Browse Category: Philanthropy

Social Media for Social Change: 10 Tips from a Queer African Media Activist

I recently spoke at a panel at NYU’s “Making It In Media” lunch panel and discussion series, which prompted a personal reflection of my non-conventional, non-linear career trajectory as a writer and a media activist.

Read “Making It In Media, Accidentally: One Queer African Writer’s Journey to Paradise” if you’d like some background.

In that post, I talked about the importance of leading from within, knowing yourself enough to carve a career path for yourself that’s beautifully unconventional. However, in addition to sharing my personal story and philosophy, I wanted to share a few tangible new media tips, tricks, and strategies that have been helpful to me in  my career so far. (Note: Join my mailing list if you’re interested in more of these.)

These tips don’t hold all the answers to “Making It In Media”, not by a stretch. But I do believe they will be helpful to anyone who’s just getting started with social media, would like to learn how to be use it more strategically, or even serve as a good refresher for someone who’s been tweeting and blogging for years.

At the core of my message is, of course, my mantra: “Love Is My Revolution”; my work serves to support and uplift others, and so I write and share from this place, always. But, also intrinsic in my message about using media for change is another simple idea: no matter how much technology we use, people are still people.

Thus, in order to achieve real influence, you’re going to have to apply the normal rules of effective communication, whether or not you’re tweeting from a smartphone, updating Facebook  via iPad, or publishing an op-ed for the HuffingtonPost. Because in order to achieve real influence, truly connect with others online, you’re going to have to dare to be human.

So, here are 10 Tips for Making it In Media, from a passionate, introverted writer who strongly believes in the power of using social media for social change, including being human enough to intermittently tweet about your cats, courageous enough to stand for what you do know, and brave enough to admit when you don’t know nearly enough about a whole lot of things:

1. Take a Position: So, you wanna be a thought leader… Well, the good news is that the digital space is filled with followers, spectators, and consumers, all passively experiencing the web. Consider this: A few studies have shown that in most online communities, 90% of the users are lurkers (i.e. they never contribute/just read and consume), 9% contribute a little, and 1% account for nearly all the action. This is VERY good news for anyone who has something important to say– the odds are already in your favor. Tap into the power of being in the 1%. The 90% are eagerly waiting for you to say something.

2. Engage in (Dis)agreement: I once dated a woman who would make outlandish statements, and then, when I would counter or challenge, would say to me, “I don’t need to defend my ideas to you.” I found that alarming, and then (with my activist hat on) really scary. To think that there are so many people moving through the world carrying the same ideas in their heads they’ve had since they were four! Why? Because they don’t enjoy confrontation. But (respectful) disagreement, though uncomfortable for some, is actually very healthy; it forces us to re-think our initial ideas, and–through debate with othersstrengthen our arguments, or can them altogether. If you’re going to take a position (as in step one), be prepared to see it through. Find people who disagree (and agree) with you, too. You can change the world, one debate at a time.

3. Choose Your Battles: So, I know I just said that debate and dialogue are good, but unfortunately–and just as in real life–they’re all not worthwhile. Use your airtime wisely. Before you engage, especially in disagreement, consider the level of influence or visibility of the person you’re debating, and the number of people watching. Don’t waste your airtime, for instance, on a Twitter troll (no pic, virtually no followers, but lots of venom/animosity) who’s just looking for a fight, someone to bully. Avoid back and forths with hecklers who have little to no influence (this is subjective, so you can assess for yourself). The way I see it, if I’m going to spend time investing in an online conversation, a whole lot of people better be watching, and possibly being swayed… ’cause again I write for influence, for change. That is always worth it.

4. Participate in Pertinent Conversations: Now, the first three tips assume you got on a soapbox one day and people started listening to you, asking you questions, agreeing or disagreeing. This assumes you already have a base network. But what if you’re just getting started? It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are. If you’re not sharing your ideas with others, you’re basically talking to yourself. Ever seen someone standing in the middle of a networking event spouting off every other minute about how much they know? Weird (and obnoxious); you’ll most likely be ignored. If that happens, how will anyone know that you could possibly hold the key to curing cancer? How can you get people to listen to you? Well, for starters, get off the soapbox and find a conversation that’s already happening; introduce yourself, chime in, contribute intelligently, let your brilliance speak for itself. You’ll find that people are more likely to engage in conversation than voluntarily sign up for (your) lecture. Use that to your advantage. And remember to always leave people with a way to get in touch with you if they want!

