The Graca Machel Trust hosted a gathering of youth support organizations from across Africa exploring how to build impactful support structures for youth. In our view, parents, educators and passionate policy makers must create similar movements for very young entrepreneurs. As an educator who is trying to build a program or a parent who is building connections with other parents or even a policy maker looking for ways to support some programs, these five lessons are what you should be on the lookout for:
1. Your intervention must be leaderless
This can sound a bit odd. How does one have a clear set of objectives and a mission towards which they are tirelessly pursuing without some sort of leadership or structure to the whole thing?
But a leaderless intervention and a leaderless organization are not the same thing. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible to pursue this structure. Some organizations can very well reflect this leaderless-ness in the sense that although the same can be immensely well known, but very few people, if any, can readily pin-point the headquarters or leaders of equally well known organizations.
Say, you are a network of parents of entrepreneurs that are trying to better understand how to support their entrepreneurial children. The more parents you reach across a region with your initiative, the better impact you are able to deliver. In as much as you are able to drive as much participation as you can through various channels and partnerships, the ultimate advocate for the intervention are people that have benefited from it and can offer the most powerful voice for others to join in. This should be the ultimate goal of any intervention- it spreads organically, with each participant owning the intervention because it deeply resonates with them whilst showing potential for value for others.
This way, the people that buy into and drive the vitality of the movement are so invested in the mission that they own it. They own it through propagating it to others and would be most likely to build similar interventions on their own should yours be inaccessible or cease to exist.
Jay Naidoo, South African Anti-Apartheid activist & Trade Union Veteran echoed this assertion. Speaking at a Graca Machel Trust gathering recently, highlighted the need for powerful networks to be leaderless. He related his experiences building a Trade Union in South Africa, and shared his approach for the first while. At first he saw his role (as did many others) as the drivers of this very important movement, but was disappointed when the beneficiaries, the workers, did not seem to want to hear, read or follow what they were trying to relate and struggled to see why this could be so. He describes his epiphany as being an older factory worker and former trade union organizer told him, quite plainly, that what they were trying to do would not work. The workers simply weren’t interested and couldn’t relate to the language used and the call to action seemed too risky for them.
The pivotal moment came when he, along with his colleagues, adopted a learning approach to engaging with their intended beneficiaries- they were the ones that were in touch with their own reality anyways, they knew what was important and what they would buy into. From this, he then saw his role as one where he was mandated to speak on people’s behalf, and rather than telling them what to say, he would report back to them what the outcome had been on what they had sent him to do. This approach contributed to the trade union movement being one of the most important contributors to the demise of Apartheid in South Africa.
2. Build starfish movements
To attract prey, the spider relies on building an intricate system- a web- from which it perches until it attracts enough to eat at any particular point and also employs one of its other strengths- speed and agility, to meet its end goal. As spectacular as this invention is, it still relies on the prey coming to it, and if you go after the leader (the spider) you basically destroy the whole system.
A starfish, on the other hand, moves very slowly and this means that they cannot get away from predators fast enough. Starfish have famously evolved a range of adaptive mechanisms that allow it to still thrive as a species. When caught in a compromising position, they can cut off their arms and continue to live, and even some starfish cut off their limbs to reproduce.
Your movement must aspire to reflect the same kind of adaptability. Should the whole central structure or parts of it be cut off, can it regenerate from some of its parts?
3. Invest in solving for root causes
Often, especially in the non-profit world organizations get so engrossed in the daily operations and, if grant funded, the grant obligations impact work comes with. This is as it should be. However, there is significant enough room to ask the question whether most of our collective energy would rather be spent on understanding beneficiary needs or understanding the impact of our work on them- which allows us to better understand the root causes to the issues we are trying to solve for.
No one would ever argue that understanding the root causes of an issue is not important. After all, once you are able to cut off the root of the issue and deal with it directly, the more likely it is that you would not have to fix the same issue in future.
In our work as impact organizations, we must constantly ask ourselves if the issues we are solving for are really at the core of the problem we are trying to solve. If not, iterate again, test again, try again, measure again.
4. The power of data
There are a lot of indicators that data tells a compelling story. Even when people are generally aware of the issue at hand, data can provide a very vivid and lasting reference point that really proves that the issues we are working on are credible.
Nomsa Daniels, CEO of the Graca Machel Foundation shared her experience working on and articulating women empowerment on the continent. There seemed to be a lot of resistance to their messaging at first because most people felt they were aware enough of the facts- that women weren’t paid equally, that women were generally disenfranchised and and. However, until people get a sense of by how much the facts are true, then they may grasp the urgency and true extent of the issue you advocate for.
She described how once they were able to prove a case, driven by data for how financially excluded women in Africa were, by how much the pay gap was, what the cost of the economic exclusion is etc. only then were they able to make a case for some of the most successful interventions.
As a result, the Graca Machel Trust became the pioneers on the African continent by establishing the first private equity fund that invested exclusively in women.
5. The missing link: Impact through collaboration
Collaboration is one of the most nebulous and challenging necessities in development work. Most organizations would agree that collaboration is definitely more impactful than working alone, however, throughout the globe, we have very few examples of what effective collaboration looks like. Ideally, we (individual organizations) should be able to see the linkages in our separate work, find complementary areas, explore and address gaps as we see them vis a vis impact on intended beneficiaries.
It seems that this is the one missing link. We have not quite figured out a way to deliver incremental impact through a holistically synergistic set of like-minded organizations and individuals conducting the activities they matter, when they do, to the effect that they should.
I would argue this remains both a quandary and imperative in achieving significant, incremental and self-sustaining impact on the continent. How do we do it?