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Ending Poverty: The Next Big Idea Is To Stay Small

May 20, 2015  • Jacob Lief, Guest Blogger

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

In April of 2007, I stood on the main stage at the Clinton Global Initiative. The organization I’d co-founded, Ubuntu Education Fund, had spent eight years working in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I boasted about our successes, and emphasized one number: that we reached 40,000 children. That number resonated–over the next year, money rolled in. We pulled in over $8 million during our fundraising year, received a $4.5 million five-year PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) grant, and began feverishly designing programming around specific outputs–providing computers to schools, distributing a million condoms.

We were not alone in our obsession with scale. In order for people to see a nonprofit as successful, it has to reach enormous numbers of people across enormous areas of the world. Yet something felt off. It was true that we reached forty thousand, but we only touched them. Putting computers into schools–a major initiative of Ubuntu’s at the time–was a great thing, but it didn’t make a child’s day-to-day life easier, or significantly alter the course of her life.

And then there’s the sheer complexity of poverty in our community. For example, I’d met a young boy named Lwando through a poetry group that one of my friends, a schoolteacher, had organized in the local elementary school. Lwando was a skinny, engaging kid with a killer Mandela impression. One evening he asked if I could give him a ride home. We got in my car and he gave me directions, and we pulled up to a tiny shack made of corrugated zinc. I walked him inside, and realized he was living there alone. The door stood ajar behind us, because it didn’t fit properly in the frame. Through the darkness, I could see a thin mattress in one corner. The room was damp and penetratingly cold. Lwando was part of Ubuntu’s programming. Should we count him as one of forty thousand because he now knew how to use a word-processing program, even though fundamentally his life remained completely unstable?

So we started to go deeper. We kept our focus tight, despite the temptation to expand–we stayed within a 7-kilometer zone, in a community of about 400,000 people. We began to work within children’s homes, helping to bring safety and stability to the environment around them. We provided health services, tutoring, nutritional support, summer camps, counseling, and whatever incidentals a child needed along the way: glasses, a proper desk and lamp for studying, even underwear. We believe that our children in the townships of South Africa deserve what children all around the world deserve–everything. Many of these students needed a parent, and that’s how we approached each situation: is this what a parent would do? And we realized that emphasizing scale no longer made sense–parenting isn’t scalable. You can’t raise a child in a twelve-month grant cycle.

But there are ways to measure impact, and, in 2011, a donor gave us a grant that allowed McKinsey and Company to analyze Ubuntu’s practices and look closely at our results. The data showed that a child who graduates from the Ubuntu program adds a $195,000 net lifetime contribution to society, while a child in our community who is not in our program costs society $9,000. McKinsey also found that every $1 invested in an Ubuntu client yields real lifetime earnings of $8.70 for that child. These findings are not just numbers that prove our model works; they represent real, tangible outcomes for the future of children living in Port Elizabeth, and the future of a poverty-ridden community.

Lwando is living proof that our model transforms the trajectory of our children’s lives. When I met him in 2002 he was a twelve year old fending for himself. In 2012, after ten years in Ubuntu’s programs and having received one of our university scholarships, he graduated from the University of Cape Town. He now works in the communications and marketing department of that university. He’s a thriving young professional whose accomplishments would make any parent proud. He just happened to grow up in poverty. We may not have forty-thousand Lwandos, but even one Lwando means success.

Our model works. I’ve seen plenty of examples of focused interventions producing remarkable results. It’s not a new innovation but an old recipe — stay with the children we work with and support them with everything they need. We must remember how much our own parents gave us–that’s what we need to provide. But unless the philanthropic community refines its notion of scale we won’t see sustainable poverty reduction over the next decade.

We need to create an environment that will allow organizations to stay focused, grow slow and stick with a community long enough to raise a child. The next big idea to end poverty is to stay small.  

Jacob Lief is founder and CEO of the Ubuntu Education Fund and an Aspen Global Leadership Network fellow.