10 Unexpected Lessons From my First Day on a Nonprofit Job

My first nonprofit communications project involved helping a rural health clinic in Western Kenya develop its branding and marketing strategy.

The clinic, Matibabu Foundation (matibabukenya.org), had received PEPFAR funding along with a good deal of technical assistance to enhance its new HIV prevention programs and to strengthen its capacity to serve its community well.

A very clever member of the Technical Assistance (TA) team recognized a need to help Matibabu develop a branding and marketing strategy to ensure its products and services were distinct within its community and on a national level. Acquiring the capacity to market itself could also increase its odds of receiving future funding.

Having moved to Uganda from Austin, TX a year prior, I was chomping at the bit to get in on the action of the amazing work some African non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were doing. These people were doing stuff that mattered. They were making a difference. They were changing the world. I was desperate to be a part of it. (I’m selfish like that.)

So, I pretty much thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I was selected for this project. I wasn’t exactly going to be saving lives, but I was responsible for facilitating the first step in creating a branding and marketing strategy: developing a positioning statement and messaging framework. (Pretty sexy, huh?)

I was giddy with the glamor of working in rural Kenya with an indigenous clinic to fight the spread of HIV. (Finally, these waterproof cargo pants with 17 pockets would come in handy.) I was also persuaded by the promise of more work to come with other PEPFAR-funded organizations if this project went according to plan.

I eagerly accepted the job. A 5-hour bone-jarring drive from Kampala, Uganda to the Kenyan border (with no A/C), a dubious encounter with the boarder-patrol (where my camera went missing), and many layers of red dust encasing my body later, we arrived at a colorful little village in a remote region of Western Kenya.

The village’s claim to fame was that it was home to Obama’s paternal grandmother. (Yup. Got to check that one off the bucket list!)

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The Independent, June 22, 2015, AFP/Getty

Though it was lacking in the kind of wealth and modernity most of us are accustomed to (you know, wifi, hot water, round-the-clock electricity), it more than made up for its shortcomings with its vibrant spirit and weathered but charming character.

We slowly made out way through the town, grabbed some chicken-on-a-stick, and followed a dirt road to the clinic, marked by a carefully hand-painted sign.

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At least nothing’s misspelled, I thought to myself.

Following a windy footpath to the heart of a modest medical compound, I came to an outdoor waiting area filled with patients sitting on benches before a small permanent structure where the clinic and lab were situated. This building was flanked by multiple metal cargo containers stacked one upon another and repurposed into a quaint little office complex for staff members.

It was a beautiful, warm day. The kind of day where the scent of Bougainvillea and Jacaranda trees compete for your olfactory attention. The kind of clinic where patients hum melodies in the waiting area while nurses scurry cheerfully about. (At least, that’s how my wistful memory recalls the day.) I drank it all in like a refreshing bottle of Snapple as I stood in the shade of a sign that read “free HIV testing and counseling.”

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I spent the afternoon touring the clinic, meeting patients, interviewing department heads and becoming increasingly smitten by the combined talent, knowledge and enthusiasm of Matibabu’s staff.

That night, in my hotel room, I rehearsed my presentation repeatedly. I made sure there were no glitches in my impeccable slide deck. I fought off mosquitos, closed the windows tightly and buried my sweaty self deep within the safe confines of my dusty mosquito net.

The next morning, I convened with department heads, doctors, nurses, and lab technicians to facilitate my positioning statement session, followed by a messaging workshop. The TA team, made up of seasoned experts from JSI, had me shaking in my boots despite their encouragement. (It is possible they were under the impression that this wasn’t my first nonprofit rodeo, though I can’t say for certain.)

I was pleasantly surprised and equally confused by the level of enthusiasm that permeated the room. Each person sat before me with a smile, pen in hand, and notebook before them.

These people have no idea what they’re in for, I thought. I’ve clearly misled them.

In my experience (which, to date, had involved working with tech startups in Austin, TX) running positioning and messaging workshops was met with about as much enthusiasm as a 5th-grader condemned to studying the dictionary.

Positioning statements. Core messages. SWOT analysis. All a tedious process and necessary evil in the quest for more breathtaking branding activities, like developing logos, taglines, and sales pitches.

After the customary introductions and greetings, I turned the projector on, presented the agenda and flipped to page 2 of the most stellar slide deck ever created.

Everything is going to be just fine, I thought. Unless the power goes out.

Which it did, naturally, three slides into the session.

So, I did what any good communications consultant in a foreign country and culture would do. I winged it. I pulled out the Sharpies and taped flip chart paper onto every inch of the walls. I asked every question I could remember from said stellar slideshow and scribbled responses onto the paper lining the walls.

I listened. I refereed discussions. I pretended the heat, humidity, and lack of Diet Coke didn’t affect me in the least. And I acted like I understood all the health-industry acronyms and jargon being thrown my way.

But here’s what I learned, and it kind of blew my mind.

A small rural health clinic out in the remote bushland of Kenya can be a heck of a lot more than just a small rural health clinic in the bush of Kenya.

  1. It can be a welcoming and safe community for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLA’s) to gather, interact and support one another. This community, which met regularly throughout the week, was a lifeline for PLAs who were all too familiar with the discrimination and stigmatization that comes with the disease.
  2. It can inspire 100s of community members to serve as volunteer Community Health Workers (CHW’s), sacrificing several hours each week to walk long distances to take health care to people living in remote areas.
  3. It can motivate legions of volunteers to teach neighbors and communities about good hygiene and proper pit latrine development, resulting in less illness and disease.
  4. It can dismiss deep-rooted myths embraced by entire communities about the “evils” of hospital deliveries, resulting in more women delivering healthy babies in hospitals and fewer maternal deaths.
  5. It can serve as the voice of its community, communicating urgent health needs of the community to the government while promoting government-sponsored health initiatives in return.
  6. It can change the behavior of future generations. By uniting the community’s youth in the fight against HIV (through high school clubs that give teens a safe place to talk about sex, AIDS & HIV prevention) the community saw a significant drop in teen pregnancy and teen HIV+ rates.
  7. It can be an unofficial workspace for local women focused on creating income generating activities (IGAs) and building trustworthy savings and loan programs.
  8. It can have a say in the national health agenda. (The director, a tireless health care advocate, served as an advisor to the Kenyan Ministry of Health on the development of its national healthcare plan.)
  9. Its employees can throw around a heck-of-a-lot of acronyms, like PLA’s, CHW’s, VCT (volunteer HIV counseling and testing), M&E (monitoring and evaluation) and my favorite, MARPS (most at-risk people groups.)
  10. It can help a 30-something mother of 6 discover her purpose.

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I’ve since worked with dozens of NGOs, from the likes of World Vision Uganda and the Diana, Princess of Wales Foundation, to local grassroots organizations working out of metal cargo containers marked by hand-painted signs.

After working with African-based NGOs for seven years my family returned to the states where I continue pursuing work with organizations working to make the world a better place.

I’m inspired daily by passionate people I come across who are fully committed to changing the world.

Some of these people are no richer in resources, manpower, or reputation than a little clinic in rural Kenya called Matibabu. But they refuse to give up. They relentlessly pursue their passions. They don’t let obstacles like funding, capacity, and sticky bureaucracies deter them. They just fight harder and smarter and with more moxie.

I consider myself blessed to be working behind the scenes to support these amazing people and the important work they do.

Do you remember your first day on the job? What went wrong? What went well? What did you learn? Please share in the comments below.

 

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