Strength Through Flexibility

by Kim Jonker, The Stanford Social Innovation Review; Winter 2010.

This case study follows the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) as it seeks to change the culture of the classroom across a continent with several thousand distinct ethnic groups and cultural norms.

It’s well known that educating girls is one of the most effective development interventions to lift whole communities out of poverty. In the early 1990s only half of Africa’s school age girls were enrolled in school. In 1992 the Ministers of Education from five African nations got together to tackle the problem and FAWE was born. Over 17 years FAWE has facilitated schooling to over 12 million girls across 35 African countries.

FAWE operates across countries and cultures by maintaining enormous flexibility in its approach. An example of this is the recruitment of over 70 government ministers to help FAWE’s campaign to get girls in school. The group then negotiated Memorandums of Understanding with 17 separate governments to agree to its focus on girls’ education. These MOUs proved critical because as a small nonprofit FAWE could not monitor compliance across such vast geographies.

Additionally, FAWE sought to unleash local solutions to make classroom more welcoming to girls. Some barriers to girls remaining in school are consistent across countries – such as not having separate toilets for girls and boys – whereas others, like forced marriages or genital cutting, only arise in some contexts. FAWE has addressed both types of obstacles through its flexible/local structure.

On the downside, this case study seems to gloss over cultural divides between funders and fundees. International funders can fixate on efficiency and reporting requirements, while grassroots leaders may prioritise effectiveness and consistency. FAWE has had cause to push back on funders at least once. It returned grant money that would have stretched it away from its core mission.

According to this case, flexibility must be counterbalanced by focus. With too much flex nonprofits could get lost in the flux.

To read more about these and other lessons refer to:

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