T his year I am back at the Account Planning Conference after a five-year absence. I have come back to teach a workshop on account-planning skills with Merry Baskin and Elena Salij.

In the past five years I have done a bit of traveling around the world—being in places without electricity has been my organizing principle. Most recently I have been doing volunteer work in Kenya. I work there for about eight months of the year in two- to three-month shifts. I am doing something I have always wanted to do, and while I am often hopelessly homesick for America, I do enjoy being there.

I work on a variety of projects—adolescent HIV/AIDS prevention is one of them, getting children from nomadic tribes in the remote north to go to school is another. Because I am a volunteer, I can pick and choose what I work on. I have left the world of advertising for the world of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), foreign aid, donors, foundations and trusts.

It’s good to be on a learning curve again and doing things I have never done before. In so many ways it is completely different—I do my own secretarial work (thank god for spellcheck). NGOs that look poor get more money than those that don’t, so my office space is high on charm but low on technology that works. I haven’t written a bullet point since I started—it’s all 10-page proposals written in full sentences. There are no Holiday Inns. I sleep in tents or outside on skins. And, of course, I don’t work on ads anymore.

Still, account planning is in my blood, and I find that when I am most successful it is because I have applied the basic philosophy and process of account planning to what I am doing. As they say, you can take the girl out of planning, but you can’t take planning out of the girl!

I am still addicted to change, to trying to do something that has never been done. My insight from my new perspective is that embedded in account planning are the tools to create effective change—to do something different from and better than what exists now, not just in advertising but arguably in lots of areas.

There are three tools or planning approaches that I find particularly useful:

First, the basic, fundamental premise of account planning: engage the target audience and talk to them about what they need instead of pushing your agenda on them. You can trust that people will tell you what they want if you listen well and interpret their thoughts accurately. It is about involvement and participation, not didactic paternalism. The NGO/donor business is full of people who have their own agendas. To ask a poor person how he defines poverty and what he needs is the most powerful thing you can do—I guarantee that what he says will be different from what you expected and, in my short experience, always more relevant and effective.

Second: debate. Account planning is a catalyst for people who are coming at an issue from different disciplines and different points of view to reach a truly watertight position—usually one that is better than any of the ones you started with. Of course, in the more polite society of the NGO/donor world, I have left behind the take-no-prisoners style of Chiat/Day debate, but in Nairobi, as in New York, new ideas fly out of intelligent, passionate debate.

Third: accountability. Account planning makes sure that the end goal of advertising—the objective—is clearly defined. The planner takes primary responsibility for the effect of the execution. Accountability is everything in the work I do now. Even the most well-meaning intervention runs the risk of having unexpected negative effects, and to be responsible only for the intervention is to leave a trail of problems behind you. Only by taking full, long-term responsibility for the end goal can you achieve lasting positive change.

The subject for the Account Planning Conference this year is “Brave Thinking.” Innovation takes courage, and I would argue that inherent in the philosophy and process of account planning are the tools to be courageous. And of course, it is interesting to speculate what these tools could do in other industries—politics, healthcare, education. Are they not universal tools for improvement?