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Alumnus Ben Wise Drives Strategy at Global Aid Group for Refugees

Described by the New York Times as the “golden standard of aid groups working with refugees,” the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has an active presence where there is conflict, whether it’s as close to home as the US-Mexico border, or the war zone in Syria. 

Particularly, the IRC is focused on providing emergency aid and long-term assistance for refugees and the displaced, uniting families as well as helping them to resettle and restart their lives with opportunities. In their list of “reasons to give to the IRC,” there is a remarkable notion of “we never, ever give up on refugees,” emphasizing the strongest commitment to their cause.

Sitting on the IRC’s Senior Leaders Group is Benjamin Wise, who is Director of Strategy and an NYU Stern alumnus (MBA ’13). At Stern, Wise was on the board of the Social Enterprise Association and developed a path to strategy consulting, joining LEK Consulting post-graduation. 

His next career move was to the IRC, where he beagn to apply his consulting and business-trained background. For those looking to make an impact by joining an NGO or entering development fieldwork, Wise provides an invaluable insider’s view with thoughts on his journey and advice for students.

Su Park: Ben, thanks so much for your time. Can you tell us about your work at the IRC?

Ben Wise: The IRC is a global humanitarian organization that delivers aid to people affected by crisis in over 30 countries. At the moment, we are responding to active conflict in places like Yemen and Syria, fighting to control Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and much more. 

We also have offices in 25 US cities where we support newly arrived refugees to get settled and build new lives. Our annual budget is around $750 million and we employ about 12,000 staff worldwide.

In my role as Director of Strategy, I work with the C-suite and oversee a portfolio of cross-cutting initiatives to tackle the organization’s most pressing strategic challenges and opportunities. There are a couple of projects I’ve led in particular that I’m most proud of.

The first was an initiative to rethink the way that the IRC influences policy. We leveraged our CEO’s rolodex and interviewed a number of fairly high-powered policymakers. We asked them: “Under what circumstances do you care what an NGO like the IRC has to say?” Their answers became the basis of a new advocacy strategy for the organization. 

The second was a project designed to help build a stronger culture within the IRC for data-driven decisions. The effort centered on training our program teams to consistently ask themselves two key questions: “Where do we stand?” and “What are we doing to improve?”

Su Park: From the background you’ve provided on the IRC and the role you play, it seems that the IRC is open-minded and really focused on what works. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that you’re committed to driving change. But I have to ask, what do you think makes the IRC different from other NGOs like the Red Cross or Human Rights Watch?

Ben Wise: There are many other organizations doing great work. At the IRC, we believe there are two main things that set us apart:

The first is our focus on the refugee experience. We see ourselves as a leading voice for those forced to flee their homes due to conflict and crisis. We have a unique vantage point from which to make the case, serving clients across the full arc of a crisis — from conflict zones, to countries of first refuge along transit routes into Europe, and to resettlement for the most vulnerable few in the US.

Second is our focus on evidence-based programming. We put a lot of emphasis on making sure our programs are high-impact and based on the best available evidence for what works in humanitarian response. Where the evidence isn’t clear, we go out and do our own research to test innovative models and generate new evidence of what works. 

We have contributed to more rigorous impact evaluations in the humanitarian context than any other organization has, and a few years ago we established an in-house R&D team called the Airbel Center to marry methods from design thinking and behavioral science with the IRC’s deep experience serving clients in the world’s most challenging operational environments.

Active projects in the Airbel Center’s portfolio include, for example, Placement Algorithm, which is currently in the “Generate Solutions” phase. In this particular resettlement project, Airbel is using machine learning to predict where resettled refugees are likely to thrive.
Photo credit: Airbel Center

Su Park: I’m amazed to hear how humanitarian response can be so scientific in the sense that it’s strongly evidence-driven and analytical. On a slightly different note, like most companies, I found that many humanitarian organizations also have a “2020” vision. Yet, unlike others, the IRC focuses on the topic of “better aid.” What does that look like?

