Roger and us – start-up lessons from our past
We got a wonderful letter out of the blue last week. The letter was from Alex Marthews, the executive director of Growth Through Learning, one of our very first Cause & Effect clients, and one we hadn’t heard from in the last 13 years.
“In 1997 a man named Roger Whiting came to you with a story about a Tanzanian woman named Alice Mnaku, who dreamed of going to college but could not afford it. Thanks to your sage advice, Roger went on to found Growth Through Learning. It is lessons he learned from Cause & Effect that has enabled us to become the successful non-profit we are today. This year alone, GTL granted 317 scholarships to bright girls from poor families in East Africa….”
Roger Whiting was a retired insurance man from Worcester, Massachusetts. With no background in international development or education, Roger devised a simple and direct response to Africa’s poverty that has, in the years since 1997, also proven to be profoundly life-changing for hundreds of young women. We were sad to learn that Roger passed away in May of this year. But we are pleased and proud to know that we played a part in setting Growth Through Learning on the path to success.
Just like business start-ups, new nonprofits face an uphill struggle for survival and growth — and with far less access to start-up investment capital. Only yesterday, Gayle and I met a whole roomful of passionate volunteers and staff at the New Roots Providence consultant fair, many of them seeking guidance in their start-up processes.
What might this new generation learn from a file we closed in 1997? We dug deep into Gayle’s hard drive and had a long talk with Alex Marthews to find out. Here are a few lessons in growth from Growth Through Learning:
1. Keep it simple. Growth Through Learning does one thing well: it pays fees at a few carefully selected secondary schools for girls from poor families in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The organization has generally avoided expanding the scope of its program or geographic area . With tremendous population growth predicted for all three program countries, running out of work is the least of GTL’s problems.
2. Tell real stories. Two stories really matter here. One is the story of an African girl whose life is transformed by education. The other is the story of an American whose own life is changed by compassion. Alice and Roger were the first characters in this story, but there have been hundreds of girls and donors since then. GTL staff or volunteers personally collect the story of every single girl during annual visits. This story is both familiar and totally new each time it is told.
3. Keep it personal. Roger’s generosity of spirit and his enthusiasm burned bright. By sharing his story face to face, starting from his personal network of friends, Roger patiently built a widening circle of loyal donors and board members that slowly but steadily enabled him to expand scholarships from just a handful of girls helped, to dozens, and now hundreds, every year.
4. Make your own luck. No one could have predicted two game-changing gifts that came to Growth Through Learning, including a $1 million bequest that has essentially solved the problem of paying GTL’s current very lean overhead. But we could easily predict that they would never have come about without Roger’s persistent effort at steps 1, 2 and 3 above.
Our thanks to Alex Marthews for taking the time to contact us and share those learnings and also for honoring Cause & Effect, with a link to the Growth Through Learning site. I’ll revisit what Alex shared about the uses of stories in a later posting.