Scott Neeson’s journey to establishing the highly successful NFP, Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) could read like the script of a blockbuster film. The dramatic arc of his rags to riches to rags story is ironic to say the least – as the ex-CEO of 20th Century Fox International, he of all people must appreciate the appeal of a great story.
Born in Edinburgh, Scott moved to South Australia when he was five. The son of a cleaner and a defence force employee, he dropped out of school at the age of 17 and soon found himself on the unemployment allowance. Eventually, through a government supported program, he found a job at a local cinema as a projectionist. The story could have ended here, but with a drive and ambition that still defines his philanthropic work today, Scott fiercely climbed the ladder in the film industry. From film promoter to film buyer, he eventually became the managing director of distribution for the Australian arm of 20th Century Fox.
By 2000, Scott had moved to LA and landed the job of a lifetime, Director of 20th Century Fox International. He was on a million dollar annual salary and brushing shoulders with Hollywood’s A-listers – it was a perfect story of success. But in 2003, just weeks before starting a new role at Sony Pictures, a six week trip to Phnom Penh changed everything.
“The moment I stepped there it was the single most impactful moment in my life. I was standing there facing into the abyss.”
While on this sabbatical, he witnessed hundreds of children scavenging through Steung Meanchey, a massive 18 acre garbage dump with over 1000 children living and working on it. Scott had it all – a powerful job in the film industry, a big house, celebrity friends and a boat. The Cambodian children and the families he saw had to sort through trash just to survive. It was a disparity that Scott couldn’t fathom, and an inequality he was suddenly impassioned to change. Soon after his return, he resigned from his new position at Sony, sold his possessions and ended a 26-year career in the film business to focus all of his energy and passion into keeping Cambodian children off the garbage dumps forever.
Today, Scott lives by simple means in Cambodia, devoting his time to the ever-expanding programs of education, support and leadership that form the pillars of CCF. The core mission of CCF is simple; provide quality education and supporting facilities to children and their families so that they can do more than survive, so that they can succeed and prosper, leading all of Cambodia to a brighter, more independent future.
“I came here without a firm vision per se,” says Scott. “In retrospect, one of the great advantages was being aware of just how little I knew about Cambodia, the community we were dealing with and how to resolve fundamental and often life threatening problems.”
From a purely corporate background, Scott launched into a career in the NFP sector with no previous experience in philanthropy. But the characteristics that saw him rise to such heights in the film industry gave him a unique outlook when running CCF. A tireless drive for results and ceaseless measurement of program effectiveness – an approach usually associated with the for-profit world – means that CCF has been innovating since it’s inception; it has been at the forefront of revolutionising the NFP model for the last 10 years.
“CCF started by looking at the most obvious issues of education and need for medical care,” says Scott. “But over the years we have evolved the program and services so that the community is more involved, has greater governance and the empowerment to make decisions. With this, we have set up a structure that has a better educated and higher functioning community and one that will certainly outlast CCF.”
CCF rejected the conventional model of helping as many people as possible, instead choosing to help an initially small community (those at the Steung Meanchey garbage dump) but properly and in a lasting way. “Scaling is certainly most effective when focusing on a single problem with a successful solution, such as the eradication of smallpox,” says Scott. “However when dealing with social issues such as girls in education, domestic violence and nutritional deficiencies, the most effective solutions will always be found by a close, intimate understating of the community.”
CCF set about to provide quality education, world class facilities and holistic leadership and support programs to children from kindy to a university level. The results, Scott says, are measurable proof that the CCF model works. “Absenteeism has dropped from 55% to 5%, school retention has moved from 58% to 96% and maternal care, once a dire 8 – 12% (estimated) amongst new mothers has maintained zero deaths in the last 7 years and 1,100 births, since the establishment of the Maternal Care Program.”
The key innovation of CCF is it’s ‘whole systems thinking’ approach to the problem of poverty in Cambodia, which involves looking at the interrelationships between all parts of a problem. By incorporating a range of perspectives, conditions, connections and capabilities Scott gained from having a foot in both corporate and NFP worlds, he was able to create a program that attacked the whole system of poverty, rather than trying to construct solutions from within a limited focus. “We work within a defined community and learning root causes is an everyday occurrence. We’re required to rethink previous ways of working, sometimes because they’re outmoded, other times because they are ineffective, and most often because the working environment changes,” says Scott. “Innovation is essential to our understanding and growth.”
