Navigating a Leadership Transition


  • Service: Private Coaching
  • Intervention Method: Course Correction
  • Area of Work: Human Rights
  • Client:  Alix Dunn is the co-founder of the engine room, a nonprofit that helps human rights activists around the world use data.
  • Challenge: Alix was transitioning from working as co-director of her NGO to being a solo executive director.
  • Consultation:  Through a series of phone calls, I helped her work through the tactical and strategic challenges at play, regarding her organization’s stakeholders and financial health. I also helped her see her own ability to not only achieve a successful transition, but to thrive in her new solo leadership role.
  • Result:  Alix is now the solo executive director of her organization. Since she took on that role, her organization’s budget has increased by 45% to $1.1 million USD annually. Their services have never been more in demand.
  • Time (Consultation → Result):  18 months
Alix Dunn

Alix's Story

Alix Dunn gets a lot of offers.  When people meet her they want her to run their organizations, collaborate on high-profile research, lead programs at prestigious philanthropic foundations.

But Alix goes her own way. She finds a problem that moves and fascinates her and then finds a way to solve it.  If it hasn’t been done before, all the better: another chance for innovation.   

When the Arab Spring sprung in 2011, Alix was right there, working for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.  Spurred on by her collaborator, Christopher Wilson, she decided to engage. The two coordinated a team of 15 surveyors to interview Tahrir Square protesters on their media use.  

Based on that study (and previous research conducted at the University of Oslo), she was encouraged to enter academia, but didn’t.  She wanted to support activists, not study them.

When she co-founded the engine room with Christopher in 2011, she wasn’t concerned that their hybrid organization – which does fee-for-service work and applies for grants – didn’t fit into any of the convenient civil society boxes.  She forged ahead anyway, diving into the complex worlds of design, code, digital security, open source software, and data analysis because she knew the activists she was working with needed support in these areas.    

Yet the leadership transition was a challenge.  It was deeply complex – involving concerns both interpersonal and legal, financial and structural.  

During that time, I gave her many pieces of advice.  This is the one that stuck with her most, which she mentions almost every time we meet:  “Six months from now,” I told her, “you will not only be a successful ED.  You will wonder how you ever doubted you would become one.”   This vision of not only surviving – but thriving – in her new role helped give Alix the confidence to make that vision a reality.  

Advising Alix also provided the first hint of my current profession as a coach for social change visionaries.  In many ways, she was my first coaching client.  And she is still one of my closest friends.