How do you overcome the challenge of inspiring colleagues and supporters thousands of miles away from the cause? Julie-Anne Uggla explains the roles of technology, impact reporting and USPs
By Julie-Anne Uggla
It’s not uncommon for a not-for-profit organisation to have offices across the world. With my charity, Zamcog, I knew in order to make a real difference to children in Zambia, I had to have a team there, dealing with the day-to-day running of our operation, and ensuring tasks were being completed and managed well.
Zamcog has a team of 22 employees based in the Zambian office,with the government also paying for 22 teachers at the Shitima Markit school, and a team of 8 volunteers in London. The two teams work together regularly to facilitate the education and fundraising programmes Zamcog provides to the local community. So far, Zamcog has raised more than £5m, helping to school thousands of disadvantaged, orphaned and highly vulnerable children. Zamcog houses 90 orphans and serves more than 70,000 meals to children every term.
It is fantastic having teams that are thousands of miles apart working together towards the same goal. However, the distance can pose a challenge for a number of reasons - the main one being logistics. When Zamcog launched in 2003, it was a nightmare sending important documents to our Zambian office because not only did it cost a fortune, it also took a long time. Now, thanks to technology, we can do all paperwork online securely.
Technology: the saving grace of international charities
Technology in general has been the saving grace of international operations, which is why I’ve embraced every new development in it and tried to incorporate it with how Zamcog is run. For example, business meetings used to be very broken down, with the London office having their weekly meeting first, writing notes and then sending these to the Zambian team for them to discuss afterwards. Consequently there was no flow of discussion or brainstorming; the whole process was very static.
When Skype started to take off, I decided it was integral we used it to have our weekly meetings together. Although convincing everyone that this was the way to communicate was tricky at first, it soon became the norm and improved communication ten-fold. Both offices benefited from having open and live discussions with one another, productivity improved (because both teams knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing at the same time) and more solid working relationships started to form. This has provided significant benefits - for example I remember a time when it was out of working hours on a Friday and a form urgently needed to be signed in Zambia to then be emailed back to the London office for Monday. Luckily, one of the UK employees had the Zambian employee on Whatsapp and felt comfortable enough to quickly contact him to get it done.
Making colleagues feel satisfied and appreciated
Having an office miles away from the action also posed another challenge: how do you inspire the employees who never see the fruits of their labour? I was very conscious of this because I had been there myself; you work tirelessly to improve children’s lives and you very rarely get to experience what a positive impact you’ve had, which can be demotivating.
I decided that the best way to show everyone how much of a change they’re making was to create a weekly newsletter on what’s been going on at the school in Zambia, with case studies of children who have been helped by Zamcog. This is circulated by email every Friday to everyone in the organisation. The feedback I’ve had from the London office is that they really look forward to reading about the happenings in Zambia and it makes them feel satisfied and appreciated - everything a founder would want to hear!
In the last few years we’ve also been holding monthly Skype sessions with a handful of children from the school and the London office, so they can tell the Zamcog employees what they’ve been getting up to and what they’ve learnt, as well as have a general chit chat. This again has proven very popular. It motivates the staff so much more than any team-building exercise, I always notice the atmosphere in the office changes after our sessions with the kids, and employees are happier and enthusiastic to get the work done.
Caring about far-removed causes
Another major struggle I’ve experienced from running an international charity is fundraising and building awareness overseas. It’s obvious that children in a developing country need help, but the main challenge is getting people to care when the issue isn’t on their doorstep. Furthermore, there are thousands of children’s charities in the world, so why would someone give to us, specifically?
One way I achieve this is to show supporters what makes Zamcog unique. I focus on key elements of the organisation that I know are specific to what we do, then use that just like a business would use its USP. For example, when speaking to potential supporters I make it clear that Zamcog doesn’t deal in handouts. We provide the children with the tools so they can help themselves.
When I’m talking about Zamcog and the children we help, I’m often met with the response ‘well what about the kids here?’. It’s a valid point, but what I try to highlight is that by supporting the charity, a patron is making a huge difference to a child (who in every case lives below the poverty line), by providing an education and therefore a path to a better life.
Showing the impact of your work
Fundamentally, supporters want to know how and who they are helping, and if you have proof to show them, the job is a lot easier. Since I began using pictures and case studies to show how much of an impact the cause is having, I’ve noticed that around 70% of the people I’m talking to will enquire about how they can help, whereas before it was more like 30%. So this is a great improvement.
I’ve learnt from my experience at Zamcog how important it is to show your staff and supporters alike the amazing work that is being done as a result of their effort. While this isn’t always easy, particularly if you’re a massive charity with thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of supporters, it’s not impossible and should always be a focus for higher management and board members.
Julie-Anne Uggla is the founder of Zamcog [www.zamcog.com], a children’s charity based in Zambia. She is also an active investor and entrepreneur.