5. Niche Your Knowledge: Be consistent. I’m not saying you should sound like a robot, just focus. If you can, choose a niche. It’ll make it easier for people to remember why they need to stay connected with you, and when they should recommend you to someone else (e.g. “You’re writing a paper about feminism in Atlanta, I know an amazing blogger who writes about that stuff!”).  Additionally, niche-ing yourself will also help you in determining how, where, and with whom to spend your time. Some experts call this platform-building. Check it out. Dan is awesome. And his newsletter got me to stop intermittently tweeting about my cats amidst political calls to action (well, mostly).

6. Specialize, But Stand Out: So you’ve been smart about engaging in conversations related to your field of expertise, nurturing a larger, yet more focused platform to showcase your brilliance. Bravo! But now, you have a different task to conquer — distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of other self-proclaimed gurus in your field. Now that people know you’re the go-to person, say for cute cat photos feminism in Liberia, now what? What separates you from that other feminist who write about Liberia? Why would an audience choose to stay connected to you? What’s in it for them? This line of questioning may sound cynical, but the truth is that everyone wants something. You want followers, fans, and influence. What do you think your followers want from you? If you can find a way to convey nuance to your audience, you’ll get more attention. Better yet, if you can find a way to offer something of value to them, say *cough* a list of tips for Making It In Media, you’re more likely to earn their loyalty (and prove that you may actually know what you’re talking about). For example, there are hundreds of progressive/feminist blogs on the internet that tend to all say the same exact thing; I’ve managed to create a niche for myself that allows me to write about a range of issues because my brand isn’t tied to what I write about, but how I write about them. Ask, Melissa Hill Perry — she digs my principles of afrofeminism (win!).  So find out what makes you unique, even within your niche. Create value, and earn loyalty.

7. Quality over Quantity: When I first started publishing my writing online, I couldn’t imagine how bloggers could find the time or energy to crank out post after post after post, while I would slave away for days, sometimes weeks over a single piece. So, at first, I tried to “keep up” by publishing more frequently, which only resulted in my publishing more crap; I actually lost readership. See, in an effort to emulate other bloggers,  I’d begun writing about whatever I thought was “the thing” to write about; my pieces lacked focus, passion, depth, and didn’t help build my reputation. In fact, they distorted it. The minute I returned to writing the longer, personal, insightful commentary I was known for, my readership began to grow again. Moreover, publishing less frequently (but more regularly) meant that I could spend more time in between deadlines promoting each piece. I came to deeply appreciate my work as critical, thorough, and creative; eventually, the loyalty of my readers affirmed that my words are worth the wait. The lesson here: People may visit your site once for a blog post, but it’s the quality that will keep the same readers coming back, repeatedly.

8. Collaborate with Others: It’s no secret: self-absorption is quite prevalent in media spaces. So many people are trying so hard to “make it” they’ve forgotten that we’re all part of a larger ecosystem. Now, before you dismiss this as a “feel good” tip, remember tip #4; if you think engaging with other people in your space could be beneficial, consider the power of collaborating with them. Incidentally, Tyler Perry and Oprah — two highly successful and influential black media mavens — just decided to work together. What do they stand to gain? Combined clout, for one.It can’t hurt to pool their resources either; the entertainment industry is still systemically racist after all.

9: Connect and Support Others: But what about this idea of linking people to resources? Highlighting other people’s work just because? According to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, being a “Connector” has its rewards as well; if you’re genuinely helpful to others i.e. connect people to resources they need, people will appreciate you, perhaps come to rely on you, trust you, like you, and as a direct result, stay highly engaged and be eager to give you support when you need it. I saw this first-hand when my online fundraising campaign for Africans for Africa raised ~$15K; so many people donated money, connected me to resources I needed because they were eager to return the favor (some I couldn’t even remember doing!). I make it a point to list other blogs I read in my sidebar, mention other activists and organizations doing work similar to mine whenever I’m interviewed, and actively mentor young people. There’s value in connecting and supporting others. So don’t become just another self-serving loudspeaker. Give and you shall receive.

