The Numbers Game -- Have We Really Forgotten How to Raise a Child?

Sustainability and scale. The development world in the past decade has emphasized these buzzwords above all others. How many computers, condoms, pills, or libraries can you distribute or build, across how many regions? How low can your costs be? All too often, the question that isn't asked is, "How well do you actually serve the people you are trying to reach?"

Twelve years ago, Banks Gwaxula and I founded Ubuntu Education Fund to bring world-class education and health services to children in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. We have grown beyond our wildest expectations. Yet we remain in the 3.5-kilometer radius we first established, home to 300,000 people, with no plans to expand beyond those borders. We are a working community institution, with no desire to turn into an empire.

Don't get me wrong; we have impressive numbers. We have over 2,000 abused and orphaned children on the pathway out of poverty. However, for us it's not about how many children we work with, but how deeply we affect each child. We are doing the simplest, most basic thing that people have always done in order to prosper: we are raising children. This means providing every meal every day. It means helping with homework and tutoring in math. It means reaching out to support grandmothers and uncles, so that when we send a child home, she is going to a stable home. It means going through exams, illnesses, adolescence, clothes shopping, counseling, and so much more. Raising a child is not always dramatic. It is painstaking, repetitious attention to detail, day after day.

This isn't a project that easily translates into the metrics-driven world of international NGOs. Sure we can play the game and quantify our work. But the reduction of our work to numbers often dehumanizes what it is we actually do.

Every day I am challenged by those who question our time-intensive and costly child- centered model: "Your strategy doesn't seem to be sustainable." At Ubuntu, we believe nothing is more sustainable than investing in a child day after day over his whole life. With our help, an entire family has the ability to look beyond mere survival to achieving success. The child we help raise from the cradle through college contributes in myriad positive ways to the community around her. A five-year-old girl isn't going to be capable of supporting herself by the time she's ten; but if she goes to college with our help, by the time she's thirty, she'll have a well-paying job. She'll be able to support her family and provide her children that stable environment we helped give her. True sustainability isn't a short-term proposition.

The next question we often hear is how we can justify our high overhead. Why do we pay our staff so much? This question overlooks the fact that our programming is indistinguishable from our staff; to maintain the highest quality, we need to be able to compete with the private sector. Our current CFO has turned down big jobs from the most prestigious auditing firms in Johannesburg.

We also recruit and train only from the communities in which we work, and believe that we need to look after the health and well-being of our employees in the same way that we look after the children we work with in our programs. The benefits are clear: we have a fantastic, hard-working staff that brings passion and care and commitment to every aspect of their interactions. Any fortune 400 CEO will tell you that to build a strong company you must invest in your employees. The non-profit sector must stop undermining itself and begin to invest in its own institutional capacity building.

For us, sustainability means developing a lasting organization bigger than those who started it. Scale is about depth, not surface area. At Ubuntu, we aren't trying to be radical and our innovation is simply that we are trying to implement a concept we all already know. We have a very simple goal, one that's familiar to anyone who has parented a child. Give that child the best you can. Provide her with health care, a stable home environment, school supplies, a quality education, and help her achieve as much as she can. No one is ever judged by how many children they have. All that matters is how well you raise the children you do have. That is the cornerstone of our work. It's simple because it's something we all want to do. It's radical only because very few organizations do this.