-third of the time, but win two-thirds of time. Don’t let people around you think that your being nice means being weak.

22. “Mathew’s Rule.” Create a program you believe in. For my orphans, we treat each kid as our own. My own son is named Mathew. Is this bed clean enough for Matt? Is this food nutritious enough? Is this school advanced enough? If your program is not real, it will not succeed. Keep it real.

23. Give Up on Countering Gossip. The more you try to counter gossip, the more it continues. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not have a trust fund. I have explained this for ten years. Every week someone new tries to post on Wikipedia that I do. But the more you dispute nonsense, the more play it gets. Forget about it.

24. Do Not Overpromise. Funders want you to promise the world, pay 10% of what it should cost — and then get angry when you cannot deliver. Always be cautious and never exaggerate.

25. Prepare for Nothing. People will promise you the world, then deliver nothing. Again and again, and again. It’s a numbers game. If you want one thing, be prepared to ask one hundred people to get it.

26. Be In It for the Long Haul. You will be cheated, lied to, betrayed in the field and at home. By board members — even your best friends. Deal with it. When hateful people pledge to destroy you, tell them to go for it. Trust me, you will survive.

27. Encourage Nepotism Overseas. In the field, once you identify one honest person, the chances are greater that his or her family members are also honest. Or that the original staffer can keep them in line for their own job security. Overseas, families are everything.

28. Do Not Take Personally. In churches, many ministers are trained how to handle Transference. Leaders take hits no matter what. It’s not you, but your position. Keep a distance from it all. Try to build up an inner circle to protect you from such negativity.

29. Take It Personally. No one will want to be involved if they do not feel a personal relationship with you. Be careful to thank individuals — you will always miss someone. And when you do, they will take it very personally — and you then lose points. You must be a friend to all.

30. Life in a Bubble. Forget having a personal life. From the day you commit to leadership, you need every e-mail, every Twitter, every Facebook posting to hold up to New York Timesscrutiny. Be prepared for the world to know everything about you. If privacy is a problem, don’t be a leader.

31. Professional Services. You must have funding to pay for professional fees: accountants, webmaster, lawyers. Everyone tells you to get pro bono services, but this only works half of the time. You need help all of the time. Never wait. Find cheap back-up to pro bono and when you need it, use it.

32. Write, Write, Write. Began to put out a monthly e-newsletter. Then began to write forThe Huffington PostDaily Kos, Daily Beast – even The New York Times. Or write on Connecting Goodness for my new portal, The Jim Luce Stewardship Report. Writing makes you focus.

33. Create Boilerplate. Thank-you letters, grant proposals, how to volunteer — you will use the same e-mail messages endlessly. You must have organized computer files. Back them up carefully.

34. Use Both E-mail and Telephone. Share anything positive through e-mail. You want e-mail conversations as you can share them with your team to delegate tasks. However, if the message is negative, only use the telephone. Nothing goes viral like a negative e-mail.

35. Create Your Database. MS Outlook is not enough. You must have a solid database. You have to be able to send out personalized letters to thousands with the touch of a button. You can also use inexpensive automated telephone calling, but selectively. Capture everything in the best database you can afford.

36. Deal with Ups and Downs. When the Tsunami hit, money poured to my organization in waves. Then it dried up. Nothing is permanent. Build while you can, but prepared to stop building for the moment when necessary.

37. Options, Options, Options. The world is in flux. Always have three options and be able to maneuver around roadblocks and back-up when you hit the wall. You will hit the wall. Endlessly. Deal with it.

38. Have Back-up Funds. Be prepared to cash it all in — your savings, your 401-k — to keep your organization or movement afloat. You will have created an investment which must be protected at all costs. Once you begin, you must be prepared to go for broke.

39. Room & Board. If you want money, stay on Wall Street. If you want to change the world, agree to accept room and board. Progressive political entrepreneurs must know: This is not a Job, but a Life. Anybody can have a Job, but only a few have a Life.

40. Accept Staff Turn-Over. The U.N. and big NGO’s pay ten times what my organization pays in the field as a local NGO. We pay on average a living wage of $400 per month overseas. However, after one year — with this “international experience” — staff leave for $4,000 a month salaries from the big players. This is a reflection of the global economy, not your leadership.

41. Be Willing to Change Mission. Orphans International Worldwide began with a “Full Care” model which I found over time to be unsustainable and counterproductive. I grasped that a “Family Care” model was more appropriate and more economical. Others could not grasp this at the time. Be prepared to use strong leadership to change direction against total resistance.

42. “Jim’s Rule.” The opposite of the children’s book, The Giving Tree, do not allow yourself to become a stump. Only give of your fruits as you are able. With your branches, you can help others — offering shade and a place to climb. But as a stump you have no value to anyone.

43. Forget “Jim’s Rule.” To succeed, you must be a multitasking workaholic with little outside life. I have not had a real vacation in five years. You have your finger in the proverbial dike. If you stop, all you have built will collapse. Keep going at all costs.

44. Personal Relationships. This is all about human relationships. Researching the perfect foundation and drafting the perfect proposal means nothing if you were not asked by the person responsible for grants over lunch to submit it. The Ivy Leagues give you a great network. Without it, however, you can still build your own. It takes much longer, but it is possible. Relationships are everything.

45. Don’t be the Ugly American. Learn the local languages. Eat the local food. Deal with diarrhea. Nothing is more insulting then to live with locals while ignoring their food, sanitizing your hands, and covering yourself with mosquito netting. You must adapt. Or stay home.

46. Collaborate. Be prepared to work with other NGOs in partnership. Be prepared for them to have their separate agendas and realize that everything is temporary. But you cannot save the world by yourself. Collaboration is essential.

47. Don’t Collaborate with Extremists. A few international development agencies have their own agenda: converting non-Christian children to Christ, etc. Avoid these groups like the plague. They are.

48. Prepare for Negativity. As you rise to top, you will become a target. In Japan they say, The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. If you are ineffective, you will be ignored. If you succeed, you will make not only friends, but also enemies. Deal. No one kicks a dead dog.

49. Retirement. If you need to retire, be sure you can survive on your Social Security — if it still exists when you retire. If you avoid the big NGOs, you will have no savings from a life in international development. So plan on serving until death.

50. Life Satisfaction. You may have watched your grandparents or your parents pass away. Your day, believe it or not, will be here sooner than you ever expect. Live your life the way you want to. If you want to better humanity, do so. You may receive nothing more than knowing you changed the lives of countless people as you lay in your last days. But that knowledge will warm your soul.


I am sure these fifty life lessons were more than my audience could absorb in the hour I presented them. It has taken me fifty years to absorb them myself. And I continue to learn more about others and myself every day.

However, I think I did manage to connect with the Fellows of the New York City New Leaders Council. The conversations I had with them one-on-one afterwards were exhilarating. These young people reflect the best American society has to offer the world. They are the next generation of progressive political entrepreneurs. Each and every one of them is a thought leader and global citizen. We owe an enormous gratitude to the New Leaders Council for identifying them.

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