Suzanne Ehlers of USA for UNHCR Gives Us Hope on World Refugee Day – Transcript


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Kirk: Wait, wait, wait. And we’re here.

Eric: We’re here?

Kirk: You made it. We’re gathered. Oh, thank goodness you found us. It’s another episode. It’s another edition of Let’s Hear It. We’re here.

Eric: Here. Yes. Hi Kirky.

Kirk: Mr. Brown. I’ve gotta give you super high marks. We’re a machine right now. We’re a publishing – We’re a podcast.

Eric: A finely tuned machine.

Kirk: Man, we’re just knocking these out. This cadence, this calendar of activity. It’s years coming. It’s six years that you’re never get back, but –

Eric: That’s right, you’ve ruined my life, Kirk, but whatever. Let’s just roll with it.

Kirk: Not fair. Not fair, I’ve heard what we’re about to hear and you’ve gotta set it up because, by the way, thanks for just introducing us all to this incredible crew of people that get up every day and all day and work to make the world a better place. I’m so glad there’s so many of us. It’s so good to hear from them.

Eric: I’m so glad there’s so many of them. Yeah, I would love to be a, consider myself a co-practitioner, but sometimes I don’t feel that way.

Kirk: We are your fans here at Let’s Hear It. So set this up ’cause this is a great one. And by the way, in advance, thank you to this guest for gracing us on the podcast.

Eric: I spoke with my old colleague and friend, I knew her in the 20th century, Suzanne Ehlers. She is the executive director and CEO, I’m not quite sure exactly how that works, but that’s her title at USA for UNHCR. And for those who are not in the know, UNHCR is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, and Suzanne runs the United States operations and fundraising arm, the formal national partner for UNHCR, and as I said, Suzanne and I go way back. She is an extraordinary human being. Yes, she is fun and funny and fabulous. She’s all the good Fs and I had a great conversation with her. And that’s the prep.

Kirk: Yeah. And we’ll get into it after, but what a career, what an arc.

Some of my favorite origin story comments we heard, we’ve heard today on the podcast coming this episode. But I do wanna give a shout out before we head over to the interview. Suzanne Ehlers just surpassed 10,000 followers on LinkedIn. It was in LinkedIn, talked about that, which again, I’m so glad there are people out there saying the good stuff and listening to the good stuff.

So Suzanne Ehlers, congratulations on that, that really important landmark. Yeah, a lot to talk about. We’ll come back. So this is Suzanne Ehlers, the executive director and CEO, USA for UNHCR, on Let’s Hear It.


Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It. My guest today is an old pal and a really fabulous person and a terrific leader.

Suzanne Ehlers, who is Executive director and CEO of USA for UNHCR and UNHCR as many people know, is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Suzanne has had a long and storied career in nonprofit leadership. You were CEO of Malala Fund, most recently, President and CEO of PAI also known as Population Action International, and we worked together when you were a consultant when I was at the Center for a New American Dream, whose motto was More Fun, Less Stuff. You also worked at the Wallace Global Fund, you know philanthropy, you know nonprofits, big organizations, little teeny tiny grassroots people with sneakers and jeans who don’t work on Fridays. Suzanne Ehlers, welcome to Let’s Hear It. I’m really looking forward to speaking with you.

Suzanne: Thank you. It’s such a delight. Like, on a, what? Wait, is it Tuesday? Tuesday, three o’clock Eastern time. I could not be in any better place than in conversation with you.

Eric: Ah, I’m flattered. Well, first of all, let’s talk a little bit about USA for UNHCR.

Tell me what you are doing and why you took this really interesting job. And then we will certainly talk about the context in which your job is serving right now.

Suzanne: I joined us a little over a year ago, started in January of ’23, and at a time with unprecedented crisis, humanitarian and otherwise, in the world, so knew I was walking into a situation that needed more. Like more leadership, more visibility, more awareness, more amplification, all of it. And I love a challenge and loved the kind of possibility of the scale that could meet the needs and the demands. So that’s what attracted me. What we do, as USA for UNHCR, is we are a formal national partner to the UN Refugee Agency. There’s about nine of us around the world. And while UNHCR will fundraise from government donors in that place, so a deep and long relationship with the US government held by UNHCR, everybody else we fundraise from. My organization, USA for UNHCR. So private individuals, wealthy and not as wealthy corporations, foundations, civil society groups, you name it. If it’s anybody but the US government, they’re under our remit and we mobilize tens of millions of dollars every year to dedicate to the mission of forced displacement.

Eric: Yeah. Let’s just talk a little bit about that. You started this job a year ago and things have only gotten worse. The crises of refugees around the world seems to me anyway, from my perspective, to be deepening.

And there are no shortage of reasons why that is. There’s war, there’s poor governance, there’s poverty. How are you trying to tell that story in ways that help people tap into their empathy, not their fear, tap into the better angels of our souls rather than a lot of the real challenges that we’re seeing across our discourse.

