CEO interview: Girish Menon on leading with feminist principles

Sometimes when a charity appoints a new chief executive, board members or senior colleagues may fear their new recruit lacks experience or knowledge of the cause to which the organisation is dedicated. This cannot possibly have been the case when ActionAid appointed Girish Menon as its CEO in 2015. By then, Menon already had 30 years’ experience working for a range of development and humanitarian organisations in the UK and India. During his first four years in charge at ActionAid he has put that experience into
practice, leading a strategic reset of the charity’s finances, operations, identity and culture.

Menon is modest about his own capabilities, preferring to talk or write about inspirational charity leaders he has worked with and learned from. But his abilities have been lauded many times; and in 2019, Charity Times readers named him among the 25 most influential leaders in the sector.

He grew up in Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, northern India. His own family lived in modest but relatively comfortable circumstances, but he walked through one of the largest slums in the city each day on his way to school; and people from the slum regularly came into his own neighbourhood to beg for food. “It was constantly at the top of my mind,” he says. “When you see this kind poverty, you feel privileged: you at least have enough food, access to education and basic comforts.”

His secondary school was run by Jesuits, who provided a good education and encouraged students to fundraise for good causes, such as the victims of flooding, or refugees from the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. But when he left school he was not planning to work for a charity. After taking a degree in accountancy at his home city’s university, then studying at the Institute of Rural Management in Anand (IRMA), he found a job in marketing.

A different path

Later, in 1985, a trip to visit a friend – a fellow former IRMA student – set him on a completely different path. The friend took Menon to see some of the projects he was working on with an NGO, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, in a remote, hilly part of Gujurat.

“The work he was doing was all about securing food and income and protecting the land,” says Menon. “It suddenly struck me that what he was doing was changing lives. This was much more useful than just selling something.” He wrote to the CEO of the organisation, Anil Shah, offering his services. “And since then I have never turned back,” he explains.

A 2017 blog entry from Menon describes lessons learned from Shah, who insisted on actually speaking to local people, particularly women, in communities the programme was trying to serve, to find out whether the charity’s work was actually helping them; and who taught Menon that ‘learning never ends’.

Reaching the unreached

In 1988, Menon moved to Kerala in southern India and began working for ActionAid. He was immediately seconded to work for a partner organisation, Reaching the Unreached, which had been founded during the 1970s by Brother James Kimpton, a British monk who dedicated most of his life to helping some of the most marginalised people in India and was another important influence on Menon.

In 1992, he returned to ActionAid as a programme manager in northern India, establishing a regional office for the charity in Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh. Menon worked with people who were outside the caste system, including indigenous communities, helping to protect their rights to the land where they lived.

After setting up a social enterprise in Bangalore with ActionAid, which sold products made by tribal producers to consumers in major Indian cities, Menon moved to Plan International, where for four years his work focused on children’s rights. He then moved again, to work for the UK’s Department for International Development, supporting schools in India.

Gaining new experiences

In 2005, he made a life-changing move, taking a job at WaterAid in London. He would stay there for 10 years, becoming its director of international operations, then, from 2012, its deputy CEO, under Barbara Frost – another Menon blog entry lists 11 leadership principles learned from her, touching on the importance of communication, inside and outside a charity, in particular.

Armed with experience, in 2015, Menon applied to become a chief executive for the first time, for ActionAid UK. It was an inauspicious year for the sector, rocked by governance and fundraising scandals. It was also a year when DfiD changed the way it allocated funding for some of the work ActionAid UK does, making it necessary for the charity to reduce its annual costs from £20 million to £16 million. This has been achieved, in part through reducing use of office space, letting some property and some streamlining of the workforce.

Four years on, Menon says the charity is now financially sustainable. “I don’t think we need to pull out more costs, but we can’t be complacent at a time when the costs of fundraising are going up and with projections for the economy being what they are,” he says.

Changing the world with women and girls

Other strategic work completed over the past four years has aimed to define more clearly the identity of the organisation. Menon says it has become clear that much of the charity’s work focuses on improving the economic and social conditions in which women live. ActionAid’s mission-defining motto is now ‘changing the world with women and girls’; and its primary areas of focus are stopping violence against women and girls’; women’s economic empowerment; and the rights of women and girls during humanitarian crises. Focusing on these three areas involves campaigning and advocacy related to issues including women’s sexual and reproductive health, their human rights and political representation.

In November 2019, the charity published its own general election manifesto, setting out policies it would like politicians to adopt in order to improve the lives of women and girls all over the world. This includes calling on the UK government to continue to commit 0.7% of national income to international aid.

The charity also highlights the impacts of environmental, social and economic problems related to the climate emergency. Menon suggests that one aspect of the climate emergency sometimes overlooked is the impact it has on women in developing countries: “They walk further to collect firewood and water, they are worst affected when there is conflict; sometimes that triggers migration, leaving women and girls behind.”

Feminist principles

ActionAid has also sought to change its organisational culture, in part by implementing feminist principles. “Even before my time, people had started talking about feminist principles, such as empathy,” says Menon. He thinks there is something about British culture that makes this difficult: “a sense of professional and personal space” on which one does not usually encroach. “But I have found that when I start to share things about myself, the other person does the same thing.” He suggests that friendlier working relationships help individuals to understand each other a little bit better.

“This feminist principle of bringing your whole life to work and having that understanding of what someone is going through helps,” he says.

This principle is followed during the senior leadership meetings that take place twice a month, with the first 15 minutes of each meeting set aside for attendees to talk about whatever they like, provided it is not an agenda item. Sometimes they talk about their children, another family member, or about what they have been doing in their garden.

His own life outside work is very much family-oriented. He lives in south-west London with his wife and one of his twin sons; they are both now 23 and the other son is living and working in Bristol. The family also visit India once or twice a year to see relatives.

Family time is very, very important to him. “I try to call it a day at the end of the day,” he says – another useful principle for anyone aiming to fill the rewarding but exhausting role of a charity CEO. ■

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