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Why non-profit organisations are setting the pace

Aug 22, 2010 Management, Sunday Nation

It is almost an article of faith in Kenyan management that all the latest leading-edge techniques are practiced in the private sector by large corporates, whereas non-profit organisations are sleepy places wallowing in outmoded styles of leadership.

So large corporations deploy the best technology and the latest management tools, generate the highest motivation levels, and attract the best talent. All the city slickers work for big listed companies, while their rural cousins snooze in the low-pressure environment of non-profit outfits. Or do they?

I suggest to you that those presumptions may no longer hold. During my recent perambulations through Kenyan organisations large and small, I am noticing a very interesting phenomenon. Many Kenyan non-profit organisations are setting the management pace and generating remarkable results.

Consider just these four: Kenya Red Cross; Kenya Wildlife Service; Strathmore University and Business School; and the Nairobi Hospital. Visit those places and see for yourself: they are abuzz with youthful energy, enthusiasm and verve. They are clocking up impressive financial results. They are engaging their workforces in innovative ways. And they are deploying the art and science of management to very good effect.

The Kenya Red Cross is our most respected humanitarian organisation with a nationwide network. As we discovered during the 2008 post-election violence, these are the people who get on the ground first and get the most done for victims of disasters. The KWS is in turn a remarkable turnaround story: after being mired in mediocrity and battered by ego battles for years, it is now an organisation fit for purpose – protecting one of our most valuable assets.

Strathmore is fast becoming the region’s most respected university and business school, attracting star students and seasoned executives from all over the region. The pace of change is breathtaking, with state-of-the-art buildings and facilities being prepared for unveiling next year. Visit it and observe the vigour with which very young people are handling a wide range of senior functions.

The Nairobi Hospital has always been one of the region’s premier health facilities, but a few years ago it was a crumbling institution, a prisoner of its illustrious but faded past, harking back to former glories rather than planning for a vibrant future. Today it has added an array of fresh new facilities and is able to generate healthy surpluses that are ploughed back into investment.

So what’s going on here? Part of the answer, of course, lies in leadership (it always does). Abbas Gullet at Red Cross, Julius Kipng’etich at KWS, Cleopa Mailu at the Hospital: these are visionaries of great skill and determination, able to get the best out of their people. (Strathmore’s model is a little different: its leadership is never vested in individuals, more in a cadre of senior figures and great emphasis on continuity.)

But these leaders are very good at tapping into one big thing: a sense of higher purpose. Let’s face it, private corporations try hard to instil a ‘big idea’ in their employees, but they really just exist to enrich their shareholders. Sure, they are full of PR talk about society at large, social responsibility, corporate citizenship and the like; but for most of them that is so much hot air – and their employees know it. The average corporate employee is there for the paycheck and feels little inbuilt loyalty.

But if you work for the Red Cross or the Nairobi Hospital, your work saves lives every day. If you are employed at the KWS, you are part of an urgent mission to save and protect Kenya’s wildlife. And at Strathmore you are delivering the knowledge that will one day soon allow the country to take off. That is why I see many employees leaving big corporate jobs to join these non-profit entities: if the leadership is right, the work you do here is a big deal.

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