If we were to do it again, there are a few things we'd keep in mind
A good mix of organizations
The organizations in the African Rising network represented an array of service types. They were not all focusing on a single sector such as health or education. In addition, they were not all geographically clustered in one city or country (although limited to Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda). Thus, two organizations that did have the same mission – say, community development – were not working with the same populations. We found that these differences in mission and geographical distances decreased the competition between the organizations and enhanced their interest in collaborating with and learning from each other.
The distances, however, made it harder for the organizations to get together face-to-face, which is especially critical in African cultures. If we were to grow our network further, we had planned to develop a number of geographical clusters of 5-8 organizations that could easily meet together.
Once an organization was part of the Africa Rising network, we were committed to helping it thrive; sometimes to simply survive. Our African Director, Mary Muhara, developed relationships with the organization leaders. In conversations with them, she would sometimes learn about a challenge they were facing. She would bring these challenges to other Africa Rising staff and we would talk about options for helping them, which for us were inevitably relational, not financial. For example, in one instance we helped an organization that was being dropped by one African church to develop a relationship with another.
We found that when an African organization saw that we would not abandon them because they faced a challenge, they would trust us more and share other challenges more freely, enabling us to help them more. In donor-recipient relationships, this would seldom happen because the recipient would fear that any flaws or mistakes would cause the donor to withhold funds.
The depth of the rut
Africa Rising was trying to model a different type of interaction between African organizations and the West. The usual way of interacting is looking to the West for donations. Some even let Western donors influence their mission because they will do whatever will bring money. When we would approach an African organization to be part of the Africa Rising network, we would explain that our purpose was not to raise money for them, but to help them grow stronger and more effective by connecting them with other African organizations they could learn from and collaborate with. Even after years of experiencing such benefits, some of the organization founders still asked us when they would benefit financially from being part of the network. Those few still saw the American base of Africa Rising as a potential link to donors.
The dependence on Western donors stems from habit and cultural attitudes towards philanthropy. Middle and upper class Africans are less inclined to donate money to African founded organizations than Westerners are, in part because they know of instances in which Africans founded an NGO solely for the purpose of attracting funds – a fact that Africans are more aware of than Westerners are. Thus, Africans with some wealth are much more skeptical than Westerners are of African organizations. An organization such as African Rising can help African organizations rely less on Western donors by (1) helping them implement measures of financial accountability and transparency, thus perhaps attracting African donors, (2) finding ways to generate some income through the sale of products or services to those who can pay for them, and (3) enabling them to learn from other African organizations.
Holding organizations, not babies
Africa Rising was helping African organizations, and indirectly the beneficiaries of those organizations. The beneficiaries included low income women infected with HIV and internally displaced people, among others. Donors in the west like to think their money is going directly to such beneficiaries – food into the mouths of babies, for example. Although those babies would benefit from a stronger organization serving them, donors often felt that Africa Rising was too far removed from the ultimate beneficiaries, and they sometimes kept their wallets closed until they could imagine their money going directly to a person in need. Because we had formed an organization that didn’t appeal to tried and true donation hot-buttons, before we ended Africa Rising in 2014, we were exploring ways to generate income by charging for services such as guided tours. We weren’t aiming for a profit, but non-donation income that might cover some or all of our costs.
The time it takes
The founder and president of Africa Rising, Jim Thomas, was a university professor. During the day he was a professor, and on weekday evenings and weekends he ran Africa Rising, with the help of staff and volunteers who believed in the mission and worked sacrificially to see it realized. Africa Rising was a non-conventional model that was aiming to demonstrate a new way of doing things. In short, it was social entrepreneurialism. When the Skoll Foundation provides funds for social entrepreneurs, it requires that they work full-time on their enterprise. Launching an enterprise requires a social entrepreneur’s full attention to networking, establishing the financial model – be it fund raising or sales – developing and supervising staff and volunteers, clarifying the model and publicizing it, and more. Jim Thomas came to realize that he could not play these roles adequately while attending to the demands of a full-time day job.
The mission of Africa Rising was to enable African organizations to decrease their dependence on the West. In doing so, Africa Rising also showed Westerners a different way of interacting with African organizations. These two sides of the same coin were both pushing against long standing relationships and stereotypes held by Africans and Westerners. Over time, Africa Rising realized that these were two different missions, each worthy of a single-minded focus. Doing so required a conscious effort to identify which of our efforts addressed which mission, and to ruthlessly adhere only to the efforts focusing on the African organizations. There is some thought about starting another nonprofit in the future that addresses how Americans think about and interact with Africa.
What is a Christian organization?
Africa Rising was motivated by an explicitly Christian view of the world. That view included loving and working with all people, regardless of their beliefs. Those who directed the organization – the board, the president, and the African and US-based directors – were all active Christians. They did not require that African organizations participating in the network be Christian. But they did require that they serve people of all beliefs, and that they not be anti-Christian. No particular religious beliefs were sought in volunteers, interns and others who facilitated our work. The Africa Rising website and other materials were not explicitly Christian, apart from describing how we were born out of a church. We described ourselves as faith-motivated rather than faith-based, since the latter seemed to imply a more explicitly Christian language and more restrictive participation.
This approach enabled us to engage a wide variety of organizations and individuals that greatly benefited the Africa Rising organizations and mission. But it hampered our financial stability. Christians who cared about faith-based action did not consider us Christian enough and thus did not contribute financially. And people who sought to be explicitly secular or non-faith-based, did not contribute because they considered us to be too Christian. We might have been financially sound if we had used the language and styles that conservative Christians expect, but then we wouldn’t have been true to our own beliefs of how God works in the world.