Scott continues to drive CCF to innovate and provide life changing programs and resources to Cambodian communities. A recent testament to this is the newly built Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA). Funded by the Velcro Group of companies and due to open early next year, the NCA will focus on providing Science, Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) education to impoverished Cambodian communities.
Scott’s story ends in Phnom Penh, a place that has changed the trajectory of his life forever. But while his future rests with his continuing work in Cambodia, the future of CCF is expanding. “The goal for 2017 will be to record all of the CCF programs so that the model can be tested in other areas,” says Scott. “I’m looking to establish a franchise type model where someone with a similar environment can open the franchise box that shows them how to replicate the same model as CCF, in part or in full, anywhere in the world.”
Interview with Scott Neeson, CEO of CCF on innovation & NFPs
What is your understanding of innovation in the NFP sector?
For CCF I prefer to look at innovation as defined as meeting unarticulated needs. Rather than take the approach of finding a solution to issues that can be scaled up to a country level, we have instead peeled away layers within a single community. In 2004, we started in Steung Meanchey, the country’s, if not the region’s, most impoverished, dysfunctional community; home to 11,000 people who largely survive on garbage scavenging. The area was still a working landfill with appalling rates of domestic violence, abuse, lack of education, children living and working on the dump, a high maternal death rate and a plethora of social issues.
Focusing on a single community requires enmeshing within it. That is how the construct of a series of interdependent programs, big and small, was achieved. I firmly believe that the future of international aid will be the replication of community models, as opposed to the top down approach where the priority is on scaling to a national level.
Scaling is certainly most effective when focusing on a single problem with a successful solution, such as the eradication of smallpox. However when dealing with social issues such as girls in education, domestic violence and nutritional deficiencies, the most effective solutions will always be found by a close, intimate understating of the community.
And so with that in mind, why you think it’s hard for an NFP to prioritize innovation?
The accountability of many NFPs requires them to meet specific goals. For those receiving aid from the larger organisations, this accountability stymies their ability to innovate. The funding is for specific projects and goals, and I feel that there’s less ability to adapt to the changing conditions.
We work with in a defined community and learning root causes is an everyday occurrence. We’re required to rethink previous ways of working, sometimes because they’re outmoded, other times because they are ineffective, and most often because the working environment changes. Innovation is essential to our understanding and growth
In what areas do you think innovation is the most needed?
Innovation is most needed when dealing with social issues. I feel there’s too much emphasis placed on the capacity of programs as opposed to the depth and understanding of root causes which have a longer and more sustainable effect than the gross number of beneficiaries. Again, this doesn’t apply to NFPs with a single cause such as eradication of diseases or supply of fresh water, but to be effective on social issues it’s essential that you understand core problems as opposed to presumptive or inappropriate “best practices”.
When a program originates from a place of understanding then there is generally an inherent sense of dignity and collaboration for all parties which is often absent from a top down approach.
CCF firmly believes in building from the ground up with an intimate understanding of each individual, each family and the overall community.
In terms of marketing and digital strategies is there any particular way that CCF is implementing something that’s more creative or a bit more innovative than perhaps other NFPs?
CCF is largely defined by our desire to remain personal and relevant both within our community and externally. We’re funded by private donations which do allow us the ability to be more candid about the issues, frustrations, challenges and benefits. It’s not all a rosy picture and we need to present the challenges as well as successes.
There is mutual benefit in bringing a better understanding between the different cultures and between areas of financial disparity. Being able to tell the stories of the people in our community provides perspective to those in developed countries where values, family structures and priorities are often vastly different. There’s still value in wisdom here which I feel has been lost to instant information and “shallow” knowledge in the developed countries.
