Interview: Heather Grady


Here on Two Lane, we like to dig into what drives people who are in the save-the-world industries. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Heather Grady. There is no way to talk about the energy and spirit it takes to save the world, without Heather’s insight and experience at the forefront.

Heather is currently a Vice President at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) based out of San Francisco. They are on a mission to help donors around the world to be thoughtful, strategic and effective with their philanthropy. Leading RPA in their global strategy, collaboration and program development, she also drives thought leadership around the “Sustainable Development Goals” – a global agenda for peace, dignity and prosperity, as well as advocating for “Scaling Solutions“, working with funders to provide long-term and adaptive resources for the world’s most pressing problems.

Heather Grady

Heather has lived all over the world and has done great things. But, before we go any further, she wants us all to know a couple of things:

First, in my life I’ve taken a lot of risks and opportunities in terms of where I’ve gone to live and what I’ve done. I think if people have a fork in the road and don’t take the one that stretches them out of their comfort zone, they’ll learn less and do less. I purposely agree to do things all the time, as much now as ever, that I think will be difficult for me – but once I’ve made a commitment I can’t back out, and eventually things work out alright. I never thought I’d still be learning so much in my fifties but it has been a decade full of exciting learning.

Second, I do travel too much, but I believe there is scientific evidence that your brain somehow operates differently when you’re on the move as opposed to being still. Whether that’s right or not, I believe it’s the case with me. People should get out of their communities even if they don’t get out of their countries!

Heather Grady

Heather grew up in Pittsburgh and attended a public school where she learned Chinese. This language skill has helped her throughout her career in non-profits. She went on to Smith College and is grateful for an education at a women’s institution. It was a time where she wasn’t “second” because of her gender. Much of her experience has been in Asia (as well as Africa and the Middle East) and currently she is also an Adjunct Professor at the China Global Philanthropy Institute.

In the interview below, Heather takes us through some of her highly impactful experiences, explains why funders and practitioners should work on the really hard stuff, and provides some excellent advice (and hope) along the way.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Angela: What would you say was the high point in your career? A time where you really felt that you were having the impact that you would like to have.

Heather: I don’t want to say it’s the highest but I’ll tell you what I feel really good about – when I worked in Vietnam. I was there from 1993 until 2000 and there was a convergence of things that was very important. The first was that when I arrived there, and was working with Oxfam Great Britain, there were very few non-profit organizations. We were doing very good work. We were making a lot of mistakes, but we were doing a lot of great things as well, introducing development approaches of a high standard. And we were as honest about our mistakes as we were about our successes, analyzing with our colleagues and communicating with others. And I did this while raising two wonderful daughters.

We had an amazing team of Vietnamese staff; they were learning a lot and we were learning a lot from them. We did some game-changers. Around 1994, when most developing countries had to accept strategies and funding packages from government donors based on a World Bank Country Assistance Strategy, we learned that these documents were confidential to the World Bank, the government, and the IMF. I was shocked when I discovered this – “Our taxpayer money is going to the World Bank and the World Bank is creating programs for countries and others can’t even read it”? My colleagues and I felt it was unacceptable. There was also no place for civil society organizations in the Consultative Group process in which all the big donors discussed their funding and programs for the country – this all seems so wrong, so donor-driven, today. So we pushed, and Vietnam was the first country where Oxfam and the World Bank started a dialogue about opening up that process, giving civil society organizations a stronger voice. I think it was the first country where a civil society organization got a seat at the Consultative Group table. I felt that was really path breaking work.

The second thing I’m proud of was our important work on education, health care, and other development areas. At that time Oxfam had a global campaign on education which was really pushing implementation of education for all. This was also a time when the World Bank was mandating to countries that they charge school fees even for primary education (to control fiscal deficits). So in many countries public schools were charging fees for children to go to school. And our campaign on education pointed out that charging fees for public primary schools was wrong – we were never going to get poor children an education that way. Education is a basic right and governments have to fulfill that right. Working with UNICEF and others, Oxfam made a difference on that in Vietnam and globally.

That period in the 90s was a really important period of time in my life and in my career. We made groundbreaking changes in what was considered the role of the civil society sector that we take for granted now. We showed the importance of the civil society sector in crafting multilateral policies and government policies. Organizations found their own paths working in different ways. We weren’t standing on the ramparts throwing stones, nor were we too cozy with those we were challenging. We were in the middle, taking what we believed was an appropriate stance and making allies along the way. 

