Handing over the reins at a strong institution

It’s a wonderful job being director of IIED, partly because of the urgency and importance of the issues on which we work, but also because of the people in the organisation, and those others you come across in the course of every day.

IIED director Camilla Toulmin speaking at the 2014 Barbara Ward Lecture at the British Library (Photo: Julius Honnor/IIED)

People are IIED's best asset – those within the organisation and across our diverse network of long-standing partners. People are at the heart of what goes right, and also of what can go awry in an organisation. A director needs to build a team to create an environment in which all can thrive as both individuals and as a collective group. People often surprise you by having unexpected skills and strengths, if they have space to try them out.

Almost everyone who joins IIED does so because they are enthused by the prospect of working on critical issues in the public eye that engage people from around the world.

At IIED, we are all global citizens, eager to understand how to make a difference, whether it's in developing tools for more sustainable forest management, supporting battles to secure tenure in informal settlements, exploring ways to tackle complexity, or finding levers to shift power in favour of vulnerable groups.

It's more than 11 years since I stood in for former director Nigel Cross, after he became ill. Following a formal recruitment process, I was appointed in early 2004.

IIED was a lot smaller then— more a collection of different programmes housed under one roof, but less a single organisation pulling together. Like many other organisations of our kind, there remains a fundamental tension, which can be creative and energising. But when individual interests and personalities pull in the wrong direction, this tension can potentially tear an organisation apart. It's been an object lesson in the challenges of collective action – which remains at the heart of many of the problems we face in the wider world, whether it involves management of a shared fishery or finding ways to share our limited atmospheric space.

Fortunately, we have built a strong institution, and the collective interest has prevailed at IIED. I am mindful of the strategies pursued by household heads in my fieldwork village in Mali where I spent two years in the 1980s. Successful family heads encourage a judicious mix of individual and collective activity – with sufficient of the latter to bring overall success and therefore the space within which to grant individuals time for their particular interests.

Over my 11-plus years as director, there have been many moments to celebrate – whether it's a big event held at COP or Rio, successful fundraising, major publications recognised, or a warm endorsement from colleagues working at the coalface.

Developing an effective set of communications to engage, inform and influence a range of audiences has been a central part of our success. Some achievements are the product of long, slow patient processes – such as embedding climate change across all our work, and successfully moving to new premises three years ago, a project long in the making. Others can be rapid happenstance "wins", such as finding a longstanding partner has been made minister, and we can help provide advice and analysis. You need to keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities, and seize the moment.

Being director, you're always looking in and looking out – seeing how to match what's going on in the outside world to your capacities within the organisation, finding opportunities to capture and convey the significance of new findings, or better approaches to building sustainability.

There are multiple demands on your time and energies, and I have certainly had moments when it's been hard to decide what the right thing to do might be. Then your colleagues and your board are a great help in talking through the options and helping form a view.

The next ten years are bound to be at least as exciting, uncertain and challenging as the last decade. Climate change was barely on the development radar in 2003, but is centre stage today. There is much greater recognition of the big gap between current pressures on all resources, and where we need to be to stay within planetary boundaries. There is rising outrage at the shameful yawning inequalities in income and life chances within and between nations.

But there is much less readiness to act with urgency. Vested interests are well dug-in, and block successfully the progress we need to be making. Many governments have abdicated responsibility for delivering the long-term public good, in favour of more immediate, populist measures.

One certainty remains – the job is not finished, there is much to be done, and IIED's staff and partners have an inexhaustible appetite for building a fairer, more sustainable world.

Related: Camilla Toulmin writes about her decision to step down after ten years, and outlines how the institute will search for her successor.

Camilla Toulmin (camilla.toulmin@iied.org) is director of IIED.