Disclaimer: This podcast interview was recorded on July 21, 2021, with the discussion largely focused on Malala Fund’s mission and work and the impact of the COVID pandemic on their organization.

Things have changed since then, and Malala’s voice and Malala Fund’s work has been in response to the Afghanistan crisis.


The following is a conversation between Suzanne Ehlers, the CEO of the Malala Fund, and Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving.

Suzanne Ehlers, CEO of Malala Fund

Denver: The Malala Fund is an international nonprofit organization that advocates for girls’ education. It was co-founded by Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Laureate and Pakistani activist for female education, and her father Ziauddin. Their goal – to amplify girls’ voices and assure that every girl has access to 12 years of free, safe, and quality education.

And here to share with us more about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is Suzanne Ehlers, the CEO of the Malala Fund

Welcome to the Business of Giving, Suzanne!

Suzanne: Thank you Denver. It’s great to be here. 

The organization started really with their work in the Swat Valley in Pakistan as early as Malala, at age 11, really beginning to lift up the need for girls’ education, not just her need for education.

Denver: Tell listeners a little bit more about the history of The Malala Fund and of its mission. 

Suzanne: Well, you said it beautifully already. Malala and Ziauddin Yousafzai at the center of it. And I think that the organization started really with their work in the Swat Valley in Pakistan as early as Malala, at age 11, really beginning to lift up the need for girls’ education, not just her need for education. She came from a family that was going to support her to get educated no matter what. But really putting forward the need for all girls everywhere to get educated.

She was blogging anonymously for the BBC under the name of Gul Makai. It’s a name that you will see in the early days of Malala Fund. We called our education champions Gul Makai Champions at one point in time. 

Denver: Oh, great!

Suzanne: I think the world knows that there was an attack on Malala’s life for her activism and for her bravery and her courage when it came to girls’ education.

She recovered beautifully and strongly, and her voice and mission more powerful than ever. She and her father founded Malala Fund in 2013 to champion every girl’s right to 12 years, as you said, of a free, safe, and quality education. The Nobel Peace Prize would come in 2014, and the organization’s evolution and transformation in the years since.

And here we are in 2021, eight-plus years into this journey of girls’ education, with Malala currently serving as our board chair, and certainly, she and her father are still deeply and actively involved as co-founders of the organization.

Denver: It’s been an incredible journey. I do remember Angelina Jolie – I think was the first major contribution that came in somewhere around 2013. Would that be right? 

Suzanne: That is. That’s what I understand from the history. And there are some initial gifts and work that we did as an organization that are still at the heart of who we are, kind of legacy projects, if you will. But what we did after those initial years is we really began to fine-tune and zero in on what our best value-add and our best contribution to the field could be. 

And I know we’ll talk about that together today, but that’s what the evolution of our work has looked like, but you’re right on that initial gift. 

Denver: Suzanne, there are more than 130 million girls out of school. Why is that? 

Suzanne: Oh gosh. So many reasons, and yet–let’s be honest–none of them are really good reasons, and they’re all irrational in their own right. There is conflict. There’s poverty. There’s gender discrimination. There’s early enforced marriage of children. 

There really is this assumption in many parts of the world still, that girls are better off not educated, at home, supporting the family, being married, having children – all of which are important and wonderful things that many girls and women go on to choose to do. I think Malala Fund is arguing that no one should ever go on without having first been educated with those 12 years of safe, free and quality education. 

So, there’s a lot of different—I mean, there’s also lack of really good school infrastructure. There’s a lack of the quality teacher workforce in many parts of the world. There’s systemic barriers that keep all kids out of school – disproportionately girls, we would argue. But there’s also some social barriers that really stand in the way of girls getting into the classroom. And that’s what we’re trying to break down in partnership with local experts all over the world. 

We know that when girls are educated, again, with quality education free, safe education – we find that they are participants at peacemaking tables. We find that they enter the paid workforce in ways that build and boost countries’ economies and productivity.

Denver: Let me ask you about the value of a girl’s education and do so in the context of interconnectedness. Because if there’s ever been a time, at least in my lifetime, that we realize how all these problems are connected, it certainly would be now during this pandemic. And I think we do realize that fixed solutions… going after a singular problem – it doesn’t work. 

So, if you look at girls’ education through that lens, what’s the impact that it has, not only on the girl, but the community, the society, and our world? 