When I became the Regional Director for Oxfam Great Britain in East Asia based in Thailand, I continued helping with really important work, including being in on the ground floor of Oxfam’s trade campaign which was called “Make Trade Fair”. We influenced the Doha meeting of the World Trade Organization by making sure that that access to essential medicines was not undermined by trade policy. In Thailand, for example, the U.S. government and pharmaceutical companies were trying to restrict access to medicines for HIV/AIDS patients, and curtail production for HIV/AIDS-affected people in Africa. We were on the cutting edge of expanded efforts to make sure that trade rules and private sector practices took into account human well-being. I must say again that now we take that struggle for granted, but way back then it wasn’t. We were fighting the early fights on that.

In terms of my work today, when I look at the philanthropy sector, and when I’m working with our clients and funders, I see the promise of that kind of game-changing work. That’s what funders should think more about – not just small, incremental changes. More private funders should be working on those big, long-term changes – I know that because I saw that kind of change can happen. It just takes the right people and some patience. Oxfam Great Britain had a lot of generous people supporting the work over a long time – many regularly putting 10 pence into tin cans in the UK, and I think half a million people volunteering or making a monthly contribution. And that really makes a difference because it gave us the opportunity to do long-term work.

Angela: Yes, and they had you. I can see now that knowing that positive changes can happen is something that drives you. You have seen these things go really well. But, it seems that today’s problems are so daunting, I want to talk about your low points. Was there ever a point when you wanted to do something else? Was there a failure that made, you think, “hey this isn’t for me”?

Heather: No, never. I mean I’m staying in non-profit work because making a profit is in no way a driver for me. If I had a job aimed at making profits for shareholders, there’s no inspiration for me there. It’s only about making the world a better place.

Now, I have certainly worked on things that failed. And I think maybe the way to address this is at any one time having different irons in the fire – then when something fails, other endeavors can continue and succeed in achieving their goals. So, for example, when I worked in Vietnam I felt really good about some of the work we did, however we also realized that some of our infrastructure projects just weren’t good. But we knew our mangrove reforestation was going very well, and our education work too. So I think at any point in someone’s career, as long as there are a few tracks going simultaneously, if something fails, something else is probably succeeding. One thing that’s reinforced here around Silicon Valley is the importance of trying – people do create businesses that fail, and maybe it’s awkward and embarrassing to some extent, but they can’t let that stop them. They can’t let that make them inactive, so they keep trying. I think also this probably comes down to character. Even if projects fail, and if work fails, if people see you as an individual who is ethical, committed and generally right about things, then they will not judge you for the failure of an organization or the failure of an initiative. I’ve had a couple of really tough jobs in the last 20 years, and even though I may have felt a sense of failure with respect to some of that, I think we have to unpack our failures and really think hard about “was it me, or was it the idea, or exactly what it was.”

Angela:  Heather, what do you think is our greatest challenge? What’s worrying you these days?

Heather:  Oh so much.

Angela:I know.

Heather: I mean so much.  Let’s see if I can cite three main things. The first is certainly our consumption patterns. Bringing it back to the Sustainable Development Goals, we are on a completely unsustainable path, and I think it is because of the nature of the human mind. It is so well-documented now that our behavior and our responses are really geared to the short-term rather than the long-term. So trying to get human beings to seriously take on board that we are ruining our planet, and that we will disappear fairly soon if we’re not careful, is well-nigh impossible. So that’s the first problem I think we have not come to grips with. I’m glad all these climate reports are coming out reporting honestly on what we’re doing. But that leads into the second problem I see.

I am aghast at the poor level of leadership today. This is true in politics, business and in the civic community. Who are our leaders today? Who will replace obvious choices like Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu? We have too few of them – and they’re not that young anymore. I also think faith-based leadership is really lagging, as well as community leadership, and that’s a huge problem. Our politicians in the U.S. are now somewhat beholden to private interests, and more than ever they owe people favors the day they get elected. So that’s not working very well. As for business leaders, we always point to the good ones, but the vast majority of business leaders are not yet thinking enough about labor rights, environmental issues, and so on. Even just basic accountability and paying their fair share of taxes needs to be a concern.

The third problem is a lack of care for human beings we don’t know directly. I would lump into this many things like the immigration crisis, mass incarceration in the U.S., and the fact that most people just don’t care how terribly unfair the economic system is. On the problem of gun violence, we are not doing enough to protect our youngsters. We’ve gradually become completely used to the fact that our children are doing safety drills in case a mass murderer walks into their school. I mean, is this really what we’re fine with accepting?

So it’s the resources question, the leadership question, and the caring for other humans question. I’m thinking about this recent issue with Saudi Arabia and people upset about Jamal Khashoggi, as they should be – but what about all the people suffering in Yemen in the past few years? The same leaders didn’t seem to care about millions of people suffering, the destruction and dying. Why have we ignored the problem so long? So those are all enormous issues that I find incredibly daunting.

