18 Months in - some reflections
On a sunny Monday in March, I arrived at Codebridge ready and eager to start my contribution to the organisation known as Code for South Africa. I had a vague idea of what lay ahead of me for the next few months as I was on a two month contract specifically to manage/wrangle two community-based monitoring projects. A year and a half later I still head to work under a bridge but life looks a little different now. I want to share some of my learnings and observations over this period, with specific focus on the differences between the non-profit and the commercial world.
We are not-for-profit, not a charity
Firstly, I need to dispel a myth that working in this sector equates to charity or volunteer work. What we do requires and costs money, however Code for South Africa does not measure its success based on profit earned, nor do we focus our attention on chasing profit. Instead we (along with our donors) measure ourselves on the impact of our work. This is not to say sustainability isn’t important, but money isn’t the primary focus.
Jargon by another name
13 years in the commercial sector allowed me to hone my jargon detector - my ears were finely tuned for phrases like “proactively leveraging synergies across cross-functional teams consisting of rockstars, in order to delight customers and gain their buy-in”. I too was guilty of playing that game, however I was naively excited to believe that I was stepping out of that world. As it turns out, the non-profit world is awash with jargon too, just a different set of words. These days the lexicon surrounding me is coloured by phrases like “fostering innovation through scaling in order to drive impact underpinned by our theory of change and reported on through the monitoring and evaluation framework”. (Don’t tell anyone, but mostly I am perfectly fine with jargon, when the understanding is clear and shared amongst those using it - I just wasn’t expecting an entirely new world of words to be spoken my way).
Donors and grants
What/who are these mythical beasts called donors and why do they grant us money to do things?
It’s taken me a long time to even begin to understand this landscape (and I know it’s much like an iceberg, there is still so much more I don’t understand) but I am finally starting to at least be able to draw the outline of the shape this landscape forms - I have faith that the individual pieces of the puzzle will take their place in due time.
We are (mostly) a donor-funded organisation. That means we actively seek grants for the work that we do. Philanthropic trusts, foundations and coalition programmes award grants to us in the belief that we align with their vision and expected outcome (normally framed in terms of impact) and they place great trust in us to execute along these lines.
The donor world is varied, with donors sitting along a spectrum ranging from mostly hands-off (“here, take this money, we believe in your mission as an organisation and recognise you need funds to exist”, also known as core funding) to those considering themselves active stakeholders in the project (“here, take this money to do this very specific thing the way we instruct you to do it”). I suspect the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle, leaning more towards the hands-off approach. Why, you ask? Well, programmatic funding based on a donor’s idea might not be the best fit for the local context (many donors are offshore) and often these programmes require a phase of experimentation and learning in order to best understand the way forward and that’s a tricky thing to manage in terms of expectations and timings. We are very fortunate to have many collaborative donors who actively seek to learn with us through these journeys.
What makes me deeply excited
Now that the haze has cleared a bit, let me share what makes me bounce out of bed in the morning and might persuade me to say this is the best job ever…
Remember those grants I mentioned earlier? Well they bring with them a whole different way of defining and executing a project. A grant proposal - the thing we write up to request funding for something, is a fantastic exercise in creativity. It will always consist of specific grant objectives and a high-level activity plan on how to achieve these along with estimated budget line items. If all goes well and the grant is awarded, the super fun part comes into play. We get the opportunity to really think creatively to determine how best to achieve the intended objective. There is so much scope within the initial project conceptualisation phase to really shape the project into something we can learn from as well as make an impact that I truly am starting to believe this should be any project manager’s dream situation. We have complete freedom to do what we want, within budget, aligned to the grant objectives and activities - where else have you heard of such creative freedom in project conceptualisation?
Another thrilling aspect to our work is we actively seek to learn. This means experimenting, making mistakes, finding out what doesn’t work and why - feeding that back into the next activities to hopefully get closer to achieving that impact we are chasing. We have permission, I might even say mandate, to fail. Fail early, fail forward but keep learning for the next iteration. We like to spend as much time as we can, sharing our learnings with others in our field too - in the hopes we can all learn together.
And then there is a little point about actively seeking to make our country, city and neighbourhoods better places to be. We don’t naively think we are saving the world or that we can even solve all of our country’s problems, but we do strive to shine a light, give a voice and hopefully help at least a few people to make better, more informed decisions that change their lives.
This was the deciding factor for me to give up the commercial world and dip my toes in the not for profit space. I was so tired of driving profit at all costs - often through what I felt were dubious methods. I don’t agree with maximising profit at the cost of employees happiness or through subconscious manipulation of a consumer’s willpower. So I am exceedingly grateful and fortunate to be able to take the skills I have acquired and use them in a more responsible manner, to drive change. And so here we are, 18 months later and a lot wiser.