Two friends turned their “eureka moment” into a full-fledged organization – and kept local voices at the center of their work.
After studying African History in college, Caitlin Kelley went to Moshi, Tanzania to volunteer at a women’s group project. It wasn’t long after she arrived that Caitlin grew frustrated. “I saw that, often, former volunteers had started projects or injected some idea that was really well-intentioned but misguided because of a lack of education about what was culturally appropriate,” she says.
One night as she and her friend Jafari Msaki talked about the value of volunteering, Caitlin had a lightbulb moment: a service corps organization (something like AmeriCorps in the U.S.) that would give Tanzanians workplace the skills and contacts they needed to get jobs and, ultimately, ensure they were in control of the development process themselves.
That’s the core philosophy of Africa Volunteer Corps (AVC), now a full-fledged organization co-directed by Caitlin and Jafari, which connects local volunteers to local NGOs.
Caitlin’s first step was to find out how to start an NGO in Tanzania. After one of Jafari’s friends laid out the steps one by one, they got to work over the next few years to make the idea a reality. Along the way, Caitlin encountered a few obstacles:
Obstacle: Lack of skills and/or knowledge.
Her solution: Ask for help, and listen.
She asked anyone who had experience with the Peace Corps, United Nations, nonprofits, etc. for advice, and took advantage of all the resources Foundation Center had to offer. She and Jafari worked with other local friends to assemble a team to articulate what they were trying to do. While the path did get muddled from all her research, Caitlin made sure the next steps were locally-driven. AVC’s current advisory board, made up of six Tanzanians and three Americans, reflects this emphasis on local knowledge.
Obstacle: Cultural differences.
Her solution: Stay humble. And learn the local language.
“Listening and asking questions and operating with humility (in other words, not assuming that my way of doing things was always the best way) were also completely vital,” says Caitlin. She also realized that speaking Swahili was the key to everything. It allowed her to speak to people on their own terms, and made it easier to understand the various cultural nuances. (Knowing that it was considered rude to gesticulate too much in professional contexts, for example, helped her navigate meetings.) This skill now helps her translate volunteer stories to post on the AVC blog.
Obstacle: People who lacked faith in her leadership ability.
Her solution: Ignore them.
Folks outside Tanzania were constantly doubting that she could get this organization up and running. Not wanting to get stuck in the huge international NGO system, Caitlin stayed true to her entrepreneurial spirit and trusted the voice in her head that told her she could figure it out. Her persistence paid off: the first group of volunteers from across Tanzania recently started their year-long stint with organizations in the Kilimanjaro region.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of advice on best practices for nonprofits or social media strategy, but to me, that stuff will work itself out,” Caitlin says. “A lot of it is making yourself the best version of yourself: being the most natural and authentic and genuine and kind and loving and vulnerable person. That’s the kind of person people follow.”
So how does she think you can achieve your big idea?
- Trust your instincts.
- Be confident in your abilities.
- Never stop asking questions.
- Embrace fear.
“Moving outside your comfort zone is when the magic happens. Love the fear,” she says. “If you have the feeling that you’re jumping out of an airplane, that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
Have an idea for a similar project and need some help? Don’t hesitate to email Caitlin for advice: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did someone you know find a sensitive, savvy way to turn an idea into reality? Leave a comment to share the story.