Suzanne: It’s such a great question. No matter what I’ve done in the nonprofit space, Denver, I’ve always been interested in these issues that sit at the nexus of each other. This idea that we’re in competition with each other when we shouldn’t be; we should be in collaboration with each other. This idea that your intervention makes my intervention more powerful and vice versa. So that question for me is, listen, I think the issue of girls’ education is enough to get anyone motivated and energized anywhere, anytime. 

The truth is that policymakers and decision-makers often have a lot of other pressing demands. Think about this last 16 to 18 months of COVID. We can understand why policymakers say, “Yes, education. Yes, girls’ education. But first, I have to solve these things.” I think we would argue that those things are better solved when we have first invested in girls’ education. 

So, we know that when girls are educated – again, with quality education– free, safe education – we find that they are participants at peacemaking tables. We find that they enter the paid workforce in ways that build and boost countries’ economies and productivity. And in fact, figures suggest that there’s $30 trillion left on the table because we don’t educate girls in all the ways that they deserve to be educated. 

I think the COVID pandemic taught us that girls’ education is absolutely intertwined with public health and global health norms and needs. So that’s another way that girls’ education is contributing to a better social good and social betterment. 

An area of exploration for Malala Fund in the last year has been climate change. So, we’ve got a climate crisis. I think there’s increasing recognition that we all have to be doing our part. We’re really clear that girls’ education makes a bonafide, well-evidenced data-driven contribution to solving the climate crisis. So, yet another opportunity for the two movements to get together, look at each other’s data and evidence story, and say, “Oh my gosh. We’re better if we do this together.”

And that’s, for me, the power of working on an issue that really starts with women and girls and their agency, their decisionmaking, their power, their voice amplifying their needs. Girls’ education certainly is the one that’s closest to our hearts. But really any of those, I consider them to be cornerstone issues that truly connect with anything out there that’s pressing a social issue in our time today.

I think that all of the acceleration we had seen as a global community around digital learning and e-learning, we also figured out that we have to put a special lens on girls’ needs as it relates to that digital learning and really need to tackle the digital divide that is very gendered in ways that we knew rhetorically, but we hadn’t really seen manifest in practice.

Denver: That’s wonderful insight. And that climate change thing, I read that report. That was incredibly powerful. And it’s not something that you normally think about. Because again, we still have siloed minds that no matter what you try to do to look horizontally, we’ve been brought up to look vertically. But you are obviously pushing the envelope to give us that peripheral vision that we need. 

You spoke about COVID, and we know that we have an education crisis as a result of it. Millions of students haven’t been able to learn during this pandemic. And again, that’s disproportionately been girls. You captured this all in a report called “Stop the Setback.” And what are some of the steps we need to take, Suzanne, to build the world back better, post-pandemic, not just for girls, but really for everyone? 

Suzanne: I think that when COVID first hit, we were clear that we already had 130 million girls out of school who wanted and needed to be in school. 

And then we had this moment in the world, let’s remember, just as human beings, that a school stopped. Every kid was out of school. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place for digital learning. We didn’t really understand the challenges of remote learning, and we were all forced to do it overnight.

In low resource settings, places where the internet is unstable, places where electricity isn’t even a guarantee, how are you going to do remote learning with digital Wi-Fi access when in my town of Washington, D.C., I had a hard time keeping my school-aged daughter connected and aligned?

So that’s the first point to make is that COVID just said to us, “Wow. You don’t have the infrastructure here to continue to provide education in a time of disaster and crisis.” So that’s the first lesson – is that we’ve got to make sure that however we either build back or recover or plan for the future, that we have a Plan B when the shock to the system happens.

I think the second thing we didn’t realize is that girls would be called into so many other duties, even exponentially beyond what they’re already called into. So, when the crisis hit and when COVID hit, we found that families were economically paralyzed. And so, we know that girls were almost immediately put in service to families’ economic needs. And once that’s established, that’s a hard thing to then pull girls out of when those school doors reopen.

So, our figures began to suggest that once COVID subsides, if it ever does fully, that we may have 20 million more girls out of school who would never go back. And I’m going to tell you that personally, I think the number is higher than that. I think there’s a lot of girls that we can’t even reach and fully count, but that just means that that 130 million is now 150-plus million girls who should be in school.

We had a lot of solutions in the moment of COVID–I won’t go there until you ask me to–but with our partners and their national response and what they were doing in their communities as local experts and advocates. But I think your question was really about the global learning, and that’s where we were in the face of the pandemic. 

And also, let’s say, back to that digital divide and the remote learning piece, let’s also be clear that there’s a really gendered element to the digital divide. And then if there are limited devices in the household – guess what? The girl student is not getting them first. If there is really limited bandwidth in terms of the internet or electricity – guess what? Girls are going to get the last of the lot, if any, at all.

