Game-changing Leaders

Game-changing Leaders
Learning Brief

enke: Make Your Mark

Growing Up: How a youth-led organisation can transition from start-up to stability

Category: Game-changing Leaders | Youth leadership pathways | 23 July, 2013 - 18:00


enke: Make Your Mark was founded almost by chance in 2009 by three people all under the age of 26.  In the somewhat haphazard manner in which many organisations spring to life (for-profit as well as non-profit), enke was started in response to an opportunity without any expectation that it would exist beyond the initial project that was our starting point. 

As a grassroots youth development organisation, it was always very important for us to embody our vision of young people setting their own agenda and taking the lead.  However, we didn’t ever want being a “youth-run” organisation to be an excuse for unprofessional delivery of our programs.  As we enter our fifth year we finally feel like that is a reality at all levels of the organisation and so we face a new challenge: how do we keep our youthful culture without compromising on efficiency and excellence?

In essence, we have found ourselves shifting from a short-term focus, survival mode (just getting stuff done) to a long-term focus. This was a conscious decision and required a totally different approach.

What got you here won’t get you there

As an organisation enke has been incredibly fortunate from the start: we managed to come up with a vision that people wanted to get behind and support.  However, despite this initial success, as we grew there were certain practices and perspectives that we had to leave behind in order to progress to the next level.  Some of the things that enabled us to survive in the first two years were exactly what would hold us back if we were going to grow. 

From The new Kids on The Block to building a Proven Track Record

In our first two years we were able to position ourselves as new, fresh-faced and full of energy.  Nobody asked for evidence of impact, because it was clear that there wouldn’t be any yet.  It worked in our favour that as a youth-run organisation even the team didn’t have many credentials to support ourselves.  It was part of the charm. 

Now that we enter our fifth year we are investing more thought and energy into how we can prove our model.  We spent a lot of time in 2011 and 2012 on building a basic monitoring and evaluation system and experimenting with interesting research methods. This year our top priority is building a water-tight case for who we are, why we exist and the impact we are having.  We’ve proved that we have a great idea and staying power, now we need to prove that that idea is worth investing in to take it to scale.

From Low cost to the Real Cost

In the first two years enke was run with almost no resources.  We were staffed entirely by volunteers.  Our offices were whatever space we could find - from a garage to an unused office at a university, a Mugg and Bean coffee shop to offices donated by a board member.  However, that was never going to be sustainable in the long term - not least of which because we wouldn’t have been able to recruit and retain the type of talent we needed to realise the organisation’s vision. 

It was always our intention to become a “professional” organisation.  Not just scraping by year on year, but a sustainably funded social enterprise.  This meant things like paying real salaries, finding stable offices, and investing in financial audits.  Grown up things.  This meant that year on year, as we stopped hiding or externalising the real cost of what we were doing, the annual budget increased almost exponentially while the number of beneficiaries was only marginally increasing.  This meant getting better at finding funding and being unapologetic about the costs we incurred (while still negotiating hard wherever we could), and then delivering high quality “products” in return.

In 2013 we’ve deliberately chosen to be “top heavy” - investing in the organisational foundations - so that in 2014 we will be able to expand further and reach economies of scale.

From Flexible, fluid structure to a Focus on Efficiency

In 2011 it became apparent that we were going to need more manpower.  However we had almost no resources.  So we hired three interns with no real idea of what roles they would fill, people who would be able to just do what was needed of them.  We were lucky that our first team “got it” and threw themselves in the deep end.

By 2012, it was clear that this approach was causing burn-out and was highly inefficient (which I’m sure anyone with even a little experience could have told me).  While the fluid role definitions meant we were agile, it made for double ups and individuals found it hard to prioritise.  We quickly shifted to hiring for specific position descriptions which are regularly reviewed and refined to minimise inefficiencies. 

Interns are still a large part of the organisation, because feedback from each of our early hires was that the experience had been incredibly challenging - in a good way.  They were given real responsibility and, as we get better at people management, real support and opportunities to push themselves beyond what they thought they were capable.  This not only keeps our team representative of and relevant to the demographic we intend to serve, it is an extension of our mission.

The importance of culture

We are fiercely protective of our culture.  As enke shifts into this more structured version of itself, we are constantly aware of staying fun and youthful even as we introduce policies and procedures. 

A big part of this is the informal.  One of our signature practices is State of the Nation - impromptu, passionate debates on whichever current affairs the team are most struck by that day.  From Dr. Mamphela Ramphele’s involvement with the Steve Biko foundation to Beyonce’s representation in the media. 

One of the structural ways we are reinforcing our culture is by giving alumni a clear path to stay involved with the organisation, with ever increasing responsibility.  This is what we call the “cyclic structure”.  Since the first year we had a vision of the day when our alumni would be the ones running the show.  2012 was the first year it happened, with alumni becoming part of the team that delivered the forum as facilitators, passing on their experience to the next crop of participants.  In 2013 we will have 80% of our 20 top tier implementers, our “Presenters”, who have been part of the program before.  The next stage is to have former youth award participants form part of the core staff team.   This not only keeps reinforcing the culture, it is also a good indicator for how relevant we are to our alumni.

Transferring the Learning

As an organisation grows it’s easy to think that your practices are the reason why you are successful.  Nevertheless, the difficult task of identifying the false beliefs amongst the true is what enables an organisation to make a shift into the next phase of its own growth cycle.  We are in the middle of that process at the moment.  For example, for the longest time I believed that we were successful at fundraising because of the amazing proposals we wrote. I now realise we were successful despite our written proposals. 

enke’s lessons are relevant for any organisation that finds itself in a period of change - and we will have to revisit all of them again as we transition into whatever our next phase is.  However, our lessons are particularly relevant for youth-run organisations.  The reason for this is because youth-run organisations, by definition, are less likely to have experience within their own team to recognise what is needed when their organisation transitions.  In addition, transitions in youth-run organisations are more frequent because during our younger years we are more likely to be in periods of transition as individuals. 

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In Short

Enke Make your Mark offers some valuable lessons for any youth up-start organisation that finds itself in a period of structural change and growth. This short, easy to read learning brief gives advice on managing organisational partnerships, creating formal structures, ensuring sound leadership, staying relevant to young people, and maintaining professionalism. 

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