Suzanne: And so when you say fear, I always have to put a plug in for like my favorite song ever by Morcheeba that talks about fear stops your love and love stops your fear. So from a storytelling perspective, there’s two pieces. One is. The limiting nature of this job, how funny that I would use limiting, but the limiting nature of this job is that I’m USA for UNHCR.

So while my, while our mandate is global, my market is the US and so I only have to tackle, if you will, raising awareness and mobilizing funds from the US marketplace. Which means then I have the opportunity to explore really deeply, like where the fear and misunderstanding comes from. ’cause I’m only talking about this group of people, not all over the world.

Think of work I’ve done previously on women’s health and rights and navigating those issues through every possible cultural and national lens. So that’s one part of this job that, perhaps easier. It’s a deeper dive into a particular context of understanding. I think we do it two ways.

Here you are, master storyteller, yourself. We do tell a lot of stories of people who are resettled refugees, who are experiencing statelessness, who are internally displaced, Ukrainians still living in Ukraine, but definitely not living in their home or their neighborhood. The figure overall is about 110 million people in the world who are experiencing that forced displacement.

But then the categories that make up that one 10, that’s where we are engaged in telling stories and putting kind of empathy and humanity at the center of it all. Refugees are still humans and they still left school and left their jobs and everything they owned. To sometimes flee undercover of night, like they’re like me and you, and wanting a sense of purpose and livelihood, not to mention safety and security. I actually think people are way more open to the story than they even realize they are, once you humanize it and boil it down to a story of shared humanity.

Eric: I think about it from time to time when I read stories about refugees, and right now we’re seeing it every day.

We’re seeing a number of really challenging, powerful political problems that are causing people to be forced from their homes. And the thought that my house could be destroyed and I could be sent away and have nothing at all, isn’t something that. Even registers. Yeah. It’s so far from, particularly in the United States, we’ve never had a major war fought on our soil.

We’ve had 9/11, maybe the war of 1812 is the other. But the idea that you could have a community or a nation that is constantly under threat. And you spend your time having to figure out where to get your next meal seems unfathomable. And for the American audience, my guess is that can be a challenge for you because it’s something we don’t imagine we haven’t experienced.

How do you tell that story in a way that makes it real without turning people away from the horror of it?

Suzanne: Yeah. It’s interesting I was thinking about how. You know me long enough to know that I’ll use sort of whatever message is at my disposal to reach the messenger I’m trying to reach, right?

So if you wanna rewind 15 or 20 years from a strategic comms perspective, there were Republican leaders in Congress who wanted to be supportive of women’s access to contraception. But that’s not the door I’d walk through, right? I’m not talking about birth control. It’s a changed landscape now in 2024 for sure.

But I would walk through the door on climate change adaptation. I would walk through the door of economic productivity and participation in the paid labor workforce. Oh, and by the way, all of those things are guaranteed when you help a woman plan in space, her family, if she chooses to have one. Fast forward to today and thinking about message and messenger.

Think about the enormous opportunity for empathy that the Russian invasion of Ukraine provided us this moment and the outpouring of generosity was phenomenal. I think part of our responsibility then as USA for UNHCR is to say, number one, that’s not the only crisis happening in the world. There are multiple in any given time.

2030, I think 40 plus were named last year. And that each of those people at the center of that are just as deserving of your compassion and generosity as the other. Constantly wanting to use an open door to expand someone’s thinking and horizons about the world around them, and paint a story of a South Sudanese woman coming across the border into Ethiopia, and when I was there in September.

Not something I witnessed, but giving birth at a bus depot on the Ethiopian side because she had been walking for days. And can you imagine that happening as we go for prenatal visits, after prenatal visits and sonograms to see the image of our growing child? Can you imagine that? She’s just on a dusty, dirty road for probably days with insufficient food and water.

She didn’t do this by choice. She’s doing this because if she didn’t, she’d be dead. How do we use the opportunity to really educate across crises and types of crises to bring in long-time supporters who aren’t only motivated by one-off emergencies, which is wonderful, we want them to be, but boy, do we want them with us through the long-term too.

Eric: It’s so interesting, and you alluded to having done communications basically across the aisle, I guess you could say, for so many years. Let’s just go through your work history a little bit because it’s so interesting, such a great background in this. You worked in philanthropy for time at Wallace Global, I guess it was then. Wallace Global Fund. And I had the great good fortune to work with you when I was at Center for a New American Dream, and you were a consultant and then you went to Population Action International, which is an extraordinary organization, and you were there for quite some time. You ended up running the joint.

Can you talk just a little bit about what you learned over that period of time, and then we’ll talk a little bit about Malala Fund and then come back to today.

Suzanne: Yeah. It’s interesting thinking about Wallace. It’s Global Fund, which by the way, when I arrived to DC in the mid nineties, I was fresh off of Peace Corps service in the Central African Republic.

Really, that maybe was the beginnings of my formation of a leadership philosophy, which is one around curiosity that I brought to the Central African Republic and have with me today. It’s one of humility that I definitely fostered in the Central African Republic when 13 and 14-year-old girl neighbors were responsible for keeping me alive, essentially, like teaching me the basics of a life in the CAR, a small town called –.

