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Think People, Not Projects

Charmaine Smith is the Founding Director of Infundo Consulting. After teaching various grades for 15 years, Charmaine became involved in transformative educational development across SA. Infundo serves rural and peri-urban communities with a holistic approach that includes healing of trauma and involves multiple stakeholders and community forums. Charmaine has worked extensively with corporate sponsors, government departments and other relevant bodies in the pursuit of uplifting communities through education. This is a summary of her candid and encouraging interview with Ziwani’s Sibs Sibanda.


SS: Our topic today is ‘think people, not projects,’ but before we dive into that, please tell us a bit more about Infundo and the work that you do.

CS: I started Infundo in 2007 with a friend as a vehicle for social projects – we wanted a credible organisation that people could trust. The name came about because we were involved in a school project, and someone commented, “Oh, you’re doing imfundo!” (a Nguni word meaning ‘teaching’ or ‘acquiring learning’). But I misspelled it as infundo when I looked it up, and found it was a Latin word meaning ‘pour out’ or ‘bless’. So, we thought, maybe God is more in charge of this than we realised, and the name stuck.

Infundo is a for-profit organisation – it is a company that focuses on taking business strategy into communities. Our clients are businesses who want to contribute to the sustainability of their area, because they understand that when their community thrives, the business will thrive as well, and vice versa. Although we also do ad hoc projects, our long-term projects focus on three rural areas in the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga, as well as the peri-urban area on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

When you’re working with people, it can be a real challenge when a client wants to see return on investment quickly, because you can easily be forced into fabricating the outcomes. In that case we have to ask ourselves, who do we serve? It is difficult to find the balance between showing the impact that the client needs to report on at board level, and serving the community at the pace that is required, that is more respectful and allows for authentic relationships to be built.

So, one of the things we started to do, was to create a behaviour matrix. This enables us to map out changes in behaviour as a way to show return on investment, before other outcomes become evident.

Trust is a really important factor in social projects. We have to be intentional about being authentic, and sometimes pushing back to our clients – being the voice of people who may not have a voice yet, and to amplify their needs in a way that creates respect and trust between the parties involved. Otherwise, expectations on both sides are not met, and it can even create an unhealthy dynamic with destructive outcomes.

SS: I love how you’ve taken a normally intangible outcome such as people’s behaviour, and by putting metrics against it you’re helping businesses think in a more biblical way about what return on investment could be. Would that be a fair statement?

CS: Probably. If you think about the life of Jesus – he didn’t list how many miracles he performed that day, he considered how people walked in relationship with him. Towards the end, he prophesied that Peter would deny him three times (Luke 22), but he also knew that that behaviour would eventually shift. He knew that the denial wasn’t the end, but rather a realisation for a much deeper passion later.

Every behaviour we exhibit reveals to us where we are, it also shows us where we could be, and often that’s where the change comes from.

SS: I think it is wonderfully redemptive that you’ve translated this into business language. That you can track progress and present it in a boardroom in way that doesn’t say, “Oh, we haven’t achieved any of your performance indicators, but people are happier that when we started. Can we have more funding please?” Now, it’s one thing to not think of people as projects, but would you say that it is equally important for the people not to see themselves as a project?

CS: I understand exactly what you’re saying. In many ways, we serve people, but ‘serving’ is a tricky word. We need to think about the power balance when we work with people. For example, if I see the beneficiaries of a project as victims, as people who are unable to help themselves, then in many ways I create limits that they cannot escape. If I’m in relationship with someone, and for them in order to stay in relationship with me they have to remain victims, in effect I’ve set-up their demise.

Again, if you think about the life of Jesus – he walked with people, he talked, cried and argued with them, he lived authentically with them. He actually spent a very short time with his disciples, but in that time embedded things that enabled them to lay the foundations of the global church. And that is what we have to do. We ‘just’ have to walk with people. This sounds very simple, but it means that we have to be vulnerable, and we need to release people to be who they are.

