What a boost to open an email that said “You and Best Year Yet have worked miracles for us!” And a far cry from the call I had received from the same person three years earlier: “We need help!” Ruth and her husband are the founders of a small non-profit organization called Computers for Africa. Staffed entirely with volunteers, their work had grown until Ruth and Tim realized they needed to formalize their structure with a real board of directors that took over some of the work load – and the decision-making. And now they were experiencing the normal growing pains of figuring out when and how to give up control, and what exactly the board should be doing.Theirs was truly an awe-inspiring story. Tim and Ruth, after living for two years in Uganda, had returned to Omaha, Nebraska with a dream. They were convinced that access to computers in secondary schools could meet a critical need in the remote regions of Uganda where textbooks and other printed resources were in very short supply. By learning to use the internet to supplement the curriculum, both teachers and students in these remote areas would be able to gain the knowledge and skills needed to compete for the increasing number of jobs that required computer skills.
To bring this dream to life, they formed Computers for Africa and took early retirement from their jobs. They made the rounds of large companies in Omaha, who regularly replaced hundreds of desktop computers with the latest models, and convinced some of them to donate the used equipment. With each donation, Tim picked up the PCs, cleared out the hard drives, refurbished the computers, and installed standard software in each.
They recruited high school and college students to help with the refurbishing, and friends from their church to help pack the computers for shipping. For the next seven years, with the help of volunteers in Omaha and a hired coordinator in Uganda, they shipped hundreds of computers to Africa and installed computer labs in dozens of schools throughout Uganda. They trained technicians to service the computers and trained teachers to use them in their classrooms. Ruth and Tim often participated in the training, making sure the schools had the resources and skills to be self-sustaining after the trainers departed.
As the volume of donated computers grew, the number of volunteers increased, and the complexities of the operation expanded, it became clear to Ruth, Tim, and their newly-created Board of Directors that they needed to re-define their roles if they were to sustain their momentum, and they needed a clear vision for the future of Computers for Africa. It was at this point that they invited me to lead them in the creation of a strategic plan.
Creating the Plan
I met with this dedicated group of eight volunteers to create their plan over the course of two evening meetings. As we worked our way through the Best Year Yet planning process, the Board articulated their Core Values:
- Quality: Send the best you can, and support it with services informed by beneficiary input.
- Sustainability: Acknowledge what is. Then give people the skills and tools to fashion a new future without you.
- Impact: Build on successes in one region at a time, to develop a solid base for lasting, region-wide change.
- Relationships: Lift the human spirit. Build connections on and between continents.
Firmly committed to these values, and inspired by their New Paradigm “Our passionate team works miracles for and with Africa,” the Board proceeded to define their roles and set five strategic goals for the next three years. Aligned on the importance of these goals, they shared a clear sense of ownership and commitment to participate in the work required to achieve the outcomes they had articulated.
The Power of the Meetings
But as Ruth says, “The best part” was yet to come!
I helped her to restructure the agenda of their board meetings so that each meeting included:
- Celebration of their accomplishments
- Sharing examples of living their Guidelines and New Paradigm
- Reporting on and scoring the tasks Board members had committed to
- Defining the next steps and accepting accountability for them
The disciplined approach to the meetings allowed the Board to maintain focus on their priorities and check new ideas against the plan to make sure they fit. Ruth and Tim were able to focus on the areas where they excelled, confident that other work was being managed by board members with a variety of expertise.
Rather than wallowing in the problems and obstacles they needed to address, they took time to record and acknowledge the successes along the way, giving them the energy and confidence to take on the obstacles. As a result, they saw steady and impressive increases in contributions, community awareness, and volunteer involvement. At the same time, they recruited resources to shorten refurbishment time, increase their capacity, and streamline the packaging and shipping process.
In Ruth’s words: “We use the system to keep us celebrating and working hard to prepare for each upcoming meeting, assuring steady progress toward those goals in a step-by-step fashion. The program is changing how I see myself and my tasks in a very positive way. It's really been a turning point for me and for the Board of Directors.”
A few months ago, Computers for Africa joyfully celebrated their 10th Anniversary and the staggering outcomes of their efforts. They have:
- Refurbished, shipped, and installed 3,082 PCs in labs for
- 170 schools in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania,
- and provided training to serve 89,000 students and staff
And what a joy for me to have been a part of that success!
You can learn more about this amazing organization at www.computers4africa.org.
About the Author
Karen Morey has been helping executive teams shift limiting behaviors and mindsets and achieve extraordinary results for the past decade. Combining the latest tools in planning, team development, coaching, and communications with her 25 years of experience in front-line management, she consistently helps clients develop strong, innovative, and focused teams that achieve breakthrough results.
Karen has a proven record of working with corporate leaders and teams to overcome their limitations and achieve their vision for the future. She leads them through the creation of a structured, results-based plan and coaches them to achieve and exceed the goals they have aligned on.
With 25 years of corporate leadership experience, Karen brings to her clients a credible, practical approach that builds high-performance teams, whether corporate or non-profit, large or small. She has worked with clients in manufacturing, financial services, medical systems software, and mail order distribution, as well as numerous local and regional social services and religious organizations. Karen specializes in an adaptive approach to coaching and uses a thought-provoking method of questioning that leads her clients to draw meaningful conclusions that can be readily applied to their personal lives and working environments.
In addition to her work with organizations and executive teams, Karen trains other facilitators worldwide to use the Best Year Yet system of planning, tracking, and follow-through with their clients. She has also designed and delivered training in leadership, performance management, customer service, and sales management.