The key elements of an exit strategy, according to one small project in Cambodia

Weh Yeoh, founder of OIC, plays with kids in Cambodia. Photo by: Anna Bella Betts

Weh Yeoh has spent the last three and half years working to introduce a new profession to Cambodia.

More than 600,000 people, or one in 25, have a communication or swallowing disorder in the Southeast Asian nation, yet health services for them are nearly nonexistent. In response, Yeoh founded OIC, which works to bring speech therapy to the country by establishing university courses, government policy, awareness and evidence base.

“Amongst the billions of dollars of aid money and thousands of nonprofit organizations, some people get left behind,” he told Devex. “Without speech therapy, so many people, including children, cannot access communities. Imagine if you couldn’t talk to your parents, couldn’t say your own name.”

Getting OIC off the ground has been the most rewarding — and also the most challenging — venture the Australian-born physiotherapist has taken on in his life, Yeoh said, in part because OIC is not grant-funded.

“The logical reason why we don’t [accept grants] is that if those grants existed, another NGO would’ve done it by now,” he said.

Instead, creating their own stream of funding has forced the small team to become innovative. Their work, Yeoh explained, can always be traced back to two things: their values and their exit strategy. In fact their exit strategy can be found on the OIC website right beside their mission and vision statements: 100 speech therapists employed by government by 2030, after which OIC will exit Cambodia and government will take over.

It’s ambitious, but it’s clear and realistic, considering Yeoh “never wanted OIC to stay in Cambodia forever.”

Yeoh will step away in 2017 from OIC’s day to day operations to pursue a new venture, so Devex caught up with him at the project’s offices in Phnom Penh to chat about avoiding founder’s syndrome and his thoughts on what other small NGOs or programs should keep in mind when considering an exit strategy.

You said creating an exit strategy was just as important to you as creating your vision and mission. What makes an exit strategy more than rhetoric?

It’s very easy to come up with plans and so forth that sound good in theory to attract attention and support, but much more difficult to stick with them. I think what makes an exit strategy more than rhetoric is making it public and transparent. Saying to people: “This is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it and this is why we want you to keep us accountable.”

So, for our supporters, be they financial supporters or otherwise — all the advisers and volunteers — it’s really important that we think how we’re going to band together to achieve this really ambitious exit strategy, which is on our website: 100 speech therapists employed by government by the year 2030. To all the partners that we work with, including government, that’s very transparent, there’s no ambiguity there. So, making it transparent, making it public and making it really clear, these are the ways in which they become more than just rhetoric.

What are three things you think an organization should keep in mind when creating their own exit strategy?

First of all, I thought about the idea of a handover, You need to have a clear understanding of what it is that you’re actually handing over and how this work will continue after you leave. So obviously it’s no good to just say “we’re going to exit at this point in time” and then have the partner not be able to take over the work after you go. So, the handover is really critical.

Also, clarity. With the exit strategy and the point at which you exit, making it really clear what this point is. Ours is 100 speech therapists employed by government by the year 2030, and there’s really no ambiguity in that. I think that going back to the whole idea of smart goals; if your exit strategy is crystal clear and what we’re saying to people is these are the goal posts and this is where we’re hitting, there’s no real room for movement or discussion there. I honestly believe a lot of our supporters come to us because they may see some value in speech therapy, but also they see the clarity of what we’re trying to do.

Keep your time frame realistic and the thing that you’re handing over realistic, too. For us, we know that we need over 6,000 speech therapists in Cambodia. It’s unrealistic of us to think that we’re going to get close to that, and 100 is realistic even in a relatively short timeframe of 14 years.

What about your own personal exit strategy? You'll be stepping away from your leadership role at OIC this year ... how do you ensure that smooth transition?

I think this is really important from the point of view of finding people that are better than me. I may have my opinions about how things should be done, I obviously started OIC from the beginning, but this doesn’t mean that I’m the best person to keep it going.

My view of leadership is very much about finding people that are better and able to carry on the work and grow the organization in a way that I can’t. So how do I ensure that the transition is smooth? Clearly it’s about finding the best possible people that we can work with. The bar of entry to get into work with OIC is very high. Our recruitment process, particularly for a small organization that doesn’t have an HR department or a lot of resources in that area is very, very stringent and takes a lot of time. For people that are able to get through and come work with us, that ensures the quality of the type of people we are working with.

I think another thing that ensures a smooth transition is also redefining leadership, you know, I am the leader at the moment, I think when it was just one or two people that’s a very different situation to when the team grows, As the team grows it’s important leadership is something that’s shared. In our organization we make all our decisions by consensus, which means that everybody must be on  board with things before we move forward. So it’s not hierarchical, and therefore smooth transition occurs when leadership is shared, when people have a common vision, and they’re able to actually input their own ideas about how this organization moves forward.

You mentioned you don't feel a sense of possession over OIC and have tried to avoid typical "founder's syndrome" behavior. Can you expand on that?

I think it would be very easy for someone in my position to think that OIC and its mission will turn out the way that I think it should or I always envisioned it should right from the very beginning. But the facts of the matter are that my views are often very narrow, they’re often outdated.

I did a lot of investment of my time and research into the situation in regards to speech therapy in Cambodia, but that was mostly in 2013. These days, I’m not really on the ground as much as many of our staff and volunteers are. So what  they think about how to guide the direction which OIC is going is in many ways more important and more valid than my opinion.

To avoid founder’s syndrome, part of that is what I just mentioned about consensus and having shared leadership and then also of course stepping back, being able to say saying “Look I may have started OIC but I think there are people who are perhaps better off than me to carry on the work and to make sure the work is relevant.”

Something that stands out from our earlier conversation. You said: "It's always possible to do something according to your values." Any advice for small projects or NGO leaders who feel tied to grants and very far from that sentiment?

I really like this quote by a professor who teaches entrepreneurship, her name is Saras Seravati.

The quote is: “To the extent that we can control the future, we do not need to predict it.”

What I would say is that there is always a way to do something, particularly in countries like Cambodia where there’s a lot of resourcefulness, if you put your mind to it and if you get people to give their input and their suggestions and build this new pathway. There’s not only ever one way, and my gut feeling is that a lot of people feel like they’re tied to grants because that’s the accepted method of gaining resources to do your work. But what I would ask those people is by keeping to that path, what are you actually giving up? What are you sacrificing? You may gain security but you’re probably sacrificing other things, including the ability to control the future, much like the professor states in her quote. So I would say that there’s always a way to do things the way that you want to do it, and it doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing your values or what you see to be true.

At the end of the day, I’ve had to make decisions around things that I believe to be true and stuck to my values, and now we have a great team of people with a lot of shared values as well, and we’re constantly making decisions based on those values.

I would encourage those who are starting out, like NGO leaders, to really think about whether there’s an alternative. It may be difficult to do things by your own values because it means you don’t have things like grants that are more secure; you have to go out and find the funding yourself.  But really if you want to do something with the right sort of values, I don’t know if there’s much of an alternative.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.