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 were protected and that they had 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 III: Creating a Team Around Your Taproot Plus Projects
TR: It sounds like your best experiences on Taproot Plus have been when you find a volunteer that fits based on skill set and time commitment. But it also sounds like maybe you’ve had some rough starts with a few, either because the volunteers weren’t the right fit or the process and path forward wasn’t clear. What advice would you give organizations on making sure that they’re setting the project up for success?
TJK: Because we’re a small organization, I play a role in everything. On our board, we have a chairperson for finance and a person focused on communications. These are all people that have expertise in the field but don’t have a lot of time to commit. So, we were doing something with our financials, right? We wanted to get all of our information together in Quickbooks. What I did that was very successful was, I got my treasurer—who has his MBA and a degree in accounting—and I put him on the initial call with the Taproot Plus volunteer. This way, the volunteer knew that I had someone who has a financial background helping me in this process, too. That was helpful for everyone.
And then even when we were doing a project with HR, I brought in another board member who has background in organizational development. I brought her on that initial call, and she was on all of the emails. I think at that point, the volunteer also realized “okay, there is someone who has expertise in the field that is working alongside with me, that can give me constructive feedback.” I found that to be extremely helpful, especially when it’s in an area that I don’t know much about.
TR: Interesting! It sounds like you’ve been really successful in engaging your board in this process of using more pro bono. Have you always had a really engaged board, or has this been another way for you to engaging them in new ways?
TJK: It’s a new way for me to engage my board. Some board members are active, and some are not. It’s a relief knowing that, okay, we don’t have this particular set of tools that we need to run our organization well and we need to bring in a Taproot Plus volunteer, and I know that I have a board member who can help and take ownership of a project. Like after we worked on our HR policies and procedures – the board member was not as engaged before, but she actually presented the project to the board and I see now that she’s more active. So, yes, it’s a great way to involve your board, who are also volunteers themselves.
TR: Tenneh, you mentioned earlier that one of the really important things when you’re setting up your project for success is to have clear expectations on the time commitment. Can you tell me how you do that? How do you go about ensuring that they have set aside the time to get a project done?
TJK: In the initial interview, I ask them what time commitment they can make, how many hours a week they can dedicate to this project—5 hours? 3 hours?—based on the need. I also tell them if it’s something that I need immediately or if it’s something that I can work on over the next three months. But the time commitment – if you tell me that “oh, I only have two hours a week,” but I know that we need to do this in two months and we need a total of 40 hours, then that’s not going to work. What I’ve done in the past with Taproot is that if there’s a really, really good person, a person that’s completely committed, but they can only spend 5 hours per week and we need 7 hours, what I do is I interview a few volunteers and make a team. Then I go back to Taproot Plus staff and I ask if we can use two people. I don’t want to lose someone because they don’t have the extra two hours a week, you know?
TJK: So I go back to Taproot and I say “Can I please work with more than one volunteer and bring them together on this project?” After Taproot approves, I email the volunteers and say “Ok, Sarah you are going to be working Jean, these are the things we need to accomplish, who is going to take on what?” Nine times out of ten, they will always choose what they can do. Right now we are working on branding our fact sheets, and we have two excellent volunteers who have high-profile jobs and cannot commit to the full time needed. But they are communicating well and working together to get the best product.
Quick Tips from Tenneh:
- Engage your board in new ways with pro bono: Tenneh mentioned that her board had varying levels of engagement. When a project came up that sparked an interest in one of her members, she was able to engage and activate that member to be more involved.>> Do you have a project that would benefit from the additional expertise of a board member? The volunteer will be supported and your board member will feel engaged – a win win!
- Be clear about your expectations up front: Tenneh doesn’t beat around the bush with the amount of time she expects of her volunteers. Being clear about the commitment you need is one of the ways you’ll ensure you find the right volunteer for the job.>> Encountering challenges on your project? We’re here to support you! Connect with us for any questions you might have.
- Build a team to meet your needs: Tenneh understands that people’s commitment to a project and their actual availability don’t always align. If you feel like you’ve found the perfect volunteer match, but they can’t meet all of your needs, interview additional volunteers and see if they’d be willing to work as part of a team.>> Always be upfront with volunteers if you plan to form a team – you’ll need their buy-in for the project to be a success!
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/