Meet Alison Filler: Lifeline’s Global Program Manager

By: Brian Cartwright

All of our work here at Lifeline is made possible by the incredible passion and drive of our team. We’re proud to introduce you to the talented individuals who power our work and mission.

At Lifeline, we are constantly pushing ourselves to grow and do better. We have an organizational mindset of continuous improvement. This ties in with a commitment to delivering on our promises and prioritizing the best interests of all partners involved – most importantly, the communities we serve.”
– Alison Filler 

How long have you been with Lifeline and could you describe your current role and responsibilities?  

I have been with Lifeline for over five years, since early 2016. My current role as Global Program Manager has three main components. One is development, which involves sourcing funds and partnerships for the organization. The next is program management, which means overseeing our active water and energy projects and guiding new resources to design and implement those projects, making sure our teams are operating on time and on budget. Finally, I am active in communications, which involves documenting Lifeline’s work, measuring our areas of impact, and finding creative ways to communicate those messages to our wider audience of partners, supporters, and peer organizations.

In a team of this size, everyone carries many different responsibilities and I have been fortunate enough to learn from, and engage with, all of the different facets of our work – from designing WASH programs to evaluating the impact of our refugee energy projects, and crafting business plans for social enterprises to developing new fundraising and communications campaigns. In other words, what is great about Lifeline and the various roles I have been involved with is that nothing ever gets boring; every minute of the day brings a meaningful contribution to our team and our collective impact. 

What was it about Lifeline that kept you engaged throughout the years? 

The biggest draw has been the focus on working directly with communities. I am constantly in conversation and actively engaging with our team. When I am able to travel in person to Uganda, I get to work directly with community members, local government representatives, and other industry partners. With these relationships and community ties, you can really see the immediate impact of what you are doing, and that has kept me connected to the underlying “why” of this work and the big picture. 

Our team’s commitment to the integrity and quality of our work has also kept me motivated. At Lifeline, we are constantly pushing ourselves to grow and do better. We have an organizational mindset of continuous improvement. This ties in with a commitment to delivering on our promises and prioritizing the best interests of all partners involved – most importantly, the communities we serve. 

When you reflect on your time here, how do you think working with Lifeline has shaped your worldview?

My time with Lifeline has influenced my understanding of potential. Lately, I have been thinking about how far I have come from my first days here and how many opportunities I have been afforded to stretch my own creativity and develop a new approach or solution. It only takes an idea, a little initiative and persistence, and a few people who believe in your ability to navigate what comes next to change the way business is done, or the way people live their lives.

Can you give an example of this process?   

EverFlow is one result of this entrepreneurial spirit. The idea came from our direct experience with the recurring breakdowns of rural water infrastructure. Instead of continuing to pour money into pumps that were guaranteed to break down in a matter of years, we introduced a social enterprise model to change the financial incentives perpetuating pump failures. We are now making it profitable for local mechanics to keep water flowing. From the original pilot that we tested in just 12 communities, EverFlow has grown and evolved into what I truly see as the future of rural water access.  

Watching this process unfold has sparked my own interest around the intersections of water, energy, and food systems. Food is very close to my heart; it is my favorite way to learn about people over time and it tells us so much about how we interact with our environment. Addressing food access, diminishing nutritional value, and waste that affect communities both in the US and worldwide will require fundamental shifts in how we invest in natural resources. I want to explore a similar realignment of incentives as we introduced with EverFlow to turn these systemic failures into opportunities for community-led growth and prosperity. 

As a program manager for a humanitarian INGO, what was the most difficult aspect of this role and how has this helped you to grow? What did you learn from this experience? 

Keeping your perspective is critical because there is always more to be done. When you are in a role and group like this, that is ambitious and always wanting to achieve more impact, it can be difficult to recognize when you have achieved your goal. And even when you are successful in reaching your targets, visualizing these positive steps within a vast web of global, systemic challenges can be daunting at times. One way I have learned to maintain a balanced perspective is by reframing my work as a form of creating, rather than fixing. This allows me to see myself surrounded by opportunities, instead of problems. 

During your next steps in graduate school this fall, where and what will you be studying? How did your time with Lifeline impact this decision? 

I decided to pursue my Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School to further explore how we can make better use of financial tools and incentives to build more equitable access to natural resources in our world. Saïd’s emphasis on creating a network to solve these global challenges is an opportunity for me to test out answers to many of the questions that were raised in the course of my work with Lifeline.

In my time working in refugee contexts and social enterprises, I am proud to have played at least a small part in our latest operational milestones. Within one year, the EcoEnergy enterprise doubled its sales of efficient stoves, so more than 70,000 Ugandan families cut their fuel use in half from 2019-200. The EverFlow maintenance service has improved water access so effectively that communities who used to go without water for more than two weeks each year now only experience less than two days of pump interruption per year. These are amazing achievements, there’s no doubt about that, but across the board we still struggle with how to sustainably finance these models. This challenge is certainly not unique to Lifeline, it has been a continuous issue across the social impact and humanitarian sectors for decades, so I’m ready to contribute to the shift towards more creative funding approaches.

What are you hoping to learn from this degree? What is your goal post graduation?  

I am looking forward to strengthening the financial skills that will help me to develop new funding approaches that are more financially sustainable and lead to better impacts for communities in the long run. Specifically, I am looking to become more involved in different methods of impact investing. Grants are just one way that we can finance the services that communities need to thrive. I’d like to experiment with other approaches to performance-based financing, like impact bonds, to incentivize better outcomes and more balanced relationships between communities and investors. If we are going to break cycles of dependency then we need to look at how our funding models have played a role in historic imbalances and how we can choose to do better. 

What are you most excited for in moving to the UK? 

I am excited that the UK is more centrally located to other continents, so travel will be much easier. At times, living in North America can feel a bit disconnected and far away from the rest of the world, so I am looking forward to building out the next phase of my career in Europe and Africa.I hope to gain a new point of view while living outside of my home country.

What are you going to miss the most about your time with Lifeline? 

I will miss the people, without question. This includes our partners, the communities, and, of course, the Lifeline team. I have been incredibly lucky to work with a team that is so experienced, knowledgeable, fun, and caring. Most of all, this team is extremely dedicated and that is special; you don’t find that everywhere. This world is a small place and I am eager for our paths to cross again.