To Innocent, every staff member is special in every sense of the word. Irrespective of who you are or where you are from, to “ED,” as we fondly call him, you are special. I count myself lucky to be one of the specials. I have known Innocent for 18 years, both in my capacity as his colleague for 12 years and later, a friend. I believe quite strongly that I can comment on my experience of him. In this part 1 of my tribute, I will write of my experience of Innocent Chukwuma in developing and growing NGO sustainability through staff investment.
Most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) share a common dilemma—building the capacity of staff and retaining them. Increasingly for most NGOs, grants are inadequate to meet program needs, much less to invest in staff. But how can an NGO invest in people? For some leaders, it is deciding between, hiring, and retaining all the talent they need or to develop the talent they need. If they choose to develop the talent they need, how can they minimize the likelihood that the talent developed will go elsewhere in search of greener pastures, or, at the very least, serve them faithfully for several years before bolting out? Ultimately, like business owners, leaders in NGOs will make a choice about whether they are going to be a “net importer,” or “exporter” of talent. Most NGOs by default are net importers of talent, and as such, have less control over their own growth (Anton Ressel,2010). For Innocent, the reverse was the case. Innocent was a mentor to me and many others. Today, I thank him for investing his time and money mentoring me. He positively influenced my life and nurtured my career growth until his death.
Innocent was a cultivator of talent whose practice, just like cultivating crops, involves simple cultivation operations which I call the schooling period. Between the time of hiring to graduating takes a minimum of two years depending on the staff’s ability to learn or grow. On “graduating, the staff is rotated between projects until he or she is carefully implanted to a program of interest or where the staff has displayed a reasonable level of knowledge and skills. After successful schooling and implanting, just as in crop cultivation, the weeding period commences. It is the period where all undesirable baggage (character) is weeded. Here you learn character, values and basic principles for growth and growth management. Through his exemplary leadership style and modest way of living, Innocent shows you how to remain humble amid overwhelming success. How to aspire for more without competing. He teaches you contentment and not greed. He teaches you how to place others before you, how to genuinely give your best.
Another reason for “weeding” is to allow more sunlight (positive energy) that the soil (staff) needs to convert knowledge into skills. During this period, the staff is seconded to organise workshops or meetings, first local-level meetings, then attendance at external workshops including high level workshops (in-country or outside). The exposure, just like farm inputs or fertilizer, helps the staff to grow with a solid foundation. Therefore, “fertilizer” application becomes necessary to further enhance the growth and overall yield of the staff and organisation as harvest commences!
Investing in employees has short-term and long-term payoffs. Innocent never worried that if he invested too heavily in employees, he would lose them. If he did, he did not show it and it was not noticed because not all, including those that made his succession plan, that he invested on, remained in the organisation. Many, including me, went our separate ways. It did not bother him, rather, as he once said to me “Isioma, so long as all of you are doing well in the field, I am happy. Reproducing myself is a fulfillment”. Indeed, Innocent did reproduce himself, in so many of us, too numerous to mention here. Even if it seems counter-intuitive, Innocent continued to invest in his staff. Why? Because it is the way to go. That is the difference. The only difference between high-performing NGOs like CLEEN Foundation and underperforming NGOs. High performing NGOs are those that invest in their people.
What lessons can be learnt from Innocent Chukwuma?
Lesson 1: Staff investment is an important element of organisational growth and sustainability. In the development sector (donors and funding recipients or leaders), it is in the best interest of ALL to develop talent. If NGOs remain significant societal actors, institutional support to NGOs must cover investment in human resources/developing staff talent/improving staff capacity etc.
Lesson 2: A simple investment operation that combines in-house training with external resources made available to staff on a limited, but focused, basis contributes to growth of staff and the organisation.
Lesson 3: Donors need to take staff investment as a mandatory part of their institutional support.
I hope that this piece will encourage NGO leaders to look beyond their fears and invest in staff for sustainable and long-term development.
Je nke oma, Innocent, Odogwu ka ibe ya!