Alumni Spotlight: John Uniack Davis, Helen Keller International

Posted in News Story Spotlight

John Uniack Davis currently works as the West Africa Regional Director for Helen Keller International. During his career in international development, he has worked with CARE, the US State Department, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Davis about his current work with Helen Keller International and his experience in the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Davis: I grew up in New England and when I went to college, I didn’t have much experience of the broader world. I was very interested in international issues like politics, economics, and anthropology, particularly in the developing world as an undergraduate student. However, I didn’t have much first-hand experience. When I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corps and went as a volunteer to Burkina Faso in West Africa where I taught in a secondary school for two years. It was really a transformative experience in terms of understanding the issues of the broader world and becoming sensitive to issues of cultural diversity. I would say that at 22 years old, joining the Peace Corps was an experience that affected the direction of my life.

After that, I spent a very long time in graduate school. I did a Ph.D. in African Politics and Development Administration at Michigan State University. When I was in that program, becoming a consultant, researcher, working in development, and academia were all open avenues and real possibilities for me. I also met my wife, who is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, in graduate school. Together we reconciled our respective opportunities. With all of that experience, I chose to be in this particular field working mostly in developing countries and I have been overseas for the last 23 years.

CPNL: You currently work as the West Africa regional director for Helen Keller International, and you have worked with several international organizations throughout your career. Helen Keller International focuses on the importance of partnerships between local governments, the nonprofit sector, and the private sector. How do you facilitate these partnerships and why are they necessary for international development?

Davis: I think that historically, international development was often quite top down and focused as much on the ulterior motives of the donor or the international organization as the needs of recipients of the assistance. Over the years, and depending on the organization, there have been a range of approaches to partnership, but I think it has become more clear than ever that you can’t just include civil society organizations and local governments superficially during the course of a development program. They have to be involved in generating the priorities and participating in the very design of the program. So I would say it was never a good idea to be ignorant of the local context and partners, but now, more than ever, it is absolutely essential to have local buy-in. The more you include local partners, the better and more effective the programs will be.

CPNL: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the nonprofit sector significantly. Have there been any projects or initiatives Helen Keller International has begun to combat COVID-19 in West Africa?

Davis: We are currently at the table trying to play a role in global vaccine equity and using our public health expertise to ensure a successful vaccine rollout in the countries where we work. At this time, it is more about cooperation and collaboration to be at the table and influence policy and rollout than it is about actual funding. But I would also say that COVID impacts everything we do. A big part of our work is mass campaigns, for example for vitamin A supplementation which is absolutely essential to cognitive development in young children and immune system strengthening. So that’s a unique situation. There is a pandemic that puts people at risk, but you have programs that reduce the vulnerability of populations by building their immune systems, so it is important that programs be implemented in spite of the challenge of the COVID context. We have similar programs that work with the public health sector to combat morbidity due to neglected tropical diseases such as blinding trachoma and lymphatic filariasis, as well as prevention programs through mass drug administration. The big challenge is continuing to administer these life-saving drugs and continuing to improve the quality of life of these populations to build potential in communities and we don’t want that to stop during COVID.

A central part of my role has been ensuring that we can continue our work while following COVID protocols. We implemented a rigorous system of COVID protocols that are intended not to be bureaucratic, but to help us get to the answer ‘yes’ – What is the minimum standard in terms of COVID prevention and mitigation that can allow us to implement these important and life-transforming programs.

CPNL: How would you compare/contrast the organization’s COVID-19 work with its work on Neglected Tropical Diseases in West Africa?

Davis: In my career, I have worked in both humanitarian response and in development. I worked on cyclones in Madagascar. I worked on the Syrian refugee crisis as the country director of CARE in Southern Turkey for the cross-border response into Syria. An interesting thing as a development manager is how you vary your management style according to the specific challenge or context. A humanitarian context managerial style often needs to be more directive than in a development context. When you are looking at duty of care, protecting staff, program participants, and stakeholders, decisionmaking cannot always be consensus-based . There is a minimum standard that you have to follow that is not negotiable. Whereas in development, a lot of the work is centered around the process and having a consensual and collaborative process.