And then I think the third, so curiosity and humility, and also this sort of notion of integrity. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and to show up in a place and be authentic and genuine is to tell the truth about who you are and what you know, and what you don’t know, and what you bring, and what you represent.

Again, all of which was fomenting when I was in that Peace Corps service. I get to DC and I’m a temporary, I love telling this story ’cause people think you have to land big jobs right outta the box. I was at a temp agency called Help Unlimited. I think I even had a mug with the logo and I was first assigned to the American Bus Association.

Which is first charter bus drivers and I was there working on their newsletter for a few weeks when the Wallace Global Fund called and the executive secretary was going on maternity leave. It wasn’t called parental leave then it was maternity leave, and I took her seat for the weeks or months that she was out.

I did everything they asked me to do. They wanted me to make coffee. They wanted me to make copies. They wanted me to send faxes. I mean, I did it, Eric. I was just determined to prove my value in such a way that by the time she came back from leave, they paid the temp agency my finder’s fee, and hired me as the first ever associate program officer.

If I had a get in my career, that was my get and the three women that I worked for and with Melissa Dan, Susan Rich, and the executive director at the time, Catherine Cameron, are still friends of mine today, still mentors to me today, still allies to me today. Incredible that they recognize what they saw was real potential and brought me into the fold.

And then I spent the next five years in a very small. At that time, more traditional family foundation. I think it’s evolved and perhaps is even more professionalized today, but Bob Wallace, our benefactor, was alive then. His father, if you remember, had been vice president under FDR and had founded a hybrid seed corn.

So that’s where some of the family wealth had come from. Bob was so influential to me, and I think you know this about me, you and I share this. He was really a believer in the sort of catalytic donor role. Like I don’t have to be the biggest guy on the block. I just have to seed fund these really good ideas.

Very venture capital E, very Bill Draper E, which by the way, bill Draper. Figures in my career later in life, but really into giving flexible and small amounts of money to leaders and charismatic personalities whose ideas he believed in and said, Hey, if eight of 10 of them don’t work, okay, ’cause if two of 10 of them do, we could change the world.

And looking back, what a gift that, that was my first boss’s. Perspective on how you helped make and drive change, because I think it made me much less risk averse than I would be otherwise. And it made me really appreciate upstream approaches to change. He wasn’t a service delivery guy, he was like a policy change and big thinker kind of guy.

And I got really, and still am excited by that perch in perspective, which then speaks to why I moved. To a grantee, PAI, after about five years with Wallace. As you say, a very powerful and unique voice at that time, especially on the family planning and reproductive health and rights landscape, not accepting government funding, which is how the big cooperating agencies stay afloat because they are implementing programs all over the world.

But we were the ones that were advocating for that. Pocket of money to stay really big so those implementing partners could do their job. We were at such an upstream point of leverage. We had to be master storytellers. And back to your original point, this was a long answer. We had to talk across the aisle.

We had to appeal to anybody in whatever way they were open to being appealed to.

Eric: This is gonna sound like mansplaining, I swear to God, but I would add one of those qualities that you mentioned, and that’s empathy, because I have always found you to be an extraordinarily empathetic person who understands who you’re in the room with.

And is able to connect with just about anybody, and it’s obvious in the work that you do. We’re gonna take a very quick break and we’ll be back with Suzanne a’s executive director and CEO of USA for UNHCR. Be right back.


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And now back to the show.


Eric: Welcome back to Let’s Hear It. My guest today is Suzanne Ehlers, executive director and CEO of USA for UNHCR, and we were just talking about how empathetic you’re Suzanne and how that has played out, and humble and curious, and just able to connect.

On so many levels with so many different kinds of people, and I also have seen that in your leadership of organizations, after you left PAI, you went to Malala Fund. Can you talk a little bit about, and also needless to say, you talked about the Wallace Global Fund and how a small organization could make outsized impact.

I think Malala is the definition of one person who is able to use their voice and their passion to make a difference. What was that like working with Malala and working in that area?

Suzanne: That was incredible. I started at Malala Fund. We’re at the what, four year anniversary of Covid. I started working from ALA Fund a few weeks before Covid, so February of 2020.

And I say that because what a consequential moment to enter a new global organization. So needless to say, there were years that went before I met many of our global team partners. There was almost a year and a half, if not almost two. Before Malala and I ever saw each other in person after having interviewed together.

That’s crazy. That’s crazy. And how, you know now Zoom and Skype and Teams is the norm, but it wasn’t at the time. How do you show up on screen in a way that drives this connection that you say I’m good at? Wow. Thank you. And I work on it constantly because my 4:00 PM Zoom call deserves as much.

Energy and love and attention from me as the one that I might’ve done at 7:00 AM my time, because I’m trying to connect with colleagues in India or Pakistan, who, by the way, aren’t the only ones that should have to take a call at 4:00 AM or 8:00 PM So if you’re gonna really twist yourself into the time zone pretzel, it’s gotta be an equitable twist.

