Kindling for the Sparks

In this guest blog, Merran Roy, the founder of Intlantsi Creative Development Project in Peddie, Eastern Cape, reflects on her role as a project founder in a disadvantaged community, and what it’s taught her about sustainability, “rescuing” and resourcefulness.

intlantsi_fotorThe Intlantsi Creative Development Project was born in 2012.  Intlantsi – “spark” in isiXhosa – recruits and trains unemployed young adults as arts activity facilitators for children in schools and early childhood development (ECD) sites.

From the outset, though, it had a broader goal: to tackle the issues of low self and community esteem, boost creative thinking, and develop confidence within communities to formulate their own solutions to their own local problems.

We began as a small pilot project within the Keiskamma Trust, a large non-profit organisation (NPO) that has provided poverty alleviation through arts and health programmes in the Eastern Cape for 15 years. The Keiskamma Trust has grown rapidly during this time, providing small incomes for +250 people through four main programmes, with thousands of beneficiaries spread across about 50 villages.

As a pilot programme trying to clarify its own focus within a big, multi-faceted organisation, we questioned our future sustainability on every level from the outset. Research into other organisations dealing with massive social issues like poverty and HIV spurred us to ask:

  • If an NPO disappeared from its beneficiary community, would any of its activities continue?
  • Would there be evidence a few years later of what the millions of rands worth of funding had been spent on?
  • Would people take the skills they acquired through that organisation and seek jobs outside their own communities (benefiting only one family through distant income), as opposed to continuing to use their skills for local benefit?
  • Would anyone remain locally active without a salary?
  • In other words, what IS community development and project sustainability really all about?

After four years of project research, piloting and implementation, we separated from the Keiskamma Trust in mid-2015. As a brand new organisation committed to sustainable community development, we are attempting to begin as we wish to go on. It’s a daunting task – but it’s pushed us to reflect with deep (and sometimes difficult) honesty on some of the pitfalls of “development”, and how to build a team and a community that can overcome them.

Intlantsi, as with most NPOs, has experienced the pressure of setting output targets that are too high, which result in us functioning beyond our real capacity and failing to fulfil grant agreements.

Setting ambitious targets can be influenced by our enthusiasm to make a big difference, and the overwhelming depth and extent of real need surrounding us. We may hope to achieve outputs that will attract and maintain donor interest. Or as managers/ programme designers/fundraisers, we are often ‘outsiders’ from more advantaged backgrounds with limited insight into the self-esteem issues that can inhibit training and implementation.

In meeting targets, people like myself – people from advantaged backgrounds in positions of management and leadership – have resources our beneficiaries and trainee facilitators do not. We also tend to bear the responsibility of the targets as the direct links to the donors.

We automatically, even unconsciously, ‘leap to the rescue’ in order to push our outputs higher and achieve the standards we feel we should be achieving by now. This often takes the form of using our own cars, fuel, finances, time and energy beyond our job descriptions and budgets, in the name of our personal commitment to the project vision. It can also lead to employing more expensive skilled staff, to relieve the burden on our personal resources.

Yet unwittingly, these actions betray that very same vision – which is to foster independence, ingenuity and creative, locally sourced responses to any challenges. At Intlantsi, our underlying principles are supposed to be based in group therapeutic practice. This means creating a space in which we restrain our own needs/impulses, and withhold our own resources and ‘power’ to allow the group to realise their own potential.

We perhaps tend to ‘rescue’ with our own resources to protect our facilitators from failing the expectations the project has placed upon them, hoping they will experience a greater sense of confidence should they ‘succeed’ (meet the targets). However, we have learned that when we have ‘assisted’ events or activities with our personal resources, we develop expectations that we will be there the next time to assist in the same way. This robs the group of the opportunity to make a plan with their own, albeit limited, resources.

For example, when we race out to transport equipment for an event, this overshadows other options – such as asking a favour of a car owner in their village, or simply hosting the event without the equipment. Next time, facilitators assume that the same thing will happen – and community members come to expect a standard of event that depends on the input of more “resourced” people, rather than experiencing events the facilitators are capable of without our help.

Conversely, when we restrain ourselves and let facilitators suffer the consequences of last minute or poor planning, we have learned how quickly they make another plan or get on without it anyway. What’s more, their level of confidence and pride in what they achieve alone is tangibly higher than when we “rescue” the situation.

As project leaders, the best thing to do for development may in fact be to resist our fears of cancelled events and sacrifice meeting targets, in the knowledge that whatever outputs ARE achieved are definitely sustainable into the future. The long-term developmental benefits are not only greater for members of the project team: as they begin to engage with their villages’ own resources, other local stakeholders gradually become involved and take ownership of the project’s success, rather than a central team of 2 or 3 non-beneficiaries (managers) bearing that load alone.

Going forward, these lessons have shaped our approach. We will endeavour to find small-scale, local solutions and to grow with local resources, rather than having to employ increasing amounts of management staff to administer and report on large funds. (For example, we plan to mobilise the Intlantsi children and facilitators to build their own facilities using waste, natural and local human resources, rather than applying for large amounts of funding to outsource expensive building companies.)

At Intlantsi, we appear to have established a core group who are beginning to understand their roles in programme ownership. Realising that the future of the organisation and their jobs is now in their hands, not managers’ hands, is crucial.

As project founders, we should endeavour not to flare blindingly and then rapidly burn out. If the purpose of a spark is to ignite fires, then the preparation of the kindling is central to success.

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