Strengthening Partnerships Through Personal Connections

Aili at the MACOBAO office One of the most important parts of my job is visiting our grantee-partners. I sit in an office in California most days. I communicate with our partners on email and occasionally by phone. I read their reports and proposals each year. However, when I arrive at their office, I usually find that what I had been reading provides a sliver of the big picture.

So, with that said, I invite you to come on a site visit with me! We’ll go to Masvingo Community Based HIV and Vulnerable Children Organization (MACOBAO) in Zimbabwe. I’ll tell you what we did and why we did it.

My first visit to MACOBAO was in February 2010, about a year and half before this particular visit.  During the first visit, I saw a group that was really under pressure. They had a small staff, mostly volunteers, that were stretched thin. It seemed like the community had high material expectations from MACOBAO that, with their small budget, they would be unable to fulfill. I was concerned about the future direction and sustainability of the group.

When I communicated these concerns to MACOBAO, I also set up a mentoring relationship between MACOBAO and our Zimbabwean program consultant, Tomaida Banda. She visited the group several times over the year and provided training to the board and staff. When I arrived for a visit a year and a half later, I saw a group that was clearly strengthened.

The first thing I did was meet with the staff in their small office at the back of a doctor’s surgery practice. They are still a small group, but it was good to see some familiar faces and meet a few new people. Connecting with key staff and volunteers is important in our work. Then when I return to Santa Cruz, I know whom I’m writing to and they know me. We understand each other’s strengths and what draws us to this work. A personal connection deepens our partnership.

After a brief office stop, we headed out to visit the communities in which MACOBAO is working. We visited a local school, teaching children in classrooms that have been condemned by the Department of Education. With Firelight funds, MACOBAO made a grant to the school in the form of cement, in exchange for the school waiving fees for 23 out-of-school children in the area. The school parents committee used the cement to mold bricks and did most of the labor themselves. The new school now looks very solid. What is good about MACOBAO’s approach here is that they did not build the building or supply all the inputs. Therefore, the school committee rightly takes credit for accomplishing the building of the school.

We then visited a community garden that was green and flourishing. This group had started working together in 2006, before they knew MACOBAO. MACOBAO was able to provide fencing material, resulting in higher yields. The garden is supporting 26 families who are caring for 75 orphans and vulnerable children. MACOBAO has supported six such community gardens.

Our last stop was a school where MACOBAO has been supporting a Young People We Care club. They’ve provided school stationery to the students and also supported the club to learn sustainable agriculture and live fencing, tree planting, and gave the group four chickens. Those four chickens have now multiplied to 25. The agricultural activities have allowed the school to truly support the YPWC club and therefore, the most vulnerable students. MACOBAO, again, has found a way to be a catalyst and a resource, ensuring that support for vulnerable children is not dependent on their involvement.

We concluded the visit by returning to MACOBAO’s office. There, we reviewed MACOBAO’s financial management system, much improved after Tomaida’s work with the group. I also had time to meet with a member of their board and share my impressions of the visit. I initiated a frank discussion with MACOBAO about their development as an organization and their future direction. We ask our partners to be open with us about their strengths, as well as areas they want to grow. Without that open dialogue, we can’t provide the right kind of support to assist them in achieving that growth.

Firelight partners with organizations for seven years as they grow, develop, and strengthen. We started funding MACOBAO in 2008, which means we expect to conclude financial support in 2014. Early on, we started talking about how they are preparing for the conclusion of Firelight’s financial support. They have since been relentlessly fundraising and have had good success in the last year, attracting three new donors.

Firelight is not in the business of aiming for short-term results. Our goal is to work with organizations that are becoming bastions for child wellbeing in the community for this generation, and the next. To do this, organizations must have a strong base of community support, contributions, and leadership. Visiting organizations helps me to better understand the dynamic between the organization and the community.

I hope you enjoyed this visit to MACOBAO. Be sure to look them up the next time you are in Zimbabwe. I think you will find an organization striving to support community-based initiatives that take care of the most vulnerable children.

Photos from Aili's visit to Zimbabwe are available on Firelight's Facebook page.