And I had never, even though I lived in DC all those years, I’d never worked for a member of Congress or any celebrity kind of personality. And didn’t want to until the opportunity to work for Malala came up and I thought, wow, if there’s any personality that I wanna get behind, it’s this one who’s advocating for something so fundamental who could be against it? Apparently the Taliban, but other than that. Who could be against 12 years of education to keep girls in the driver’s seat, first of all of their own lives, but then increasingly generationally in the driver’s seat of communities and nation states. Transitioning to girls’ education was not difficult. I didn’t have the technical and real substantive history on the issue that I had maybe had on family planning after all those years, but given that I’ve now moved on to yet another issue.

Forced displacement. What’s clear to me is that leadership itself is the art and the science. That’s what I decided to take on. And so I can be an advocate really for any issue that has human rights and social justice and the wellbeing of people at its heart, and moving to Malala and taught me that I could leverage as much passion for that as agenda as I had for the 16 years prior at PAI.

And that I now have for going on a year and a half at USA for UNHCR. Celebrity driven enterprises are also a layer of complexity, right? Because you have an organization that’s delivering goods against a mission and a strategic plan, and then you have this singular voice that. It’s true that there are donors who would give Malala fund money because they believe in Malala, and we want that to continue and everybody should.

What an important and powerful voice and moral authority she is for girls human rights, but we want them to also really invest in Malala Fund, like this thing that she stood up is really legit and doing really good work and making change in more quote unquote. Traditional NGO ways, that has to be also a powerful motivator to have.

The twofer was really extraordinary from a fundraising perspective, the likes of which I’d not experienced before and felt really, again, use the word humbled by it was an incredible three years, really powerful experience.

Eric: It’s interesting. I sometimes think of communicators and lawyers in the same way, and bear with me because a lot of people don’t like lawyers.

But a lawyer’s job is to tell a story and to help the jury understand a story, to simplify something so that they can get the. Gist of things. And I think that good communicators working for organizations are in many ways the same thing. That you have to be able to create an understanding of what we’re really doing here and why it matters.

And the role that anybody can play in advancing that kind of work. And I have often found that the program folks at various organizations, we have to help them forget all that wonderful knowledge that they have, at least for a moment to be able to translate it into a story that we can all relate to.

And I have always found this to be one of your extremely powerful skills, and it’s no surprise to me that you’ve been able to go from different types of organizations with the same clarity about what’s the story we’re trying to tell here? Why does it matter? Who are we talking to? What do they care about?

And how do we create messages that speak to their values, which is, for me anyway, core communication strategy. And as we were chatting before the talk, he is like, oh, I’m not a communications expert. Actually, that’s not true. You are the epitome. Of a communications expert. How have you taken that understanding about how to communicate and tried to move it through your organization?

How do you think about communications in that way and how do you engage with, frankly, your communications team on this sort of strategic thinking?

Suzanne: It’s such a good question. There’s a couple of things that come to mind. One is that I have to just pick up this little kernel that you dropped there because I had it on my show notes.

I was brainstorming things before we got on the call today. And my line is there’s a real simplicity and salience of message, right? That’s the most powerful. But I write, your technical folks can get really angry, right? It’s more complicated than that, Suzanne. And I’m like, but it’s not actually. And everybody uses, oh, how would you say this to my mom?

I really use that. My mom cares deeply about people, and my mom is incredibly sophisticated in her understanding of the world, and yet what motivates her is connecting her values. To a mission, to a charitable gift, to a partnership, skilled volunteer opportunity with an organization. So that’s the first is just reminding.

The more technical among us to get out of our own way and drive simplicity and salience because it works. I think. Number two, I was the co-editor in chief of my high school newspaper, the REM page. That should surprise no one and one of my early instructors. Famous journalism lesson show, don’t tell.

That’s just number two. And I write a weekly email to my team at USA for UNHCR. So we’re going on 52 plus a few months, probably almost 60 or 62 weekly emails in the book. For the team here. I don’t tell them to bring integrity to the office. I don’t tell them to go on a mission visit with UNHCR with humility.

I show them that that’s how I try to move in the world. That’s how I try to approach partnerships, that even though I’m the CEO, I bring enormous transparency to my operations because it’s really important that I bring integrity to this job, and I’m gonna show you how I do it in order to be on this shared journey with you.

So I think that’s the second thing that you do. And then I think the last thing, and I think this is related to the question you asked, but I, for me, it’s about the value proposition that my organization, USA for UNHCR is bringing into the world is not that we need your money, I. That’s not my value proposition.

It’s not the needs that I have, it’s the needs that I meet. That a very wonderful consultant by the name of Kay Sprinkel Grace taught me years ago as she was helping me think about board development in my early days as a CEO. And a legend. And a legend. It’s not a gift. She’s a legend, right?

