Sustaining community projects is more than skills

We first met when I volunteered to help with a vegetable garden in an orphanage in Johannesburg.  What struck me about Mikal was his enthusiasm. Passion and commitment; but more striking is his leadership skills.  He’s able to motivate people while leading and providing a vision and direction to the end objective.

So when he talks I listen.

We sat down for a chat the other day and he stated, quite shockingly, that most community empowerment projects in South Africa fail.  The volunteers go in – he’s talking about me and you –  and build, for example, a fantastic and beautiful vegetable garden.  On our way out we look back, with much pride in our blistered hands, at our seedlings which we know will take root and thrive.  And then we depart.  Back to our homes, our braais and our bars.

This is not a criticism.

Six months later we return.  And are devastated.  Nothing has thrived.  Been looked after.  “What have they done with our work, our passion, our time, our commitment, our effort, our seedlings!?” we cry.

In Mikal’s view.  What we haven’t done is a build a sustainable project.

Sustainability is more than teaching gardening skills (in this context).  It’s about building organisational skills.  Without the ability to organise, to lead, to make mutually agreed and beneficial decisions, to implement, to work as a team, nothing will last.

Mikal’s plan – which is on its way to be implemented – is to rent five hectares of land outside Johannesburg located next to an area with high unemployment.

In the first year he will recruit people, pay them a stipend, and build a one hectare organic vegetable garden.  In the second year, the first recruits will move onto the second hectare, prepare the land, feed their families and market their surplus organic produce.  And so it will go on.

So what are his sustainable beliefs:

You can’t drive commitment by not paying people anything.

Any programme that teaches skills in exchange for time and doesn’t pay the ‘learners’ (personally I hate this label, and don’t understand why we can’t just call people a “student” or “scholar” or “pupil” – I was always proud to be so labelled) is doomed to high drop-out rates.

After all wouldn’t you be more motivated to sit on a street corner, get some piece work, and spend R150.00 on feeding your family for a couple of days.  Rather pay people a stipend for their time.  Keep them on the project.

In his view organisations that don’t pay a stipend for their volunteers are guilty of, at best, not understanding the circumstances of their recruits and, at worst, guilty of total demeaning arrogance.

In the development phase of any project, when your objective is sustainability, your have to teach organisational and business skills.

A sustainable project is, by definition, sustainable.  And this requires more skills than simply knowing how deep to plant a bean and when to harvest beat-root.

Sustainable projects need to be profitable. 

While we may be working for charity or a sense of volunteerism, the people one recruits are there to make a living.  The poor cannot afford to work for free.  I suppose at the heart of the idea is “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But the fishing is more than baiting the hook.  It’s the ongoing discipline of knowing how to organise the expedition, knowing what to keep and what to sell, and keeping the team together.

And this comes down to such basics as how to run a meeting, preparing an agenda and completing minutes.

All the little things that we in formal business take for granted but are so important in keeping things together and on track (for the long term).