Developing Partnerships, One Village at a Time

Neil Kerfoot (MSc NGO Management, 2012) is looking to encourage more volunteers and donations for his radically different charity, Village by Village. Working in partnership with local communities in Africa, he stopped counting the number of villages helped when he hit 100. We spoke about the power of open accountability, trust and getting it right in the charity sector.

Tell me about your time at Cass!

I studied MSc NGO Management and graduated in 2012. I was working full-time at the same time! I was living in Dublin and working a lot of the time in West Africa, and coming to Cass to do the course part-time. I would fly in from Ghana, get a couple of hours sleep, and then head to the classroom on Friday afternoons. Then I would leave London after the weekend to go back to Dublin or Ghana, it was a killer! I only missed my flight once though, after a stressful weekend we had gone to the pub!

What did you do next?

I had already founded my charity, Village by Village before I came to Cass, but the course really gave me that validation to take it forward and develop it. After I graduated the charity grew 20% year on year each year.

So what does Village by Village do?

We are a purposely small international development charity. We are the disruptive backlash to a lack of confidence and trust in charities in the UK. We are so transparent we are almost see through! Traditional charities have had their day with their lack of transparency around where the donations go and their total control over projects.

Our projects are about human centred design. We work with the local community, ask what their problems are, and work holistically with them to work out what they need. For example, their major concerns are usually malaria, education, children’s health and crop outputs. We really spend time living in their communities and base ourselves in the village, hence the name. We’re not a focus group who show up for half an hour; we’ve been living in the communities for 10 years. That way you quickly get to know the good guys and the bad guys.

We try to build partnerships, to get everybody pulling together, but the big organisations don’t want to know. There are many other well-intentioned companies actually working at odds to the situation too. For example, a fibre optic guy wants to bring fibre optic internet to villages in poverty. But nobody ever asked for it, they have no electricity, and no clue what internet is, and they are more concerned with where their water is coming from.

Another time, we built a clinic in partnership with Ghana health service and when a big organisation showed up we thought, ok the big boys are here! They had a fridge on their truck. We asked if we could help, because we know everybody, and asked if they were aware that there was no electricity? Well, the fridge was paid for by their donors and so they unloaded it! And it became the most expensive cupboard in Ghana.

How is Village by Village different from other Africa-centred charities?

We are all about low overheads and high transparency. My pay is just over £30K because it’s linked to the average living wage, and in Ghana we have a quantities surveyor on £12K plus accommodation. Recently I’ve seen charities with very low overheads, like the Salvation Army, enjoying a renaissance, especially versus those that are hiring people on big salaries, the big boys who take in over £500M. They have affected things up for the charity world, and tarred everybody.

We invite our volunteers to come and see projects and be part of the solution. Everyone who comes has to raise £1000, and out of that we spend about £150 on collecting them and looking after them, and the rest goes to the project. We use devolved budgeting, and do things like asking a volunteer to take some of the money they raised to go and get cement, negotiating with the money. We get lots of returning volunteers, which speaks volumes.

If we had our way, after the purchase, that person would then take an image of the receipt and upload it to our accounting system, published to a free and open site where anyone can see it all: what’s in our bank account, what our salaries are – so everyone who has given us money can see where it’s being spent. Big organisations can’t do that. We are small, agile and disruptive.

How did Village by Village come about?

It happened when I turned 40! Back when I was 21 I drove a Land Rover from Manchester to Cape Town, through the desert, the jungle and three war zones. When I returned to the UK at 22 I thought that the last thing I ever wanted to be was poor! So I had a career and started a couple of businesses, including an internet business at the height of the first boom, and I sold it just before the crash.

At 40 I was the deputy CEO of an education company. I returned to the UK from New Zealand and was looking at the charity sector and decided I could make a bigger impact. So I went to a large, well-known charity and spoke to them about digging a well. Because I know about Africa and corruption I said I wanted to see the well being built, but I was told I couldn’t because of health and safety. I said in that case I wasn’t giving the money!

Eventually I got the email address of the local guy tasked with digging the well, and when I turned up for the ceremonial spade dig I asked the chief if I could stay. He put me up in a mud hut with little sanitation and water. There I stayed until they completed the well, which was a huge success.

That got me thinking that I can make a difference here, and I thought – what else can I do? As a white person in Africa I decided to find out what the locals want to learn about, and that was primarily crop output and stopping their children from getting sick. Then I learned about what other charities do in the area, and decided everybody needed the conduit of an information centre. We built the centre, and I chucked in my job! I wanted to help and support the local community with a suite of information, and we even built rooms for volunteers to stay in as part of the centre. That was the start.

What are you working on at the moment?

Our big target was 100 villages by 2016. This was a 10-year target, but we smashed it in two years, because the local communities got involved! We’ve stopped counting how many villages – it’s pointless!

We work with the countries that are most proactive, and ask how we can help. Then it’s their decision because it’s a democratic process. We don’t just say how we help, we ask representatives from all swathes of society. That helps us to work with the communities, rather than at odds to them.

For example, to communities that are in poverty – what is malaria? They think it comes when you work too hard (which is not the case), and when they are given malaria nets they find it is too hot and sticky to sleep under them in mud huts with small windows and no fan. We’re generally about 150 miles from the equator! So they don’t use them, because they don’t think they need them. There needs to be joined-up thinking, not just good will.

Do you have any advice for anyone?

Do what you love! I’m generous and open-hearted and enjoy working in remote villages and working with Africans. I’ve had malaria, typhoid and once even cholera. People who do it for pennies in heaven – that’s not right. You have to do it because you like it and enjoy it.

If you want to get involved, find a local charity, knock on their door and support where you can see your money being put to good value, and is in line with your value set. Village by Village is very focussed on our values and that of our donors. People say you shouldn’t push western values on developing countries but if they want what we want, then there has to be a change because they haven’t got there yet.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

Definitely the cultural differences between international development groups and the recipients. Once you get past ‘yes’ and ‘thankyou’ you can really get somewhere. I’ll give you an example. Imagine if a Chinese charity came to the UK to help deal with the old people crisis, and brought their values about keeping old people at home with them.

They offer to come and build you an extension to house your old person, and of course you say yes. But then you put the old person in a care home anyway, because that’s what your culture does, and you enjoy your extension. The point here is that how you do things in your own country and culture informs your plan and what you do about the problems on the ground. It’s about finding the cultural equality between getting the idea right, the recipient value set and the conditions of the aid.

Finally, it’s the quick-fire question round!

Favourite place in London: Um, it’s Manchester!
Favourite holiday destination: The villages we work in. The majority of communities are so full of love and kindness, and I love what a difference you can make there. At an in inner city youth work project I worked for we would see 1 in 10 people helped, but with the same resources in Ghana it’s 9 in 10.
Must check every day website: Our homepage! I’m responsible for maintaining it, although some of our homepage content comes from Instagram from the villages showcasing our latest projects.
Dream travel destination: I’ve been to 72 countries! I think Bhutan, because I already went to Tibet.
Cheese or chocolate: Chocolate!

Find out more about Village by Village on their website or follow them on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.