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What aid organisations can learn from Pope Francis

“We value people….yes just now our own” tells me an aid worker as a half joke. We all see it: aid agencies have a business to run, and “staff care” is at best a policy. Unless you happen to land under the care of an extraordinary manager, there’s little “looking after each other” embedded in the humanitarian culture. There’s security, but that’s another thing. Placed in emotionally taxing environments, aid workers know too well that much of the stress that weights on them comes from within agencies: the rules, the redtape, the lack of space for healthy dissent — in other words, “the bullshit”, as a veteran aid worker called it in a recent conversation.

We talk the language of empowerment, participation, changing lives and mind, but do we experience any of that in our own workplace?

I have a little “case study” for us to ponder on, it’s for sure my own version of it, but nevertheless the data are in front of the whole world, so you can come to your own conclusions.

Pope Francis and leadership

popefrancisMany of my activist and humanitarian friends think that Pope Francis is really cool. We are talking about people who don’t (or no longer) identify as catholics, and in fact have gone quite at length to shake off that label, and the grip of the guilt-tripping culture and bigotry that came with it. I’m one of them.

Then came Pope Francis. Many of us find him a truly inspiring leader. We no longer need to parade the Dalai Lama’s quotes on our walls (real or Facebook), we can have the Pope’s very wisdom. We can follow him on Twitter with no shame. People who haven’t set foot in a church for decades suddenly tell me that they are reading the Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si. “You have to read it” says Cristina, an activist and meditation teacher, “finally a spiritual leader is clearly speaking out on environmental issues!” (I have my own moment of wonderful confusion: I’m at a meditation retreat and the teacher is suggesting that I read the Pope’s encyclical?!).

I share this episode with my mum, who I often think of as being more catholic than the Pope himself. I hope she will see how things have substantially changed for those of us on the margins. But no, she claims that nothing in the teachings of the church has changed, Pope Francis is just warm and friendly, but beats exactly to the same drum as his predecessors.

Yet, to me and to million of others, it feels like everything has changed. Conservative circles voice their confusion with a mix of fear and uncertainty (can they criticise the Pope? isn’t he supposed to be infallible?). To me, it feels like Francis entered a house that smelt of death and decay and started to open the windows, then told others to do the same, and while the doors and windows were open, people who had been out for decades were welcome to come back in, and be part of a universal community, without having to give up who they are.

Finally we can breathe. Fresh air, a breeze that carries love, listening, understanding, compassion, but also an uncompromising stance against those who sell arms, who deal with the mafia, against the capitalism that turns human beings in “human doings”, against the commodification of everything, against the very own Vatican bank, against those who abuse children, who traffic people across continents and exploit their desperation. Once elected, Francis even decided to stay and live in a flat in Casa Santa Marta, instead of moving to the Apostolic Palace, the traditional Pope’s residency. That’s like the UN getting out of their compounds and go and live in a modest house in a village.

One can certainly argue that women’s role in the church is still that of a second-class citizen, that LGBT communities are not officially embraced, that divorced people are still not formally welcome. I am the first in line wanting to see a change in all these areas.

Nevertheless, I cannot disregard the fact that the vibes that the Vatican gives away have been different over the last couple of years – and this somehow changes everything. As my friend Jennifer Lentfer says: “how matters”. It’s not just what we do, it is how we do it.

Lessons for the nonprofit sector

If like my mum you are still persuaded that it’s just the Pope’s latino happy smile and warmth that appeals to people, and that’s that, I urge you to rethink. Soon it may no longer be the case that “the most conservative entities in France are the catholic church and humanitarian organisations”, as one of the speakers said at the recent Humanitarian Innovation Conference in Oxford. With Pope Francis in charge, I fear humanitarian organisations may find themselves alone.

But I’m digressing here, the point is: how does Francis’ leadership style have anything to do with humanitarian organisations? The Church is not an NGO, the Pope said it very clearly, and an aid agency is not a church, in spite of the group-think that may be going on at times. Yet, there is an overlap, at different levels, and in different ways, we are all in the “business of doing good”, in finding meaning in the chaos of this world.

So Pope Francis’ attitude prompted me with some questions: How can we “open the windows” in our organisations and let some fresh air in? How can we let dissenting voices be part of the conversation? How can we shift power? How can we value our own people so that we can engage with the complexities of the world from a place of something slightly more empowering than cynicism and exhaustion? How can aid organisations innovate from within?

To those who claim that “culture change” is impossible, or at best takes between 5-8 years, I say: look at the catholic church in 2015, look at what it was just over two years ago. I am honestly amazed and beginning to think that miracles do happen. Perfection is not the goal, but some humanity…yes please.

If your organisation smells of decay, maybe it is because nobody, especially at the top (sorry for the top-down stance), is doing anything to change the status quo, in spite of all the talking about “innovation”. Can the next UN Secretary General inspire us as much as the current Pope does? As things stand I have reasons to be skeptical, but I’m well ready to have my assumptions challenged.


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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.