So, I think that all of the acceleration we had seen as a global community around digital learning and e-learning, we also figured out that we have to put a special lens on girls’ needs as it relates to that digital learning and really need to tackle the digital divide that is very gendered in ways that we knew rhetorically, but we hadn’t really seen manifest in practice. And it was an eye-opener for Malala Fund and many of our partners 

Denver: And that gender divide is really not just with girls. It’s with women, too. I think of the 1.4 billion people in this world who are unbanked – the majority of those are women. Fifty-five percent. If you look at internet use, there’s 200 million fewer women, fewer people who are women who have access to the internet than men. And women have 21% less cell phones than men. So, it just continues on right through adulthood. 

So, you talked about some of the solutions, and maybe I have an idea of where we want to go with that, and that would be your Education Champion Network. And that supports local advocates, and advances girls’ secondary education around the world. You do this in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Turkey, in Nigeria, a whole bunch of others. Tell us about it. And maybe you could share one or two stories with us. 

Suzanne: I’d love to. I always love to share the stories. In the introduction, Denver, I mentioned that this was something in the very earliest stages of Malala Fund’s existence.

At the time it was called the Gul Makai Network. We now call it the Education Champion Network, and that’s really just a better name for what these individuals are – education champions and advocates in their own communities, in their own countries, in really powerful but interestingly, very different ways.

So right now, we’re in about 10 countries. We’re growing that by two-ish countries a year. COVID obviously slowed down some of that expansion, but I hope that one day we’re in as many as 20 or 30 countries around the world, working on the front lines of education access for girls. 

And what we do on our side, we do a couple of things. One thing is that we provide financial resources to these education experts and champions. They’re either looking to make policy changes in their community. They’re either looking to train more female teachers in the teacher workforce. Maybe they are looking to help a community grapple with some of the gendered norms that keep girls out of school, like early enforced marriage or menstrual hygiene management. So, whatever the issue is that feels to the champion like the biggest barrier to girls getting into school and staying in school safely, that’s what we want to support them to do. 

We provide financial resources. And I would say that in this moment of democratizing philanthropy, Malala Fund is on that journey as well. And thinking a lot about who we are and how we show up as philanthropists in our own right. We’re not an endowed fund. We’re raising funds in order to redistribute those funds, but that redistribution responsibility is an important one. We try to do it multi-year. We try to do it as flexibly as possible. We try to give our grantees, our partners, our champions, as much bandwidth as they need to really innovate and be creative in the face of some of the biggest challenges to girls’ education ever. 

So that cohort of champions in any given year is a three-year grant investment from Malala Fund that is coupled with a ton of other things. It’s coupled with a national table around building collective power for advocacy. It’s coupled with affiliation with Malala Fund, where and when that’s useful. And of course, the global voice and reach that Malala and Ziauddin Yousafzai have. 

And then of course, it’s also coupled with what we call applied learning. I think you will often hear this called “capacity building” at other places. We call it applied learning because it really is tailored to an individual champion and advocate’s need for his or her own development. 

So, if it’s governance, if it’s board building, if it’s fundraising for their own efforts, if it’s really fine tuning their advocacy chops when it comes to policy change, Malala Fund is trying to provide a whole suite of opportunities around learning and professional development that quite frankly make our investment and other donors’ investment in that champions organization that much more effective.

So that’s the core of our work. It’s our signature program, something that we’re incredibly proud of what it’s achieved. And in COVID, we went into overdrive with that network to really achieve safety and real change for girls in the face of the pandemic.

Denver: I think a lot of people appreciate you’re a grant-making organization to the extent that you are, and as you say, you’re not just giving them financial resources. You’re giving them all the wraparound services they need, customized to what their need is in order to support it. But I’m going to come back, Suzanne, and ask you for a story. 

Suzanne: All right. That’s right. I didn’t volunteer it from the beginning. 

There’s a couple that I’d give. One I’m going to give because I just saw her in Washington, D.C., and this is Nayla Fahed. She’s in Lebanon. She’s working actually at this digital divide question. Tabshoura is the name of the platform that she’s helped create with her organization. Not internet dependent. Not Wi-Fi dependent. Not even electricity dependent. Pre-loaded devices that kids are going home with.

