The Best Job in the World

August 05, 2014

When my children were young we sometimes played a game at the Thanksgiving table: each diner wrote on a slip of paper something for which she or he was grateful, folded it and placed it in a basket. We then passed the basket and took turns picking one, reading it out loud and guessing who wrote it. I often wrote: "I am grateful to have meaningful work" and when it came time to explain I would say that I felt very lucky to work at CGD and to have what was for me the very best job in the world. (Guessing right wasn't as easy as you imagine. I didn't write the same thing every year, and some years my wife, who worked for an affordable housing organization, wrote something similar!)

I have been remembering that experience in recent weeks as I pondered whether to take on a new set of challenges as the VP for communications at the World Resources Institute, a global think tank with some 450 employees, offices in  Brazil, China, India, and active projects in more than 50 countries. It hasn't been an easy decision. When Nancy Birdsall interviewed me in 2004 to become the Center for Global Development's first director of communications, I asked her what she hoped that CGD would become in five years. "Small, well-funded and influential," she replied. She had me. In the ten years since it has been my privilege and great good fortune to have had an opportunity to work closely with Nancy and the wonderful colleagues she has drawn to CGD to help make her vision a reality.

As part of my role I have twice co-authored essays (the first with Ruth Levine, the second with Todd Moss) that attempt to describe CGD’s secret sauce. Among the 12 lessons from CGD’s first 12 years that Todd and I included in the second essay, Lesson Nine states: “Resist  the growth inertia” and explains CGD’s decision—Nancy’s really—to stay small. Over the years this has proven to be the right decision for CGD, crucial to what makes us highly effective—and lots of fun. The leadership at WRI decided differently and in recent years it has grown dramatically, to become what is arguably the world’s most globalized think tank.

I don’t know the right answer to the think tank size question. Indeed, it’s unlikely that there’s a one-size fit all answer. Climate change, the problem that keeps me up at night (and the biggest single challenge to development and indeed to civilization as we know it) is the quintessential global problem. It’s reasonable to think that an institution with a global presence can be an important part of the response, and climate change is appropriately one of six areas of focus at WRI. Part of my job, starting on October 1, will be to build on efforts underway at WRI to make the most of this global reach.

One thing I know for certain is that CGD will continue to punch above its weight, making outsize contributions to thinking about development and the design and implementation of the wide range of policies (see CGD’s Commitment to Development Index) that determine the playing field (often unfairly tilted against them) in which poor people in developing countries strive to improve their lives.

While CGD and WRI differ in size, they have much in common in their approach to making the world a better place. (CGD’s tag line: “Ideas to Action.” WRI’s tag line: “Making Big Ideas Happen.”). CGD created the Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA) that became a crucial component of WRI’s powerful Global Forest Watch toolset. I hope that my move to WRI will help to foster additional collaboration drawing upon the differing comparative advantages of the two organizations.

In the meantime, Nancy has asked me to lead the search for my successor. Writing the job description, which posted yesterday, was yet another exercise in reflecting on just how fortunate I have been to have participated in the creation of a remarkable institution. I wish my successor the very best: she or he will be taking up what I consider to be the best job in the world.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.