Pictured: Nicole Litschgi and Flurina Derungs in Conversation.
In her twelve years at VSF-Suisse, the last four of which as Executive Director, Nicole Litschgi has worked tirelessly for people and their animals in Africa. She is leaving our organization at her own request and will hand over the affairs to her successor as of July 1, 2023. With Flurina Derungs, an experienced NPO manager joins the team, who wants to further develop the organization with fresh ideas while building on the tried and tested. In this interview, the two women look back on what has been experienced and venture a look into the future – personal as well as that of VSF-Suisse.
Nicole, let’s take a look back: Do you remember your first weeks at VSF-Suisse?
Nicole Litschgi: My impression when I first entered the office in September 2011 is indeed still very present: a clutter of different furniture; documents and folders scattered on the tables and shelves – a chaos, but you could tell that hard work was going on here. On the very second day, I was alone in the office because the office manager at the time was traveling to East Africa on a project visit. I immediately started reading up on all the dossiers. Then, in December, my first project visit took me to Mali, where I learned about development cooperation in the agricultural sector in practice.
Please tell us a bit more about that first experience in Mali?
NL: With Moussa Diabaté, director of our long-term partner organization CAB Déméso, I discovered the “action – problème – solution” approach. Instead of relying on infrastructure and expensive equipment, this approach started with the actors and their organization: working with people who were already involved in the dairy value chain in some way, but mostly in a disorganized and inefficient way. In other words, people were already actively producing, collecting, processing or selling milk, but encountered problems in the course of their activity, for which they then worked together to find simple and sustainable solutions. Besides these positive impressions of the first months and the certainty that the project work was goal-oriented and sustainable, I also quickly became aware that not everything was running smoothly. Above all, VSF-Suisse was struggling with financial and institutional problems during this time.
And has this changed? How big is the contrast with the state of the organization today?
NL: The core business, i.e. project work in the countries, has always been the organization’s great strength. The biggest contrast between then and now is in the finances: In 2011, we had a negative organizational capital of half a million Swiss francs; today, we have a cushion in the amount of one million Swiss francs. Another obvious contrast can certainly be seen in the head office in Berne. At that time, there were only three staff. In order to meet the needs of a growing organization, professionalization and an increase in staff was necessary. Today the office consists of 12 people, working in the areas of projects, finances as well as fundraising and communication. Thanks to this professionalization, VSF-Suisse is now able to carry out large projects of important governmental donors with a long-term horizon and even to take the lead in project consortia. VSF-Suisse is today well connected within the Swiss NGO landscape and, as a member of the Sufosec Alliance, receives a program contribution from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. This is definitely a different situation than 12 years ago!
What were the biggest challenges on the way here?
NL: Definitely the financial situation. When we submitted projects, we had to do a lot of convincing to get the donors to consider us at all: in addition to the projects themselves, we also had to convincingly explain the measures we had taken to secure the organization’s finances. Little by little, we succeeded in regaining their trust. Another major challenge was certainly the closure of our country programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012. I traveled to Goma in North Kivu to explain the closure to our colleagues at a time when the armed M23 rebels were just a few kilometers outside the city. Having to tell our staff that we were going to close the office and to stop working in a region where the need was so great, was emotionally very stressful.
And what do you personally remember in a particularly positive way? Is there a defining moment?
NL: There were quite a few defining moments, it was an intense time at VSF-Suisse (laughs). But a particularly important moment for the organization came at the end of 2013. After a brief respite in 2011 and 2012, the past caught up with us again and the association was on the verge of dissolution. We had no choice but to publicly ask for help – and what followed was overwhelming: thanks to the immediate and generous support of the Swiss veterinary community, the Society of Swiss Veterinarians and various private individuals, the biggest financial holes could be plugged. This showed how deeply VSF-Suisse is anchored in and supported by the Swiss veterinary community. I am grateful for this to this day.
Another key moment was in 2016 in Isiolo in Kenya, at the first regional meeting of our project and country leaders from Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. After many years of rope-pulling between the country offices and head office, I felt for the first time that now we were all pulling at the same end of the rope and had a common vision for our programmes and the further development of our organization. The crisis was over and a spirit of renewal emerged.
Finally, the co-founding of the Sufosec Alliance, the Swiss Alliance for Sustainable Food Systems and Empowered Communities in 2019 and the creation of a joint international program with 5 other Swiss NGOs is also a very important milestone of the last few years.
And now, after all these experiences, are you looking for a new adventure?
