In my time in non-governmental organisations (NGOs), I observed that the Holy Grail for many donors was to seek out organisations whose social interventions had the potential to show the three big factors – ‘replicability’, ‘scalability’ and ‘high impact’.


On the face of it, this makes sense given the scale of our social challenges. South Africa has to find problem-solving models that yield the highest social return from limited available funding resources. Yet, as anyone in the sector knows, there is all too often a wide chasm between what donors say they want to support and what organisations can or do deliver.


In fact, as the economy and the state fail to deliver opportunities for the majority to sustain personal and household survival, the inequality in society becomes more apparent as some organisations take on more community work than their capacity allows, while others luxuriate in plush offices with all the time to produce better proposals to sway donors to fund them.


The competitive clamour for funding quickly bursts the bubble that there is some benevolent donor out there just eager to fund what you think is your socially relevant work. In my first years in the sector, I realised that there was a ‘funding game’ one had to play to pay the rent. This is a mutually deceiving game in which organisations must produce embellished reports to retain their funding while donors profile these ‘sunshine’ reports to demonstrate that they are funding the right things. Their only problem, of course, is that this approach was completely misdirecting my intellectual and physical energy because the preoccupation with attracting funding took over from the focus on understanding the education crisis and finding a realistic, context-relevant model for the communities I come from.


My initial response to this common condition of NGO ‘burn-out’ was complete disillusionment. But that was also just lazy; I realised I could use the whole experience to rethink things.


First, I realised I had to work from the premise that the donor funds would come to an end and that no donor owed me anything. This means you must make the best of the one-to-three-year funding cycle. In NGOs, we commonly use these funding horizons to remind ourselves that we must have worked ourselves out of work because we would have solved the problem when the funding goes. I decided not to focus on eradicating ‘a problem’ but on what kind of education culture needed to be built up over the next 30 years and how could it be connected deeply to those resilient aspects of black social culture.


Second, it dawned on me that if our ideas and models are worthwhile, they will travel of their own accord. This is how humans invented and spread language, culture and tools. Though it has become a cliché in NGOs that ‘intervention models cannot be imposed on communities’, we barely heed this advice. Importantly, however, some good ideas are good only in a specific time, locale or social context. This has to do with a kind of ‘ecology’ of combined factors that produce the right people with the right ideas and motives to tackle that specific problem. The global anti-apartheid movement is perhaps the best such example.


Third, we learnt by making mistakes. Building capacity in individuals in the affected communities is a precondition for high impact. The single most effective investment our funders made was giving my colleagues and I the space to grapple honestly with the core nature of the education problem.


Last, there is a need to guard one’s intellectual freedom in the face of strong pressures to conform to activism fads and trends in the NGO sector.


In March 2012, I was invited to the University of Johannesburg, where I finally felt confident to argue that the education system as it stands has largely lost its value and purpose in the black community. In September 2012 Professor Jonathan Jansen expressed a similar view in an article titled Seven Dangerous Shifts in the Public Education Crisis.


These lessons took me on an unexpected path in children’s education, but that is a story for another day.


  • Nomalanga Mkhize is a lecturer in the history department at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the BDLive website.