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Through the Eyes of a South African NPO
Part One – Hello Non-Profit
At about twenty three I decided there were two things I was going to do throughout the rest of my life. The first was make a concerted effort to help those who needed it. And the second was to do the first through education. What that meant exactly, I had no idea. I see now that such a will led me to today. But before today, it landed me and my friend a job at a non-profit organisation. Or, to be more specific, a non-government organisation or NGO. Hello non-profit world…
Before starting that job I had very little idea of what the non-profit sector was. I knew it had something to do with community and charity and… the thought always trailed off to something else. But there we were, working for a non-profit organisation. I was intrigued, to say the least. We were employed to build and run a media arts school for underprivileged children. Conceptually it sounded fantastic. In real life though, it wasn’t so idyllic.
There I sat. In this giant office with religious paraphernalia all about and next to my soon-to-be business partner. In front of me and seated behind a large dark wood desk was my future boss. Behind him a giant sword sat on the wall. I cannot remember the entirety of what was said in that room. I do though, remember two distinct points of conversation. In our first ever encounter and at a job interview no less, this man pointedly asked me a question. “Do you know how much I earn here?” Without in any way being able to answer I just looked at him. “One hundred and forty,” he said. One hundred and forty thousand rand a month! I could not help but look rather stunned. He then proceeded to tell me that he paid other people around there forty thousand a month to do nothing.
Now, I’m not sure what he was thinking when uttering such hyperbolic laden statements, but I can only imagine that he wanted to lure me in with the thought of a hefty pay check. The way that I had come to understand the world around me led me to believe that such a tactic would have worked on most people. However, he did not know me and made the presumption that I thought just as the average person would. But I don’t. Granted, I wasn’t too sure how the world of the non-profit worked, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t there to be dishing out very large salaries. The sirens were winding up to wail.
I’m not writing this to name and shame anyone or any organisation. If anyone asks me what the organisation’s name was that I am referring to in this piece, I will simply decline to state. However, the account must be recognised since it is there that I came to know how so many non-profit organisations were being run. I was there for six months or so before I left on moral grounds. There I came to understand notions like “call centre”, “misallocation of funds” and “missing funds”. In the end I could not take it anymore. I was being paid a reasonable salary to do nothing at all. We tried. But every time we attempted to advance our project it was met with often bizarre obstacles and eventually, after a very harsh email to them, I left. My partner at that job had to stay on for the money. I was learning quickly.
Part Two – Don’t Give Up
After that I fell into somewhat of a depressed state. What initially appeared as such a wonderful concept which would have helped me in two of my life goals revealed itself to be the salt that kept wounds I was interested in helping heal open. I wasn’t quite sure what to do next.
As I mentioned before my partner, while working there, had to stay on because he couldn’t afford to give up the pay check. While we were both working there the organisation kept reassuring us that they were going to register it with the relevant government department as an educational initiative. Some months after I left, my ex-partner contacted me and informed that they had never registered it and that he had attempted to do so. He also told me that the government department told him that as it stood then, that organisation could not register a skills development program since it was already occupying the mandate of housing battered women and children. They further suggested that he register it himself. True to the man I believe him to be, he contacted me immediately, and to cut a long story short, we were going to take our intellectual property from them and do it ourselves. I felt almost scared to proclaim that I was back on track.
In October 2015 we had successfully claimed legal ownership of our intellectual property and found ourselves with our very own non-profit organisation or NPO. There was only one or two problems. The organisation that we were working for was a multi-million rand fundraising machine. It had a staff contingent of over fifty people of which the majority held the job of agent. Their duty was to sit all day at a telephone and phone potential benefactors convincing them their organisation was doing wonderfully altruistic benevolent things, and that they should donate money for the cause. About forty people phoning consecutive entities every week day from nine to five. There was no ways we were going to compete with that. We had no money, no sponsors and no space. All we had was our stirring intent to make a difference. We had also placed ourselves in a bit of a bind because the intellectual property that we had so proudly taken back for ourselves was based on a multi-million rand facility with over ten rooms and state of the art equipment. Such a thing could now only exist in our dreams. We were still determined to make it work.
We decided something very early on. We weren’t going to wait around until some rich benefactor gave us money before we started to make a difference in people’s lives. While running a music school in my previous years I had fallen head over heels in love with a very simple and therefore supremely attractive notion. This was the idea that in order for education to take place between two people and at a fundamental level, all you needed was both parties present and willing to perform their respective roles. If I wanted to teach someone how to keep rhythm I did not need anything material. All I needed was the ability to do it myself, the understanding of the concept and a willing individual who was looking to learn it. It is also amongst this notion that I believe to have found the true meaning of free education. We therefore also took on the credo that whatever we did it would be within the promotion and practice of free education. It was with these two understandings that we strove forwards in our endeavour to educate those who wanted to learn but did not have the resources or access in order to do so.