And in Lebanon, importantly, both the Syrian refugee community, but also the Lebanese school child community – what an incredible challenge Lebanon as a country is facing right now. And to see Nayla in person and to really share with her over a meal in Washington just a couple of weeks ago, what an incredible set of devastations that country has faced.And we all know that children, and again, particularly girls in the face of death, such devastation, are disproportionately impacted. 

So, we have been investing in Nayla and her work, her innovation, to really make sure that these preloaded devices with national curriculum, and the tools and the skills that girls and other children need to learn to get through these moments of remote and crisis learning are strong.

Another example, that’s also in the technology realm, although low tech which is fun, is a woman by the name of Kiki James. Her organization is called ACE Charity, working in Nigeria. We’ve been long involved in work in Northern Nigeria. I would say that our co-founder Ziauddin is a bit of a local celebrity in many parliamentarian and elected official circles in Northern Nigeria.

And Kiki has done radio programming. So not internet, not smart devices. Not looking for internet or electricity. Looking for radio programs that are adaptable and appropriate for the circumstance and allow children to stay connected to lessons during times of other challenges and strife. We’ve been investing in Kiki and her work at this charity for many years.

She’s part of, then that advocacy table that we convene so that she can have the opportunity to rub shoulders with, and to learn from, and to hear from, and to collaborate with other Nigerian experts and advocates so that they’re building collective power in response to the challenge for girls’ education.

So, two great examples, from Lebanon and Nigeria both. And really stellar examples of what the Education Champion Network is trying to achieve, and the leadership that we’re investing in. 

Denver: You gave a wonderful flavor there. The first four words of your mission are “to amplify girls’ voices.” So, let’s talk a little bit about that. I know one of the manifestations of it would be Assembly. So, tell us about that work. 

Suzanne: I think that there is a lot of lip service paid to the voice and perspective of girls out there. We want to hear from them. They’re the leaders of the future. We have to follow their lead. And the truth is, Denver, I don’t see a lot of organizations really taking the time to consider: What does it mean if you’re really going to center the voice and perspective of girls and young women? What do you have to shift on your side? How do you have to really cede control, and not be the rule maker, but the table setter for their change and their amplification?

And I do think that that’s what Assembly has done. It’s a digital publication and newsletter that Malala Fund created. We consider Malala its original creative energy. It was launched in 2018, and it is a for-girls and by-girls’ publication. Comes out twice a month and features the stories of girls from all over the world.

And I’ll tell you that our programs and advocacy colleagues would say that in many ways, the communications and creative support of these girls really does lead and innovate our thinking of what we should be doing on the program side. If you’ve ever read some of the stories in Assembly around girls in Afghanistan thinking about artificial intelligence, girls in Nigeria thinking about racial justice, girls in Sri Lanka thinking about climate change impacts –  these girls and their stories are literally like leagues ahead of where the rest of us are in terms of our program fix and our advocacy design. 

So, Assembly, I think, is an innovator, bar none, and Malala Fund as an organization needs to always be thinking about: How do we leverage the intelligence and the content of Assembly to inform the organization’s greater work? Features, interviews, essays, illustrations, poems, photography – all of it. Our really beautiful piece. It’s now on Instagram as well, which is yet another social media channel that we’re able to access and reach more girls who are interested. 

So yes, that’s a little bit… one example of the way in which we are really lifting up and centering the voice of girls and our storytelling and our impact-making.

Denver: You’re absolutely right, that’s what most nonprofits are missing. We’re all stuck in our ways. And if you speak to young people, they’re 10 years ahead of us. You see fundraising by TikTok. Well, they were on this before I even knew what TikTok was, but it’s across the board. It’s everything. It’s where the future is. And they’re living in that world, and we’re never going to be of that world either. So, they know what’s coming. 

Well, you’re talking a lot about the grant-making but obviously, to make grants, you have to raise money. How has the pandemic impacted your fundraising? And have you done any different, creative, innovative things that have brought some new revenue in that might even stick with the organization post-pandemic, if we ever get there? 

Suzanne: That’s a great question. I think the first thing we did in the pandemic, and we touched on this a little bit earlier, but just to be clear, that as a grant-maker in the time of the pandemic, we brought flexibility, trust, responsiveness.

We were, as we learned from some of our partners, we were the first funder to reach out to some of them and to say, “Whoa. This is a different moment in time. Tell us what you need– If you’ve got to stop in place, if you need to assess needs, reallocate budget line items, have a little bit more flexibility in deadlines and timelines.” And so, in that instance, I think we tried to walk the talk. It’s what we wanted from our donors, so it’s certainly the way we had to behave as a funder of so many great pieces of work around the world. So, I’d start there. 

