Changemaker: A kinder magic
As Chief of Staff for the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Claire Harbron CA acts as an operational linchpin in the world’s fifth-largest philanthropic organisation – an undertaking that is demanding, emotionally charged and endlessly rewarding.
The alleviation of acute malnutrition in Nigeria; establishing decarbonisation programmes in India; the treatment of billions at risk of infection from parasitic worms: it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) addresses many of the weightiest and most fundamental issues confronting humanity.
It was around 10 years ago, while on sabbatical from EY, which she joined for ICAS training after studying medical ethics in her final year at university, that Claire Harbron CA encountered the newspaper article about the HIV epidemic and mother-to-child transmission which changed the course of her career. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is real-life medical ethics’, and deciding I wanted to take my skillset and do something linked to health,” she says.
Initially an analyst at CIFF, followed by a five-year stint as Portfolio Manager, Harbron has now spent three years as Chief of Staff of an organisation which has invested more than $2bn (£1.5bn) across hundreds of programmes since 2004. To call hers a multifaceted role would be an understatement. “‘Chief of Staff’ sounds very West Wing but it’s getting more and more mainstream in major organisations,” she says, explaining that her support of CIFF’s CEO Kate Hampton is both strategic and operational.
“I need to make sure I have oversight of what the organisation needs from Kate, what external partners need and who needs it most pressingly, in order to help manage her time from a strategic perspective,” she continues. “I act as the secretariat, and manage the flow of information that comes up to the executive team on a monthly basis, then onwards through our governance structures, our investment committees and our board. I work closely with our legal team to make sure that the decision-making processes – particularly around grant-making – follow the right procedures in terms of quality control and that everything flows smoothly.”
There’s also, says Harbron, a more “intangible” side to her role: “I have to act as a link between the CEO office and executive team, and the rest of the personnel. I act as a conduit for information and decision making in both directions. There’s a translation, or interlocutor, element: Kate is a visionary leader – an incredibly inspiring woman. I help to translate her vision into actions and deliverables and things that then happen through the mechanics of the organisation. Any special projects that come in – if partners come to us with a really interesting proposition, but one that cuts across more than one sector team, or if an idea for a project needs debating and testing out – they have to be funnelled through me and my team. So it’s wide-ranging – and great fun.”
For Harbron, a strong grounding in accountancy has equipped her with the tools she needs to cover such a diverse remit. “Being numerate and financially literate gives you such an insight into the nuts and bolts of any organisation,” she says. “It means being able to translate what’s happening in terms of finances into, ‘What do we have available to spend this year, next year? What does the flow of grants through the organisation look like? What makes the most sense for our forecasting and targets and limits right now?’ It enables me to analyse what we can actually do next.”
Reflecting on her ICAS training while at EY, Harbron says: “I honestly can’t think of a better start to a career. The exposure you get, the training, the opportunities – I look back and just think what a great choice! It gives you an incredible grounding, enabling you to walk into any scenario and read the financials undaunted and interrogate them, understand the business, ask sensible questions and get up to speed. It’s something I now take for granted.”
The differences between fulfilling a role such as Harbron’s in the private sector and one in the third sector can often be subtle. CIFF is required to meet the same auditing standards as everybody else (“although there are a few particular things charities need to disclose and some specific measures we need to be in control of,” she adds). Far more profound differences arise, though, from the fact that, from a financial perspective, the organisation is trying to stay beneath a certain ceiling rather than break through it. “We’re not driven by a top-line number and failed targets – we’re lucky enough to have a very generous endowment, but we have to operate within limits,” she says. “We’re cost conscious, and it’s beholden to us to spend our money wisely and never be frivolous.”
Transparency, as one might expect, is absolutely paramount. “We’re governed by a board of trustees, the majority of whom are independent,” she says. “We have a number of important governance requirements around how we spend our funds, and we make information about the areas we work in, and grants we’re giving, all publicly available on our website. We put a huge emphasis on results. We invest a lot of time and money on monitoring results and reporting back on how our investments and grants are performing.”
Interestingly – and this speaks volumes about CIFF’s operational philosophy – the website has a section entitled “What Went Wrong?”, offering details, for example, of the time back in 2010 that only a quarter of planned paediatric diarrhoea treatments involving zinc and oral rehydration salts were administered in a programme in Bihar, India, due to treatment procurement and health worker training taking longer than expected.
“Our co-founder has a very clear mindset that, if we fund things that fail, then we should share that because that helps others, as well as us, to learn,” says Harbron. “If you try something and fail, but evolve, that’s fine. But you must learn from it and you must share what you’ve learned. Not doing so is the only failure, the only case of time and money wasted. It’s about a progressive mindset.”
Keeping your distance
Despite sporadic disappointments being greatly outweighed by CIFF’s gargantuan achievements – the vast strides made in the battles against Ebola in west Africa, avoidable childbirth-related death in Rajasthan, and HIV in Zimbabwe, to name just three – working for CIFF can be emotionally testing. Is it essential, or even possible, to stay dispassionate, just as a medical professional is expected to?
“It’s really hard,” says Harbron. “We do work on a lot of issues that can be quite... overwhelming,” she says. “Our climate team, for example, spend a lot of time considering what is achievable, so that the scale of the crisis doesn’t become a personal burden. When you work with topics involving children it can be genuinely harrowing. There are things I’ve learned that I can never unlearn. I’ve worked a lot with acute malnutrition in northern Nigeria and there are images I can never un-see. So we offer comprehensive support to our staff on these issues – the last thing we want is for their mental health to be negatively impacted by trying to do good work.”
That said, bonding and collective motivation thrives when working in areas of such gravitas, says Harbron. She feels positive about CIFF’s response to the pandemic. “We are quite proud of how we’ve weathered the storm,” she says. “Because we have offices across the world – London, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Delhi and Beijing – we’d already invested a lot in remote working and video-conferencing technology, so we could implement that relatively smoothly. Because we’re privately funded and our endowment is large, we’ve not been impacted financially in the short term.
“Our biggest concern is continuing to support our grantees, and we’ve had some lovely feedback from them in recent months thanking us for acting so fast. We’ve been told that without our continued support they’d have had to close their doors. We’re now looking ahead at what the long-term impact of Covid is for children: they’re a huge part of the likely collateral impact – health and education being disrupted, and much more extensively than we see in the UK. For a lot of children, school is not just where they get an education but where they get a meal and access to health services – so infrastructure crumbling around them is incredibly damaging.”
The organisation is well set for the future. CIFF’s investment in areas such as “child protection, adolescent SRHR [sexual and reproductive health and rights], child and maternal health, and climate change”, as an announcement on its website states, is set to be bolstered by an increase in the draw-down from its endowment from 6% per annum to 7%. And, ultimately, for all the hard work and emotional rollercoasting, Harbron is grateful for that catalyst moment sparked by a newspaper article she stumbled upon a decade ago.
She has clear advice for anyone at a career crossroads. “Tap into an opportunity that inspires you and which you feel passionate about,” she says. “People talk a lot about purpose, and I’m lucky enough to be in a job that has purpose I feel aligned with and excited by. There’s nothing better than going to work knowing that what you do is aligned with your values.”