Part Three – The South African Situation
South Africa is what is know as a first-third-world state. This means that there are predominantly two spheres of economy living right alongside each other. This is why, when driving around Johannesburg you are likely to see Lamborghinis and Ferraris driving right alongside an old beat-up Datsun from the seventies. Of course the first-world economy is occupied by only a small percentage of the country’s population, while the third-world sphere houses the clear majority. It is in this light that we decided, living in Johannesburg, that we were going to start our efforts in the township of Alexandra.
Alexandra, or Alex, is one of the oldest informal settlements in South Africa. It also happens to be situated, quite literally, right alongside the richest square mile in Africa – Sandton. Nestled snuggly between two highways, the M1 and N3, Alex is a relatively small area jam-packed with people. It covers an area of roughly eight square kilometres (approximately three square miles) with unofficial estimates showing the population at over five hundred thousand!
This is the third world. Unimaginably poor living conditions exist within thousands of shacks. Those living in the urban areas outside of Alex avoid it at all costs for fear of being robbed, hijacked or even killed. It is here that one sees the stark divide between the first and third worlds. Whenever a crisis hits the nation, it is areas like Alex that are hardest hit. When the municipal refuse collection service went on strike contingencies were put in place to collect the piles of built up refuse from the urban areas. Alex was not included. At that time I would drive around Alex while piles of garbage were being burnt. This was the only way the residents knew how to get rid of it. It was heart breaking to say the least. But this is not a sob-story. I illustrate these ideas to give one the idea of what we as a country face.
We had landed a contact in Alex. A DJ that lived there and knew the area well. Soon we were put into contact with a sort of club. It was there that we were going to hold our classes and workshops. And so we did. The year of 2016 was a fascinating learning curve where we knuckled down and got to know this place called Alexandra. We met amazing individuals who lived in Alex and wanted to help us in our endeavour to educate. There was talent and passion everywhere. Everyone wanted to learn. We couldn’t get enough people asking to come to our classes and workshops. We were having a grand old time. It would have been complete were it not for the gloomy cloud hovering over us called funding.
Part Four – HOCSI
As much as we were able to do with only our intent, it became increasingly hard to subsidize our efforts. We still needed jobs. And even if it was on the level of petrol needed in order to get to Alex, we needed to subsidise it. We had to find funding from somewhere. What worried me was that we didn’t have a call-centre. At the organisation we worked at before it took a building full of agents in order to get funding. We were trying to build and run an organisation and now we had to give up more time to find funding. The other side of the worry was the notion of charity. In and of itself it is a tough sell. Especially in our country which is known for dodgy charities. We had to show value. Early on we had come up with a concept that we hoped would help us in this department.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of CSI or Corporate Social Initiatives, it was a strategy developed roughly around the 60’s and 70’s. The idea was a simple one; encourage the private sector and private businesses to donate a portion of their profits to community driven causes. This would ensure that the private sector didn’t run off greedily with all their money and not contribute to their environment from which they pull all their resources. On paper, like Communism, it seemed a good idea.
To some extent CSI works. As a result there are definitely public institutions that are benefitting, but it goes astray at many points. In South Africa CSI is tied in with a black empowerment system. Essentially this means that if you are a company over a certain size, you’re legally obliged to donate to a charitable cause in order to freely participate in your market. The string starts to unravel. What this has turned into for most businesses is a basic write-off of a percentage of their profits. Companies are simply saying, “Take this chunk o’ change and make sure it goes to some charity so we can continue to do business.” Often little care is taken choosing what those charitable organisations may be and following up on what the money is actually being used for is rare. As a result phoney non-profits accumulate CSI budgets from companies and pocket the cash. The regulation of the non-profits isn’t managed well enough to catch these crooks and money that should be helping the country and those individuals who are suffering is going to buy a big screen TV or a Mercedes or something ostentatious. This would not do!