10. Be Purposeful: I haven’t necessarily put these tips in order, but if I had to think of the top three, this would certainly be one of them. Before I publish anything, speak anywhere, respond to any criticism, I ask myself three questions: “Who am I talking to?” “What is the most effective way I can deliver this message to them?” “What do I want to happen as a result of their listening?” Now, if you wanna write  or speak or be on TV etc just for the sake of being famous, then perhaps this won’t matter. If you run your blog like your personal diary, that too won’t matter. But, if you’re a bit like me, and you want to write for change i.e. you want to engage in transformational conversations with groups of people, then you must always consider these questions before you produce anything. I wouldn’t write about homophobia to a group of US college soccer players the way I would to an audience of religious African women, nor would I begin a conversation with harsh criticisms of views I don’t agree with if I really wanted them to see where I was coming from. Be purposeful in your use of media; know who you are and what you want to get out of it. And it’ll be a lot easier to navigate through the noise from feedback later.

A Word to the Wise: Practice Principled Apathy (aka Don’t Take It Personally)

This is an extra point, I know. But I simply couldn’t end without stressing this. The thing about taking a position is that you submit yourself (plus your ideas, and sometimes, even your character) to feedback and scrutiny by the 90%, spectators whose job it is in this system to validate or invalidate your position (See point #1). Simply put, you must be ready to deal with criticism, both good and bad.

Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

I have found that spending time reflecting on point #10 — leaves me better prepared to engage with comments and feedback, whether positive or negative, afterwards. When I know why I’m writing, and who I’m writing to, it’s a lot easier for me to choose who to engage with (and how) in the event of backlash. When I think about all the people I look up to, it’s easy to see that they all stood for something, and paid for it in mass criticism. That’s why it’s important to remember the why behind your use of media. If you keep your purpose — which is to help people — at the back of your mind, there’s no storm you won’t be able to weather.

And so I close with some wisdom from Spiderman, with a twist: With great influence comes a greater need for principled apathy.

You must learn to weed through the rubble for the nuggets that will either help you strengthen your message or nudge you further along the right track towards justice.

Well, there you have it! 10 Tips for Using Social Media for Social Change, after a Making It In Media, Accidentally.

Reminder: I wrote most of these tips from my experience as a writer who blogs, and uses her online social media channels for social justice, so the tips here may not be applicable to other media platforms. Hence, I encourage you to add to or adapt this list for your own purposes. You may also view what others have offered via the #howtomakeitinmedia Twitter chat archive on Storify. (Link coming soon).

Thanks for reading. I hope these get you started off in the right direction.

It would be great to hear from you, especially if you found it helpful, to encourage me to keep on sharing :) Which tips above do you often apply to your work? What other tips would you recommend to others — new and experienced — who are interested in more strategic use of media platforms for social justice? I often write these things and am never quite sure who’s reading them. 

One Love.

Making It In Media, Accidentally: One Queer African Writer’s Journey to Paradise

I recently spent some time reflecting on my work as a media activist and advocate.

This reflection came partly in preparation for my feature at New York University’s “Making it in Media” panel, a lunchtime panel series that provides an opportunity for students interested in careers in media to connect with media professionals of diverse backgrounds.

I had been looking forward to sharing my experience as a media activist with students, and hopefully, making a case for the importance of alternative media as a tool for advocacy as well as a worthwhile career path. But as the event approached, and I tried to think about what I’d say to students who were just starting out, I realized I wasn’t quite clear on what I would say exactly.

My career path in media hasn’t been linear or conventional by any means.

I went to MIT to study Mathematics, which I thoroughly enjoyed before realizing that I really enjoyed writing and had to “come out” to my parents as an artist hoping to end up with a liberal arts degree from a science school. (It went well, considering…)

In an effort to earn my stripes as a certified nerd (and rid myself of immigrant parent guilt — “you mean we sacrificed so much for you to attend the best science school just for you to be a “writer”?), I worked in the software industry for about five years. I hated it. Yes, hated it. So I channeled all the frustration that came with working 60-70 hr work weeks into my passion for new media and social justice, which culminated in my founding and growing a social networking organization for Queer Women of Color in Boston, then later on, QWOC Media Wire, a media hub for LBTQ women of color and the Diaspora.

