As a student activist, Zimbabwean Jimmy Wilford discovered that students were faced with various health challenges.
“There was a lack of information about sexual and reproductive health issues like HIV, unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, and other health-related issues,” he said. “Zimbabwe has a conservative society, where people don’t talk about their sexual lives or sexuality. We wanted to break this silence and ensure that young people and students are able to meet to discuss these issues and make informed decisions. So, we gathered some colleagues and started talking about student health.”
This led to Wilford and fellow students starting the organization SAYWHAT (Students and Youth Working on reproductive health Action Team) in 2003. SAYWHAT advocates for and generates and disseminates knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, while also linking students to service providers.
Wilford has been involved since its founding, initially as the chairperson of the steering committee and then as the executive director.
“I was given the responsibility to lead the process and institutionalize what was happening in the organization,” he said. “However, I had no background on how to run a nonprofit; it was trial and error. I was only driven by passion.”
Through Wilford’s leadership, SAYWHAT has grown exponentially since its beginning. Founded in 2003, the organization was registered as a trust in 2007 and has developed rapidly since.
“In the beginning, we were completely run by volunteers with no budget and no office space,” Wilford said. “Our funding has increased where we’re now able to employ staff and use our own offices. Things have been changing and will continue to change.”
These changes have been a surprise to Wilford.
“The drive and vision have always been there, but I would never have expected us to be where we are 15 years ago,” he said. “Every year, we would dream further about what we could do and incorporate that into our strategic plan. We had thought about these plans, but some of the developments that took place were also a surprise.”
With those developments though, Wilford knew he needed to take a step back and learn more. Part of that process was obtaining a master’s degree in Global Health from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. This was followed by applying for the ARNOVA-AROCSA NGO Leadership Transition fellowship, co-hosted by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) Indianapolis.
“I’ve always had a desire and quest to transform myself. Having been a part of SAYWHAT and public health for a long time, I’ve been thinking about what is next,” he said. “When I received communication about this fellowship, I thought it could provide several opportunities.”
One of those opportunities was a way for Wilford to narrow down what he’s been thinking over the years in terms of his future and succession at SAYWHAT.
“I’ve been exposed to a lot of literature in terms of succession, leadership, and philanthropy. It made me think more about what it means to be a philanthropist,” he said. “In addition, this fellowship has given me the chance to reflect, guided by people and conversations here, on my time at SAYWHAT. I’ve also been able to see and place my story in a particular theoretical framework. I also plan on completing my Certificate in Fund Raising Management (offered by The Fund Raising School) and a certificate of appreciation in Strategic Planning & Nonprofit Leadership (offered by SPEA).
“Through these discussions and my experiences here, I’m planning on concretizing a succession plan for SAYWHAT when I return to Zimbabwe while also ensuring that the proper capacity building processes are in place.”
Wilford has also determined that he’d like to earn a Ph.D., whether in the U.S. or somewhere else. He’s interested in conducting research and publishing articles on youth organizations and youth and philanthropy in general.
After completing a Ph.D., Wilford intends on using his knowledge and experience to build the capacity of other youth organizations in Southern Africa, while also possibly venturing into politics.
“I’m passionate about leadership, and want to educate youth on leadership and tools of nonprofit management, such as managing boards and donor rights,” he said. “Youth organizations are so important yet so fragile; many can’t sustain themselves longer than five years. I’d like to add value to these organizations to ensure that they’re able to stand on stronger ground to impact change.”
With these future objectives in mind, Wilford has also enjoyed his present time in Indianapolis.
“People are very friendly in Indianapolis. I really enjoyed the snow as well!” he said. “I’ve also enjoyed the extent of the library here. You can’t find these resources in Zimbabwe, so it’s been exciting to have them here.”
Wilford says nonprofits operate differently in the U.S. compared to Africa in general, and Zimbabwe specifically. His experiences here have given him greater knowledge in recognizing those differences and he’s looking forward to taking what he’s learned about the U.S. nonprofit sector back to Zimbabwe.
“Cross-cultural and multi-national programs like this fellowship broaden the scope of leaders. We live in a global world. It’s important to learn how other people are doing things,” he said. “We’re also able to grow our minds by broadening the scope of knowledge and encouraging innovativeness. Sometimes, people can fail to explore their own potential because of limited resources. Being here has expanded my innovativeness and encouraged me to use all of the resources and technology provided here.”
This is the second in a series of posts on the ARNOVA-AROCSA NGO Leadership Transition Fellows. Check back soon for more posts about the fellows.
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.