Moving Beyond The Numbers: Redefining Success

Jacob Lief

Founder and CEO
Ubuntu Education Fund
Central Park unfolds through the bay windows of a Park Avenue penthouse office, where a well-meaning executive leans over his desk and asks earnestly, “How many kids can I get for $10,000?”

“One. Maybe two,” I reply tongue-in-cheek.

“That’s it?”

This surreal conversation typifies my fundraising experiences for Ubuntu Education Fund, the organization that I founded in 1999. It’s Africa after all, and we have heard it all before, right? You can save a child for a dollar a day. But, if all it takes is $365 dollars to “save” a child each year, then why haven’t we been able to use the $50 billion dollars in foreign aid that floods into the continent every year to lift 140 million children out of extreme poverty? Why is Sub-Saharan Africa the only region in the world where the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has increased over the past twenty years to 413.8 million?

At every conference that I attend, I listen to policymakers and philanthropists spend hours discussing the challenges of poverty only to come to the same conclusion—something is not working. What that something is, is heavily debated. More aid, less aid, foreign direct investment, structural adjustments, debt forgiveness…and the list of magic bullets goes on. Yet these “solutions” all operate within the framework of the same, tired strategies. If we really want to help countries lift their citizens out of poverty, we have to re-conceptualize status quo development models.

We have to change everything.

In 1999, I made a seemingly inconsequential decision to abandon a Cape Town internship and hop on a train to Port Elizabeth. There, I met Malizole “Banks” Gwaxula, a South African teacher in the city’s townships. For the next six months, I lived with Banks and worked in his school. We watched as nonprofits flooded into South Africa after apartheid ended. I saw excited children receive new computers that teachers would lock away to collect dust weeks later. I also witnessed an organization distributing cups of soup to students and when the nonprofit left, like countless other projects did when their grant cycles ended, the children in the community were left just as hungry.

When we founded Ubuntu Education Fund in 1999, Banks and I were determined to be different. We wanted to give orphaned and vulnerable children what all children deserve—everything. We wanted to commit to Port Elizabeth’s townships long-term. But in the beginning, we were like every other nonprofit, fixated on a number. 40,000. We believed that funding, legitimacy, and recognition could only come from work on that scale. All of our programs were outreach-oriented. We built libraries and computer labs, distributed condoms, and taught HIV prevention courses in clinics.

But as the months passed, I watched students with new textbooks fall behind academically, too hungry to focus on their studies. I met grandmothers who couldn’t provide for the orphans they were left to care for when their own children died from HIV/AIDS. During those first years, I never experienced an “aha” moment; rather, Banks and I slowly realized that our initiatives were only addressing facets of poverty.

The Ubuntu Model grew from this realization—that 40,000 was the wrong number, wrong idea, and wrong measurement. Focusing on outputs and employing a narrow definition of scale oversimplified the complexity of poverty in South Africa’s townships. Distributing 1,000 cups of soup will help hungry children, but this strategy will never fully address a household’s pervasive food insecurity. We have to realize that raising children and helping families access upward social mobility isn’t scalable. And it cannot be done in a twelve-month grant cycle.

We shouldn’t just re-humanize development, because it is ethically the right thing to do. We should re-humanize development, because it is the smart thing to do.

Think, for a moment, about everything it took to get you where you are today. Think about all the textbooks, classes, tutors, soccer games, music lessons, and doctors’ visits. Think about all the love and support you received from your family, friends, and teachers. Now think about how your experience was unique and inherently different from that of a friend or sibling. Parenting is individualized and responsive—what works for you may not have worked for someone else.

The challenges that people living in abject poverty face are equally unique and arguably more complicated than our own. Some parents must choose between buying their children’s textbooks and feeding their families while others may have children who are too sick to focus on their studies. Some students struggle with reading, while their peers who can easily memorize vocabulary, experience recurring psychological abuse at home. There is no single, proven theory that can be replicated across all contexts. Instead, there is only an understanding of the reality that all children have different, equally important needs.

Operating at society’s most basic unit, the family, Ubuntu commits to children long-term. Our model’s guiding tenets—impact through sustained investment, cradle to career individualized care, community-based partnerships, and a commitment to staff development—allow us to provide township children with everything our parents tried to give us.

It’s working. An independent study found that Ubuntu students are now more than twice as likely to graduate from high school as their peers and, for every $1 that we invest in them, they will earn $8.70 in real earnings over the course of their lives.

This past year, I sat with Lwando Nteya, one of our first students. He was just 11 years old when he lost both of his parents to HIV/AIDS. Living in a shack by himself, Lwando embodied every statistic that comes to mind when we think of an African child living in abject poverty. Yet, more than a decade later, he is a graduate of the University of Cape Town. Lwando embodies what success means to Ubuntu. It’s not about how to reach more children for less money; it’s about transforming lives. When you frame development in this perspective, “getting” just one child for $10,000 no longer seems so shocking or so unrealistic.

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