When the recession hit and I lost my job, I realized I still had a reason to get up every day and ‘go to work.’ My organization had grown, and was receiving national exposure due to our social media campaigning efforts. So, even though I wasn’t getting paid for my work (whether as a writer or activist) the show had to go on.

With new media as my focus, I continued down the path of social justice, and very quickly, the successes in my community work earned me a reputation for “applying” what I knew about media and diversity. People started inviting me to come speak, train, coach on how to use social media for thought leadership, community outreach,  and online fundraising. I couldn’t work with everyone that asked, so I relaunched this blog, and began writing about the issues I was working on, sharing my ideas.

What Does Success in Alternative Media Look Like?

Flash forward a few years, and here I am with an international blog readership, a few more accolades, and the privilege of making a decent living through various writing, consulting, and media projects for good.

I raised over $15,000 in less than 30 days for my Africans for Africa project this year; I was just offered a contract position to advise a prominent foundation on how to re-write their site’s content to make it snappier, more engaging, and reflective of their brand; and I’m constantly invited to sit on panels that indicate people think I know a thing or two about “How to Make It In Media.”

I know my parents are proud of me, but I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t quite what they had in mind when they dropped me off at college. They hadn’t banked on my tendency to strive to be the best at nearly everything I did to manifest as my becoming the “gayest Nigerian ever” (seriously, my site stats report that this is what someone searched for one day and found my blog). And, to be honest, this isn’t what I’d imagined my life would be like either. Thus, when people ask me, “How does one make it in media, exactly?” I’m not quite sure how to answer.

I get emails all the time from younger people who want to know how it is that I get to do what I do. What did I study? What courses would I recommend? How do they get started in their own media careers?

What to tell them when my own “career path” (it feels so weird to even think of it that way!) hasn’t been straight-forward? I don’t have the answers. I’m not even sure I can say that I’ve actually “made it”. I posed the question of #howtomakeitinmedia on Twitter followers and got a few great responses. I’ll share my favorite one from Soli Philander:

“I think what’s most important is to define what “Making It In Media” means for you.”

Because I’ve felt like an outsider most of my life, “Making It In Media”, for me, has meant using media to connect with “my people”, whether African women, Nigerian feminists, LGBTI Diaspora, queer bois, and more, for the purpose of affirming each other’s experiences, growing and healing together.

“Making It In Media” has meant being able to build for myself and others, a support network, so we all can feel less alone, using my voice to advocate for people who don’t have as much access to resources as I do, filling the spaces between the black and white of political agendas with the personal stories that are often missing from policy implementation, a result which when botched, impacts marginalized communities the most.

“Making It In Media” for me means nurturing a younger generation of women (and other marginalized people) to claim their right to their own histories, by writing it; equipping them with one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever received — that we do not need to sit around waiting to be written about; we can write our own histories, influence policy, and change the world from where we are.

And yes, “Making It In Media” means, also, one day, being interviewed by Ellen. Maybe for winning a Pulitzer.  That’s obviously nowhere near happening yet, but I’m working on it. ;)

So You Want to Make It In Media: Now What?

I don’t know what “Making It In Media” means to you — you who are still reading this, and I might guess, are interested in doing the same. I don’t know where you should begin or where you are. But, I do know this: regardless of who you are, or what your parents wanted you to be, irrespective of what you studied or didn’t study in college, whether or not you event went to college, if you can’t find your ideal job description at your school’s career fair or on Craigslist, you absolutely possess the power, more now than ever, to transform what you love into what you do for a living.

I’m more fulfilled in my work as a writer and media activist than I ever would have been as just another ivy league consultant on wall street. I’ve met smart, passionate, inspiring people from all walks of life who have taught and given me so much. The passion and drive I have for helping others has been so rewarding, and I know it will continue to be as long as I remain true to myself, and lead from within. Maya Angelou puts it best: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

So I offer this to you: Don’t drive your career with someone else’s rear view mirror. Don’t tailgate an externally constructed ambition or let someone else’s version of success distract you from the most important driver on the road… you. 