She’s, it’s not a gift to you, Suzanne. It’s a gift through you. And it’s not about your budget deficit, it’s about what you’re doing to leverage change and impact in the world, right? And I think that’s part of this communications at the core of social impact, right?

Eric: Oh, you’re singing my song, by the way, anybody who says it’s complicated should have to put a dollar into the happy hour jar.

Suzanne: I like it. I like it because every time you say it’s complicated, you break hearts.

Eric: Yeah and you’re interrupting the flow. And I have always felt that my job as a communicator is to teach everybody else how to tell the story or to give them tools to make it their own story. To communicate about what you do, why it matters sometimes, how you do it, but what good thing happens as a result.

And. Again, as I said, the program teams often have so much very specific program knowledge, which is valuable, and now our jobs are to partner, to translate that, to use it, to adapt it, to form it into inspiring forward thinking, collaborative messages. With our audiences. I think you did that extremely well.

And it’s always a pleasure when you see a CEO who understands it in that way, because I agree with you that that kind of ethos occurs from the top. And we are hierarchical in a sense in most of our organizations. It’s how it is. So that’s, it’s such a great thing to say. And I would just say to CEOs out there, listen to this.

Interview about four or five times because you’ve been an object lesson in how to do this in just a couple minutes that we have left. What are the one or two ways that you’re taking all of this and applying it today at USA for A-UNHCR? Either an issue or a moment, or sometimes even a response to a moment.

How are you thinking about. Building those kinds of relationships so that you can help your audiences understand that you are a vessel to frankly, their own hopes and dreams. I would say.

Suzanne: It’s a great question. It’s funny ’cause you said maybe part of this and I would just finish the sentence. I think I spend a lot of time talking less about the how and more about the why, and that doesn’t mean I don’t know the how.

And it doesn’t mean that I won’t over lunch with the donor or in A-UNHCR colleague briefing that we won’t get into the how. But that’s not what’s moving people. It’s the why. And that also gets to this moment. I don’t consider myself a confrontational person. I don’t love cutting people off at the pass.

And yet when someone says, oh, it’s really complicated, it’s pretty easy for me to say. It’s actually not. With all due respect, it’s actually not that complicated that my human rights. My sense of purpose in livelihood and my agency, and ability to go to bed safe and secure every night. Is just as important as the 50-year-old South Sudanese woman or the 50-year-old Rohingya woman living in a Bangladeshi refugee camp for the past 20 years.

That is shared. It’s actually not complicated at all. So that’s something that I’m trying to like, how do you call people in to this new way of thinking? It’s not about shaming, it’s not about putting people on the defensive. It’s about saying. You’re wrong actually, it’s not complicated at all.

Walk with me on this journey and I’ll show you how absolutely simple it is to love. So that’s one thing that kind of comes to mind. And then I was thinking, I wasn’t gonna go here on this podcast, but I’m going to ’cause it’s, I. Fun. We’re in the middle of a strategic planning process here at USA for UNHCR, and you could say, well, why isn’t your raison detra pretty straightforward?

You raise money for UNHCR mobilize resources and call it a day, Suzanne. But that’s not what motivates people to come into the workplace every day and give them your all 40, 50, 60 hours a week. So we’ve set out this goal for ourselves, and that is to raise, a billion dollars in the next 10 years.

Right now we’re at 140 ish million over the next 10 years to really go on this incredibly powerful and ambitious growth agenda because the mission needs it first and foremost, right? This is, again, back to it’s not my needs, it’s the needs we’re meeting for those who are in impossible circumstances.

Of persecution and violence and conflict, and that should be motivator enough. And I think that bringing that extra like jolt of inspiration and aspiration to the team. I’ll tell your podcast audience privately. Do I know if we’ll make it in 10 years? No, I don’t actually. But that’s almost beside the point because.

We are gonna try to do it together, and we are gonna allow ourselves really big and bold and audacious thinking and planning to try to get there. That’s actually an example of where the journey is gonna be even more fun than the destination, although raising a billion dollars will be really fun, the journey.

So that’s, I think, a couple of things that I’m thinking about and iterating with the extraordinary team here. That keeps me pretty jazzed.

Eric: It’s amazing work. I so admire you and I’ve enjoyed having the chance to work with you from close and watch you from afar. Thank you so much. I. For speaking with us today, I have a feeling you will make your goal, but even if you don’t, I know you’re gonna learn a lot along the way and you’re gonna help a lot of people along the way, and I just, I deeply appreciate what you’re doing.

Suzanne Ehlers, executive director, CEO of USA for UNHCR. Thank you so much for speaking to us today.

Suzanne: Thank you. It was such a pleasure. What a fun conversation.


Kirk: And we’re back. So we have a little bit of an issue with this one, because we have we have a career resume issue with this one.

There’s just, there’s a lot of ground to cover here. Gimme anything. There’s there I was at the Wallace Global Fund. There was read my own consulting practice where you guys crossed paths. There’s Population Action International at an incredible tenure. There’s the Malala Fund, and then most recently. A for UNHCR, but with that entire roadmap of experiences, success.

