In 2001, I plunged into a world that I had not been trained for. Having gone to a science school and spent most times in the laboratory than in communities, I chose a career path in the development world, the non-profit sector as we called it then. This meant two things:
During my university days (mid-nineties – November 1995 to start of the new millennium – July 2000) I had I divided my time between the laboratories and lecture theaters of the University of Nairobi’s College of Physical and Biological Sciences, popularly known as Chiromo and the streets of Nairobi. Not the best strategy for a student who was meant to have a career in pure sciences!
You see, I had inherited this entertainment club at university and spent a considerable amount of time planning entertainment events within Campus or out for the wider student body at university. Through this I learnt who were the best illustrative designers in town, the cheapest places to print posters, fliers and other promotional merchandise in downtown Nairobi. Following a disastrous event in June of 1999 that lost me a lot of borrowed money, I hung my boots on entertainment and made a complete crossover to the non-profit world. Registering Youth Alive! Kenya in 1999, and actively picking it up in 2001, I brought the street-smart lessons I had gathered over time and a few of the networks I had formed to my new engagement. Over the next 8 or so years I would learn the most important foundational lessons of my career to date. What lessons did I pick?
Lesson 1- The world is fair, what you sow, you reap
Coming into a space that my colleagues from the BA classes found comfort, I quickly learnt I had to put double effort to develop skill to run a non-profit. I read privately on community development, borrowing any modules I would land on. I studied the logical framework matrix every morning in the two-hour matatu ride from Dagoretti where I lived to our office at Nyayo House (don’t even ask how we got an office at Nyayo House, but at that time it was only Youth Alive! Kenya and KTN who were held offices at Nyayo House despite not being government entities! – We would keep the office for 5 more years before returning it back to the Department of Children Services and the Adult Education Department that had co-sponsored our space).
One thing I picked was, if you stuck it out, picking lessons from books, mentors and life’s experiences, if you worked both hard and smart, learnt from the so-called failures, things turned okay. Between the year 2001 and November 2002 when we received the first substantive funding to roll out a project, I survived on a Megarider (a monthly prepaid bus ticket purchased by my long-term high school friend Kennedy Ogallo, you can ask Nameless the musician for more info) for my movements around the city, worked most days till the last bus departing from the city centre at 9.12pm, recruited the smartest of undergrad students as our volunteer staff, and we literally turned the world around. Through our projects we became a force around working on children’s rights and youth development. We developed and successfully implemented what would have been controversial projects – around sexuality education and human rights – changing understanding and perceptions of gatekeepers in schools and the government about these concepts. At the end of it I was able to build and lead teams, write fundable proposals and speak with authority over matters that I had been a novice only a few years earlier.
Lesson 2 – When you are riding on the mountains, build for the valleys
Basking in our success we forgot to build for posterity. We got buried in implementation and forgot to seek new funding. Woe unto us when the funding stream dried as we had to go back to the beginning. Most of our staff left save for one James Muraguri who stuck it out (check out his current initiative – Institute of Public Finance Kenya http://ipfkenya.or.ke/). For the next year or so between 2004 and 2005, I accumulated rent arrears for 10 months and ate boiled beans while walking to and from work. I must confess I have kept the habit of walking to and sometimes from work especially after weight crept up on me in 2010 :-). We would run broke, struggling to rebuild the organisation and seeking new resources till July 2005 when a new Window opened up with the Safaricom Foundation. From then on we learnt never to run broke again, sticking to the golden rule of spending half the time buried in project delivery and the other half searching for funding for the next phase. I also learnt that you needed to diversify your funding sources and kept a rule of not having more than 25% of your organisational funding from one funding source to mitigate the risk of abrupt changes in strategy by the main funding source. Our hunt brought on board the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights, the National Endowment for Democracy and several other funders that would remain committed funders for Youth Alive! Kenya’s work long after I had departed from the leadership of the organisation.
Lesson 3: Reputation and track are everything in this business
In the year 2001, bubbling with great project ideas, we hit the road to seek funding to bring these ideas to life. Enduring sweaty sunny days we took our ideas to early potential donors with Anne Kamaru (where is she by the way?), Kioko Musau (with his Timberland and sometimes Caterpillar boots and Kangol hat), Nana Musau, our faithful Finance Manager who came after classes and Muteru Njama (though I must say Muteru still managed spanking white shirts and a tie, some tradition he developed both as a Pastor’s son and at Strathmore studying to be CPA in the 90s). A visit to Pathfinder, PATH, AAR and many others turned to nought on most occasions. I still remember the standard regret that came from the Ford Foundation every time we sent an unsolicited proposal:-). Oh those days, we learnt a lot. Then a stroke of luck, or so we thought, came our way in June 2001.
Having started our work with children that year (forcing a justification that we needed to intervene earlier before youth – even though I suspected we were merely angling for funding from UNICEF which never came) and being that it was at the peak of HIV/AIDS, we in our ingenious effort designed an HIV/AIDS OVC proposal.
In our online scouting we had found the Global Fund for Children, who at that time were funding projects around children and HIV/AIDS. We poured our souls into conceptualisation, ultimately making a submission to the funder. We were excited after a period of silence to receive communication asking further questions about the proposal, our vision and our work. Enthusiastically we sat on these and responded convincingly to all, save for one. The Fund had wanted to know if we had received prior funding from anyone. We had received none by then!
We painfully watched that funding escape us, with the feedback that their Board would not approve funding without prior track of having received and managed funds. From this experience we woke up to a new dawn, finding funding and maintaining partnerships like our lives depended on it.