I am so excited to present to you my interview with Charlotte Beauvoisin, who writes Diary of a Muzungu, a UK citizen working in Uganda. Her blog has been featured on Lonely Planet since 2009. For several years, she worked as a volunteer with the Ugandan Conservation Foundation, and now works in a tourism company in Uganda.
Mazarine: Charlotte, why did you go to Uganda originally?
Charlotte: I came to Uganda with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) on a two-year placement as the Marketing Development Manager for the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF). It was my dream job: marketing elephants! But when I say it’s my dream job, making it all happen can be a real challenge at times.
I’ve wanted to live in Africa since I was a teenager and always wanted to do VSO (the British version of Peace Corps). Twenty years after my first phone call to VSO, I’d finally acquired the skills and the life experience to help me spend two years living in and contributing to a developing country.
On a good week, we’d go on safari. (I still have to pinch myself!) It’s a day’s drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park and we would usually include an impromptu game drive. Reconnecting with the field projects is crucial, and of course fun!
Most of the time however, I wrote funding proposals, reports to donors and developed our Facebook page. My role was to raise UCF’s profile, fundraise, communicate with donors, help develop the local team’s skills – and fundraise some more! There were weeks when my job, plodding away on the laptop, was as routine as any other office worker’s, but then I remembered: I’m in Africa! And I’m helping protect elephants!
The VSO philosophy is sustainable development through sharing skills. This year I recruited a Marketing Officer who I continue to mentor, thus passing on my marketing skills to the local team. It means my VSO placement should have a long term, sustainable impact on UCF.
A key part of the role was sharing skills. Western IT skills, for example, are typically much more advanced than the average Ugandan’s and people tend to learn from each other (passing on the mistakes as well as the learning). You can really increase a person’s productivity through sharing simple PC skills that the average Westerner takes for granted. VSO teaches you to show people how to do things for themselves. It’s empowering and quite humbling to be a part of it. There have been some very frustrating and challenging times over the past three years but I can look back now and see some big improvements in terms of efficiency, team morale and organisation profile. It makes me smile to think I’ve been part of that.
Mazarine: What do you like best about Uganda?
Charlotte: That is such a difficult question, there are so many ways to fall in love with the country! Ugandans are wonderfully friendly people, and they will put themselves out to greet and welcome you. The countryside is beautifully diverse, the weather is (generally) fantastic and the country has the most incredible biodiversity: gorillas, chimps, elephants, lions, leopard, giraffe and zebra and 1,060+ species of birds. It really is paradise on earth.
The pace of life is slower: the work culture, travelling to meetings (because of the terrible traffic and enormous potholes) and even the time it can take you to cook dinner (after you’ve haggled for your purchases then boiled and filtered your water). The internet can be slow or off for days, people are sick more often, heavy rains can prevent people getting to work, the electricity can go off without warning – it can wear you down! But, people take the time for each other, it’s a simpler way of life. Modern life is so stressful – the choices I’m faced with when I travel home to the UK boggle my mind!
Mazarine: What have you found blogging helps you do?
Charlotte: I started my personal blog so friends and family back home could keep up to date with my adventure as a volunteer. I’ve often kept a diary when I travel so it was the logical thing to do. Blogging quickly became my biggest pastime. It was a way for me to process and try and make sense of the new world around me and gave me some creative time out from the formal proposal and report writing for UCF.
Over the past two and half years, promoting my blog via Twitter and Facebook has allowed me to connect with bloggers worldwide, which has helped me develop my creative travel writing. (My blog has appeared on Lonely Planet since 2009). After my VSO contract finished, in October I joined a Ugandan travel company. Conservation and tourism work hand-in-hand in Uganda, so it was a natural step for me. I can continue to support UCF in my spare time too, an added bonus. (I joke that I’ve been promoted from being a paid volunteer to an unpaid one!)
Blogging and social media have given UCF a global platform. It puts us up there with the biggest and the best, it’s made everyday communication with our donors simpler, and has given our fans the opportunity to interact with us on their terms.
Mazarine: What is your take on fundraising internationally in Africa? Tips? Tricks? Must dos? Must not dos?
Charlotte: It’s the same as anywhere in the world – never take your donors for granted. Befriend them, get to know them, keep them up to date with everything you’re doing, even if it’s a photograph with a good strapline. There are many organisations out there who would love to support successful projects, and innovative ideas, you just need to find them. Often these recommendations can be made through existing donors.
