Tomorrow will mark my last day of work at Ikamva Labantu and I have to say that it has been a fantastic experience. When I headed into this internship, I had some reservations about the rigor of the work and how I was going to talk to it in interviews. I hoped I would be able to find the same job satisfaction I had felt working at an NGO previously but I couldn’t be sure. In both cases, my fears were unfounded. The work itself was deeply satisfying, especially the personal connections we developed with the people in the organization and townships. We were lucky to walk into a situation with an NGO where the recently appointed CEO, Janine, came from a business background, primarily with SAB and Standard Bank. Jovana, our project manager, also had a keen eye for business and prepared a project that she knew would take on added dimensions as we did the work. Starting with a task to devise impact measures for a single sector, Holly & I wound up working in long strategy sessions with different sectors and uncovering a situation not unlike one that many businesses would face. Imagine a business unit that keeps hitting their numbers but you hear rumblings that something may be rotten (or even a whole company like Enron). After investigating, you find out they’ve been “cooking the books” and that while it is not completely rotten, it is, in fact, quite dysfunctional. This is what was happening at Ikamva.
What was most interesting to me about the situation is that everyone seemed to know exactly what the problems were. We conducted interviews with 20+ people and aside from the sector head, each person had a firm grasp on part of the problem. As it turned out we weren’t telling them anything they didn’t already know, yet, the organization had done nothing about it! After discussing this with the CEO I came to understand that often times that is the situation; people know what’s wrong but either they can’t do anything about it or they need someone with credentials to come in and back them up. That’s one service consultant’s can provide. I was astounded by this revelation. It’s not in my own personality to see something that is so clearly in need of improvement and just let it sit there so it’s hard for me to see how others do it. Yet I too have worked at companies where I think “how on earth can this place possibly still be in business?”. Often times it seems that companies succeed despite themselves while good companies die on the vine. Go figure.
So what else did I learn this summer? I found my business “soul” again and re-learned what it is I want to do when I “grow up”. That is probably the best take away for me. I also found out that I can, in fact, work as a consultant and be quite successful at it. That gives me great confidence going into the recruiting process. This summer I’ve spent time trying to work on “soft skills” like dealing with inter-personal issues with your working group. There were times this summer that Holly & I were frustrated with each other but by acknowledging the issues and visibly working on them, we ended up running as a well-oiled machine. I will never forget the meeting in which we seemed to be in perfect stride with each other, handing off conversations during a meeting in such a way that we might as well have been one person, one mind. That’s the sort of thing that really gets me fired up and I’m excited to be part of such teams in the future. I’ve also spent a lot of time absorbing the way people work and trying to bring skills I see in others into myself as a way of learning and growing.
I guess I got off on a bit of a tangent there and I should probably speak to what has been happening the last three weeks. After working up strategy options for the next 6 months, we wanted to sit down and a get a handle on who exactly the customers we had were and how bad of a shape they were in. It turned out the data just wasn’t available. Case files typically had entries from pre 2010 meaning they weren’t up to date or current in any way. We found out that they were using 2 different systems to track people and between them there was probably an accurate picture but there was no way to construct it. In the end we decided that we had to start from scratch and audit all of the 292 households in the program. Seizing this as an opportunity to put some best-practices into action, Holly & I (but mostly Holly) put together a list of questions that were important because they indicated issues or could be used to set goals. From these questions, a list of data points was figured and then a survey form was constructed. Holly worked with her fiancé to put together an Excel database that would enable Ikamva to track the data as it came in and start creating action items from concrete data. To make sure the survey was complete, we beta-tested it on 5 people at an area forum meeting (more on that later). Preliminary results showed that we were on the right track. For example, in a household where both parents were HIV+, 5 children between the ages of 2 and 11 had not been tested! The in-office healthcare specialist was keen to get hold of this so he could get them tested right away. It felt good to know that we were having an immediate impact with our work. As a wrap-up, we worked out an action plan detailing the people that were needed, the systems needed, and the processes that would be required to make the audit a success. After presenting this to the CEO and program coordinator, we handed the work off to them. Happily, they were concrete about ensuring us that they would follow-through and see that it got done properly.
Wait, area forums…okay, quickly these are self-formed groups within the townships that practice self-governance and are supported by Ikamva through their trainer, Mama Connie. Each group goes through a basic training course, graduates in a ceremony (we got to watch one, lots of dancing per usual), and then decides what they want to learn and raise money to bring in people. So far they have been very successful (like many such women’s groups around the world) and we were very excited about finding a hidden gem in the OVC quagmire we waded into.
So there you have it, a 7 volume tale about a South African internship with an NGO that turned into one of the best working (and learning) experiences of my life. Having Notre Dame’s support and encouragement in finding and being successful in this internship makes it even better. I’m definitely excited to get back and see all of my friends and hear about how their wonderful internships experiences . If you have any questions please feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.