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The Most Important People

Last week I attended a conference for international development organizations in Portland. As soon as I walked in, I heard someone speaking Swahili and I knew it was going to be an interesting day. I heard inspiring stories, learned about nonprofit best practices, and came away realizing that WSI exists because of amazing, awesome people.

There were representatives from the State Department, the Peace Corps, big charities like Mercy Corps, a lot of medium-sized entities, and a few small ones like WSI. These groups all had some presence in Portland and work around the world to improve climate, environmental issues, health, clean water, education, child care, and more. It was an inspiring room to be in.

At the end of the event, I thought about the challenges and “best practices” that I had heard. For example, many entities receive grants, which have reporting requirements and must be renewed each year, making it difficult for the organization to plan more than a year in advance. Speakers on this topic urged donors to have more trust and impose fewer restrictions on their funds: nothing ever goes according to plan, they said, so give the organization room to respond to unexpected events.

Another best practice that came up often was for organizations to develop strong “local” staff (meaning, in the country where the organization works). Local people have a better understanding of the problems to be solved, the best way to do it, and can communicate with the community better than well-meaning outsiders. Empowering these individuals requires investment and trust from the organization.

WSI stacks up well in both these areas. Thinking about this, I became very grateful for all the wonderful people that make WSI succeed: the donors and our Kenyan team. Our donors are extremely generous and trusting. They do not impose rigorous reporting requirements and are committed to seeing WSI succeed in the long run. Long-term vision is necessary when it takes nine years for a student to go from high school freshman to university graduate! Without them, none of this would be possible.

I am also very grateful for the Kenyan team members that do the actual work of communicating with students and their families, purchasing their school supplies, helping them through hard times, coordinating with school administrations, and more. Many organizations of all kinds struggle to recruit talented, committed, honest, and capable people, and we are extremely fortunate to have people with those skills on our team. Without them, none of this would be possible either.