NGOs and Learning Opportunities

July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week I was in Karatu, a small town in northern Tanzania, located in between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti/Ngorongoro Crater area. A very inspirational and brilliant Tanzanian business woman offered me a trade – I stay for free at her flagship resort in exchange for doing some work for an organization they are trying to start. The organization is called the Maasai Women’s Project/Make a Change.

Society in Tanzania is still very sexist and very male dominated. But even to Tanzanians, the Maasai culture can be very oppressive towards women. Women are often sold into marriage here for a price between 5-50 cows. Female genital mutilation is still practiced. Women are often not allowed to receive an education. They are expected to stay at home, care for the cattle, cook, raise the children, make beadwork and manage the home. It ends up being quite a lot of work. Women are still largely prevented from receiving anything beyond a primary school education, and they’re lucky if they get even that.

This organization is in the process of opening a school to provide vocational training for Maasai women and supports them in selling products unique to them. Currently, the resort has a stand set up where Maasai women can sell their work directly to hotel guests, making 100% profit.

The goal is to build a formal school within the Ngorongoro Crater to train women how to make various crafts to sell and teach them other business skills. The purpose being to provide them with economic empowerment, educations, skills and training as a way to equip them with more independence, autonomy and bargaining power with them men.

It’s a fantastic concept that would address an area of extreme need. Beyond the bead stand at the hotel, the project is still in the planning and strategy phase. That’s what I was there to help with. My job was to look at everything they’d done so far, organize it and break it down into step-by-step achievable goals in a five year plan.

It was exciting to dig into this project because the relationship between the tourism company and the nonprofit provides a lot of interesting sustainable income stream opportunities. Besides beadwork, we made a business plan for ideas they already had like a dress line using traditional African fabrics that are quite beautiful, a line of spa products to sell in the hotels using ingredients from their 28-acre eco farm, voluntourism projects, a bicycle marathon through the Serengeti and a few other ideas. I also added a few of my own and within a week we were able to develop a very clear, specific and exciting set of goals that I fully believe are achievable.

It was a good exercise for me in that it gave me a chance to really flex and grasp the skill set I’ve developed over the last ten years. I found myself pulling knowledge from my activism experiences, my marketing skills, my coursework for my degree, my nonprofit jobs,  and my time coordinating volunteers and mobilizing communities. It was a pleasant surprise to realize how much I’ve learned and how capable I am. It made me realize that I might actually be able to start a project of my own successfully. The only thing I really felt clueless on was accounting and how to keep clear financial paperwork. That seems like something I can pay someone to do or at least learn rather quickly.

One of my main goals while I’ve been in Tanzania has been to learn about how other NGOs do things. How different communities and societies address their issues and achieve their goals. Spending time in Eastern Africa has been amazing for that. American nonprofits could learn a lot from Tanzanians and vice versa.

For example, I think that American nonprofits excel at organization, clear structure, goals and expectations. This seems to make it much easier to achieve goals. We take the time to really plan what our goals are and identify the clearest path to reach them. We pause to learn, educate ourselves and gather the facts. We prize efficiency and try to run our organizations like a business, in the sense that we strategize and have targets in a way that is mildly detached from the work, even if we our hearts burn passionately for the cause. I view these things as strengths that allow us to make the most of every dollar we raise and to really move towards our goals and constantly grow and expand. We set our sights on a goal on the horizon, focus on it and move methodically towards it, avoiding distractions or pit stops as best we can.

Tanzanians are much more flexible in the way they run things. They often seem to start without too much of a plan and then respond to problems as best they can as they arise. Their organizations seem to be run with more of a family structure than a business structure. They are also more focused on the humanity of the organization and their relationships with people and the community than they are on efficiency or goals. This means a lot of stopping and starting and dodging off the path real quick to do this other, small thing they see that needs addressing. There is less of an emphasis on efficiency and structure, so resources and money sometimes doesn’t go as far as they might have with some planning. Sometimes what they do doesn’t make sense to me at all. Other times I admire the way there’s always room to help one more person, even if it’s off-topic.

There’s a lot more that I’ve learned and am learning, but those thoughts aren’t fully formed yet. My hope is that I’ll be able to take the experiences and knowledge I’ve gained from studying Tanzanian NGOs and bring it home to augment whatever organization I join or start.

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