2019 was a deep learning curve for us at The Better Tomorrow Movement
Before we begin, we’d like to tell you a little bit about who we are and what we do. We are an international organization that provides young people with the tools, mentorship, and support needed to start or scale a social impact project in their local communities, across the world. We strongly believe in the power of local heroes, and therefore we focus on providing them with resources they need to create and grow impactful and sustainable positive change.
The year 2020 marks four years since we launched TBTM. Over these past years we’ve steadily grown our presence to over 50 countries and trained almost 400 young people in social entrepreneurship and leadership skills. We’ve also accumulated hundreds of positive testimonials detailing how satisfied our trainees have been in our services. On the surface, these key performance indicators look great, but if you asked us how we felt about how we were doing, we’d tell you otherwise.
We decided to share why we felt this way for 3 reasons; firstly, to stand in solidarity with volunteers around the world who face similar challenges in silence; next, to be truthful and transparent about the realities of running an international organization that is completely powered by volunteers; and finally, to inspire others to continue to keep persevering.
Failing to create a physical presence
While we are primarily an online platform, we have always wanted to build physical spaces for our trainees to come together and interact with us. We were able to move closer to making this a reality through our Good Human Series pilot program, that we ran in Sri Lanka. Initially the program was a success. At that time, there were few social start-ups operating in Colombo and we covered pressing topics like Financial Literacy and Mental Health Awareness when very few other organizations did. However, building the network we needed to take our sessions to under-served parts of our community, both in and around Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo and also outside of the capital proved to be difficult. In addition, the demographic in Colombo to whom our session were catered to, were now being targeted by larger organizations that had more capacity, funding, and access to address these topics better.
Soon the demand and attendance at our events began to shrink causing a lot of demotivation among our local volunteer team. They too began to lose interest and it was difficult to find a way to motivate them when the program itself was something we were soon starting to lose faith in. There was a huge juxtaposition between how well our online programs were doing and how badly our on ground programs were performing. Just like when evaluating a profit generating business, we realized that the demand/need for programs such as this had been met better than what was within our capacity to deliver.
Then came the hard part, letting go. We decided to freeze our program and focus our time and resources on further improving our successful programs. This was a challenging decision to make, mostly because non-profit organizations are often expected to continue to create impact in a certain area because the focus is not on the success of the program but solely, trying to make a difference. However, we learned that the hard truth is knowing when to let go and support other organizations who are far more equipped to address the same issues you are.
Another unexpected issue we faced when deciding to stop our off-line program losing “traditional” evidence of our operations which is often required when applying for grant funding and support. Since we no longer held workshops in physical spaces, we no longer had video or photographic evidence of our programs. Although we now have other sources of evidence to show such as our website visit statistics and testimonials this was a new obstacle for us to encounter.
High Volunteer Turnover
Financial incentives are a topic of conversation often avoided in the space we operate in. There is of course a lot of conversations about funding but very little about spending that funding on your team and compensating them for their time and effort.
Over the past 4 years TBTM has been in operation, we have been incredibly fortunate to work with some amazing, talented volunteer team members from all corners of the globe. However, we have come to learn that most of them tend to leave our organization when they approach a transitional period of their life, be it moving from an undergrad to a Master, starting a new job, or moving to a new country. What we realized is that although volunteerism is incredibly rewarding, when choosing where to allocate one's time during these periods, TBTM has failed to provide enough incentive to make our volunteers stay on with our organization in times of personal change. Add to this, a remote work culture across multiple time zones, we understand how commiting to an additional workload voluntarily can be challenging. It is also a very privileged position to be in, as finding time to balance full time work, or for some school and a job, is not a possibility for everyone.
We have put in place many steps to circumvent this outcome like sharing opportunities we know of through the leadership networks we have access to, recommending our team members to training initiatives and job opportunities they are applying to, and building friendships, but given the different time zones and different nature of the programs, we struggled in uniting the team as a whole. It would also be naive to say that given the structure of our operations, we do not need to work towards financially compensating our team for their commitment.
Inability to sustainably scale up
Almost every time we open applications for a new intake for our programs, we receive upwards of a 100 applications from around the world. This is incredible. It is an indication that our programs are in demand, and have built a good reputation over the years. Seeing how many young people apply for our programs is the single biggest motivator for us to continue to work on maintaining our services. However, the high demand for our programs is also one of our biggest challenges. We simply do not have the capacity to cope with the incoming demand in a sustainable manner. A large contributing factor to this is the high voluntary turnover. Training new volunteers on program management and on our work culture can be difficult, especially when trying to accommodate the different time zones and schedules.
The Global Ambassador Program is a good example of this although it has been one of our most visible successes. Its success is partly because of the nature of the program, which gives young people around the world the opportunity to share positive impact stories from their communities with our growing online audience while developing skills in digital storytelling, and content creation. It is also because we have put an immense amount of work into it. Giving feedback to, and publishing 72 stories over the course of 4 months is a lot of work for an organization our size and it doesn’t always go noticed.
In 2019 we converted the Global Ambassador program from a program offering to a part of our TBTM communications team so that these talented individuals could help us increase our global reach in a more effective manner. We also recruited a new Global Ambassador team manager who came in with high ambitions and dedication. In order to distribute the workload, we took on a Global Ambassador team assistant for the first time. However, even with two team members dedicated to the management of the new Global Ambassador team, sifting through the many impressive applications we received and onboarding only select candidates as our ambassadors was extremely difficult. This led us to accept more ambassadors than ever before, simply because we did not have the capacity to choose. As expected, that made managing a program even more difficult. Furthermore, the sheer volume made it almost impossible for us to provide a personal and meaningful experience for our successful applicants. After a while we realised that while the new structure benefitted the Global Ambassadors and our online reach, it took a great toll on our team. We therefore decided that we will change the structure yet again so that we only onboard a manageable number of Global Ambassadors to our team.
To be honest, we do not have a silver lining to the challenges we are facing and oftentimes don’t know the best way in which to overcome them effectively. This is why we feel like last year was a failure in many aspects, and that is okay. Each failure teaches us a new lesson and these are ongoing struggles we are trying to overcome so that we can continue to serve our trainees and team to the best of our abilities. There have been times that we considered giving up and ending operations, or at least putting them on hold, but then we remember the impact that we have had and the trainees whose lives our programs have transformed for the better and that keeps us going.
We thought it was important to share this with you all as our first post for 2020 so that you know that even though you see the successes we share, we also have had many failures and bumps along the road. But we have learnt from them and as challenging as it is sometimes, we are constantly working to address these failures and persevere despite them. We look forward to the year 2020, the challenges, and inevitable failures that will come with it. We hope that you continue to stay with us on this journey, as you embark on your own.
Navo & Rut