The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

The Executive Director of a UN agency on running it like a business

Excerpt from the Harvard Business Review

By Grete Faremo, UNOPS Executive Director

Published in the May-June 2019 issue

In June 2018 I was awoken at my home in Norway long after midnight by a call from a top official at United Nations headquarters, in New York. The Mexican ambassador to the UN had submitted a formal complaint about the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the organization I lead, alleging that UNOPS had officially sided with the opposition candidate in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election. The complaint was ridiculous: All we’d done was say yes to the candidate when he asked if we would assist him with an anti-corruption campaign if he was elected. Nonetheless, the formal complaint created a press frenzy in Mexico. We had two options: apologize profusely, or declare we’d done nothing wrong. It was a sensitive decision, because our reputation was at risk, especially if the opposition candidate lost. We decided to stand firm. The UN secretary-general issued a statement reaffirming the UN’s impartiality. A month later the opposition candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was elected president—and soon after his inauguration he asked UNOPS to help sell Mexico’s presidential airplane, to set an example of government frugality.

Leading UNOPS, which I’ve done since 2014, requires a daily walk across a political tightrope. But I try not to let politics distract me from my primary goal: helping the agency continue to become a self-funded, sustainable, and entrepreneurial arm of the United Nations—staying true to our original mission even as we diversify to serve a wide array of clients and take on projects unlike what most people envision for an NGO like ours. Not long ago the organization teetered near bankruptcy; today it’s growing smartly. What we’ve accomplished can be instructive. It’s easy to name dozens of successful turnarounds in the private sector; it’s much harder to think of nonprofit examples. UNOPS has been able to change dramatically, creating a culture of discipline and a measured approach to risk-taking.

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