This is especially true for people you look up to. It’s easy to compare yourself–especially in media–to others who may seem more visible (more press mentions), more influential (more followers), more “successful” than you. Resist the urge to veer off your path chasing someone else, whose destination you do not know.

Be the center that guides your trajectory. Shine brightly enough from within and your path will become clearly illuminated ahead of you. And when that happens, follow it.

Follow it even though it feels endless and like you’re headed nowhere. Follow it when you’re the only one on that road and you see no other cars next to you. Follow it when the voices in your head tell you that it’s time to give up, admit that you’re wrong and turn around. Don’t turn around. Follow it, and one day you will arrive at your very own version of paradise.

I have spent years navigating awkward relationships with my parents, who couldn’t understand why I would invest so much time and energy into something that wasn’t helping me pay my bills. There were times when I went weeks with just eating ramen noodles because I couldn’t afford to go grocery shopping. I worked jobs I hated, took gigs that paid me a fraction of what I was worth. I doubted myself whenever a classmate, or a close friend got a promotion, bought a new car, or took an expensive vacation; whenever my straight friends would ask me why I write so much about LGBT issues all the time, “Isn’t it pigeon-holing you?”

I would ask myself over and over again each morning, “What are you doing?” But what’s most important is that I could always answer, “I’m doing what I love. And I’m doing it as me.” When you are down in the trenches of your own epic movie, and there’s no one to look to for inspiration (for fear of jealousy, envy, or that they’ll see that you’re not quite so sure of yourself), all you have is your own voice. Make sure it’s always honest. Make sure it’s always true to you. Listen to it. Lead with it. And you’ll make it, not the right way, but your way, and find all the love, fulfillment, and pride you were denied in your journey, waiting for you at your destination.

I haven’t “made it”. But I’m proud to say that the gains I have made came with authenticity and integrity; all of me. I’m relieved to know that I will never have to fragment myself to fit into anyone else’s narrow lane, because from the very beginning, I promised to find my own way. I wish for so many of you, the same exact thrill.

Safe journey.

Now, because I do feel strongly about giving out practical advice, I’d also like to share some grounding principles I’ve acquired and tweaked during my “career” that have helped me gain the visibility and influence I do have in my own lane. Check them out via the post “Social Media for Social Change: 10 Tips from a Queer African Media Activist“. I hope you find them useful.

But hey, before you go, leave a comment so I know you’re listening, or relate. It’s always good to know that I’m not the only crazy driver trying to find my way off the main road. :) 

Black Lesbian Self-Love Now Comes in a Bottle: HONEY & GOLD Elixir

Early this morning, I received a message from Jasmine Burems, a Black lesbian organic herbalist, who specializes in women’s wellness.

She congratulated me on the success of my Africans for Africa campaign, and was hoping I’d lend support to her own project on IndieGoGo. Honestly, I receive so many requests like this, and can’t always respond to them all. But there was something that intrigued me about Jasmine’s message.

After Jasmine introduced herself as a lesbian entrepreneur (win!), she proceeded to let me know about her mission to bottle and mass produce the first EVER organic women’s wellness beverage:

HONEY & GOLD Signature Elixir, a ready-to-drink, organic, gluten free, GMO-free women’s wellness, pleasure and beauty tonic.

Let me repeat: HONEY & GOLD Signature Elixir, Pleasure and Beauty Tonic. 

I don’t know about you all, but  I want to drink whatever claims to be a Pleasure and Beauty tonic! Lots of it! Check out the titillating description below:

HONEY & GOLD Signature Elixir is made from a unique combination of sustainably grown herbs, rich raw honey and shimmering edible gold. Signature Elixir is a sincere prayer for deep nourishment, a nutritious and luxurious women-specific health-drink providing lots of nutrients.