Then in terms of COVID and the impact that it had on us, there’s a couple of things. The truth is, Denver—I feel really grateful and privileged to be able to say this—is that we were able to really mobilize revenue last year in a way that outpaced a lot of expectations. I think we did that because we showed that we had a COVID response. We showed that we were paying attention to the moment, and that we really understood the disproportionate impact that COVID would have on girls’ education and that we were ready to respond. So, I think we gave donors– both new and existing– an extra reason to invest in us because we showed them we had extra work to do to keep pace with the challenge of the time. 

I think the thing that— digital, of course, had always been a part of Malala Fund’s fundraising strategy. But boy, last year, we’re no longer doing events. We’re no longer accepting wonderful gifts from kids all over the world who are doing bake sales for Malala or selling books at their garage sales. Because we no longer had that organic feed that was really a not insignificant part of our overall revenue picture, we really went hard on digital. And what amazing returns. 

What–you talked about it earlier–TikTok, Instagram, the Facebook fundraising that we were able to do. Malala’s voice and Malala Fund’s presence on Twitter. All of it added up to a digital community that stepped in in a time of need and did incredible things for our revenue picture.

And the truth is,  that we raise funds to redistribute funds. So, if you’re making an investment in Malala Fund, the truth is you’re making an investment in Nayla and Kiki. And so, we knew that their needs were so great in the moment of COVID. I feel so grateful to our donor community for investing extra in us so that we could really bridge the gap that many nonprofits and advocates experienced in the time of COVID. So that digital strategy will stay with us, for sure. 

We also, I think, really thought about ways to put our principal, Malala, in touch with more donors because she wasn’t doing fundraising trips. So, what does it mean to do even to a 10 or a 15-minute Zoom call with a donor who’s been by our side for 5-, 6-, 7 years, and really helping her sharpen her skills and thinking around that donor conversation and what their return on investment looks like when they’re partnering with Malala Fund. So that’s also something that I hope will continue. Given the incredible demands on her capacity and her bandwidth, we’ll take all that we can get. But she is a really strong asset for the organization as everyone knows though. We do that as well.

Denver: It’s really interesting. I had the chairman of CCS Fundraising on recently, and they had just done a survey. And according to the people who had done Zoom major gift solicitations, more people said they were effective in doing it that way than in-person. 

And I was shocked by that. But part of it is, I think, that there’s an attention and there’s a focus, and there’s not a bunch of stuff going on outside the office or whatever. And they intended to continue doing it. And very, very few people thought it was less effective. A lot thought it was the same. But I said, “Boy, that’s something to keep in mind.”

You’ve talked a lot about these issues already, but I want to just see if there’s anything else in terms of maybe how the norms of philanthropy need to be challenged, and how philanthropy can be more responsive to a growing global nonprofit organization like the Malala Fund? 

Suzanne: I love that kind of question. There’s a couple of things I’ve been thinking about. I think that– I said it earlier, the democratization of philanthropy. And that sounds like heady language, but what I mean by that is more people and more ideas feeding the way that resources should be distributed. 

So, we just recently–and I shared this on LinkedIn with my own professional community—we just did an internal session not too long ago on the model of participatory grantmaking. So, what does it mean to have a shared sense of ownership over resources? What does it mean when you ask a community in which you’re investing to make the decisions about where those investments should go? 

What does it mean to say, I want you to help us design a climate and girls’ education response from the front lines of climate youth activism and girls’ education activism? And really go in with no preconceived notions of what it should look like. So, those are some of the ideas we’re coming up with, and I love to see that partnership from kind of more tried and true institutional foundations and corporate foundations to say, “Let’s get in partnership with those who are on the front lines and really be open to changing the way we do business and the way that we measure and count impact in this moment of total and utter disruption.”

So that’s one piece. And I say that and we have that. We have a number of donors who are doing that with us and alongside us. I hope that that just continues to influence the way philanthropy’s thinking. 

Donors that invest in an organization in a multi-year, flexible, unrestricted way know that organization, and have more influence and say in that organization than any other donor on the roster. 

Denver: It’s going to be tough. Because I know a lot of these organizations that are ceding power to the local community, but they’re really not. And they think that they are. And I always thought a great example of this is really reaching out and asking the community their opinion of what needs to be done. And they’ll be in a room, Suzanne, with the staff person and with the consultant. And both of them are getting paid, but we would never pay the people from the community for their wisdom. 

