David Nussbaum Tells Us About His Role as Chief Executive of The Elders

Our alumni, David Nussbaum (MTh 1981), was appointed Chief Executive of The Elders in October 2016.  Founded by Nelson Mandela, The Elders is a group of about a dozen leading international figures committed to causes of peace, justice and human rights.

Announcing David’s appointment, Kofi Annan (Chair of the Elders) described him as “a real leader in international development.”  David agreed to an interview about his new post

Tell us about your role at the Elders.


The Elders are independent global leaders, who offer their collective influence to advocate for peace and help address major causes of human suffering.  The first Chair was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the current Chair, who is my boss, is former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.  Most Elders are former Presidents, Prime Ministers or Foreign Ministers from all around the world.  A year ago, I joined as Chief Executive to run the Secretariat, which supports The Elders’ work.  


I primarily relate with three key groups of people in the organisation: The Elders themselves, the members of the Advisory Council who are our main funders, and the Staff team.  I also deal with external bodies: government ministers, think tanks, business people, civil society leaders and the media.  A significant part of my role is to manage the network of relationships all this entails.  My 15 years in finance and manufacturing after New College also helps in that. 


I lead the staff of the Secretariat in supporting the work of the Elders, and in suggesting what work they might do – though in the end, it’s their decision. Achieving consensus with a group of strongly opinionated people, who are used to getting their own way, and who don’t always agree with each other, is just one of the challenges of this role.


What attracted you to that role?

This role is unique – I don’t think there’s another organisation quite like The Elders, and that attracted me.  It builds on my previous roles as Financial Director of Oxfam, as CEO of Transparency International, and as CEO of WWF-UK – all of which moves were informed by my Christian faith.  I’m motivated by learning, and this role takes me into new territory.  Conflict and peace have long been a personal interest, but I’ve never had to engage directly with these issues in my job before.


Tell us about your time at New College?

New College provided a community of scholars to engage with, and teachers to guide my research.  My main thesis was on: “Augustine, Scripture and Power,” examining how Augustine used scripture, how he used power, and how his use of scripture changed as he became more powerful.  I’m not a fan of Augustine’s later theology, and as the late David Wright commented on one of my early pieces, it was “certainly not guilty of a pro-Augustine bias”.


I also came to Edinburgh to work voluntarily in a small Baptist church in the Craigmillar estate.  The estate was, at that time, regarded as one of the worst areas of urban deprivation in Western Europe.  I rented a council flat there, and learned what life really was like in that community.  I’m glad I still have some friends who grew up there. During that time, I became a prison visitor at Saughton jail, and regularly went to see Joe, the prisoner allocated to me . I kept in touch with him throughout his life after release, until - as he had asked - I spoke at his funeral.


Perhaps most significantly, I met my wife towards the end of my MTh year: she had come as a member of a small team of volunteers to work in the Craigmillar church for a year.  We married less than two years later, now over 34 years ago, and have four adult children.