In an organization like Helen Keller, we work in many challenging countries with conflict and terrorism, for example, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, etc. We work in these challenging contexts, often at the margins of humanitarian response. We are usually implementing development programs and finding ways to carry out these essential life changing programs in a difficult environment.

COVID essentially transformed all 19 countries in which we have field programming into humanitarian response contexts, at least at times, in terms of how we have had to manage and ensure Duty of Care. This was a really challenging thing for our staff and country directors. They would often say “I don’t understand, the donor has already approved my work plan. Why do I have to reapply to get approval?” The additional need for review was 1) due to the dramatic change in the whole context of our programming and 2) if we implemented it the way it was originally designed, we aren’t ensuring that we meet the necessary standard of Duty of Care and protection of our staff that is currently required. So COVID has created a de facto humanitarian context in our development programs.

We aren’t doing direct COVID programming right now, but the similarity of COVID programming with the prevention and treatment of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) is important to acknowledge. Both with COVID and NTDs, our programs can’t rely solely on social and behavioral change, but these programs also cannot be successful without social and behavioral change and effective communication. For example, with the disease schistosomiasis, changing behaviors impact exposure of individuals to contaminated water sources. Similarly with COVID, whether it is in the US or in Burkina Faso, you have to address widely varying understandings of the threat. You have to be sensitive and meet people where they are and communicate in a way they can understand to help them reduce their own risk. That’s the short answer, but I think there is a lot more there.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Davis: I would say there have been a couple of challenges. I talked about adapting how we manage to the context, the difference between the development and humanitarian context and how that must be clear from the start. I would say that both in how we manage in general and how we manage specifically human resources, a lesson I have learned is to avoid one-size-fits-all management. There are many problems that are similar, and you can bring similar approaches and tools together. However, every decision is somewhat distinct, and you have to respect the challenge while bringing to bear the experiences and resources that you have. It is difficult to recognize the unique wrinkles or aspects of certain challenges. I would say it is similar in human resources where the biggest mistake I made as a young people manager with multiple direct reports was using that one-size-fits-all approach to managing my team. You need to manage with emotional intelligence and understand where people need to be and where they are coming from. Adapting your management style is crucial given the particularities and needs of direct reports. I would say that was an early challenge that I keep in mind.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Davis: I did the program nine years ago. I had been country director for CARE in Madagascar for several years at that point and I was thinking about what my next career step would be. I didn’t want to be stale in how I led and managed, or stale going into the job market. Those were all reasons I chose to do the program –  I wanted to take that mid-career opportunity to reflect on myself as a leader and a development manager. So I researched a variety of programs and I really appreciated the focus on the nonprofit sector and the broad array of US-specific participants, international participants, advocacy organizations, implementation organizations, environmental organizations, volunteer organizations, you name it. I appreciated that diversity. I would say that the commonality of service orientation but diversity in the type of organizations contributed to thinking creatively. I talked about varying your management style. Hearing someone from Greenpeace talk about their managerial challenges, or someone from a volunteer-based organization made me think about what I was going through. It was a great balance of hitting big strategic issues facing the sector and how the sector is evolving, but also deep dives into concrete issues like fundraising, philanthropy, human resources and financial management. I came into the sector from a practical and academic background, but I had never been trained in nonprofit management. So it was great, after never having been formally trained in nonprofit management but with a lot of practical experience, to take the opportunity to grapple with these issues in a formal training session.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals considering participating in the Program?

Davis:  In academia and other fields, there are opportunities to step back and reflect and gain new knowledge, through sabbaticals, for example. In the nonprofit sector, we have to be stewards of donor funding and of relatively-scarce resources, so we rarely have the resources to do formal sabbaticals of any significant length. But as a professional, it can be fulfilling to step back and immerse yourself in a balance of intellectual and practical discourse. That kind of reflection and learning with other accomplished professionals will have a great positive impact on your energy and expertise when you return to your job.