Some of my favorite women-specific benefits of the Elixir include:

  • Tones muscles of the pelvic region including the uterus (I imagine this would contribute to ease of childbirth…)
  • Supports healthy, relaxed, pleasurable flow of energy (As an activist, self-care and relaxation need to be intentional or they simply won’t happen)
  • Supports maintenance of balanced vaginal flora (I have no idea what this means but it makes me feel like one of the ‘soaring-in-slow-motion’ women in those tampon commercials)
  • Synergistic formula for womb, heart and third eye. (Mmmm, deeper intuition, community connection. YES please!)

If you can’t tell, already. I’m sold on this Elixir. So, I’m hoping the LBTQ women’s community–everyone, in fact!–bands together to make this campaign a success, so Jasmine can design and brand this self-love potion in the best imaginable way; not just so that she can sell it, but so that she can help more women who are in desperate need of more intentional self-care.

Photo Credit: Latino Health Zone

Incidentally, over the past 3 months in South Africa, I’ve met and interviewed queer African women activists, artists, and scholars from all walks of life about their work and mental health.

Across the board, women feel the tension between sustaining their communities and sustaining themselves, but are finding it hard to make the connection that our self-love is absolutely necessary, not just for our us, but for our communities that we care so much about.

Jasmine’s observations about women and their constant battle with self-care have been similar to mine:

When I began doing healing work I realized that many women take care of everyone else before taking care of themselves. They feel there’s not enough time, or they don’t know exactly how…sometimes, we just aren’t inspired to take a small step to affect positive change.

This is spot on. It’s not that many women aren’t sold on the idea of self-care, it’s that they find it hard to make self-care a priority, and thus, struggle to justify investing the time (or money) necessary to care for themselves.

But here’s why I think Jasmine is brilliant. She’s found a way to sell self-care as a balance between priority, luxury, and convenience.

Photo Credit: Salon

If I saw a bright, shiny, HONEY & GOLD bottle with the words Elixir, Self-Love, and Potion on it, I’m pretty sure I’d be moved to take a number of steps: purchase a few bottles, a few unscented candles, then head home to a wonderful evening of relaxation on my couch with some indie soul music playing in the background and incense burning in the air. And even if I had to skip the evening on the couch, I could still drink it on-the-go.

That’s just me, though. Love is My Revolution, after all. But what about you?

Jasmine’s campaign has over 40 days to go. On my traveler activist budget, I won’t be able to contribute monetarily, but it would make my day if at least 10 people that read this post, checked out her page, and confirmed that it would be a great idea to contribute to her campaign. What do you say? Will you be one of the ten? :)

Backers of the campaign to mass produce HONEY & GOLD will be well-rewarded; Jasmine is offering very exciting “Thank You” goodies, including a bottle of the HONEY& GOLD Elixir (or an entire case!), a 30-day supply of herbal tea cones and other self-care rituals and recipes, and (oh, I’m so jealous of this) an opportunity to host a self-love workshop filled with herbal remedy and holistic health self-care lessons for a group of friends! (Someone please invite me if your contribution earns this perq!).

Photo Credit: My Self Love Life

In all honesty, after years of practicing self-care, I’ve realized that it’s quite common to meet so-called health coaches who love to claim it as a lifestyle, a cute “alternative” to put on a business card.

Let’s face it, in some circles, self-care has become an individualistic (opportunistic) indie fad. This is frustrating, because the fad-iness chips away at the credibility of real holistic health care practitioners, and nulls the idea that self-care is a viable path to better health, and better lives for everyone.

Nevertheless, if more women embraced self-care, really embraced it, and practiced it, as a way of healing and sustaining our minds, bodies, and spirits, every single day (at least as often as we brush our teeth), we’d all be so much happier. 

This is why when I meet someone whose commitment to the idea that love is revolutionary isn’t just evident in their words, but shines through in their work, and who’s willing to take huge risks (starting a social venture is no joke) just for the hope of sharing it— I tip my hat, and I do whatever i can to support them. And dear reader, I hope you will, too.

Jasmine is a practicing doula and herbalist. She teaches a range of workshops that integrate holistic health principles, ancient wisdom, organic and sustainable herbalism, meditation, movement, sacred sense therapies for women, and more. She’s an inspiring queer woman of color whose work is all about uplifting other women of color. Hence, I encourage you, this one time, read something, then do something. Make a contribution to her campaign. We’d all be better for it.

