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From passion to impact: building your changemaker

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Osayi Alile

As a catalyst in the intersecting worlds of Nigerian business and philanthropic management, fundraising, sustainability, and international development for over twenty years, Osayi Alile is all about empowerment. Her deep passion for developing Africa’s human capacity has led her into many leadership and consultancy roles at notable national and international organisations where she has focused on creating ecosystems for innovation and organisations to thrive. And that’s exactly what ACT Foundation, a grant-making non-profit, has accomplished in the social sector with this Senior Fellow as Founder and CEO. Osayi’s insights into non-profit management and strategy, drawn from her considerable past and ongoing endeavours, formed the basis of a stimulating conversation between her and the NPLM Programme.

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Nigeria, like the rest of Africa, has seen a surge in indigenous philanthropic and charitable initiatives over the last decade.

Indeed, it has. We now have a burgeoning local non-profit sector that has, by necessity, become more structured; the Nigeria Network of NGOs, for instance, currently manages over 2,400-member organisations.

What does this mean for young people who want to turn their passion into impact? Does sector growth affect their ability to drive change?
Our sector is helping rewrite the Nigerian story by elevating our people through positive impact. Young people are central to generating this impact. The growth we are seeing, however, does pose a sizeable challenge for young founders brimming with passion but not experience we now have a packed stage with numerous organisations competing for a finite amount of resources. Visibility can be a struggle for start-ups.

How then can founders build a well-oiled machine that stands out from the crowd?
Where and how you invest your time and energy will determine how you differentiate your start-up. Focus on four areas: demonstrative leadership, recruitment, intrapreneurship, and culture.
Begin with the right mindset by developing a start-up strategy that lays out why, how, and where you will create impact. Define your mission, vision, objectives, and values to ensure that your intended work gives you purpose and fulfilment. You want to solve problems and do work that matters, but also work that reflects your values. Funding opportunities may sometimes be at odds with your values and purpose but allow your values and purpose to steer you right. There’ll always be opportunities.

Your values will form the basis of your demonstrative leadership. What’s the problem you’re solving?
What’s your vision? What do you aim to achieve? How will you accomplish your objectives? What attitudes do you need to thrive?

Strong core values provide a sense of purpose and direction. They help your team and stakeholders understand the vision you want them to buy into. They are the soul of your organisation.
Your leadership values inform your organisation’s values: both should be in sync. As Harvard Business Review columnist Patrick M. Lencioni put it, “if you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement.” In other words, you must as a founder embody your values. You can’t cherry-pick what you will abide by, otherwise, your organisation will become a mess of confusion and mistrust.

You have got to walk the walk.
Exactly. Nothing reveals who you are as a leader more than the values you live. Your actions as a founder express your organisation’s values and are what your team will interpret as the organisation’s culture. They will model their behaviour on those expressed values—not what your HR manual or a wall plaque says. Likewise, preaching innovation and “driving excellence” will fail to inspire your team if you’re a leader who’s closed to new ideas or has a “manage it like that” way of doing things. You must become a leader your people will want to follow. Your leadership must be both aspirational (as you look out and up towards achievement) and inspirational (as your team looks up to you).

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Your sincerity and consistency as a leader will inspire integrity and commitment; if team members can’t see any correlation between your professed values and your actions, they’re more likely to remain on the sidelines, but if you walk the walk, they will too.
You will also inspire trust and loyalty, the foundation of good working relationships. You want to go beyond mere compliance from your team. The embodiment of your values will cultivate in your team a willingness to work together, listen to one another, follow you, and support your vision.

You must, however, have a good team to lead.
You’ve hit on it. Strategic recruitment is vital to your organisation. Recruitment policies should consider the kind of staff you need, where they are, and how you can recruit them. Your operations budget should accommodate attracting competent and diverse candidates. These individuals are an investment in your start-up, as they will bring their unique skills, perspectives, and experiences, all of which will help the organisation make meaningful progress.

What considerations should guide the recruitment process?
First, factor the non-profit sector’s ongoing evolution into your recruitment goals and policies. Hire people who can advance your vision and keep your organisation relevant. Does the candidate have the potential to contribute to, grow with, and build a career in your organisation? Will they fit into the big picture?
Hire young people. Many of them check the above boxes and with proper mentorship, platforms, and support, our youth can have a positive transformative influence on our country’s development—and your organisation. I should know: 70% of ACT Foundation staff are millennials. Diversity and inclusivity are also important; the range of backgrounds and perspectives in a diverse workforce will increase creativity and help safeguard your organisation’s future.

Be clear in your job descriptions. Before you advertise for candidates, break down the responsibilities and duties of the role. Define exactly what you want the role to accomplish and provide details on the relevant unit and lines of reporting. Include employment details (e.g., full-time or part-time) and education, experience, and skills requirements.

What skills should recruiters prioritise?
Focus on soft skills like problem-solving, proactiveness, communication skills, time management, attitude, and team spirit. Soft skills demonstrate high emotional intelligence, which is especially important in an organisation navigating the non-profit space, as your organisation’s growth will rely on the new relationships that you and your team cultivate. Hiring people who are, for instance, tech-savvy but emotionally stunted could damage hard-earned external relationships and your organisation’s culture.