UCF gets the majority of its funding from the West, thus it’s crucial that we have a good Internet connection and are able to maximise social media. It took me two years to get the hang of using Twitter in Uganda, the system distrusts users from Africa, it seems, and thought I was a hacker! (I had to ask my sister in the UK to log on for me. This reactivated my account and since then I’ve been able to have access again). Once I got the hang of it, it’s been the best medium for networking.
Travelling to the UK every six months also gives me an opportunity to get up to date with the latest technology trends. Much of the technology is not available in Africa; if it is available, it is much more expensive and has limited resources. Virtually everyone in Uganda owns a mobile and we are actually quite advanced in terms of SMS use for marketing and financial transactions using mobile phones. This is because very few people have bank accounts and, outside the cities, people don’t have computers or Internet access. So there is technological innovation, and it’s interesting that it’s taken a different direction from the West.
International donors have standards that developing countries may find very difficult to achieve and maintain. This relates to use of English language, good grammar, timekeeping, financial transparency, ability to use different computer programs, presentation skills. This does mean that small and local NGOs are at a huge disadvantage and simply don’t qualify, in terms of resources, to submit a winning funding application. It means that English language skills are much in demand, so that does give plenty of opportunities for Westerners who would like to support project funding overseas. If you get it right however, money from the West can go a very long way in a developing country.
Ideally you should always aim to get some of your revenue locally. This gets better local buy-in for your project (brownie points for advocacy campaigns, long-term survival of the organisation more likely, etc), and means you’re less at the mercy of foreign currency regulations, global recessions etc! That said, the Ugandan shilling has devalued so badly (current inflation is 30%) that funding from international donors is going even further than normal. We can’t expect this to last for long though, and it’s certainly not a fundraising strategy.
The average Ugandan doesn’t have much spare cash. Everyone goes to church and many will people will pay a tithe (possibly 10% of their salary will go to the church). This money is supposed to support those in the community who are in need. Charity fundraising is generally on a small scale, but big companies do sponsor various types of events and causes.
Mazarine: For projects donors will never visit, how do you create a connection to your mission?
Charlotte: Few of our donors have had the ability to fly out to Uganda to meet our projects. Our reports include lots of photographs. We bring back data on stories from the field, invite them to our events and speak to them on the phone. Our reports are very colourful and full of lots of big photographs and data that shows the impact of what we’re trying to achieve. We feature lots of people – and of course wildlife! We also include quotes, from members of the community, the wildlife Rangers, etc. This really brings our reports to life. All our reports include live links to our website and Facebook and Twitter and we always encourage people to engage with us online.
If we had the money, we would make video too – and I’d certainly recommend that to anyone trying to make a connection. For us in Uganda, the other issue is Internet connection. It’s so slow that uploading videos is not something that we can do regularly, it just takes too long. However, the Internet infrastructure is slowly improving.
Mazarine: Do you fundraise from the local community as well? If so, how do you find your language shifts from talking with overseas donors versus talking with local donors? Do you ask for different things? Do you try to connect them with the mission in a different way?
Charlotte: We do fund raise from the local community, but predominantly from the corporate community, many of whom are westerners.
We have a corporate membership program, and we accept in-kind sponsorship as much as cash donations. Having these business friends whom we can call in favours from, is incredibly useful. A note of warning though, this feelgood factor doesn’t always give you the best service. There is a feeling that paying clients get a better service than we do, but if your cash strapped small organisation, it might be enough to keep you going.
In terms of Ugandans, their support is very important, as these people are the ones that can effect behavioural change in the long term. Our language very definitely changes, as do our messages. For example, most of our international donors are conservation organisations, thus our message is heavily focused on wildlife and habitat management, protecting human populations in order to protect the wildlife populations.
To local subsistence farmer communities in the national parks, the messages are different: we want to protect you and help lift you out of poverty and are investing in your community through education and income generating projects (beekeeping, digging of elephant trenches, slashing of the Bush). In return, communities are warned that the penalties for poaching are higher than they were before, but it does mean that you, your family and your livelihood will be better protected (from crop raiding animals) by the wildlife Rangers.
For the average Ugandan who lives in Kampala, for example, the message is that tourism is the number one foreign revenue earner. The majority of tourists come to Uganda for the wildlife. This wildlife is under threat but you can help protect it and thus help develop your country. We encourage people to be proud of their heritage. Many people don’t have money to spare to give UCF. That they hear our message is more important than them supporting us financially. You would simply not think of asking them to become members but you would refer them to Facebook, something which Ugandans are really crazy about!
