Hot Off the Shelf: I Am Because You Are

It's not often that I venture into nonfiction, so today's Hot Off the Shelf book review might be surprising coming from me. After all, I only read about three to five nonfiction books per year (compared to my 30 to 55 fiction books per year). But when I read a nonfiction book this good, I can't help but tell you about it.

First, a little background. I Am Because You Are is part memoir and part manifesto on what the nonprofit world should look like. Jacob Lief is the founder of the nonprofit Ubuntu Education Fund, which works in Port Elizabeth, South Africa giving kids there everything they need to not only survive, but thrive. The memoir details his life through the lens of building Ubuntu--challenges he faced and things he learned in 15 years of operation. While some might think Jacob's ideas on how to run a nonprofit and how to make real, lasting impact are radical or provocative, I think they're SMART. And I do mean smart with a capital S-M-A-R-T.

From the synopsis on Goodreads:

In 1999, Teach For America and City Year weren’t yet popular post-graduate options, and no one talked about social entrepreneurship as a career path. But when Jacob Lief, a 21-year-old college student, traveled to a post-apartheid South Africa, he was compelled to action. Inspired by the spirit of ubuntu, roughly translated as "my humanity is bound with yours," Lief moved to South Africa and, with a dedicated team, formed the Ubuntu Education Fund. Shunning traditional fundraising models, Ubuntu invests significantly into fewer kids on a grassroots level. The nonprofit’s premise goes well beyond building a school or offering free lunches—as Lief learned, a child’s best chance at success happens from "cradle to career," with household stability, structure, and support. After more than a decade of hard work on the ground, Ubuntu’s program has yielded college graduates while other aid-to-Africa ventures have failed. I Am Because You Are offers an eye-opening look at how we can affect change from a micro to a global level and challenges us to re-examine how any child can—and should—be raised to succeed and thrive.

Even if you've never worked in the nonprofit world you'll enjoy this book, but if you have worked in the nonprofit world or if you've ever wanted to start your own nonprofit, you have to read this.

So many nonprofits are obsessed with one number--like distributing a million condoms--and so many operate with the "beggars can't be choosers" mindset even as they try to do good work. Jacob turns these notions and other misconceptions on their heads. Jacob does this, namely, by consciously investing in fewer kids so he can make a true, lasting impact in those kids' lives. As Jacob says in the book, it's not anything innovative--it's applying basic child-rearing principles to orphans and underprivileged kids. Good parents strive to give their kids everything they need to succeed, which is precisely what Ubuntu seeks to do.

Jacob illustrated this concept nicely in this story from the book:

I went to a meeting once with a guy who could not understand what we did and why we were working in children’s homes. I asked him, “Do you have children?” He pointed to the photos on his desk. “Three, all in college.”
“How did they get there?” I asked. “They didn’t get there from going to school in a shipping container with a teacher who doesn’t have a high school degree. They got there because of the amount of love and attention and, frankly, money you put into them. If they needed help in a subject, you got them tutoring. If they couldn’t see the blackboard, you got them glasses. If they were sick, you took them to the doctor, if they needed a dentist, they saw one.”

Nearly every concept Jacob advocates for nonprofits is one that has been tried and found to be successful in business. Part of the challenge, however, is shifting donors' mindsets. In an age where "for just $1 a day you can keep a child from starving" is etched into our brains, shifting donors' mindsets to reflect the realities of development work is a challenge in and of itself. But, as Jacob points out, the whole "$1 a day" slogan is just that--a slogan. It's a marketing tactic, not a reality. Raising a child--giving him/her food, shelter, clothing, and education--takes a lot more than $365 a year, even in a developing country. Ask any parent: kids aren't cheap.

In short, Jacob's belief is that if it's not good enough for your child, it's not good enough for a poor child in a developing country either. If you wouldn't give your own kid a 20-year old textbook, don't expect Ubuntu to give it to their kids. If you wouldn't give your own kid a already colored-in coloring book, don't donate one to the book drive for a library in a developing country. Treat all kids with the same dignity and respect that you would afford your own, regardless of where that child is from or what his/her circumstances are--all kids deserve the best. Perhaps beggars can't be choosers, but Ubuntu will make sure the kids don't have to beg. The Ubuntu kids in Port Elizabeth already have everything they need.

I gathered several great takeaways from the book:

  • To have real impact, you have to give the best, just like you would with your own children.

  • Nonprofits have to be able to take risks to find what works best. Nonprofits don’t have a formula and everything they do isn’t guaranteed to work. If it was, they’d be a business, not a nonprofit. Donors have to understand this and be amenable to it or they’re actually doing damage to the nonprofit’s goals.

  • Real impact doesn’t happen in a 12-month grant cycle. This cycle prevents nonprofits from being able to think long term.

  • Poverty doesn’t look the same for everyone everywhere, so there’s no blanket solution, even for people in the same township. Every person is a case-by-case basis.

  • Having a high overhead doesn’t mean your organization is spending frivolously. It means you take care of your employees and that you care about them as much as the people you serve. It means you care about keeping the best talent to further your mission.

  • Failure isn’t a bad thing--it’s part of growth. If you find a program doesn’t work, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, even if donors want to guilt you for it, because you’ve learned from it and grown as an organization because of it.

Yet just as Ubuntu changes kids' lives, so is Jacob changed by the experience of helping them. It's not every day a white kid walks into bar in the middle of a South African township, especially so recently after the fall of Apartheid when the color of his skin represented centuries of oppression. Normally, I would think this problematic and just another example of white savior complex, but because Jacob actually invests in the children and doesn't try to just hit an arbitrary number goal that sounds good (like passing out a million condoms or building 50 wells), I find it hard to believe it's a white savior complex that drives Ubuntu.

The word ubuntu means "I am because you are; my humanity is inextricably bound with your humanity." Considering that, I find Ubuntu Education Fund to be named appropriately.

I received a copy of I Am Because You Are as an advanced reader's copy for the purpose of honest review. I really enjoyed it and I learned so much from it.

What do you think of Jacob's ideas on how nonprofits should be run? Are you currently working or have you ever worked in a nonprofit? If so, do you think Jacob's ideas can be applied widely, outside of the aid to Africa context? Tell me in the comments below!

And if you enjoyed this post, share it with your book nerding, nonfiction reading, nonprofit working, development world interested friends.

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