We decided, in concurrence with what more and more educated individuals are pointing out, that the meaningful commodity in question was not monetary but skills based. The thought experiment is that if I threw a whole stack of money at someone poor and walked away, would it be likely that they responsibly spent the money or bought pointless things like drugs, cars etc.? I think we can all quite confidently say it would be the latter as a result of little or no education amongst other damning reasons. However, if we threw skills at them, taught them how to work a business, how to write a CV, how to work a computer, how to shake someone’s hand when meeting them (this is no joke, we ran a workshop which focused on how to greet someone. This is the state of so many in my country, where people haven’t understood the value of a handshake). They can’t take the skill of writing a CV and buy methylated spirits with it (a common trick is to buy a loaf of bread, soak it in methylated spirits and eat it, forgetting all your troubles). With the skill of writing you can write. With a computer you can compute. With a handshake and respect you can do… a lot.
Part of our belief meant aligning businesses with appropriate public organisations. For example, a sports non-profit wouldn’t go looking for aid from an engineering firm. It would be far more appropriate for them to go to a sports organisation. What this does is provide a foundational scenario where real skills can be transferred meaningfully. Monetary donations can still occur, but more importantly, employees from the private organisation are able to directly educate those who would benefit from those skills. So, all we did was put HO or Hands On in front of CSI to make HOCSI – Hands On Corporate Social Initiative.
Over time we’ve come to understand that HOCSI is not our organisation. Rather, our organisation practices HOCSI. It has not been the draw-card that we were hoping it would become to attract sponsors and funds, however we still believe in it absolutely and will apply indefinitely.
Part Five – Funding
We needed to get funding. Our efforts were being recognised, we’d worked with some big names and held workshops that attracted hundreds. We’d run classes and consultations and even, at under a year old, helped a few get jobs. We were rolling, but our ability to subsidize our efforts was becoming less and less manageable. We needed funding stat!
So we started arranging meetings with some big cheeses that, in line with our HOCSI ideology, surrounded our organisation’s mandate. A grim picture soon began to take shape and the need for a giant call-centre was becoming clear. The typical scenario that started to reveal itself was that we’d find an organisation to approach, send them all the relevant documents, certificates and the like, organise a meeting, have that meeting and then wait. After either having to follow up ourselves or hearing back from them some time later, the general sentiment was this…
We love you guys! What wonderful work you’re doing. We absolutely support you, unfortunately we just don’t have the time to help with helping educate your students. But we love you guys and wish you all the luck in the world!
Ripping hair from scalp. You love us? Well… why… why aren’t you…? The human condition never ceases to amaze. We didn’t get it. We tried as best we could to convince organisations that essentially what we’d be doing is moulding future employees for them and helping them with CSI and not hurting their bottom line and bettering their industry and and and… but still, it didn’t seem to resonate on their side.
That all being said, we have met some amazing people who are helping us in what small ways they are able. Through an incredibly fortuitous meet, one of these fine humans has actually joined our team and is helping us. He is not worried about money and has enough of his own. He just wants, like us, to create something meaningful that makes a difference in the lives of people who are suffering. As a result of this fine fellow we managed to get a whole bunch of equipment donated to us from a German company. He is also responsible for us finding a home in an old shopping centre which we are scheduled to move into soon. Unfortunately, that equipment that was donated to us needs computers accompanying it in order to work. So, onto the search for computers we went…
… I almost blew my top. For weeks we had been developing a rapport with one of the largest computer retail chains in the country. Eventually we managed to organise a meeting with the CEO, head of marketing and head of purchasing. We gave them the whole pitch and said we’d punt their brand whole-heartedly because of their support. During the entire meeting I couldn’t help but look at these guys sitting across from us and think, “They don’t care. So why are they sitting here with us? Maybe they do care? But they look bored.” Only until we whipped out a fancy piece of equipment that our organisation uses to help educate did they show interest. Immediately their eyes lit up, like the piece of equipment, and I thought, “Ok, maybe were getting somewhere now… oh, no, wait, they still don’t care.” It became clear they were suddenly and only interested in selling that piece of equipment in their stores. We ended the meeting and they said they’d see what they could do to help us get computers. A few weeks later I received an email from them saying the best they could offer was give… sorry, sell! two computers to us for R5600. A nationwide computer retail chain and that’s the best they could do. Having no money we couldn’t take them up on their half-hearted offer.
END - Here we are
And so, this brings us to today. We’re looking to move into a shopping centre in a month or so, still seeking funding, we have a bunch of fancy equipment that doesn’t work without computers, we have a student base that is waiting for us to move in so that we can have a home base to teach them from and we continue to fight the good fight for free education and HOCSI.
I’m sure I will be posting future exploits of this non-profit organisation. I believe in its endeavour, free education and HOCSI absolutely and nothing is going to stop me from making it work. So, till then, if you could hold thumbs for us, we'd greatly appreciate it!