Director profile: Tom Arnold, CEO, Concern Worldwide

Pastoralist Jarso Ada speaking to Tom Arnold and Mary Robinson in Kenya
Director profile: Tom Arnold, CEO, Concern Worldwide
Pastoralist Jarso Ada speaking to Tom Arnold and Mary Robinson in Kenya

When Tom Arnold steps down as chief executive of Concern Worldwide next year, he’ll leave behind him an organisation that, during his time in the top job, has evolved from being an effective and respected Irish charity into one of global scale and reputation.

Last year, Concern had 3,500 people working in 25 countries and had a budget of €16om, with €104m of this coming from a number of governments, including Ireland, the UK and the US, as well as the EU and the UN. Income in 2001 was just short of €63m. More striking than the increase in funding over the years, however, has been Concern’s rising status internationally, something that has been largely driven by Arnold himself.

For example, in April of this year, Arnold was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to a high-level international working group of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, which is aimed at tackling child hunger. Other members of the working group include Mary Robinson, two national presidents and three prime ministers, as well as the heads of Unicef and Medicins San Frontieres. During May, Arnold attended the G8 meeting in Camp David and last year, he received the International Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his humanitarian activities.

Career beginnings

Arnold began his professional career in 1973 with the European Commission after graduating from UCD with a degree in agricultural economics. He spent nearly seven years based in Brussels, working primarily on aid programmes to the developing world, and three years as agricultural advisor to the EC delegation to the Ivory Coast and to Malawi.

When he returned to Ireland in 1983, he spent five years as chief economist at Irish farming advisory service ACOT. When the organisation was merged with the Agricultural Institute to form Teagasc in 1988, he moved to the Department of Agriculture, where he began as chief economist before becoming assistant general secretary in 1993, a position he held until 2001 when he was appointed CEO of Concern.

Arnold’s involvement with Concern had started in the mid-1980s when he joined its council, which he subsequently chaired for four years from 1995 to 1999. “But I can assure you there was never any grand plan to end up as chief executive of Concern,” he says.

When Fr Aengus Finucane retired in 1997 after 16 years as chief executive, the council picked David Begg to succeed him as chief executive. “We selected someone who I thought was the ideal person at the time,” says Arnold. “About four years later, David rang me up and said he was going to head up ICTU so the post became vacant. I didn’t even think of applying for it, but eventually I looked at the ad and thought some of the job description maybe I could do. That’s how it happened.”

Moving from a non-executive to executive role within the organisation had its advantages, he says. “I knew that I was inheriting an organisation in good shape with an awful lot of strong advantages in terms of the quality of the people who were working here, with a fairly clear sense of mission. When I came in, one of the first things I had to do was finalise the strategic plan for the next five years. In a way doing that shaped the next phase of the organisation and then I got on with trying to put it into practice.”

There were challenges too. “I thought I knew as much about the workings of the organisation as anyone possibly could, but you do realise when you get into the position that there’s a lot more to learn. And of course there are all the little things. There are the difficulties and some of the challenges of managing.”

Key objectives

Coming into the job, Arnold says his key objectives were to build on Concern’s existing strengths. “We had some areas of expertise. For example, we were very strong on dealing with emergencies. Relatively early on I began to see more clearly that one of the really important things was that we had to become better at learning from what we did.

“It’s a very simple proposition that no matter how much money we have – and we now have a lot more than we had 10 years ago to spend – it’s still a drop in the ocean by comparison to the needs that are out there. If you really want to try to influence things, you have to be smart about it. So I think learning and being able to use that learning to either change the way you do things yourself or, maybe more importantly, persuade other people to change the way they do things – that became a fairly central idea for me from a relatively early stage.”

A key example was the development with Valid International of community therapeutic care (CTC), a new approach for dealing with acute malnutrition, which involved treating children in their own homes rather than feeding centres. “Concern took that on and over a three to four-year period, we began to start generating results that showed that this indeed was a substantially better way of doing things,” says Arnold.

“We were sharing that information with other organisations and other people were adopting it. At the end of six years, in 2007, the United Nations adopted this system as international best practice.

“As a case study of doing things properly, this really was very, very significant. It also brought home, not just to me but to other people within the organisation, the importance of this business of learning and how you could then use that learning to influence things in a much wider sense.”

As a result, in Concern’s next strategic plan (2006 to 2010) the focus turned to innovation, influence and impact. “If you could do things in an innovative way and learn from them then you were likely to be able to influence – yourself, other organisations, ultimately the international community – and then the impact you have is the combined effect of the work you’re doing on the ground yourself and the knock-on effect of the changes in practice,” explains Arnold.