Angela:On those big daunting issues, it really occurs to me that there are some very interesting things coming down the pike in sustainability and philanthropy. What do you think are some of the most exciting new innovations that you’re seeing that could be helped to meet some of these daunting challenges?

Heather: In philanthropy, I’ll tell you some things that give me hope. First of all, I think that the philanthropy sector in the U.S. has gotten really shaken up in the last couple of years. We launched a report on “Scaling Solutions” in September that studies twenty-five funder collaboratives that are aiming at long-term systems change. I think those are really exciting.

These show the opportunity for philanthropy to work smarter and more collaboratively. That to me is just a no-brainer. We saw a good example of a few foundations coming together and saying “we are going to try to significantly reduce single use plastic” and called it the Plastic Solutions Fund. They are really making some progress using a systems change approach. To change a system, we have to change government policy. We have to change consumer behavior. We have to create a social movement against single use plastic. We have to change business behavior. We have to change investment behavior. We have to create new technologies. So they’re pulling all the “systems transformation levers”. As a group they know they have to pull a lot of levers at once, and they have to work together. And I think they have a chance at making a dent in a way that no single foundation ever could.

There is some really exciting work happening with donor collaboratives oriented toward criminal justice reform in the United States. It’s the same thing. They said we’re going to put a huge amount of money toward something over a five year period, and it has to do with bail reform, with how people are sentenced. It has to do with getting people not categorized as felons once they’ve served their sentences. And it has to do with using social media, films and popular media around issues of criminal justice. The point is that it’s a very different approach to philanthropy than every individual funder deciding they’re going to fund this group for one year, or that group for one year. That’s fragmented and it just doesn’t add up to much even after 5 or 10 years.

For the 2016 election, on the more liberal or progressive side, everybody was focused on pouring so much money into getting one person elected. In the two years since then people have been wondering “What went wrong?” And now, people are thinking about issues like ending gerrymandering and fixing voter registration problems. People knew these were problems but philanthropy was not looking at it systemically or strategically. Funders on the more conservative side of America were in it for the long haul – like a 20 or 30 year plan to change who’s sitting on the courts. Now more progressive funders are aware of the enduring fact that that the people who are voting don’t look enough like the people who make up America. We are leaving out people of color, the poor, and people with disabilities. So I think it’s a really exciting time now because people are starting to fund different things to create the country that really enshrines the American values that we have.

Angela:  I would love to know what your schedule looks like over the next couple of months. What are your big activities coming up?

Heather:  This month is crazy. I’m going tomorrow to Switzerland to participate in a philanthropy convening and leading a session called The Courage to Collaborate. Then I come back and go down to Los Angeles where we’re convening funders on how foundations can be more effective. Then back to San Francisco en route to China where I teach a course in an executive management program on systems change, systems thinking and theory of change. Then it’s Christmas in the American Southeast. We are working with some corporate clients and with individual foundations and funders on their strategies, as well as continuing to work on the Sustainable Development Goals and the “Scaling Solutions” Initiative. So yes there’s a lot ahead.

Angela: One last thing. On your schedule, I’d like to know how you manage to keep up your energy. With all of these initiatives and daunting issues, I imagine you have to stay sane somehow. Because I know you, I know that you have more energy than anyone I have ever worked with so let us in on the secret. Is it meditation and the hotel gym at 5am?

Heather:I have to admit that I have realized I have a lot of energy. I used to say oh no, but I realize that actually I do. So I think probably part of it is simply biological or physiological. But the most important thing is I almost always get a good night’s sleep. I think that’s crucial. And if I go with too little sleep for more than two nights in a row then I’m not as productive. I have taught myself how not to get lag. And I think that’s really important because if you’re crossing time zones, you can’t afford to be out of it for a day or two. I’ve never taken melatonin or sleeping pills. But you have to combat jet lag if you’re going to work internationally.

Angela:  How do you do it?

Heather:Well my rule is this: I get to a new place. I make sure that I stay awake until eleven or twelve at night for the first three nights at least. Never let yourself go to sleep before 11:00 p.m. wherever you are in the world because you’re going to start waking up at 2 or 3 a.m., and then you’re going to feel bad at some point the next day. So it’s all about discipline. 

Angela:Thank you very much Heather. Always a pleasure! Two Lane is here for you so please do let us know how we can help you in any way. 

Heather: I’ll do that! And thank you. 



Categories: Inspiring People, Philanthropy, Sustainable Development Goals

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