SS: I wonder how this has changed you personally over the years, in ways that you may not have anticipated?

CS: Oh, it has fundamentally changed me. When I started on this journey, I thought I was going to save the world, I was an idealist. I wasn’t willing to share power, wasn’t able to show vulnerability to clients or beneficiaries. But over time, as I’ve had to lean into God for his guidance and provision, I’ve learned that vulnerability allows for a lot more to happen in the work that we do.

I remember a project kick-off meeting years ago with a high-ranking government official in a rural area. I came prepared with all my notes and started rushing through the agenda, but he gently stopped me in my tracks, saying, “Uhm, I think you might have missed a few things. I’d prefer to start the meeting with prayer.” Everyone in the room stood up while he prayed a blessing over us, and when we continued, the whole atmosphere in the meeting had changed.

Those relationships are intact to this day, because he didn’t see me as a goal or a resource, but as a person first. He could very easily have walked away from that meeting and never spoken to me again, and I wouldn’t have known what had gone wrong. But he stopped me, and taught me that being in relationship is more important than the job we needed to do.

SS: What an encouragement. The truth is that we are complicated beings, and any people-intensive redemptive engagement is going to result in burnt fingers from time to time. Can you tell us about a situation where that happened?

CS: Of course, I’ve burnt my fingers a few times. One example is a big project we ran at a school, while the school wasn’t running properly. I thought the lack of teaching was unacceptable, so we took the children and arranged for tutors, and basically got those kids through their matric exams. Although we achieved our goals, this resulted in the kids being quite resentful towards the teachers who didn’t teach them, and the district authorities firing many of the teachers.

The point is not whether the teachers losing their jobs were right or wrong – the point is that an uninformed, narrow-minded decision had a much larger impact than we anticipated. I didn’t make the choice to ask questions, I made the choice to just act. I achieved the result we wanted, but at the cost of other people.

SS: That reminds me of the saying that we must ‘enter another culture as learners, not teachers’, especially when we have the privileges of resources and a high level of education.

CS: Absolutely. If you think of the example I just shared – other people bore the cost of my learning. Completely the opposite of a pat on the back for a job well done.

SS: Yet despite the hurt and discouragement of many learning experiences, you didn’t give up. What advice would you give to others who are trying their best to become more people-focused?

CS: The reality is that there were many times I wanted to give up, and there definitely are easier ways of doing business. But I realised that God has given us gifts and talents, and he expects us to use these – not for our own sake, but for the sake of expanding his kingdom.

The second realisation was that in my 14 years at Infundo, all I’ve had to do is become more of the person that God wants me to be. In serving clients and communities, all he has asked me to do is to be in right relationship with him. Whether we’re selling shoes, managing investments, or making coffee, ultimately, we only have to love God and love his people. I suppose that is a very simple call, although it is not a simple task.

SS: What I like about what you’re saying, is that this call is applicable to every Christian, regardless of the work we do. We are on a journey towards selflessness, of emptying ourselves and seeing others in the way that God sees them.

CS: It comes back to social justice. We need to shift our perspective on equality and equity, because if we do not see others the way God sees them, it doesn’t matter what we do – social justice will never come to be.

It turned out to be fortunate that on our first few projects I didn’t really know what I was doing, because it forced me to rely more on God, and kept me from thinking that it was all about me. God also put people on my path who could guide and teach me, without whom I could very easily have gone down a different road with destructive results.

SS: As businesspeople we are often called to new ventures, which we may be reluctant to pursue because we don’t know what to do when we get there. Your story is encouraging – how God used the uncertainty to work a posture of humility in you, that helped you to value people beyond what they can do to achieve the goals of the project.

CS: I agree. For example, some of our frameworks have been taken by other people and followed step-by-step, yet their impact hasn’t been the same. It must mean that God was present somewhere. And what a privilege to see many positive things happen because of his grace and providence, that couldn’t have happened only because of me. It is a joy to see a glimpse of the hand of God at work.

Charmaine Smith

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