Also, in terms of fundraising ethics, if you’re going to show a child in need then you’re also obliged to show what you have done for that child. It’s exploitative to show a sad, hungry and dirty child who “desperately needs your help” without also showing what has been done for that particular child. The child is objectified but the message is designed to hit a personal level. They stop being a person with a life story and become only a subject of pity in order to raise funds. People, especially donors, should ask “what happened to that child? What did my donation do to help him/her?”
Another school of thought for innovation is that NFPs can learn and perhaps collaborate with the for-profit sector, implementing a lot of the business strategies that they use. What is your opinion of this? Can CCF could learn from those kinds of tactics?
I came from a hardcore corporate background working as president of 20th Century Fox International. I hadn’t worked in the nonprofit sector and as a result CCF’s structure is more corporate. We’re an organization that requires accountability and responsibility, and where financial and operational measures are applied.
I’ve often been accused of “running CCF more like a business than a charity” I agree with those sentiments when it comes to the infrastructure, staffing and general organizational aspects. However, the focus on those who we serve, whether children, adults, grandparents or the community in general is one of care and tirelessly trying to improve the lives of beneficiaries. The for profit sector can drive better efficiencies, accountability and financial management in the nonprofit sector. This was highlighted this year with CCF’s 100% score from Charity Navigator, an award received by only 51 of 8,500 evaluated NFPs.
It seems to reflect this expansion approach to building an NFP from the ground level, as opposed to just consistently sustaining a certain amount of aid from international sources. So CCF is innovative in its ability to have these long-term infrastructures that are constantly expanding and constantly making the worth of the entire charity tenfold.
CCF’s innovation and ability to change according to the environment are core aspects of our success. Being closely engaged with the community means we are able to learn of problems that would otherwise be impossible for an office in Sydney or New York (for example) to discover. It also allows us to identify the best solutions to the problems. The CCF model of integrated, interconnected programs has wonderful, quantifiable outputs such as education measures where absenteeism has dropped from 55% to 5%, school retention has moved from 58% to 96% and maternal care, once a dire 8 – 12% (estimated) amongst new mothers has maintained zero deaths in the last 7 years and 1,100 births, since the establishment of the Maternal Care Program.
Being able to first define then replicate this model in other dysfunctional, impoverished or war torn communities is, in my mind, the future of foreign aid delivery.
So how intrinsic do you think Scott Neeson’s outlook and his approach is as an ex-CEO of a huge company?
I came here without a firm vision per se. In retrospect, one of the great advantages was being aware of just how little I knew about Cambodia, the community we were dealing with and how to resolve fundamental and often life threatening problems. CCF started by looking at the most obvious issues of education and need for medical care and has over the years evolved the program and services so that the community is more involved, has greater governance and the empowerment to make decisions. With this, we have set up a structure that has a better educated and higher functioning community and one that will certainly outlast CCF.
Yes so it’s a model for an NFP that can be applied to other places and other charities. It’s a system of really helping from the ground up that can be can be used in the future.
The goal for 2017 will be to record the model and all of its programs. There are approximately 65 programs, projects or services from the large, such as education, to the small such as the daycare drop-in. Having the interdependence of these programs recorded with the parallel funding model will allow the model to be tested in other areas.
For example, I had looked at the Myanmar/Bangladesh boarder as a place to replicate the CCF model. Certainly it is not necessary to replicate every program and much like CCF, whoever is implementing this NFP will have their own challenges and will require their own solutions. That’s the beauty of CCF – the nimbleness and awareness of local issues and reacting accordingly. I’m looking to establish a franchise type model where someone with a similar environment can open the franchise box that shows them how to replicate the same model as CCF in part or in full and with a guide on the fundraising components, especially as it relates to child sponsorships. I had thought in the early days that once I’d set up CCF I could move to another location but I’m emotionally attached to the people we serve here and feel too old and too tired to do it all over again!
- Innovative fundraising strategies for NFPs including case studies Scott Neeson’s CCF, Thankyou and Watsi (read on linkedin)
- Helping People Help themselves: Scott Neeson’s CCF innovating the NFP model (read on linkedin)
- Scott Neeson of CCF and the business-minded leaders innovating the NFP sector (read on linkedin)
- Articles about Scott Neeson & CCF on Medium