I am in love with the fact that we got to hear that the origin story starts with the temp agency called Help Unlimited, and Suzanne’s willingness to show up at the Wallace Global Fund and do whatever was asked for and to the best of our abilities. And I’m telling you, Eric, there’s something about these very humble origin stories.

So I, I think we should rebrand the entire podcast. It should be called Tell Us What You Did and and it should all be storied about our most humble. Origin stories that we bring forward with us into the work. Because when you talk about all the things that Suzanne is doing, I actually feel like there’s a through line that goes all the way back to that temp agency.

Help Unlimitedness, Suzanne’s willingness to be this young upstart, do whatever’s needed at the Wallace Global Fund.

Eric: The another thing about Suzanne, and I hope this comes through, but maybe it doesn’t, is that from way back when I worked with her, when she was a consultant to the Center for a New American Dream, she understood communications.

Yeah. She got it from the beginning. And she supported it at Wallace Global. She was a great communicator at PAI and at Malala and now, and I think that she is one of those folks that you call her up, ask her opinion. She’s busy, but if she hasn’t minute, she’ll take your call and she’ll talk to you about communications, about organizing, about how do you build large constituencies for doing the right thing.

How do you serve people effectively? Yeah, she always got comps.

Kirk: It’s in every aspect of your conversation with her. And I have to tell you like and uses the word upstream, I’m just madly in love with anybody who uses the word upstream and, talks about how important it’s to be at the beginning with all this stuff.

But she so clearly, intuitively understands what this communications work is about yet has also had incredible. Just, an experience and has accumulated experience learning along the way. But it brings me back to this age old question, like how much of this is just in the person, like Suzanne just has the DNA to actually do this work with empathy.

You talk about the empathy that Susan always brings to the work. How much of it’s just gotta be. You as a person to allow you to navigate this field and do the work so well because she’s applied that sensibility in so many different contexts and with such great impact. That’s the thing that strikes me about the sort of death and breadth of this resume that we’re looking at when we talk about everything that Suzanne’s accomplished.

Eric: And just I tire. And it’s actually not just a tire, it’s an enthusiastic tire. I have never once had a conversation with Suzanne in which she wasn’t enthusiastically energetic about what she was doing, and. That is it’s a, it’s either a talent for making it look like you’re enthusiastically energetic when you don’t feel it on that day or it is just a gift and it’s maybe a little combination of all but I’ve never known her to not just leap out of her chair to talk about her work and how excited she has always been about.

Doing what she’s doing and yeah, no wonder she has 10,000 FO followers on LinkedIn and I got eight. Because ’cause she just, it’s infectious, it’s catching and people wanna be, they wanna hear from her, they wanna understand what she’s thinking, they wanna see what she sees

Kirk: And takes big swings.

And so before we talk about USA for UNHCR and what an audacious agenda that is unfolding there under HER two religion leadership. Can we just talk for a little bit about population action International? She was there for 16 years and this whole effort to reframe reproductive rights and emphasize the importance of empowerment for women in terms of career, education, choice, that there was such a, there was so much communications work that was done in that field for so many years and you were involved with it for years at the Heal Foundation, Eric that tenure year, that 16 years that she spent there.

And tripled the effectiveness of the organization and extended its work across so many different domains. This work to actually empower women globally to be in a place to actually. Exercise their rights, their most fundamental rights for the choices they’re gonna make in their lives. It, I don’t even know that you could say enough the impact that that work has and will continue to have for years and years.

Wouldn’t you say that, that population action international tenure is, was is like an all time historic great tenure of accomplishment in terms of the work she accomplished there.

Eric: Absolutely. And when you travel and are at meetings or even just out in the field, a you see. PAI projects everywhere.

You could be in some country and you’re walking down the road and there’s a clinic there and you see the logo. You’re like, wow, this organization is out there and doing incredible work and people are to a person. This is a gold standard organization. They’re doing amazing things.

They’re effective, they’re treating women in places where they need it, where they’re able to get supplies and materials and services and all that stuff. A great, a truly great organization. And it’s just one of those things that, especially in the reproductive health field, everybody, it’s a consensus, amazing place.

Kirk: And that’s somebody ready to take a challenge, right? I thought it was interesting that Suzanne moved from the funder’s desk. Into the grantee desk. And that’s always such an interesting arc. I think, and you’ve talked about this, like when you’re providing the resources, you’re hanging out, watching everybody in the playground do their thing and Suzanne you know what, no, I’m gonna, I’m gonna take a jump, but I’m gonna go into the deep end.

I’m going to population action international, let’s work at scale. Some people actually like to do work,

Eric: Kirk. Oh man, that’s, some people like to do it and I have a lot of respect for them.

Kirk: So most the Malala Fund, and I actually love the reflection about its interesting dynamic to Ballad celebrity versus the mission.