Ben Wise: Great question. 60 million people around the world are currently displaced by conflict or crisis, the highest number of any point since World War II. While more money is certainly part of the solution, we cannot meet this growing crisis through more aid alone. When we say “better aid” we are talking about how to achieve more impact for every dollar of aid. At the IRC, as part of our own 2020 vision, we’re attacking this on a few fronts.

The first piece is about being outcome-driven. If you want to truly help people in need at scale, you better have absolute clarity on the outcome you’re aiming for, and your theory of change to achieve that outcome better be based on the best available evidence of what works. 

To this end, we’ve created a publicly available interactive tool called the “Outcomes & Evidence Framework” to make evidence-based, outcome-focused program design easy and repeatable, not just for our own staff but for anyone in the sector.

Second, we’re doing new research on the relative cost-effectiveness of different kinds of aid. This is a long-term play, and at the moment we’re focused on generating a lot of cost-effectiveness data across the industry.

Third, it’s been proven that when people are forced to flee their homes, giving them cold, hard cash is more efficient than trying to provide them with goods. Turns out that people know their own basic needs better than foreign aid providers. Cash transfers empower recipients to make their own choices and have positive externalities for local markets.

Su Park: On that third point, it seems that despite a history of foreign aid, we still have a lot to learn in terms of better helping people. I’m curious about the growth opportunities at a humanitarian aid organization. For instance, are horizontal moves reasonably made to different departments?

Ben Wise: Yes, definitely. So far, about half of the people leaving the Strategy Unit have gone to join other business units within the IRC, including our R&D lab, our Europe regional unit based in Belgrade and our Economic Recovery & Development unit based in New York. 

Nonprofits like ours can really make good use of smart critical thinkers with a strong generalist skill set. Our team hires with that in mind, and we work hard to grow the skills of our team members to maximize the value they can bring to the organization.

Su Park: It’d be great to hear more about your focus on strategy at Stern and LEK Consulting afterwards. What kind of consulting did you do? How did your work and MBA experience help you transition into the IRC?

Ben Wise: At Stern, I fell in love with strategy and knew almost right away that I wanted to go into consulting after graduation. I saw it as the perfect way to complement my academic training from Stern with real world business experience. I went to LEK and stayed there for two years. 

During that time, I did strategy consulting projects for a range of corporate clients, mostly in healthcare and private equity. The hours were intense at times, but I really loved the work. It’s exciting to take on a totally new business challenge every few weeks, and I gained an incredible skill set.

By the time I arrived at the IRC, I was trained in structured problem-solving and how to work with senior leaders to add value as a trusted advisor. I never would have been successful in my role at the IRC without my experiences at Stern and LEK.

Su Park: What are some of your best memories at Stern?

Ben Wise: I had a great time at Stern and met some incredible people. Looking back, case competitions stand out as having been the real opportunity to build close relationships… some of my former teammates are now lifelong friends. 

I also fondly remember the camaraderie and support I felt from my classmates during recruiting season. I would have expected a more competitive environment, but it just felt like Stern students couldn’t help but support one another.

Su Park: What recommendations do you have for current students looking to enter an NGO or pursue development work?

Ben Wise: Very concretely, I have seen so many people find success by spending a couple of years after an MBA in consulting, banking, or another corporate role, and then subsequently moving into the nonprofit sector. The generalist skills you gain can immediately be put to work in a sector that really needs them.

That said, it’s far from the only way to find success. My more general advice is to really listen to yourself and figure out what you enjoy the most. In the first few years of my career, I worked for organizations I was passionate about, but I didn’t necessarily find enjoyment from the roles I was doing day to day. It wasn’t until I came to Stern and found my passion for strategy that my career [track] started to feel right. 

It’s my view that the world needs smart, compassionate and skilled thinkers and doers in all lines of work and sectors. My advice is to find what you like, and in doing so, find your own way to make an impact.

Su Park: Your advice is so easily transferable to those who are just even looking to find a passion after Stern. Thanks for taking the opportunity to share your thoughts and inform students about a career track that many are interested in, but feel it is unconventional, and perhaps difficult to pursue. We hope to continue seeing you and the IRC drive impact and transform the way we respond in humanitarian crises around the world.

Learn more about the IRC and their work to tackle the world’s worst humanitarian crises at www.rescue.org. 

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