Conversations with Child Steps International’s Founder and President, Tenneh Johnson Kemah
Tenneh Johnson Kemah is originally from Liberia. She left the country after the civil war broke out, when she was just a teenager. She promised herself that she would return, that she would be a part of healing her country – but she didn’t know how. In 2012, she founded Child Steps International to ensure that the rights of children in war-torn and impoverished countries are protected and that they have the opportunities they deserve to live prosperous and healthy lives in the places they call home.
In this blog series, we chat with Tenneh about how pro bono has helped her organization grow and the innovative ways she engages skilled volunteers and her supporters to move her organization’s mission forward.
Part I: Growing Through Pro Bono
Taproot (TR): Tenneh, can you tell us how Child Steps came to be and how you’ve grown the organization through the years?
Tenneh (TJK): We started Child Steps International in September of 2012, and received a grant from Open Society Initiative of West Africa a few months after to go into Liberia. Liberia is a war-torn country that has a lot of child trafficking, child abuse, and civil rights issues, and this grant allowed us to go in and teach children in school about their rights and responsibilities. We actually did a full pilot of that program in 2013 with 2,500 children, and it was extremely successful. But then through 2014 and 2015 Ebola hit, and we had to stop all of our work for about a year until they could get the virus under control. Currently, we have worked with over 10,000 children in West Africa, and we have also extended our rights and responsibilities project into the community, teaching locals about peace and conflict resolution. We also have a weekly “LAW+YOU” Radio Show through the United Nations Mission in Liberia radio station, airing to over 1,000,000 listeners throughout the country.
TR: What inspired you to get this organization off the ground? I know you’ve been with Child Steps from the beginning, and I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.
TJK: I’m originally from Liberia, in West Africa, where we have all of our work that is being done. I left Liberia when I was a teenager just at the start of the civil war. I promised that I was going to come back, and that I was going to do something, but I didn’t know what.
Leaving your country as a teenager can have a major impact. I came to the U.S. and graduated from college, and then began my career. I thought about doing something through the years, but it wasn’t a priority because I had been hired by the local government, and I was a young lady trying to actually make my life. At some point I realized that I had to do something. I had worked here in the U.S. with a lot of nonprofits and with the federal government, and I had developed a lot of programs for children and families in the child welfare system and unaccompanied minors in federal custody. And then I just decided that it was time to really go back and give to my country, where they don’t have enough capacity to even do what I was doing here. So I decided I was going to take my expertise there, especially in child welfare. A few months after we got our 501(c)3, we received our first grant.
TR: Can you give me a sense of how Child Steps International uses volunteers? And by that, I mean all kinds of volunteers. So whether they’re hands-on volunteers or skilled volunteers, I’d just love to get a broader picture of that.
TJK: We use a lot of volunteers. When we began, we rarely had time to sit and figure out our organization, our strategies, how we’re going do HR – we didn’t have anything. We had a small grant, and with those small grants you don’t have any extra money. A lot of other things need to happen in the delivery process, but those grants didn’t cover the extra cost. That’s where our volunteers came into play.
We have several staff members in Liberia and very few in America. We needed to do lots of community outreach, so we used a lot of volunteers in Liberia. When we first started working there, people would not volunteer for us because they’re poor people, they don’t have money. I wouldn’t expect them to do anything for free. But I think because of the cause of what we were doing, people felt very connected to that. The issues that we are trying to solve are really pressing. So we use a lot of volunteers in Liberia for our community outreach.
In the U.S., because we started as an organization that did not have a lot of money to hire people who were experts in social media, marketing, logo, branding, all of that – we turned to Taproot, and they have been absolutely amazing. We now have a new logo, and we are in the process of building a more professional website, as we did not really have the money to pay for it. So we used volunteers.
Another example, we had a series of book that we were to write for school-aged children and other vulnerable citizens in the Republic of Liberia. The books were about responsible citizenship, peace and conflict resolution, human rights and child abuse, but the grant did not provide anything about copy-editing. So yes, the grant paid for us to actually write the book, but we needed experts to really look at the book and help us finalize it. We used approximately 8 Taproot volunteers for all 5 books. Right now we have a previous Taproot volunteer helping us look for grants and writing them. We use volunteers to grow our capacity because as a small NGO, we just don’t have the money. We use the volunteers to really expand us at this point.
Quick Tips from Tenneh:
1. Use skilled volunteers to build your organization’s capacity: Child Steps did not have a marketing staff person to help with social media, a logo, or branding, so she posted projects on Taproot+ and found volunteers who could help her tackle those challenges.
>> Do you work at a small nonprofit that doesn’t have staff in marketing, HR, IT, or finance? Think about how pro bono can build your organizational capacity.
2. No money for big projects? No problem: Tenneh mentioned that, as a small organization, they didn’t have money for bigger projects like a new website. Tenneh posted a project on Taproot+ and, we are now in the process of beginning to work for a new website.
>> What types of projects could you envision hiring a staff member for? A consultant for? Consider using a skilled volunteer instead!
3. Use pro bono to piggy-back on grants: Tenneh points out that small grants rarely leave room in the budget for activities that support program delivery. Her example of writing a series of books was quite relevant. She received a grant that covered the actual writing, but copy-editing wasn’t in the budget. She looked to Taproot+ and found skilled volunteers to help her accomplish the goals of her grant.
>>Are you currently delivering on a grant but finding additional support activities or projects to be outside the scope of your budget? Could any of those projects be tackled with the help of a skilled volunteer in marketing, IT, HR, strategy, or finance?
About Child Steps International
Child Steps International (CSI) is committed to solving some of the world’s biggest problems faced by its most vulnerable citizens—children and youth—through partnerships that engage local and international stakeholders, working collaboratively for lasting solutions. CSI’s mission is to improve the lives of children and their families who have been affected by war, poverty, and discrimination. CSI accomplishes this by assisting communities in the development and strengthening of innovative, progressive, and effective services, which protect children’s rights and gives families the opportunity to be prosperous, healthy, and safe in the place they call home. http://www.childstepsinternational.org/