Check out her campaign video below:

Thank you, Jasmine, for the breath of fresh air your idea will bring to all our lives. I hope your campaign is a huge success. I can’t wait to purchase my first bottle!

Finding Common Ground (Part 1): Why Aren’t More Activists Collaborating?

Based on how often marginalized people talk about the power of “community”, especially within the realm of grassroots activism, one would imagine the non-profit industry would have evolved into a flourishing ecosystem of recyclable free-flowing skills, bartered services, and shared progressive ideas by now.

Yet, when you think about how many grassroots groups and non-profit organizations are working on the same exact issues and, unfortunately, due to this overcrowding, are often fighting each for resources in an unhealthily competitive manner (e.g. hoarding funding opportunities, barring access to resources, guarding intellectual capital, etc.) it’s easy to conclude that, often enough, this is not the case.

Let me put this in context: there is a funding crisis, everywhere; not just in the US or in the UK, or even in Africa, but globally.

In the U.S., the financial crisis didn’t just negatively impact the wall street suits, or even the industrial blue-collars, but the many grantmaking foundations that have provided the steady source of funding to non-profits for years. As a result of Wall Street’s snafu, a number of foundations have needed to significantly reduce the size of their grants; a few of the larger ones have even merged. As I’m quickly learning via my ongoing Southern Africa social media project, the effect of this can be felt all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, too. Downes Murray International, an African fundraising consulting firm writes:

“While some major Western donors to Africa, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, plan to maintain or increase their giving, many are scaling back their efforts in Africa in order to concentrate shrinking resources on projects closer to home.”

Here in South Africa, in an attempt to slow down the funding drain, governments have significantly cut back subsidies for critical social services, beefed up funding requirements and tightened up monitoring and evaluation practices, creating a domino effect of non-profits cutting back on most of their programming, or shutting down completely.

Even outside the non-profit industrial complex, grassroots groups are feeling the pinch of the financial crisis. In a recent online fundraising workshop I hosted, an attendee complained about being inundated with messages from “too many smaller, community groups all asking for support for the same issue.”

The harsh reality is that under the current economic conditions, many not-for-profit organizations have just two choices: adapt or die.

After years of dependency on government aid and foundation grants, non-profits are being forced to operate more like businesses (e.g. diversify their revenue streams, reduce overhead while increasing output etc) just to keep their heads above water.

Ironically, non-profit professionals may have to adopt a few strategies from the same “capitalists” in the corporate sector they once characterized as greedy and selfish for their unwavering focus on profitability and expansion. Yet, if this means, sustainability and wider reach for organizations striving for long-term social impact, could this shift towards running more like a business be such a bad thing?

Due to the funding crisis, complete dependency on charity, government, and in the case of Africa, foreign aid, is no longer an option. And, quite frankly, the non-profit industry could do with a good dose of the kind of survivalist creativity that’s prevalent in the corporate sector, such as collaborating with other players to pool resources, using strategic partnerships with similar organizations to strengthen service offerings, or even merging to widen their reach (or prevent closing up shop completely).

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that activists and non-profits should only ever consider collaboration as simply a tactic to navigate financial crises; organizations, especially the ones working with communities that are particularly marginalized, constantly under-resourced, and over-looked for more traditional forms of support, should already be working together, not just to save money, but for the sake of furthering their collective missions.

We have a moral obligation as people who are working towards social justice, to always choose the path that maximizes our social impact and/or increases our sustainability, regardless of what the economy is doing.

So, again, why aren’t more non-profits collaborating? What have we got to lose by working together? Why isn’t collaboration not happening as frequently as we suggest it should, especially when we have so much to gain? I hope to explore some of these questions in part two of this series.

Got an opinion on that? Why do you think we have so many activists, non-profits, and social impact initiatives doing similar work, yet not working together? Ego? Time and resources? Lack of awareness? Are you an individual activist doing social justice work? What has kept you (or turned you off) from collaborating in the past? What do you see as the “cons” for collaborating (as there are certainly a few). Note: This is a no judgment zone. Please share freely, as the conversation around collaboration is important for us to have if we are to move forward.

