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.

Growth Through Learning Letter “Dear Jonathan and Gayle,

“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.

7 responses to Roger and us – start-up lessons from our past

  1. Lori L. Jacobwith

    What a beautiful story! With some terrific, simple, powerful actions. I love that the legacy of your work got to be visible to you…often we do our work and move on and hope and imagine things are going well. What an amazing man Roger must have been. And how fortunate that he met you! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Roger Carr

    The “Keep It Simple” lesson is a good one. Focus on what the organization does best. I am in the middle of reading Nancy Lublin’s new book “Zilch.” She discusses this as a great thing too. Thanks for the story and the lessons learned.

  3. Gayle Gifford

    Often we do work that is just dharmic, in the sense of righteous duty. Most of our discussions with Roger were simply pro bono. We charged him an inconsequential amount for a few fundraising letters we edited for him. Apparently those letters and the principles they espoused helped him forge his future path.

  4. Sandy Rees

    Don’t you love it when people grab ahold of simple advice and ideas and do something life-changing with it! This is a great story. Thanks for sharing!

    Sandy Rees

  5. Sherry Truhlar

    Gayle, thanks for sharing the story and also for creating a tribute to Roger. I see dedicated volunteers and staff like him in non-profits everyday. These courageous individuals are sometimes overlooked for being strong enough to take a risk. Sounds like Roger was a leader that knew there were donors waiting to be tapped and he was willing to take your advice. When a non-profit is really focused on raising money they will make the necessary changes to their strategy. We all know change is hard. Many groups are uneasy about making changes – even proven changes. So what changes? Nothing. No changes … no bottom line difference. Roger was brave. Thanks for sharing his success story.

  6. Gayle Gifford

    Thanks Sherry. Roger personified the starfish fable… believing he could make a difference for some young women in East Africa, and that the difference, even small, matter to each one.

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