TPA Full Disclosure Series

TPA Full Disclosure: Tim Hanstad on Impactful Approach to Transparency – “Engage Constructively”
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We continue to shed more light on individual and collective work foundation directors, program officers, and grantees are doing around Transparency, Civic Participation, and Accountability (TPA). Our next guest is Tim Hanstad, the Chief Executive Officer of Chandler Foundation.

Tim joined Chandler Foundation after more than two decades of leading Landesa, the world’s leading land-rights organization, from a two-person team to a leading global NGO with more than 20 offices around the world working to provide transformative opportunities to more than 120 million poor families. In this episode, Tim shares his motivation and learnings from working in the TPA field – from trying the “messy and impactful approach” to “capturing data with a soul” through storytelling.

Tim Hanstad. Photo Credit: Chandler Foundation

Can you remember what first motivated you to work on transparency and accountability issues?

For me, it was a two-step process. I first became motivated to work on issues of social justice and global economic development. The second step was recognizing the role of transparency and accountability within that broader field.

The motivation to work on issues of social justice and international development began very early in my young life – at the age of eight, working in the fields near my home.  For me, it was summer pocket money.  For the migrant farmworkers who laboured alongside me, it was life-sustaining.  This injustice sparked my interest in the rule of law and the foundations for a just society, which eventually resulted in co-founding Landesa, a global land rights organization.

It was my early work on land rights in the 1980s that opened my eyes to the importance of transparency and accountability – initially in the context of building equitable land governance systems, and over time as a critical characteristic for a broad range of governance systems.

Drawing from your experience of working on advocacy and transparency initiatives, what are the challenges from working in this field and what have you found most effective in working to build a stronger and equitable society?  

What I have found to be both most effective and most challenging is constructively engaging with governments.

My experience convinces me that engaging with governments – not ignoring or bypassing them – is critical to achieving large-scale and sustained impact. It is easy to criticize governments, and can even be easy to establish parallel systems outside of government. It is much more challenging to constructively engage with governments to make progress on governance reforms. Yet, my experience was that the active, often difficult and messy engagement with government is the most impactful approach.

What trends in the TPA space excites you the most and what opportunities do you see for organizations working in this field?

I am not sure it counts as a trend, but one potential silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is it has further highlighted the importance of good governance, elevated discussions about specific steps for improving governance, and – hopefully – caused more social impact donors and doers to actively engage in supporting good governance.

So much of philanthropy and social sector work is directed to treating the symptoms of bad governance, and not enough toward trying to improve governance, including through efforts to improve transparency, accountability, and participation.

The Chandler Foundation has recently joined this space, and we are in learning mode. We are grateful to be part of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative to learn from others who have much more experience in the TPA space.

What recommendations will you give your younger self or anyone starting out in this space?  

Align your vocation with your values. Surround yourself with people who are ‘teachers’. Be a humble, life-long learner. Seek to understand before being understood. Do what you know to be right, particularly when it’s most difficult. Invite regular feedback from others on how you can improve – and treat that feedback as the gift that it is.

In your working and living with different communities around the world, what’s the closest thing to real magic you have experienced? 

Many memories come to mind, but let me share one particularly relevant to the TPA space that was a magical lesson for me early in my career.

While gathering data in a remote Indian village on a government land records digitization project, my work was “delayed” while I listened to five courageous, low-resourced women of a self-help group describe their detailed, lengthy, individual stories.

Those stories had unifying themes – of how poor governance had limited their opportunity in life and held them down. And how they – with the newly transparent, digitized land records and the confidence gained through the collective action of a self-help group – had stood up for themselves for the first time and successfully demanded their land rights that had been taken by elites in their village.

Although I had been collecting quantitative data that day, those stories were the most powerful data I captured – data with soul. And it was the first of many magical lessons about the power of story; and about how governance – good or bad – impacts the lives of real people.