What is intrapreneurship?
Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot, who originated the concept, define intrapreneurs as “dreamers who do, those who take responsibility for creating innovation of any kind within a business.” An intrapreneur exhibits key traits of an entrepreneur: they’re self-motivated, proactive, action-oriented, risk-takers, and dreamers. As an entrepreneur, an intrapreneur takes risks to solve a given problem, but they do so within an organisation.

Can founders use intrapreneurship to build an effective team?
It’s your job to build a complementary and cohesive team of intrapreneurs: passionate and creative problem-solvers who execute the organisation’s mission. You’re in effect an entrepreneur, so approach your start-up as a business. Empower your team to think and act like entrepreneurs who contribute to innovation within the organisation. You can build that intrapreneurship mindset and ecosystem in five connected ways:

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Firstly, establish a shared vision. Your rallying point will be a clear understanding of the why: what drives your workers and does it align with the organisation’s mission and objectives? Figuring this out means engaging your staff on a personal level, which a less formal working environment will help facilitate. So go deeper and get to know the person—aspirations, family, interests. Being genuinely interested in your people will make them feel valued, and they’ll reciprocate by buying into the vision and bringing value to the organisation.

Next, encourage creativity. Develop your start-up as an ideas lab that finds opportunities through open innovation using existing resources, then shapes and refines them. Giving your team the time and space for their ideas to flow will inspire proactive innovation, so standardise the creative process by scheduling regular brainstorming sessions. Use these sessions to continuously improve and renew organisational strategies and increase the value of your services. Also, be ready to adapt your organisation’s structure to changing landscapes.

Identify problems and opportunities. Recognising pain points within your service delivery process creates paths for intrapreneurs to apply their creativity to mitigate issues. Always keep your goals and values as a point of reference during this process. Also, ensure you track worker performance by establishing metrics.

Emphasise individuality over conventionality. Non-profits attract individuals who have spurned the ordinary to do the extraordinary. They’re not inspired by uniformity, so allow team members to express their individuality, even in their physical spaces, to keep them motivated. Go further by creating a sense of ownership within your team. Make your team members feel like they have a stake in the organisation; it will drive them to work like the organisation’s successes are their successes and its failures are their failures.
Lastly, recognise innovation. Show appreciation for hard work and creativity. Team members who come up with great ideas should be recognised. Create a culture of encouragement by also celebrating small successes. This will give your people a greater sense of self-worth and make them more confident in their abilities. Their resulting belief in themselves and the organisation will motivate them to push harder to realise the organisation’s vision.

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What could stifle intrapreneurship?
Many things. Having an unclear mission, priorities, and objectives creates confusion and a lack of direction, which smothers intrapreneurship. Ideas without action are also dangerous, as they can create a culture of no follow-through.
Failing to explicitly sanction, promote, and encourage the proactive pursuit of opportunities, not providing management support or adequate time and resources, punishing risk-taking, new ideas, or mistakes—any of these can replace your passionate team members with drones more concerned with punching the clock than achieving the vision. Not rewarding risk-taking or improvement, unhealthy politics, poor communication, and organisational silos will create fissures in your structure.

Ignoring intrapreneurship comes at a cost: lower quality or ineffective service delivery, which means lost funding opportunities. Without correction, you may even lose your organisation.

On the role of culture, many organisations seem to make no deliberate effort to create an organisational culture.
Harvard Professor Emeritus Howard Stevenson once said, “Maintaining an effective culture is so important that it trumps strategy.” Culture helps direct your workplace by revealing priorities. It provides guidance when you have to make tough decisions. You create your organisation’s culture through its practices, processes, and most importantly, its people. How you present your services, how workers dress, the value the services you deliver—all of these are determined by organisational culture. A founder who doesn’t pay close attention to their organisation’s culture is at the helm of a floundering ship. It’s therefore incredibly important to deliberately create a working culture.

How does a founder do so?
First, use your values to answer foundational questions: what people do you need as team members? How should they interact with one other? How will the organisation relate to the community within which it operates? These questions keep every other activity in perspective; their answers should therefore be realistic, clear, and well-defined.

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As your organisation grows, so must your culture evolve. Maintain the sense of ownership and inclusion in your intrapreneurial organisation by growing your culture with the organisation and adjusting expectations as you grow.
Communicate the culture. Culture explains how things are done, so it must be clearly communicated. Your team should know what the culture is, why it matters, and how individual roles align with set objectives. For all team members to sing from the same hymn book, new recruits must learn the culture and team members who demonstrate the culture should be publicly recognised.

As you communicate the culture, create a culture of communication. Open dialogue builds trust. Spell out expectations and be transparent with organisational affairs. Keeping your team in the dark only makes them feel like outsiders who have no stake in the organisation. Publicly commend team members and condemn wrong behaviour. As you value the different views and opinions within your team, a culture of openness will encourage workers to freely learn, unlearn, and re-learn from one another.

Practice and reinforce the culture. Regular meetings, for instance, where the team can brainstorm ideas on improving services reinforce a culture of collaboration and diversity in perspectives. Social activities can be used as both team-building opportunities and culture reinforcement.

Lastly, set up a compliance team. It will be responsible for ensuring adherence at all levels and should, for accountability, report to top management.

Nurturing a non-profit start-up requires commitment and patience. However, through demonstrative leadership, recruitment, intrapreneurship, and culture, the outcome will be a robust structure, sustained growth, and improved engagement among team members. As a founder, don’t stop there, though—strive for continuous improvement and development. Even after you find success with your non-profit, constantly seek to improve on your successes and dare to do things differently.

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Osayi Alile
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