NL: At VSF-Suisse, I was privileged to master ever new challenges. I started young and was allowed to grow with the organization. Now the time has come for me to take on a new challenge in a different organizational environment. I am closing one door so that another can open. But I am and will remain strongly connected to VSF-Suisse.
You are now handing over the affairs to your successor Flurina Derungs. How do you feel about that?
NL: Having Flurina as my successor is a real stroke of luck for the organization. It is reassuring for me to hand over the reins to a person I feel so good about. I am convinced that Flurina will lead VSF-Suisse into a stable and promising future after the exciting and sometimes turbulent last 12 years.
Flurina, these are big shoes to fill. Any spontaneous thoughts?
Flurina Derungs: For me it was just very impressive to look back on 12 years of VSF-Suisse through Nicole’s eyes. Hearing about the closure of the DRC country office or how country offices and head office in Kenya began pulling on the same end of the rope again touched me very much. I am happy to now follow in these very big footsteps of Nicole, but of course I also have great respect. Nicole has shaped the organization for many years, has grown with the organization and brought it this far, now here I come. I am a completely different person than Nicole. I now come from the outside, bring a lot of heart and soul, a head full of ideas, a rucksack of many years in international cooperation – and above all I have a great team behind me. I am very much looking forward to the tasks ahead!
Feminist peace work and animal health: At first glance, your former and current organizations don’t seem to have much in common. Is that impression correct?
FD: At first glance not, but at second glance a lot! For more than 20 years, I have been working for the right of all people to live in dignity and security – whether as a local expert in Tanzania and Uganda working with women affected by violence, as a lecturer on human rights at university, as a social worker in the penal system or, as in the last six years, as the managing director of a peace organization with projects in conflict-affected regions. It is always important to me to make the voices and concerns of marginalized people heard and to contribute to improving their living conditions. But of course I take myself with me when I change jobs. So the gender perspective in the work of VSF-Suisse is very important to me, because food security and poverty reduction have a lot to do with gender issues. And I am so happy to be able to work with such a committed, experienced and competent team – both at the head office and in the five country offices.
A lot of overlap! You have many years of experience in NPO management. What skills are particularly needed here?
FD: With my background as an executive director in international cooperation and a diploma in NPO management, I see myself primarily as a networker, as the face of the organization to the outside world, and as a team builder in a facilitating role. In collaboration with the board and the team, I want to shape and advance the organization. I am strong in holding the threads together without micromanagement, forging a team and motivating colleagues. And I am also very good at positioning the organization externally – be it with funding partners or other organizations.
You have been in the handover phase with Nicole for a month now and will be taking over all operations as of July 1. What are your first tasks?
FD: It is very important to me to further consolidate the organization financially – fundraising and contact with funding partners are high on my list of priorities. I am also convinced that a team in which everyone feels comfortable and works well together can achieve great things. So I invest a lot in team cohesion, healthy framework conditions and resource allocation as well as in efficient processes. In this context, I am particularly looking forward to the exchange with our colleagues in the country offices – online, face-to-face in September, and also on project trips, where I will soon get to know our work on site and can exchange ideas directly with the project participants.
And what in particular impressed you during this first period?
FD: There are two things that stood out in my first weeks: On the one hand, I was impressed by how VSF-Suisse, even as a small organization, uses the opportunities of digitization to work together in decentralized teams – be it at the head office and with the country offices, but also within the framework of alliances and networks. On the other hand, I have great respect for the way VSF-Suisse repeatedly succeeds in competitively acquiring funds in cooperation with other organizations through tenders and mandates from major donors such as SDC, USAID, the EU and the UN.
Where is VSF-Suisse headed in the medium and long term?
FD: We heard it from Nicole: Challenging years lie behind us. Nicole and her predecessor succeeded in turning the tide and building up the organization. The team and project volume have grown, as has the organizational capital. Now I would like – in cooperation with the board and the team – to lead VSF-Suisse into stability, to consolidate and to shape it proactively. In particular, I see potential in continuing and cultivating strategic partnerships to achieve more impact, leverage synergies, and in the process create more leverage for the people VSF-Suisse serves.
NL: Above all, I wish Flurina to continue the high-quality work of VSF-Suisse in a calm manner, creating a measurable impact. Right now, VSF-Suisse is needed more than ever, because hunger has sadly risen again worldwide in the last 3 years.
On behalf of the entire team, we would like to take this opportunity to thank you, Nicole, for all your hard work and tireless dedication. We wish you all the best for the future. To you, Flurina, once again a warm welcome – we are looking forward to working with you.