I feel like there’s a dynamic, ’cause again, man, she’s such a great leader and she talks about this in terms of the work she’s doing at USA for UNHCR, but. That dynamic around, is it the person, the personality or our mission as an organization. I feel like that’s a tension that’s at play everywhere, always, regardless of you’ve got a big global luminary celebrity leadership or you just have a strong c-suite.

That balancing act is, and again, in what you see in Suzanne, I feel is just this intuitive ability to navigate and bridge those dynamics. At least that’s what it seems like to me.

Eric: And I think that her job right now is really challenging. And for starters, try and raise a billion dollars in 10 years.

Let’s talk about that, which have a nice day. But the work that. UNHCR is doing, whereas on the one hand you go, oh my God, refugees, who doesn’t wanna help? Refugees, but the the problem is that refugees right now are, is a very complicated conversation and in the United States, it becomes an even more complicated conversation.

It’s highly politicized. And to be able to have that kind of ambition and the, again, the energy and enthusiasm with which she attacks this work. Is extraordinary. I have no doubt in my mind she’s gonna raise that billion dollars. I don’t know how she’s gonna do it, but she’s gonna do it.

Kirk: So you got into a really beautiful conversation about leadership and the elements of leadership and messaging and how that relates together.

And I actually want to retrace this stuff so it here, because I wrote all the stuff down, I got put on my wall, and one of the first concepts is this notion of people.

Eric: Rock concert posters, right?

Kirk: No. I put this on my wall. I believe you ’cause this notion of simplicity first, that we can always simplify these messages and we can find a way to connect people’s values to mission.

By simplifying and motivating around what people most deeply care about. And obviously the work that she’s doing with USA for UNHCR is an, a crucial, beautiful expression of this, despite the complexity. But, pushing through the fear people have, pushing through the complexity to find that connection around just core values.

But I have to tell you, and she talked about it, your technical folks can get angry simplifying these messages so that they went it’s the challenge. We can. Continually face, isn’t it? Like how do we distill this down to its basic elements so that people can connect and they’re involved and they’re engaged instead of pushed away?

Eric: Yeah, it’s really true, and I don’t know how to solve this problem to help people who are on the program side. So-called program side, understand that helping people understand what this work means, why it matters, is. Not necessarily a technical exercise. Yeah. It’s not about providing a lot of research or a lot of statistics.

Sometimes it’s about telling a powerful story and we all have stories and I don’t wanna belabor this point too much, but if you’re a program person out there, the communications. People and the communications about your work involves everything. It involves the storytelling and the research and the statistics, but it’s also how are we gonna connect with these audiences in a way that they will get and remember, and then share, and those we want.

We need to bring all those pieces together in, in a beautiful little. Whatever in a beautiful brownie, as a Shanker would say. And I think that’s what she’s so good at. Yeah. And I dare say that she’s great in helping her own program teams understand the value of communications and how it advances their work, because she’s a great communicator.

But I’ve, we’ve long said this, we’ve said this a million times on the show. We, I’ve said it throughout my entire career. We’re not trying to dumb anybody’s work down. What we’re trying to do is make it. Valuable. Yeah. And shareable and important and fundable. All of those pieces have to come together and that’s what she does with, such Beautiful.

Kirk: And what’s the next element of that show? Don’t tell. We’re gonna show what’s happening and she models how she does that as a ceo. And I have to tell you, she talked about writing a weekly letter to her entire team and describing how many those that’s been entertained. Just the discipline there to show up for that letter.

Find the time to do that. Have the space for the reflection. Make it something folks wanna want to digest and be part of. But then, I’m gonna show integrity. I’m not gonna tell integrity. I’m gonna show humility. I’m not gonna talk about humility. The show don’t tell and I have to tell you.

We’ve got a big practice at our place around experience and just providing people experiences. It’s not about the words we use, it’s not about all this stuff. It’s about how you actually get to create the experience so that you can actually draw conclusions for yourself. And I feel like it’s the big zig in our zag that we need to find a little bit more it’s like this in real life, this real let’s create real meaningful experiences. Let’s show what this looks like. Don’t just tell people because it feels like with whatever’s happening in the social media landscape too, we’re we’re shouting into the wind increasingly anyway, so what do you think about that show? Don’t tell consideration though, across all of this.

Eric: I’d love to have something to show, so instead I just tell, but No, there you go. I think it’s totally right. Of course it’s the way you build trust is you actually. Demonstrate what it is you did. A lot of folks, they just wanna tell what they did without showing their work and so Yeah, for sure.

And her weekly email, the team, that’s such a wonderful idea. And

Kirk: Oh, great.

Eric: I had a colleague at Gila Foundation, Ruth Levine, who wrote a weekly. She wrote a weekly email. It was one of the best reads ever, and I’m pretty sure she made it public. She ended up turning that into a public thing. Oh, wow.

And now she’s at the Packard Foundation. She’s such a smart. A great leader, and those are the kinds of folks who let you in on what they’re thinking. And some of the ideas are gonna carry the day, and some of them won’t. And they’ll tell you what went well and what didn’t. And you really have a sense of who this person is, and now you know how to work with them.

