Innovation in NGOs – Depth vs. Breadth

Before arriving in Barcelona in 2010, I spent a year volunteering in the New York City office of Ubuntu Education Fund, a non-profit organization with the goal of improving education and breaking the cycle of poverty for the children of the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. This Ubuntu has no affiliation with the IT firm of the same name. In Xhosa (the regional language spoken in Port Elizabeth), “ubuntu” roughly translates to “I am because you are” – the core philosophy that all people are interconnected. I had known co-founder Jacob Lief since we attended University together, and as such I have had the privilege of watching the organization grow from an inspired idea in 1999 to an institution as professional and progressive as many traditional businesses. In the spirit of discussing innovation, I think Ubuntu can provide an example for how NGOs can tackle many of the obstacles they face. One of the organization’s objectives is to serve as a model for other NGOs, which it achieves by viewing its mission as one depth, not breadth. Over the 13 years since its founding, Ubuntu’s grassroots approach has deliberately NOT expanded to more communities but rather it has invested its resources in a single community to provide long-lasting, sustainable, measurable change, which has already transformed these townships in which it operates. Read more about Ubuntu’s mission and story here.

Why grow deeper and not wider? Given how difficult the task is for NGOs to effectively measure impact, it is tempting to determine success by easily quantifiable metrics – children served, school supplies donated, vaccines administered, etc. However, real and sustainable change must be systemic, and this cannot be achieved without a comprehensive understanding of the problems faced by individual communities, and this takes time and investment in local infrastructure. Like in many communities, Port Elizabeth faces hardships beyond poverty and lack of educational resources; poor ‘traditional’ education is only one of several serious conditions inhibiting their children’s future prospects. Local children have been orphaned by HIV, victimized by domestic abuse and rape, and/or malnourished, and their community – like many others – is still engaged in an uphill battle against unemployment, disease, and lack of government support in post-apartheid South Africa. On top of all of this, measuring results and impact can be incredibly difficult for NGOs.

Ubuntu has developed approaches that tackle and/or mitigate many of these problems. I thought I would share just a few of the many fundamental elements of what I believe drive the organization’s success. Following are some of those actions and initiatives:

1. The “Home Office” and Ubuntu Team
Ubuntu considers their “home offices” to be those on the ground in Port Elizabeth. These are the people that know the local struggles and successes, and are in the best position to determine courses of action that will bring the most children successfully out of poverty. Ubuntu recently launched the BUILD Program for developing local staff, to ensure that the community is creating leaders from within and cementing the long-term sustainability of their efforts. Offices in New York City and London are administrative and fundraising centers, where they work to generate awareness and support for the Ubuntu story, while developing a strong network of passionate, committed and even some publicly recognized individuals and organizations.

2. Holistic & Individual: “The Pathway” Out of Poverty
Ubuntu understands that just as every community has different needs, so does every child. In order to break the cycle of poverty and improve the quality of life for future generations, they have developed a model to determine each child’s Pathway out of Poverty – an assessment and action plan to ensure each individual’s success. The core components of this pathway are health, education and household stability, and you can read more about the individual elements of the Pathway approach here. Of course, the students, teachers, health care workers, and other community members need the right tools to achieve these goals, and so Ubuntu funds are invested in ensuring they have access to the very best supplies and facilities, just as you would find in any developed nation. The recently opened Ubuntu Centre is an impressive example of how funds are being invested in the community.

3. ROI: Measuring Impact
I have always heard representatives from NGOs and social businesses express common challenges of sustainability and metrics/measuring impact. Like most organizations, Ubuntu views impact as being both qualitative and quantitative, and they have developed a way of proving that the money invested in an Ubuntu child (‘client’) delivers a concrete, financial return – as it relates to a client’s future earning potential and the ensuing contribution to the community. Learn more about the quantitative approach and specific impact metrics here, and read the inspiring stories of some of the children who have benefitted from Ubuntu’s “Cradle to Career” approach to community development.

While no solution is one-size-fits-all, I do believe that other organizations can benefit from studying Ubuntu’s innovative model of investing in a single community. What their team has been able to accomplish in 14 years is impressive and its many successes in Port Elizabeth have earned the organization the respect of the international community. Since being invited to present at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative, Ubuntu continues to be actively involved in the annual event in a variety of capacities. Jacob actually became a member of the CGI Advisory committee in 2012, and has also been recognized as an Aspen Institute Global Fellow and as one of the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders”. And when it comes to fundraising, they definitely know how to throw an amazing and inspiring party!

Por Allison Kaye, ESADE MBA student

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Una Resposta a “Innovation in NGOs – Depth vs. Breadth”

  1. amylulo dice:

    Dear Allison,
    Thank you for your insightful and very detailed post illustrating the importance of depth over breadth. I completely agree with you that this is an ideal way to approach real development, but unfortunately many times the non-profit leaders or social entrepreneurs are faced with very mundane (sometimes unavoidable) pressures that force them to look for breadth. For example, they may feel forced to follow the funding, or they may feel that a broader target is necessary to dilute the overheads required for running the organization! Its good to see that there are examples, like the one you share, of organizations that truly commit to the long term development/wellbeing of the communities they want to help (as opposed to unfortunately common 3 year projects!). Thanks for sharing! You rock!

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