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

May 12, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

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.

Categories of champions

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.

Implications of champions in spaces
More implications of champions in spaces

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.

Engagement and influence of champions

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.

Champions infographic

May 12, 2022
Duncan Green