And that’s right from the onset an idea in terms of the power dynamic and “We’re giving you just an opportunity to share your thoughts. We’re not going to pay you for them.” And that, in and of itself, is part of, I think, the mindset which is part of the problem. 

Suzanne: Well, it’s interesting. And I also think that’s something – the voice of community. Another thing that’s been honestly volleyed about for decades. I started my career in private philanthropy and at the time, we were innovators, and we were doing a lot of general operating support and core support. That’s gone on to be an issue du jour and not, and on again. 

At the end of the day, as the CEO of a nonprofit–now for the better part of a decade, only at Malala Fund for about a year and a half–but fundraising, key fundraiser for a long time, what I will tell you is that donors that invest in an organization in a multi-year, flexible, unrestricted way know that organization and have more influence and say in that organization than any other donor on the roster. 

I think of the institutional foundations that have supported the places where I’ve worked and have said, “Here, this is the money that we’re going to give you every year, and we’re going to do it for the next three- to five years. And we’re investing in you. Make your own decisions around overhead. Make your own decisions around your staff complement. Make your own decisions around your strategic plan. We’re investing in you because you know best. You’re closest to the work.” 

The truth is,  the immediate trust that that builds and deepens means those donors are the first donors that I call when I’m having a strategic issue, when I’m having a staff challenge, when I’m having a moment of like transformation in the organization that I might not tell a donor right away who’s investing in a small sliver of who we are. 

So that’s another thing that I try to share with donors is that the bigger and the more you invite us into this platform of generosity, the more you actually get your hands into who we are and the change we’re trying to make. That’s another piece that I think I’d love to see continue to shift and evolve in the philanthropic space, because you do in fact, get closer to the courageous work that you’re most looped by.

It is the need for leadership in this moment to show up in ways that are selfless and really in service to the organization’s change and iteration. 

Denver: It’s the same way with people. When you trust somebody, you’ll tell them your deepest secrets. And when you don’t trust somebody and you’re going to tell them specifically what they need to do, it’s a whole different nature of a relationship. 

The other aspect of what you just said, too, is that restricted funding means “I want you to stop learning.” It means you have figured out what the answer is, and we are going to prescribe what has to happen. And just take a look at what’s happened to us in the last year and a half; the learning continues. Are you supposed to continue to spend the money after you say, “It’s not working?” No. This is a journey.

Let me ask you about leadership in a crisis, Suzanne. What have been some of the keys from this experience?  And have there been any takeaways for you that’s going to inform the way you lead going forward?

Suzanne: Oh, gosh. Yes. What a year plus. I had started as CEO at Malala Fund in the early part of February of 2020. So, barely five or six weeks on the job before we went remote, and COVID hit. I have not met in person, probably 85% of Malala Fund staff. And in fact, I last saw Malala when I was interviewing for the job. I’ve not even had a chance to really in-person build community with her and her father and with our full board of directors.

So, all of that has been a challenge. And that challenge though, is layered on top of one of the most honorable and privileged positions that I’ve ever served. What a delight and a gift to work alongside and in service to her vision for girls’ education!

A couple of things that I would say that I’ve learned. One is that consistency of message and follow-through is really important. People are not seeing you. You’re not swimming in the same waters together. So, if you want your message, for example, around inclusion, around equity, around your organization’s ideals as they relate to anti-racism and decolonizing our approach to international development, I have to be saying and doing, and saying again and doing more, and checking in on accountability on that work all the time in all sorts of different ways. 

They have to hear from me on Slack. They have to see me say it at the team monthly meeting on the Zoom. They have to see emails from me. That consistency and follow-through, for me, is so key to accountability and visibility for leaders. 

I’d say the second thing is that, “This is exhausting, so don’t come see me on Friday at 5 pm after a week of this.” But you have to be available for the big stuff and the little stuff. I have to send a Slack message to the one staff person who did a really beautiful intervention on our new climate campaign at the last team meeting. And I have to show up for the all-team retreat. And I have to show up for this strategy conversation that we’re having around our country partnerships. 

And I have to show up in a way that’s positive, in a way that’s productive, in a way that really allows for different voice and perspective. It’s endless and tireless in some respects, but it is the need for leadership in this moment to show up in ways that are selfless and really in service to the organization’s change and iteration. 

Denver: How do you balance that? You have so much time. And you have so much energy. And I trust you’re doing self-care at the same time. That is always a difficult thing to say – how do I best manage my time and particularly, my energy to be able to do as much of what you just said, as you can possibly do.

