No binders necessary

By Katherine Zavala and Rajasvini Bhansali

“Here they are,” her energy frantic as we arrived and sat down in the room she had prepared for our visit.

Before us were 12 large binders, stacked upon the table before us.

“Prudence, what are all these?” we wondered aloud sheepishly, this being the first time we were visiting her office.

“Don’t you want to see these?” she said.

“What are they?” we asked again.

“The records from our activities, the participant sign-in’s, the home visits,” she seemed surprised.

This was our first visit to Positive Women’s Network (PWN) in Johannesburg. What we had heard from colleagues back in San Francisco was that it was difficult to communicate with Prudence. But clearly, documentation inside the organization was not a problem.

“We are here because we want to get to know you, to learn about PWN’s work,” we replied. “We don’t need to check these binders.”

“Oh,” Prudence said, somewhat taken aback. “Donors always want to see them.”

We were there as donors indeed, but we were not there as auditors.

We were also not in a hurry, coming in and out on a half day site visit. We explained again (as we had in correspondence prior) that we were there to understand and support the organization’s work. “Policing” wasn’t part of our agenda.

Eventually, she believed us, after the fatigue of servicing so many international donors subsided, and as the trust was built with us over the next two days.

Here is an excerpt from our site visit report from 7 April 2009:

Today we went out to visit support group members and PWN’s work in the township of Wattville, an hour away from central Johannesburg. Currently in Wattville there are 100-150 families that belong to PWN, making it the largest support group. Prudence grew up several years [of her childhood] in Wattville. Her grandmother’s older sister’s family still lives there (nephew and cousin). As we entered the township, Prudence showed us the school she went to and the corner where she used to sell vegetables.

Meeting family members and sharing childhood memories – this is how relationships get built. In that time with Prudence, we also got to see her magic in action, working with the community. We joined a church youth group that PWN supported that was in session, where the kids were having conversations about the realities of their lives in the face of HIV. Topics went from “What you think about guys having multiple girlfriends?” to “Do you know how to prevent yourself from getting HIV?”

Thousand Currents Regional Program Director, Katherine Zavala meeting with Prudence’s family in South Africa

Prudence got very excited when one of the young women asked if there was a female condom. Prudence had a sample in her bag and sprung out of her chair to give the kids an impromptu demonstration of how to use it. It was amazing to see Prudence clearly instructing the youth, step-by-step, how to use the female condom, all the while encouraging them to pass it around and touch and feel it – a lesson they would not soon forget.

Prudence shared more of her struggles as the head of an organization over meals and in car rides. It started with the stories she told of other funders’ visits, laughing while chiding the rude and offensive behavior of their staff. She talked of their obsession with quantitative indicators, of exact numbers of how many people were served. She talked of their misrepresentations to the community, raising expectations that PWN wasn’t always able to fulfill. She talked of one donor’s arrival into the townships with armed guards, an egregious display of mistrust, racism, and privilege she never allowed to happen again.

Prudence also revealed that the financial management of PWN was weighing heavily on her. In conversation, we came to find out that she had never before created an organizational budget for PWN.

“I’m just always managing all of the grant budgets,” she explained, and as a result, it was very hard to manage and anticipate organizational needs. This also left PWN very vulnerable if a donor were to pull out.

While she was entirely capable of doing this, she had never been supported to do so. Prudence founded PWN with her gifts of community organizing, public speaking, and fighting the good fight, not on budget development. So we sat with her on the 3rd day of our site visit and together, we created PWN’s first organizational budget. This experience ignited our commitment to creating Thousand Currents’ brand of “capacity building,” i.e. support that fulfills partner-identified needs to strengthen their organizations.

Today, Thousand Currents site visits continue to focus on relationship building and shared learning. We continue to make time to eat together, to listen to each other’s stories.

It’s the difference between a fly-by visitor and a true partner. We arrive to be fully present, to listen, and then collaborate to help you grow and develop over time.

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