The objective of this story is to explain shortly the most important issues that should keep in mind when developing an outstanding and succesful eRiding organization. Instead of just telling what were the strengths and weaknesses of the first year of Ungana-Afrika I listed ten recommendations with real-life examples. The recommendations won't cover spesific eRiding issues but rather have more high-level approach how to manage the whole program.
The birth of Ungana-Afrika was quite different than the any other eRiding program had, which is good to understand when considering the recommendations. You will find a comprehensive self evaluation document from our web-site (www.ungana-afrika.org) which will give you a good understanding of our history.
1) You need time to be successful
Don't expect that six months is enough for everything. You need time for detailed planning, client and eRider selection, initial communications and especially for eRiding if you are going to provide the full service set from assessments and strategic planning to the actual implementation and training. 18 months would be perfect but one year is the minimum.
Note from the field: In the initial plan we had only six months for starting and implementing the eRiding from scratch without previous experience. This was our biggest limitation and caused several drawbacks that we are still facing including unhappy clients and cancelled country operation.
2) Set clear and measurable objectives
Objectives will give you clarity and direction for your efforts. It also helps you to evaluate your achievements but only if you use measurable criteria. Remember to be realistic but at the same time optimistic!
Here are some example objectives:
+ target number of clients (e.g. 10 clients per eRider)
+ target impact for an average client (based on your service set)
+ main goals for your organizational development (e.g. web-site, number of newsletters during the year, financial system, information database)
Note from the field: One of the first things we did was a clear plan for our organizational development. We also tried to set the target number of clients and impact for the client but without a clear understanding of eRiding consept and lack of case studies and lessons learned we failed to fully understand our possibilities. I wish we have had the eRider ToolKit with us when we were ironing our goals.
3) Take care of your customers
A client NGO is the reason for your existence. Develop a customer care process. Communicate, communicate and communicate. Make an agreement what are the services you will provide and GET the customer's committment by signing at least a Memorandum of Understanding. Follow-up regularly even if there is no urgent need. It is like in a restaurant where a waiter comes and asks from your party if everything is fine even without any indications from your side. You feel that the waiter truly cares about your wellfare.
Note from the field: Limited customer care was another big drawback we had during the pilot. We thought that email is appropriate way to communicate but in Africa you need to use the phone and fax. Our customers or even some of the partners didn't know how to open pdf-file or zip-folder. With only mutual agreements we found several disappointed customers because their expectations changed during our eRiding and they forgot the initial discussions. Without agreements some of the customers didn't committ to the eRiding process and were disappointed when eRiders didn't finish a job which was agreed to be under customers responsibility. Some of the customers were also afraid of contacting us when they had problems and we thought that everything is fine.
4) Don't be afraid of evaluations
Evaluate your work internally and externally. Evaluations are the best way for internal growth. Internal evaluation will open your eyes to a critical thinking. External evaluation will objectively show you some of the main challenges because you might have been blind for your own mistakes. Feedback from your clients will give you valuable informationbefore it is too late. Remember that you need clear objectives from the start to be able to evaluate your achievements successfully.
Note from the field: Even after our honest and comprehensive internal evaluation our donor wanted to evaluate our work after the six months pilot because of a complaint from our client. First we were a bit afraid that this will affect to our future but after a while we realized that this is the best way to face our challenges and develop our processes. The evaluation pointed out difficulties that we were not realized ourselves and gave us several valuable recommendations.
5) It's not only eRiding
Prepare to work hard and schedule time for laying the foundations of a new organization. Administration, marketing, finances, strategic development, partnerships, fundraising etc. will all take their time. The amount of administrative work might be more than you were prepared for.
Note from the field: It is easy to consentrate just for eRiding and forget organizational development, but we saw that for our own credibility and reputation it is important to develop finance policies, a brand, a long term strategy and a support network from the start. One fully dedicated person can do a lot but not everything. Our eRiders spent several evenings developing our own web-site or eRiding processes after client responsabilities. And don't forget your own ICT infrastructre since intranet, back-ups and virus policies are as important for you than for any of your customers.
6) Importance of the local eRiders
eRiders from the region will enhance local ownership and understanding of the contextual sensitivity. By using local eRiders you will build the capacity of the region even when the eRiding is only a temporarily career choise.
Note from the field: In our case most of the eRiders were international volunteers without experience from the countries we were working. We spend extra time trying to learn how to use local transportation as well as money for accommodation. Because of our background we encountered dangerous situations and lost laptops. Half of the eRiders also returned back to their home countries after the pilot project which meant that the experience didn't stay in Africa. Local eRiders seem to be better approach but remember that even inside some countries there might be difficulties between tribes (eRider or NGO refuses to work together with a person from different tribe) or women eRiders (sometimes men may ignore the advices from young women).
7) Don't feel secure with only one donor
From day one start searching for additional funding sources and models such as self-financing. Most of the time the initial donor will be committed only for few years support and expect you to find alternative sources to secure your activities. Remember to be sharp with your finance policies and save money if you can.
Note from the field: Our initial donor was hinting that there is a possibility for an additional funding almost immediately after the pilot if everything goes well. Our team counted for that and when the funding decision was postponed and postponed it affected to the motivation and feel of security. We didn't have the experience that funding decisions might take several months to be accepted. Luckily we were saving money during the whole project and were able to extend the initial contracts of four team members even after unexpected but significant loss in foreign exchange rate. We were also approaching other funding sources and got an extra client and donor before the money from the first grant was spend.
8) Keep your eye to the future
If your eRidign program is a pilot, plan what happens after successful (or unsuccessful) project. Remember that everything you do during the first months will affect to your future and high quality from the start saves your time. If you spoil your reputation from the start it is difficult to prepare the damages. If you don't keep your finances up to date you and your accountant will have hard times later. Your logo will be the heart of your brand in the future so don't approve any "quick and dirty" options. Put extra effort into the quality of the first documents. For example existing processes will be a success factor when new eRiders or staff members will start their work. Also several parts of an excellent client documentation can be re-used later because the problems are similar among the non-profits.
Note from the field: Even without a clear future of Ungana-Afrika we had a plan of continuing our work after the pilot. We used time to develop our mission, vision and values. We put an extra effort for our processes, document templates and graphical appearance. Never there was a situation where we would have ignored something just because there were no security for the funding and this has resulted to an enormous positive feedback as well as motivated us to believe in our future.
9) Use an existing eRiding experience
Try to get at least one member with previous eRiding experience to your team. Even if this person would work with you only the first month it will save you from hazardous mistakes. If this is not possible then the minimum would be get comprehensive training as well as close study of eRiding resources. Don't hesitate to ask external help from other eRiders. International eRiders Network is always there for you.
Note from the field: International eRiders Network has an incredible amount of knowledge and people were willing to help us. Sending questions and draft strategic plans to InteRider list was an exellent way to get feedback and advices. It also promoted Ungana-Afrika and we were contacted by people around the globe regarding interesting partnership or project opportunities.
10) The team should be balanced and roles should be clear.
As in any good start-up also your team should be enthusiastic with the core activities (eRiding) with at least basic understanding of ICTs and their possibilities. But only a group of geeks won't be enough... You need people who are additionally interest in management, marketing, fundraising, networking, and administration.
Note from the field: Ungana-Afrika team had very diverse backgrounds, which complemented well. Unfortunately there was lack of NGO environment and ICT skills but because the pilot only had a limited amount of time for eRiding we didn't encounter situations where our skills weren't enough. If the project would have been longer some of the eRiders would have had hard times trying to study everything at once. We defined roles and responsibilities such as marketing and fundraising from the start which was vital for the success of achieving our organizational goals.