How do we identify, support and/or build Champions in Development?

Nothing says ‘this needs a blog’ more than an over-long executive summary…. So here’s a summary and a few thoughts on ITAD’s report for the Gates Foundation on Champions: How to identify, support, and evaluate advocates for social change (full report 134 pages, Exec Sum 11 pages).

I liked this because the aid sector is not always very thoughtful on how we support leadership development – we often prefer to talk in terms of working with ‘communities’ or organizations and institutions (‘the state’). Or else leadership is equated with ‘chaps we can do business with’, even when that business is pretty dirty.

This can lead to a kind of cognitive dissonance where we downplay the importance of leadership, even as we spend a lot of time trying to identify current and future leaders we can work with. That dissonance risks stifling efforts to better understand leadership and how to support it, which is why I also really like the Developmental Leadership Programme.

The ITAD research identified four categories of champions: 1) Technical/Issue experts; 2) Political insiders; 3) High level influencers; and 4) Influencer communicators. Within these 4 broad groups there are some subtypes (see graphic)

So which champions can outsiders try and ‘build’ and how?

‘It is important to consider political and sociocultural factors to identify the ‘right’ type of champion. The key contextual factors we identified in the literature are: 1) Political; 2) Sociocultural; and 3) Issue-related.

How do you identify them?

‘When identifying and assessing potential champions, the literature puts strong emphasis on taking sufficient time to get these early phases of champion building right.

▪ Some champions can be relatively easily identified because of their current influence. However, in many cases, it will be important to identify those with potential, who will or might have likely future influence.

▪ One way that effective champions differ from others is through their commitment. Persistence is the most mentioned characteristic of champions across the literature.

▪ Issue alignment is an important factor to consider, but there is space for some evolution in champions’ positions over time, and space to operate where alignment is not full. There are risks in requiring too-close alignment in that impressions of ‘orchestration’ (a sense that champions are being closely directed or coordinated) can lead to questions about champions’ credibility and legitimacy.

▪ An effective champion must be capable of effectively fulfilling the role they are taking on (in terms of having the requisite skills and expertise). In general, though, this is not a necessary condition for selection, in that capabilities can be developed through ‘champion building’ processes.

Potential champions who do not already exhibit the characteristics discussed above must be judged to some extent on their potential. One interviewee described recognizing potential as both a “science and an art” and that unexpected champions can emerge in unpredictable ways due to unusual circumstances. In the U.S., for example, the Parkland students stepped into a national leadership role on gun control – after a mass shooting at their school – having exhibited limited or no obvious prior public ‘champion’ characteristics. The same could be said for other high-profile champions like Malala or Greta Thunberg.

In assessing potential champions, it is important to gather, and make sense of, good intelligence, but there will also be an element of judgement involved.’

There’s a nice 2×2 of level of engagement with level of influence to identify both current and emerging champions.

The paper then looks at how to deliver ‘champion-building’ programmes, and the all-important topic (especially if you’re writing a paper for the Gates Foundation’ of how you measure the impact of all this).

One thing I’m not clear about though – what’s the difference (if any) between ‘champions’ and ‘leaders’? The paper seems to use them interchangeably. Perhaps champions can be understood as leaders on a specific issue, whereas leadership is more of an intrinsic status? Thoughts?

ITAD has also posted the first blog of a four-part series on the research here, and come up with this rather nice infographic summary.

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12 Responses to “How do we identify, support and/or build Champions in Development?”
  1. I have not yet read the full report, only your summary – which I really appreciate – I find it interesting that Champion’s are all considered to be individuals and not groups or people or organisations. Was this an intentional part of the brief?

    • Duncan Green

      Interesting point Dena, will leave it to ITAD to answer. It may reflect the individualism of the Western mind, but I’ve seen in the past how particular individuals surface as leaders in one organization after another – they are the grains that are endlessly reshuffled within social movements. Is that your experience?

      • Ekaterina Shaleva

        Hi there, I am one of the co-authors of the Itad report. We include a discussion on networks of champions and the benefits of grouping cohorts of people together that have the same goal (for example, promoting mutual learning and creating a sense of community). But networks can also be difficult to maintain, if there is a tension between members or a lack of equal commitment from everyone.

  2. I realise that you do qualify at the start of the article that this is about individual leadership, and often development does depend on few good people, but it could still be considered a someone individualistic (need I say ‘Western’?) perspective. There is also collective leadership. Love you hear your thoughts.

  3. Masood Ul Mulk

    One of the issues in community leadership is how they evolve over time. As outsiders become dependent on champions it is not unusual to see them becoming “hijackers,” or ” enterpreneurs” which replaces the selflessness they exhibited in the initial phase with a more selfish behaviour. There is nothing wrong with this if we acknowledge this change and start looking for new champions

    • Yes, I have seen this, but they are not always effective leaders who take people with them, but charismatic people. They may be good influencers, but do not leave strong organisations behind. As you know, there is a difference between a good leader and a charismatic leader. Further, if you are selecting to champion individuals, they seldom have a mandate, or a constituency that holds them accountable. I know the B&MG Foundation does not support lobbying or lobbyists, but supporting individuals to champion your causes could be similar. In chatting with a colleague today, he asked how the British people would feel about having USAID or Gates funded Champions advocating for reform in their education system, for example. A funny story – in Côte d’Ivoire we held an advocacy training for a Gates funded project, and asked the project team to identify a champion for their strategy. In their project plans they had devised a whole competition to select the winner (the Champion) for their cause. Lost in translation.

  4. Rémi Kaupp

    Thank you for an excellent summary!
    On the difference between leaders and champions, what I have seen in my specific area (water & sanitation) is that champions could technical specialists and/or those not in a formal “leadership” position, yet can achieve good influence over time because of their passion for a specific issue. Think utility staff for instance.
    This work reminds me of Louisa Gosling’s work on local government heroes:

  5. I am very interested in this topic as half of my job is to find champions for the cause I work for – the health of children with heart disease. Because it’s not a widespread issue and few people know about it, it relies on a lot of individual sweat equity to be moved further. So in the selection of organizational partnerships, if there is no champion at the organization to move things forward, we do not select them. It’s a very practical approach but with very limited resources, one has to be practical.

    Another point I want to make is that while leadership is supposedly a learnable skill, it requires personal conviction to become a champion. And those of us working on social issues need to be more aware about the psychology that drives certain behaviors, such as leadership and champion-ing (-ship?). Not everyone is able to do it. I deeply believe psychology should be taught more intentionally because it helps understand people’s actions and such understanding helps adjust our own reactions to them.

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