Banks Gwaxula was a teacher at one of the township schools. We were both passionate about creating opportunities for children who faced seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Ubuntu Education Fund grew out of our deceptively simple mission: to give the children of the townships the same respect, resources, and facilities as the children of Park Lane, help them succeed in life, and change their communities. Banks and I had no idea what we were taking on; if we had, we probably wouldn't have done it. In some ways, taking on this task is analogous to becoming a parent—how many of us would have the sheer nerve to take it on if we truly knew the hubris, the effort, the heartbreak, and the complete disruption of our lives it involves? Yet we do, and we seldom look back with regret.
Ubuntu has grown beyond our wildest expectations. We have around 70 staff members, with fundraising offices in New York and London, and we also operate out of the £5 million Ubuntu Centre in the middle of Zwide Township which houses our world class clinic, our after-school program and our preschool program. We now have over 2,000 abused and orphaned children on the pathway out of poverty.
For us, sustainability means developing a lasting organization bigger than those who started it.
We recruit and train from the communities in which we work, and believe that we need to look after the health and wellbeing of our employees. The non-profit sector must stop undermining itself and begin to invest in its own institutional capacity building.
These days, development is all about metrics. How many cups of soup do you distribute to how many children in how many areas of the world? A child who would otherwise have nothing will surely welcome that cup of soup. But in isolation, it’s hard to see how this will break the cycle of poverty. At Ubuntu, we have excellent metrics, and we quantify every intervention and its result. However, we know there is much, much more to changing a community.
In the last 13 years, I have learned a lot about how to—and how not to—run a business. Immediately, I realised that it takes an enormous amount of passion and a tolerance for risk to get anything off the ground.
The early years showed me the need for flexibility. After Banks and I went on a shopping spree for the school with the $8,000 we’d raised, I felt empty. Providing all these educational supplies was great, and everyone at the school was thrilled. But I didn’t feel like we’d truly accomplished anything. Chalk is nice, but when it runs out you have nothing but a box. So we rethought what we were doing. We spent a long time canvassing the community, figuring out what people really needed and wanted. We discovered that new technology was a huge concern; computers were becoming a necessity in the modern economy, but people in the township never had a chance to learn how to use them. So we decided we were going to build technology centres in the schools, filled with the best equipment, and that we’d train the teachers there how to help their students become computer literate.
Ubuntu’s strategy continued to evolve over the next few years. Some of its shifts came out of the changing needs of the community. Some happened as we became more experienced and more sophisticated in our methods, and saw new ways to achieve our goals. Ubuntu is a learning organization. We’re willing to risk failure, to think critically about our mistakes and move forward from them, and constantly refine our strategy. Through it all, our core mission stays the same, and stays simple enough to be a mantra: take our children from cradle to career.
From the beginning, I knew that, in order for Ubuntu to fulfil its mission, we had to rely on sound business practices. Every business, whether for-profit or not, needs a clearly articulated mission and a focused strategy to fulfil that mission. We had an initiative that provided daily meals to 3,000 people, and it was a real success. But our monthly reporting metrics, connecting our organisational goals to funding revenues, showed that we were over-allocating resources to a program that, ultimately, wasn’t helping us get our children to university. We made the hard decision to cut the initiative.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of Ubuntu is that you always need to dream big. You’ll never achieve excellence if you aim for adequacy. The very core of Ubuntu is an ambitious dream: the poorest of the poor can make it in the worlds of higher education and work. Think about a six-year-old girl who’s been raped, whose roof leaks and who sleeps in a puddle every night, whose father has died and whose mother has HIV, who has to care for her two younger brothers, who goes to bed every night aching with hunger. There are a lot of steps between here and university. And doing it right is not cheap. If she needs better nutrition and health care, we’re going to make sure everyone in her family has healthy food and access to good doctors. If we’re going to help her achieve more in school, we’re going to get her books and pens and paper, of course, but we’re also going to get her a uniform, and eyeglasses, and shoes. We’re going to do the same for her two little brothers, and we’re going to get medicine for her mom. There’s no point in investing in a child and then sending her to an unstable home.
When I started Ubuntu Education Fund, I was 21 years old, still a university student. “Social entrepreneurship” was not a course offered at Harvard or Oxford. Ubuntu was “Jake’s little Africa project.” I had to go to mandatory meetings with a guidance counsellor, who kept asking what jobs I planned to apply for. No one could believe that I actually meant to make a career out of this. Now I go to universities and speak to dozens of students with ambitions of starting their own organizations, who are eager to hear how Ubuntu began and how it grew.
There’s certainly nothing quick and easy about the way Ubuntu works. We’ve made a long-term commitment to a community. We invest a lot of time, money, and effort in every child, and not every child finds unqualified success.
We redefine scale. We defy expectations. We involve the community. We refuse to kowtow to international double standards on which children deserve what opportunity. But most of all, we just work very, very hard.
Jacob Lief, Founder and President, Ubuntu Education Fund