Mazarine: Do you also run the volunteer coordination/recruitment and events for the Uganda Conservation Foundation? If so, do you have any tips for people who are asked to do too much?
Charlotte: We do not recruit volunteers, generally speaking. We have had one full-time VSO for two years at a time, three times in our history.
Many people approach us, asking to do voluntary work, but they’re not usually clear about exactly what it is they’re going to offer us and I’m afraid represent more work for us than opportunity. A volunteer has to be managed in the same way as a paid member of staff.
In terms of being asked to do too much, if you’re coming to an organisation and have a good skill set, it might be assumed that you can do all kinds of things. Have your role as clear as possible in your mind, and on paper, and communicate this with your colleagues. Do this more than once! Don’t rush to do everything, allow people the chance to try. VSO quite clearly warns us that we are unlikely to achieve the same amount of work as we would back home. You are working in a new culture with many limitations, so you have to reduce your expectations of yourself. It can be frustrating, it really can!
Mazarine: What’s one thing you wish you had known before you started in the NGO/Charity/Third Sector world?
Charlotte: I wish I’d appreciated how much free support is available online. I wish I had connected with you three years ago!
(Aw! Thank you Charlotte!)
Mazarine: How do you do marketing in your job? What resources and tools would you recommend for someone starting to market a charity in Africa?
Charlotte: Network as much as you can, attend external meetings, join groups, socialise.
Make Twitter your friend – this is the best way to meet people who are doing the same thing as you, same job in a different country, or related organisations in the same country as you. They will give you ideas and connections, and keep you going when you’re struggling.
Invest in an Internet dongle, a decent laptop, a Skype headset and a digital camera. Back everything up regularly!
Use Facebook to connect with your fans. Write a blog – and write it regularly. Spend time tagging it well and do some research on how to promote a blog. There are tons of free resources available to you. Have catchy subject headers, for example, and include at least one eye-catching photographs each time you post. Integrate everything so that news appears simultaneously across all your social media.
If you have a budget, considering using SMS for targeted messages. In Uganda, these have been particularly successful for encouraging people to have HIV testing for example.
I have a design and print background, and I was lucky enough to have an ex-colleague who developed some free report, presentation and newsletter templates for us. Having a professional, consistent image immediately improved our profile with our donors. You can download some fantastic free templates online and customise them with your organisation colours. If you can then insert photos and distribute by e-mail, your costs are very, very low.
There are thousands of charities crying out for decent marketing in Africa. There are some fantastic initiatives and it can be difficult for people to know which one to support. Keep your objectives clear. Report regularly to your donors and communicate with your supporters.
Mazarine: Do you also do grantwriting? If so, where do you go to look for grants for Uganda?
Charlotte: Proposal writing has been a key part of my job. Most of our funds are from existing donors, and they in turn recommend new donors for us to approach. We research donors that support similar organisations to our own, in Uganda and in other African countries. We also approached the big aid agencies, like the European Union the US Fish and wildlife service, etc.
Although UCF came into being to protect elephants, over the past 10 years in operation, we’ve widened this to cover poaching, human wildlife conflict, conservation education and livelihoods of subsistence farmers. Put your creative hat on and think how your projects touch on different issues, and different groups of people. One project may have many different areas of influence and impact; try and work out what these are. Understanding these will give you ideas on new people and organisations to approach.
Mazarine: What is your plan for the future? Where would you like to be in 5 years?
Charlotte: I was not the first VSO who wanted to stay in Uganda and first extended my contract by six months.
I now work for a travel company based in Kampala. I’m hoping to develop my travel writing further and in 2012 I am writing a ‘coffee table book’ about Uganda. This is due for publication in October.
Whether I’m based in Africa or back in the UK in five years, I know that my heart will still be in Uganda and that I will be working in the travel business. I feel there are tremendous opportunities for helping develop and promote tourism – across East Africa.
Thank you so much Charlotte! Even though I too have volunteered and done grantwriting overseas, I did it in Indonesia, and it was a very different time than it is today! I learned so much about international fundraising, marketing, and volunteering from your interview. Thank you! (if you have any questions for charlotte, or if you’d like to learn more about volunteering or working internationally, please visit her blog, Diary of a Muzungu, or follow her on Twitter @CharlieBeau)