A Night with the Board: Things Are Looking Good

Posted on June 22, 2011


Last night I had a meeting with the board of the organization I’m working with. The board has little enough day-to-day interaction with us, the lowly drones, save for the chairperson. And it’s with good reason: they’re fairly important folks (judges, professors [Henry Louis Gates is on the US Board, if you remember him from a couple years back], and businesspeople of some clout). We did not have everyone in attendance, but enough to call a quorum and make binding votes on the direction of the organization.

My appeal went something like this: given the scope of the organization, its mission, and its current goals, the main office here in Nairobi simply doesn’t have the necessary manpower.

The board voiced the opinion that their girls were not returning to Nairobi after college abroad because they were essentially cheaters, undeserving who wanted to use the organization as a middleman to help them get to school. Many are greatly discouraged by the fact that many of the girls no longer list the organization either on their resumes or as a source of aid in the past (although they still cite donors and patron organizations who helped them through primary school).

No, I said, it’s not bad students. It’s that many enter the process with little understanding of what lies ahead of them—what degrees and careers and opportunities are available, what the hardships of leaving their cultures and their families will be, what it will be like to interact in a sometimes calloused social atmosphere, where some of those they seek to empathize with will not accept them. (Many seek out black student organizations, but especially in smaller parts of the nations they go to, they report that African Americans are often either aloof or hostile). As a result, they want to reject their roots from time to time. Some have something of an identity crisis.

Tonight I stayed late at the office and a girl, already accepted and on her way in a month or so to an American college, sheepishly asked me a number of basic questions about where she was going. She had little idea of what to expect in any respect. Not even this girl who stayed in the program, got all the information—not even she was adequately prepared for what was to come.

The solution to my mind is to restructure our mentorship program. Rather than provide one presentation on the expectation of return to Kenya after a degree, one weekend of cultural preparation, and weekly calls from an otherwise aloof administrator who makes some of the girls feel they’re in trouble, rather than just give them a contact for another girl in school (who will be facing the same problems), we must define every stage of their journey through the organization and provide mentorship and support.

When they arrive, we need to make several points of mental contact as to the goals and expectations of the program, prepare informative materials for them to carry with them as reference, really grind the organization’s mission and the purpose of this education and scholarship into their minds so they will know from the start what is expected and thus accept the idea of repatriation and service, of continued engagement with the organization and their nation, much more readily. We must provide sustained education between acceptance and departure not just on cultural aspects (regional and general), but put them in touch with girls who have completed the program, introduce them to mentors who will await to offer them guidance and help them to find employment when they return to Kenya, introduce them to the academic climate by structuring our classes on college courses, treat them as adults and peers rather than children and charges, and provide social preparation as well. After departure, we must not rely on weekly calls and other such contacts, nor on students going through the same problems, but we must use the graduates of the program they met in Nairobi and developed a relationship with, who have returned to mentor and have a positive view of the organization and its mission, to maintain regular contact—friendly contact that reinforces positive impressions of the goals of the organization and the concept of return while helping them to cope with challenges the mentor successfully handled. We must expand beyond the board in terms of industry and adult mentors and provide detailed mentorship on the process of repatriation. We must ensure employment support upon return to incentivize the goal. And given the scope of this mentoring program, which is meant to sidestep the disincentive of conditionality (which may be used as a backup if all else fails—not the necessity of return, but the transformation of the scholarship into a loan and a guarantee to give time and support to the organization to ensure to the failure to return does not cost another girl the chance to go abroad [by damaging the record of returns/brand equity of the organization and leading to failure in the long term]), that we need a full time administrator of the program.

The board agreed wholeheartedly (they contributed aspects of the plan as we discussed it, to note it fairly), and approved the budget to write the program, hire an administrator, and implement it.

The same happened with fundraising. The organization needs to be less dependent on Coca Cola sponsorship and board member connections and develop an independent and sustainable fundraising model (which can increase brand equity and increase interest from corporate sponsors, encouraging growth of the organization, feeding into brand equity, ad nauseum). And that sort of development (inclusive of maintaining relationships with and expanding to new schools for recruitment and for acceptance/college education and expansion of the organization beyond the four nations where we currently operate) requires a paid, full-time position as well.

Granted. The position is written into the budget and the organization/strategic development plan (that I, another intern, and two independent consultants are both contributing to currently—that includes the development of short and long term organizational goals and of standard operating procedures) and shall be realized along with the mentorship position by the end of the fiscal year (in time to provide these services for the 60 girls I’m working directly with).

They also approved of my curriculum (they say the girls have told them good things) and my teaching style. And they took under consideration my thoughts on the website, that we should end our relationship with a contractor and re-source the operations to in-office, a function of the Secretariat position (which will only cost man hours in HTML training while giving us increased speed), with aid in establishing a media/social media presence from a flow of interns teaching the curriculum we leave behind. They approved a stipend for a volunteer position to maintain records so we don’t lose girls and documents as we have in the past. And they approved the clear delineation of duties between the Secretariat (administrative) and the Office Manager (managing all branches of the organization and liaising with the board, students, and other employees of the organization). They approved of our plan to expand to 45 new American schools and 29 international schools by the end of the fiscal year. They even passed a motion they had already considered to halt expansion—they operate in Kenya, America (not recruiting, just facilitating), Uganda, and Ghana, and soon in South Africa. But the Uganda office is failing and costing us our reputation (as was a poor fundraising model) and Ghana succeeds because the administrator is amazing, while South Africa is non-functional. So the plans to expand to Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria, and Rwanda were premature and have been halted until we finish our strategic development work and implement all of these changes.

The board was totally up for all of this. They’ve seen the writing on the walls; they knew what needed to be done. All they needed was someone to shove the conversation in the right direction and prod them into passing one or two motions and they basically did the rest themselves. I’ve become friendly with some of them, and I’m not sure whether it was to placate me or out of trust in my competence, but they’ve been sure to include me and the other intern on every stage of the immediate developments—every meeting, and the contacts with the independent contractors and consultants. I must say I’m quite happy.

During the meeting, the chair of the board, a business leader, jokingly asked me what I was doing in a year’s time, if I’d like to take one of the new full-time positions. We all laughed. But at the end of the meeting she touched me on the shoulder and said, “But about that position, well, I don’t know, but maybe we can discuss it at lunch sometime.”

Of course much that I said was not taken well, and much that I said was very stupid. I’m not trying to glorify the experience or say that they did everything I said. Again, most they worked out for themselves with a little prompting and some input from yours truly, and many of my suggestions must have seemed childish. But I think they’re willing to do the right things. The organization can thrive. The girls are talented (I love my classes, they’re quite fun), they can succeed, and we can achieve success and notice through a record of astounding academic placements.
I’ve got a good feeling about this organization and all that we’ll be able to do in the coming months—even if all I can do is help as one of a dozen hands working to plant the seeds.

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