Suzanne: This is— because I know that you do a lot of this really practical leadership advice— this is a really practical answer to that question. I have an executive coordinator colleague in the executive office who is probably one of my most trusted and beloved colleagues, who really values and prizes this type of leadership as much as I do and does everything she can to help me invent and iterate and course-correct and change as we go. 

So, we track stuff. We schedule stuff. We make reminders for ourselves. We say, “All right. At the end of the month, let’s see how many individual staff members you were able to check in with. And let’s make sure we’re checking in with the different, but same number of staff the next time.”

“Let’s think about your intervention at the monthly team meeting, and let’s make sure that you’re hitting these issues that we know people need to hear from you. Let’s keep track of all the asks of the CEO from the board to the staff anti-discrimination and equity committee and back up again. And let’s make sure that you’re following through in ways that are accountable.”

So, my most practical answer to time management and to really making sure that I’m firing on all the lanes that I should be is to find really careful, strategic, and smart support that helps you show up in ways that the organization demands.

Denver: That’s a great answer. A practical tip I got from another guest was that when they need to take some time, they have their executive assistant change all the passwords to their social media so they will not be tempted. They’ll take their LinkedIn and their email and stuff, and then hope they don’t quit.  And it gives them those three days at the beach just to get away, which I said, “Well, that is a very good practice.” What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make? I know that leaders such as you, probably looking at your organization over the course of 10 years, you’ve probably made more decisions in the last 18 months than many organizations make over a decade. What has been the most difficult decision you think you’ve had to encounter? And how do you approach a difficult decision, Suzanne? 

Suzanne: I think there’s a whole series of difficult decisions as they relate to COVID because it’s like the world of unknowns. And I would say that none of those decisions was really all that difficult if you held as central the safety and security and wellbeing of your staff and team. 

So, every day we were navigating new things like office place and remote work, and what people need to take care of themselves. And if you just are led by the true north of staff excellence and staff care, then all of those decisions are decisions; they’re just made less difficult because the answer is so clear. So I would say that.

And I would say that leaving COVID aside though, so that’s like a whole set of really challenging decisions, on a normal day in a normal circumstance, which who knows what the heck that means these days, I really do gather intelligence from both obvious input and less obvious allies. I’m not looking always for consensus. I’m not always looking to make everybody happy because the truth is you can never make everybody happy. 

But I am looking to render a decision on a really difficult issue in a way that honors a variety of perspectives, that really honors a variety of inputs and incentives, if you will. And then putting a decision out there in a way that’s clear and that’s time-bound. “This is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it by that time,” and try to share as much as I can about how I got to that point, and what I know I’m leaving off the table, and what I know on prioritizing in terms of my decision. “I know that I’m not hitting at X, but I really decided to prioritize Y based on what I heard from all of you, and based on my responsibility to serve the needs of the organization.” 

That’s the thing. I’m not in service to any one department. I’m not in service to any one staff person. I have been hired to lift up the work of this organization as a whole, in the best possible way that meets the needs of our co-founder and their vision in starting this place and the mission of girls’ education. And if I can defend a decision that I’ve made in service to those two imperatives, then I feel like it’s something that I can stand behind and that staff can get on board with, even if they disagree with the decision that I’ve made.

Denver: It’s the clarity in which you present that decision that really gets everybody to rally around it. So, when working with such high-profile, respected, transcendent international figures, such as Malala and her father… so much good comes from that, but it also can be a two-sided coin. Share with us some of your observations.

Suzanne: I will say, and I know that there are others out there who work at celebrity-driven organizations… or you work for principals and no doubt their experience will be different than mine. I will say that ours is a really positive experience. It’s ever-changing. If there’s a tough side to it, it’s that it’s ever-changing. 

So, Malala came into her global renown when she was like, just turned 11. She was at school in Birmingham, relocated and displaced from her home of Pakistan. She has gone on to university. She’s now chair of our board. She is pursuing other private and personal ventures. So, if there’s a difficult part of it, it’s that number one, she has limited time in the day. This is her heart. This is what’s probably most singularly important to her in the whole world, is the mission of girls’ education. And she’s growing and evolving and transforming as a human being in her own right.

So, I think the organization’s responsibility to keep up with that is a big one. And it’s one that we’re going to constantly have to be learning and iterating on. But that is so far outweighed by the positive of working with someone who has incredible moral authority, who has humility, who has an incredible sense of humor, who loves a good TV show and comedy. To work with somebody who is at once an icon and a regular old person is actually a lot of fun for the staff. 