And so I think that’s such a great way of bringing people closer to you and engaging them in really meaningful ways as opposed to just here are the 10 things I did today.

Kirk: And then this final consideration, and this is so beautifully framed and described our value proposition. Is not the needs we have, it’s the needs we meet.

And that guidance she received from the world’s famous consultant, it’s not a gift to you, it’s a gift through you. It’s driving value into the world.

Eric: Kay Sprinkel Grace was her name.

Kirk: So tell, talk about that. You mentioned that name. Say that name again, ’cause people have it.

Eric: Kay Sprinkel Grace, she’s one of the great fundraising consultants. I believe she’s still available. She’s still at it. And look her up. She’s amazing.

Kirk: Maybe we bring on the podcast because that is that’s, that is like truly beautiful artful ways of describing actually what’s true here. Like we’re not running around with our own deficits. We’re running around with our understanding and our capacity for how we can bring change in the world. Imply. And apply real change. And then I want to close with this question is why the single most motivating concept in the history of the world? You always go to these goofy questions. Is there anything more important than why? Because this entire conversation ends with this great.

Conversation about the strategic planning exercise that Suzanne’s leading her group through so they can get to this audacious strategy of we’re gonna raise a billion dollars and why? What’s the why behind that billion dollars? What’s certainly meeting the needs in the moment in terms of the global crises and naming that there have been 40.

Crises just in the last year involving forced displacement of people is just overwhelming. But it’s not just about that. It’s also providing the why to motivate the people showing up for the work every day so that they show up with the intensity. And I just I feel like that notion of why, what is the why behind this?

It’s the. It’s the thing that’s always dancing around the corner of our eyes. And I have to tell you, by the way, I was listening to this conversation, I was thinking for all these people that have come through the podcast and talked about their programs and the different things they work on, they’re also compelling.

I couldn’t imagine being a major donor, a funder a grant officer or anybody having to make choices between these different strategies because, ’cause I listened to Suzanne Ehlers and I’m like, we know people who could write that check. Today they could write one check for the billion dollars. It, should it really be a billion?

Should it really be 10 billion? Given the scale of the need that’s out there. But yeah. Isn’t it the, why doesn’t it always come back to the why?

Eric: Yeah, I, we often ask the question a variation of that, which is so that what good thing happens, because we folks often talk about outputs.

And then they never get to the why. So that what happens. And I think in communications, that is a particularly good framing to use. So someone will say, all right, we’re gonna get out there, get the word out. It’s so the what? For what purpose? So that people get the word why, what the, what’s the thing?

I’m gonna tell you a very short story which is when I was, I taught English in Japan and I had this student named Hosokawa. And Hosokawa heart didn’t really speak any English. And I would, he would ask me a question like, how are you today, Mr. Brown, Mr. Eric? And I would say, I am good. And he’ll go, why?

And I’d say, because the sun is shining. He’d say, why? I don’t know, certain weather conditions are prevailing over the sea of Japan. Why? And he just kept asking why it was the only one of the few words that he knew. But whenever I get into these conversations about some act activity that’s in search of a strategy, I will chin channel my inner Hoka and just keep asking why and.

When you’ve got your, when you really understand what you’re trying to achieve, that it is much easier to answer that question. And if you don’t, goodness, and you’re just trying to do activities, you run into a brick wall pretty quickly and they go, ah. ’cause I think so. And then you go, okay no.

Let’s have a conversation about why you think so. Yeah. So I ch channeling my inner awa has been one of the things that has helped me understand or ask better questions. But Suzanne is constantly asking what good thing are we doing? How is it making a difference? What’s the point of all this?

Kirk: My goodness. USA for UNHCR. What a why, what a rationale, what a contribution. And Suzanne, I am so glad that you have 10,000 followers on LinkedIn. I’m so glad people are finding you and hearing you. It’s necessary. It’s needed. And it, Eric, what a glimpse into some really important work. Let’s wish all the best to Suzanne and her team for raising this billion dollars and getting it out because as she said, it’s not her needs.

It’s not the organization’s needs, it’s the needs that are being met in the world. And just hearing the two little stories of the 50-year-old women living in refugee camps where they’ve been for the last 20 or 30 years is, it’s a pretty good why.

Eric: I’d say absolutely.

Kirk: So Eric. Awesome. Suzanne. Thank you so much for joining us and man, what a what a conversation. Thank you so much.

Eric: And as a reminder, this episode is dropping just before World Refugee Day, which is June 20th, so that’ll be next week-ish, I believe. So I would just ask folks to pay attention to engage in those kinds of conversations and to share this conversation with your colleagues in the context of World Refugee Day, we’re learning a lot about how do we meet people’s needs, and Suzanne is really at the front of that conversation.

Kirk: Awesome. Eric, thank you, Suzanne. Thank you. And please everybody drive your dollars to USA for UNHCR because they need the support. They’re meeting you, need the world. Let’s help them get that billion dollars. Thanks everybody.


Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…

Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.

Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.

Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.

Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at

Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.

Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.