Reflections on HelpAge’s transformation journey

October 11, 2023
Author: Bert Maerten, Head of Transformation at HelpAge

COVID-19 as a critical juncture

Critical juncture theory argues that at pivotal moments in history a confluence of factors and events (often ‘crisis’-like) create a unique opportunity for change. The global COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the opportunity for change for HelpAge International, an INGO focusing on the rights, dignity, and wellbeing of older people across the world.

COVID-19 was disproportionally affecting those aged 60 and above. In some countries, the percentage of COVID-19 deaths amongst people above the age of 60 was notably high, often exceeding 80%. And yet, as a a HelpAge report highlights, ageism was rife in the response with many countries failing to adequately protect those most at risk.

Concurrently, HelpAge’s projects, partnerships, sources of income, and operations were massively impacted by lockdowns and the need to protect people. With projects suspended, fundraising disrupted, and little clarity on how the global pandemic could be navigated and ultimately exited, there was a huge amount of uncertainty (indeed anxiety) about how institutions could endure the extended period of disruption.

At this critical juncture, HelpAge initiated a review of its organisational design to weather the immediate crisis, and to better position itself for the acceleration in population ageing expected across many countries and regions over the coming decade. The number of people aged 65 years or older worldwide is projected to more than double, rising from 761 million in2021 to 1.6 billion in 2050. This will have profound implications on how we live and learn, love and care, relate and age. The impacts on social contracts between generations, and indeed the role of the individual, family, community, private sector, and governments will be far-reaching. This requires a broader movement of change.

As a result of this review and building on the foundation of its 2030 Strategy, HelpAge committed to a process of transformation: to evolve its value proposition as a Supporter, Convener, and Thought leader within a changing world and sector, to achieve greater impact by supporting locally led development, #ShiftingThePower and evolving the way it brings value-add to the work of others and towards the mission.

HelpAge implemented a very significant re-structure in April 2021, including a shift to global programmes and teams, closure of regional offices, and shift to a globally distributed remote working-based organisation. As part of its commitment to locally-led development, it embarked on a journey to shift fully to partner-led programming and strengthen its partnership approaches. As a result of this commitment, HelpAge is currently transitioning all its country programmes and offices.


To support HelpAge’s evolution a small Transformation team was established. Reflecting that our journey is one of exploration, will be shaped by currents, winds and stars, and should guided by agile adaptive approaches (“plan for sailboats, not trains”), ‘Project Sailboat’, a collaborative cross-organisational initiative, was launched to deliver key initiatives.

After 2.5 years of explorations, here are some personal reflections:

Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, German American historian, I have come to believe that the purpose of the small Transformation team is to “create meaning without committing the error of prescribing it”. That is, to bring forward a set of organisation-wide initiatives that seek to enable and support talent across the organisation to transform. Finding that good bundle of initiatives is a continuous exploration. It is adaptive, iterative work. We learned that it is critical to work across a set of “axes”: from new mental models to new ways of working, from growing skills to improving business processes, all the way to introducing new habits and rituals.

Like any change process, setting the right cadence is an area of permanent contention. While the pace of change needs to be measured, of course, an urgency to change is needed as institutions always gravitate back to the comfort zone of the status quo. The day when nobody complains about the pace of change should truly be feared.

Changing mindsets and shifting the organisational culture are emerging as the most significant change needed. It is often more an art than a science. If transformation is about “stepping forward into the unknown and into the possibility, without knowing all the answers”, it requires a new level of comfort with uncertainty, ambiguity and emergence. At both individual and institutional levels. While for some this is exhilarating and full of potential, for many (probably most) that is rather (if not profoundly) unsettling.

Some initiatives sink straight to the bottom of the lake, while others hit a chord. FAILure is truly to embrace the First-Attempt-In-Learning. Like placing an acupuncture needle, it is about finding the right (sometimes surprising) spot to change the energy flow within the system, which brings better outcomes over time.

For most social impact organisations, the “tyranny of now” is omnipresent. The needs always outstrip the resources. In this context, securing interest and attention from teams in transformation-related work amidst the pressing obligation of the current work remains difficult. As the outcome is some distance away, uncertain, and may eventually even displace the current teams and skills, leaning in and forward is hard work. And yet, by not evolving, you risk the future of the organisation.

While localisation, #ShiftingThePower and decolonising are organisational shifts, it is also a deeply personal journey. Organisational changes impact the work and roles of committed and passionate people. It in turn shapes their identity. Every experience will be individual and different. For me, as a middle-aged, white man living and working overseas, it involves reflecting on my role (indeed duplicity) in the current system and the power imbalances. Personally, every day, I need to reflect on my own position of privilege and how coloniality features in my worldview and mindset. It can be confronting and uncomfortable. Most of us arrived in the position we are today by demonstrating traditional and often hierarchical leadership skills. When we seek to #ShiftThePower we need to let go and grow different tools and skills. It involves a lot of learning, re-learning and – most of all – unlearning. That is deliberate work.

Key to a successful transformation is our ability to collaborate with others in very different ways, based on distinct and complementary value-add of each partner. Like any principal-agent arrangement, partnerships have within them a set of polarities. In relation to design, accountability, quality, inclusion, quality, etc. They are very real dilemmas. They cannot be resolved, but only navigated and addressed in and through practice. This is also where we bump into the realities of the current aid systems and the many areas of ‘stuckness’, despite the often-proclaimed commitments to localisation by donors, INGOs and others.

In the end, in a changing world, Northern INGOs need to re-imagine how they add value to the mission. It is a journey of exploration and if you are successful, hopefully, discovery. It requires institutional and individual courage to “step forward into the unknown, and into the potential, without knowing all the answers”. As Keynes, often, the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones. I am talking about risk taking in a real, specific, practical and tangible way. Not the sort we talk about in our webinars and publications, but rather in the day-to-day decision making, when so many things are in flux and uncertain. That is the “messy middle”. As leaders, how and when do we feel confident that the ideas are “good enough” to pursue? What level of risks are we comfortable with? And what is the risk of not acting?

This work is still ahead of us.

For more on HelpAge’s transformation, go to: Transformation – HelpAge International.