“That whole emphasis on innovation has been very strong in the organisation for the last significant number of years. I’m not for one minute claiming the credit myself for it. Bit by bit as an organisation we moved in this direction, with the help of experience, things that worked, and taking that learning and building it into the way the organisation did its business from then on.”

Building relationships

Concern has collaborated quite intensively for the last six or seven years with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington. “I was to engage with them because they’re very influential. We produce an annual document with them – the Global Hunger Index – which is tracking from one year to the next how different countries are dealing with the issue of hunger.”

Over the same period, there has also been an increasing emphasis on building relationships with a number of corporate entities, including Accenture, Kerry Group and KPMG.

The relationship with KPMG, in particular, demonstrates Concern’s shift onto the world stage. “KPMG decided six years ago as part of their corporate social responsibility policy to focus in on the area of disaster response,” explains Arnold. “Up to last year, the five organisations they were working with were Unicef, the Red Cross, Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children.”

Last December, KPMG announced that Concern would be its sixth partner. “That’s an indicator,” says Arnold. “We are operating at a certain scale now between Ireland, the US and the UK.  We have got to a level of both scale and reputation that we got selected for that.”

While Concern’s international focus has intensified in recent years, its offices outside Ireland have been around for some time. Concern UK began with an office in Belfast in 1987 and a London office in 1991. Concern US started in the mid 90s. “But over the last 10 years and, particularly in the last six years, both the US and the UK operations have grown. They have their own boards and much stronger management than before. We’re working very hard to work as effectively as we can together and therefore be able to say that Concern as an international NGO is a force to be reckoned with.

“There is competition out there both for the public resources and at the level of governments. So, if one is to optimise that competitiveness, it’s about having standards that are demonstrated to the different stakeholders that you’re trustworthy and that you’re effective.”

Arnold believes it’s increasingly important for Concern to be able to better communicate what it does and to establish niches in particular areas of specialisation. Participating in the recent G8 summit was a result of Concern establishing a profile and credibility in the area of food security, he says. “That’s an indicator of where we’ve tried to get to in the last number of years. Being associated with this particular meeting is a sign that we’re operating at this global level and that in turn is going to have some global impact when it comes to say the American government when it’s making decisions on where its resources go.”

This level of involvement and accolades like the Ellis Island Medal are important for the organisation, he says. “I’m genuinely not that bothered about it for myself, but I do think that for example being on the lead group of the SUN is a very clear acknowledgement that Concern has carved out a really significant niche in this area.”

As regards his own leadership style, Arnold says he tries to be reasonably consultative with people. “I do think probably I have fairly clear view of what I want to have achieved as well. To some extent leading by example would be part of it. I’d be very keen always to see how you bring out the best in people. I think that’s critically important – to give people space. I’m a great believer that if people are busy, they’re probably happier.”

Activities outside Concern

Away from the day job, Arnold is currently a governor of the Irish Times Trust and a director on the board of the Irish Times Limited, and a member of the consortium board of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. “The SUN thing has cropped up in more recent times. Various people thought I was going off to work in the UN. It’s not the case at all. It’ll probably involve a couple of meetings a year.

“I’ve learned an awful lot from these extra-curricular things. The agricultural research is very relevant to a lot of the stuff we’re doing in Concern. The other part of the relevance is the connections it puts you in touch with.”

Looking to Concern’s future, Arnold says the focus for the next few years will be on retaining its strengths in emergency response and increasingly investing in prevention, as well as continuing the emphasis on learning.

Communications is another priority, he says. “I think we’ve being less good in this area over the years than we should have. Part of it is almost the modesty ethos in the organisation. We’ve not been terribly good at blowing our own trumpets. Some of that is fine, it’s a good value. But in the world that we’ve living in today, where you have to demonstrate your effectiveness and you are competing for resources, then you have to find better ways of telling your story.

“We’ve got an awful lot of things that we’ve done very well and we haven’t been as good as we might have been about pulling it all together and explaining that to people.”

Arnold’s successor in Concern has yet to be selected. “There isn’t a plan that a particular individual is going to succeed me. That will be a good open competition. My job until that happens is to try to leave the organisation in as good a shape as possible. All I can do is try to make sure the organisation is as healthy financially, organisationally, culturally as possible.”

He leaves the role in October 2013, but says he has no firm plans for life after Concern. “It’s a bit away yet so I haven’t had time to think about it. Being healthy enough is the first thing. If you’re lucky enough to be healthy enough when the time comes to have energy to do something else, normally something crops up. I’ve never planned anything.”

This article originally appeared in Irish Director magazine

Grainne Rothery