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Social Impact Insights: Georgie Fienberg, Founder, AfriKids


In our Social Impact Insights series, we like to highlight the work of incredible, socially motivated individuals who are making a great impact in their communities. Following from our interviews with Nigel Kershaw, Andrea Coleman and Iqbal Wahhab, we sat down with Georgie Fienberg, social entrepreneur and founder of Ghanaian charity AfriKids.

Georgie is a force to be reckoned with - she never lets a good opportunity slip away, and has a business-like and goal-orientated approach to social impact. The charity she founded was borne out of her gap-year experiences, and has a unique end-goal - they are proactively working towards ending its dependence on charitable support, and the UK office, by 2018. Georgie is passionate about real, long term sustainable change, empowering the local communities on the ground and getting donors to think before donating.

You can find out more about AfriKids and their Christmas Campaign here. We sat down to discuss her experiences in starting a charity, what she's learned over the course of the journey so far, and what advice she'd give to budding social entrepreneurs.

Carlos: What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before starting AfriKids?

Georgie: I would have put a lot more of the management systems in place earlier on. For instance, a donor database - when I began, I never imagined how big AfriKids would become. When we finally integrated a new system it was a huge job. Putting those things in place while you still have the time to do so, and while you don't have that much data makes much more sense than doing a bigger change down the line.

Also, just that it's hard, really hard work, and you have to give your absolute everything to it; you have financial and moral obligations to so many. Move very slowly, build strong foundations, don't put too much pressure on yourself and, as far as you can, put good systems in place. When we started in Ghana there was so little other help available for vulnerable children that the demand for our services was huge, it was very difficult to say no to anything but it was equally as important not to over commit.

Carlos: How do you think the environment for new social entrepreneurs has changed since you started?

Georgie: I think there's a much bigger appetite from funders for social enterprise. Certainly the right funding is more accessible. I think with AfriKids, in some instances, we were just a bit too early with our thinking around it. In the early days we couldn't get people to buy into the idea of social enterprise in the way so many do now.

Carlos: What resources do you wish you would have had access to that exist today?

Georgie: I'm a lecturer at the School of Social Entrepreneurs, and I think they're a pretty outstanding organisation. I wish I'd had the opportunity to do something like that - not necessarily an entire degree or master's in business, but perhaps some valuable short courses which could be tailored to meet specific needs as I was growing.

When I started, I had to send a fax home to let people know I was okay. There was no email, very few landlines, and no mobiles - I probably could've done with an iPad then too! That makes me sound really old, but it's really not that long ago!

Carlos: Effective charities and social enterprises focus on sustainability. Can you explain how AfriKids is ensuring the sustainability of its programmes?

Georgie: Sustainability for us means a number of things. We're most known for our bold exit strategy - working to move the entire control of AfriKids over to AfriKids Ghana, and ultimately putting AfriKids in the UK out of business. Sustaining financial security and autonomy is central to our strategy.

It's also about sustaining world-class program delivery and impact. We have industry leading monitoring, evaluation and learning systems which underpin our commitments to transparency and accountability. For over 10 years our work has benefited nearly 1 million people in northern Ghana and last month we were awarded the Charity Times Award for the International Charity of the Year 2015. We take our delivery and impact very seriously.

Finally it means sustaining best practice operations and governance - AfriKids continuously reviews and benchmarks its operational systems and processes against local legislation, regulations and industry best practice.

Carlos: How do you balance preparation and instinct in making tough choices?

Georgie: We never make any tough choices in isolation - that's the key. All relevant people are consulted and a lot of effort is made to understand the options and possible consequences very thoroughly. International development brings with it many difficult decisions and I know that both Amy the UK CEO and Nich, the Ghana Director take their responsibilities very seriously.

As an organisation we are absolutely driven by our ethics and values. They underpin all our decisions across all departments.

One of our founding Trustees, Hugh Taylor, once said to me "You must always be prepared for any decision you make to be on the front page of the newspaper the next day". Again it draws you back to your ethics.

The most difficult decision I ever made personally was to step down as International Director, but it was absolutely the right thing for both me personally and for AfriKids; that was both preparation and instinct! And as founder and a Trustee I honestly couldn't be happier with the current leadership teams.

Carlos: Along your journey, what has been your most valuable failure?

Georgie: We've gone for significant corporate partnerships and major institutional grants -and we've been very lucky to win many of them. We are, or have been, partners with Comic Relief, The Department for International Development (DFID), Deutsche Bank, Allen and Overy, the Postcode Lottery, the UN Slavery Fund to name a few. But we've secured those funders by learning lessons from previous failed applications. We've had to learn their language, understand what they want from a partnership and tailor our applications accordingly, whilst not compromising our ethics.

In Ghana it's the businesses, probably. It's very difficult setting up businesses in a very poor part of the world. Especially when you've got so many things that are standing against you, and I think we've learned a lot from some of the businesses that haven't worked. We have been very careful to pilot things very slowly, and only invest small amounts at a time. As a result we have had, and continue to have, some real social enterprise successes, especially in ethical trade, tourism and health.

Carlos: What are three things that you have learned that you would pass on to budding new social entrepreneurs?

Georgie: I would say decide on your ethics and values; embed them right across the organisation and be true to them. Ours can be found here - and they're the lifeblood of AfriKids.

It doesn't mean it's always easy; we won't use pity images to generate income, and that's been difficult, especially when there are clear opportunities where it would be simple to hold out a picture of a very ill child and ask for money. But we believe we have a duty to our beneficiaries - to never compromise their dignity, and a duty to Ghana - to reflect its beauty, warmth and investment potential with positive imagery. And actually, it has really worked in our favour in the long-term. So I'd stay really stand firm on your principles.

I would also say do your groundwork. We don't start anything without rigorous research, detailed consultations with stakeholders and robust systems in place to manage it.

Finally, really know your audience. Whether you're building a social enterprise or a fundraising campaign, take time to understand your market before you get too carried away with the idea!

You can find out more about the work of AfriKids by following their blog here.

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