And the prowess that it gives us when it relates to advocacy. I’ve heard my chief of advocacy say this recently, “You can work anywhere else in the world, and you spend half your energy getting in the room or getting the phone call returned.” With Malala and Ziauddin, we don’t really have that problem. Malala can have a Head of State on the phone tomorrow if she really needs to. 

So, with that access though, I would argue as advocates comes a huge responsibility to lift and advance the story and needs of others. And I think that that’s something that we do well as an organization and that she really pushes us to do. And it’s the same thing then around fundraising and visibility. Some of that is automatic because of who she is. So then back to that redistribution of wealth. If it is easier for us to come buy some resources than it is for others, then our job is to redistribute those resources and lift up the field of girls’ education activists in ways that we were founded to do.

Denver: Let me close with this, Suzanne. What’s next for the Malala Fund, and what has you really, really excited at this moment? 

Suzanne: Well, I think that we will continue— there’s so much. Where to start? 

The Education Champion Network – keep your eye on it. Because if you think that we’ve assembled an amazing cadre of champions now, wait until you see where we are in the next two- to three- to five years. We’re in more countries. We’re making more change in more communities that have more real impact on the lives of girls. 

Keep an eye on this recovery from COVID. It’s not the last pandemic or crisis that the world will face. And I think that we are incredibly well-positioned. Our approach is locally-led experts and advocates, and COVID taught us that’s what you need because COVID showed up and manifests in such different ways, in so many places. So, I thought, “Wow. Our strategy is right. We’re going to keep on it.” We are continuing to invest in local expertise. 

What else should you watch from us? Continue to watch us on social media, because I think we do such incredibly inventive and creative things there with Assembly, but with so many other products as well. So, there’s big stuff. 

And watch Malala. Watch how this woman who just celebrated her 24th birthday last Monday, watch how she really continues to evolve and refine her message around the power of girls and the influence of girls’ leadership and learning.

I think that we all will be, even those of us who were part of the Malala Fund journey, we’re all going to continue to be really impressed and inspired by it. I feel just honored to be a part of it.

Denver: A lot to look forward to. Tell us about the Malala Fund website, some of the information that visitors will find there, and maybe how they can get involved or help support the work that you’ve just talked about.

Suzanne: Well, the website is a beautiful website. It’s at malala.org.  Some nonprofits don’t keep it up to date as it should be. I’ll tell you ours— literally, ours is always being improved.  We have a website project and update imperative every other month. It’s just constantly tracking.

So, you’ll find beautiful profiles and photos of all of our champions. You’ll find in-depth information about the countries where we work and what the particular challenges are to girls’ education. You’ll find our report on COVID. You’ll find our report on climate change and girls’ education. You’ll see the amazing powerful board of directors we have assembled and the board building that we’re continuing to do on that front. So, the website is a place that you really are getting up-to-date and current information. So, I encourage you to go there. 

You can, of course, support us in all sorts of ways. We do welcome financial support and financial contributions of any and all sizes. Again, with the real responsibility to make the world a better place through your investment in us. 

We have Assembly, and we encourage any of you with any young, strong girls and women in your lives, to get them connected to Assembly, and let Assembly tell and lift up their story of change and impact in their own communities.

And I guess the last thing is like, at the dinner table where all of us have been together for these last 16- to 18 months, bring up the issue of girls’ education in ways that shed new light on it. I’m in South Texas right now, Denver, as you know, visiting the home of my parents. And it is irrational to people that girls are not in school in many parts of the world. 

And so really taking the time to unpack how and why that happens, and how the global community has a responsibility to girls everywhere and anywhere to get the education they deserve, it might feel really elementary for your listeners. Like “I’m already on board. I’m behind your mission.” Many people just don’t believe or truly understand that it’s a challenge, and so using your own voice and your own activist energy to get more people behind our mission is probably the greatest gift that you can give us.

Denver: I’ve always believed – no better investment that you can make than a girl’s education. 

I want to thank you, Suzanne, so much for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program. 

Suzanne: Thank you, Denver. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thanks so much for inviting me and for just making time and space for the story of Malala Fund. It’s a real honor. 

Denver: And thank you for making it so much fun.

Suzanne: Thanks.


Malala Fund’s Co-founder Malala Yousafzai shares her thoughts and opinion on the Afghanistan crisis in an essay published on The New York Times titled “Malala: I Survived the Taliban. I Fear for My Afghan Sisters.” Learn more about it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/17/opinion/malala-afghanistan-taliban-women.html?smid=url-share

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