[VIDEO] Africans for Africa Update: A Day at The Ibhabhathane Community Centre

This post is part of my Africans for Africa project updates: I’m traveling through Southern Africa for 6-months offering free social media, online fundraising, and organizational development strategy workshops to African women, LGBTI, and youth grassroots groups. I publish stories, reflections, lessons learned, and interviews from along the way.

Never Doubt a Small Group of Dedicated Women…

I recently visited the Ibhabhathane Community Centre, the only pre-school available in Rieebeck East, a small farm village with a population of about 700 people. Needless to say, providing good quality education (much less early childhood development) is a challenge. But a small group of dedicated women are making a difference.

An elderly black South African woman (she’s serving food in an apron in the video) reached out to Yolande, a white afrikaans woman, then a new resident to the small town, asking for her assistance in setting up a small center to care for toddlers; many of the young children were left idle / unattended, without sufficient social stimulation, and were growing up with developmental challenges, further impeding their success at the local primary school.

Yolande, a teacher by training, worked with the local community to open the first creche (pre-school) in an abandoned wooden shack. A few local women volunteer to teach and play with the children every day in their native language, Xhosa. And, over time, they remodeled the shack into a warmer, more colorful space. The roof needs to be fixed, and the floor needs to be re-tiled, so fundraising is top priority for them as they hope to grow and implement higher quality programming (in a more conducive environment) for their children.

A few of their goals include building a comprehensive library of children’s books, acquiring funding for more teachers, and a bigger space so they can take in more children, who, without the centre, would remain idle in the village, as the unemployment (and alcoholism) rate is very high.

Rieebeck East, My New Favorite Getaway

During my visit, I stayed with Yolande, the project leader, and her husband, Marc (a talented visual artist and photographer) in their charming Bohemian style mud house, located just outside the township. The interior was painted aqua blue, and they had beautiful art they’d collected from over the years hanging on the walls. Yolande, who comes from a family of mosaicists, has tiled the counter tops, floors, and walls in a simple, yet accentuating masonry of pastel yellow, silver, grey, and black tiles and pebble stones.

On the night I arrived, they happened to be entertaining friends from  out of town, so we all built a fire for a brai (South African barbequeue), and spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and conversing passionately about the arts, apartheid, and the media’s spin on the murder of 36 protesting mine workers. Nothing like spending an evening outdoors, by a fire among fellow artivists; it was the most fun I’d had in several weeks.

My remaining two days there were a lot quieter, a much-needed oasis of nature, peace, and serenity, especially after spending nearly three weeks in the cold city of Cape Town. I woke up each morning to the sound of their fives dogs, three cats, and a whole lot of chickens, then watched the sun ascend from the horizon (which one can see for miles and miles around), as I sipped Rooibos tea. The landscape was breathtaking, and the warmth with which I was tended to, moving. It reminded me that as a traveler, there’s only one way to find home away from home; don’t search for it whole; find snippets, bits & pieces wrapped in small acts of kindness.

When I left, I felt refreshed, rejuvenated, and with two new friends whom I can’t wait to visit again. Maybe next year.

A Bit of Kindness, Returned

Ibhabhathane Community Centre is currently trying to raise about R8000 (~$1000) to get high speed internet installed. Currently, there is no connection in the very small town, and Yolande needs to drive about 45K up a dirt road to the nearest university to use the internet (her mobile data modem is much too slow for anything more than checking email). Getting the infrastructure installed will make it easier for her to improve communications with potential donors (and the outside world in general), and also, increase Ibhabhathane’s social media engagement, which they’d like to use for fundraising.

I made this video for them because I was moved by how much they’ve accomplished with so little, and also, how kind everyone was to me, a total stranger, just passing through. I’ve visited about 20 NGOs since I arrived in South Africa in July, and this is the one with the idea — and the people — that have touched me the most.

So, here’s the short video I made — a snapshot of “A Day at the Ibhabhathane Community Centre”. I hope you enjoy it, and consider supporting them as well. You can donate to their project here.


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