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Joyce Obaseki of Grant a Smile: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization

“When we don’t address the root of our problem as a society, we are merely chasing circles. I believe our leaders are well aware of this, but for various selfish reasons they have decided to turn a blind eye”

I had the pleasure of interviewing, Joyce Obaseki. Joyce is the founder of Grant a Smile, a not-for-profit organisation that provides personalised support to parents, children, relatives, and carers of those fighting a difficult battle. Alongside being a leader and change-maker, Joyce is studying the Executive MBA at Imperial College Business School, a part-time MBA programme designed for those in senior roles who want to develop their strategic leadership skills and build a network with some of the most prominent leaders from organisations across the globe. Built for innovative thinkers with strong leadership ability, students like Joyce are destined to excel on the programme.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I was born in Benin City, originally known as Bendel State. It was once the capital of a pre-colonial African empire located in what is now southern Nigeria. As the first daughter, I took on the responsibility of being the mother of the house after my parents’ bitter divorce battle. I was just nine years old at the time and had to look after my four younger siblings. Although those days were tough, the experience made me strong, resilient and kind to everyone who needed a helping hand.

I was raised in a society where daughters didn’t have a voice. My parents did all they could to make sure I get the education they never had. At the age of 14, I moved to Lagos to live with my aunty, and there I began to learn how to speak English. At school, I was bullied because of my background and my inability to express myself in standard English. I was determined to prove English was just a language and shouldn’t be used as a measure of intelligence. I went on to study English Literature at university and have also taught it in various secondary schools here in the UK and in Myanmar for the past 20 years.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non-profit?

Nine years ago, a bedraggled boy, Steven, walked into my classroom crying because he had been bullied for wearing a dirty uniform to school. I decided to dig deeper and ask why his uniform was always dirty: what he told me next broke my heart. He told me his mum was too ill to wash his clothes. She had cancer and would sometimes struggle to cope with house chores, and although she had asked him to wash his clothes, he had forgotten to put them in the wash himself.

As a teacher, I came into daily contact with children who were struggling to deal with life outside of the classroom, but this child was the reason I decided to do more to help. 1 in 4 children in the UK are suffering a similar fate as this child and have a parent(s) battling a life limiting health condition. As a result, they have behavioural issues, low aspirations and no zeal for life.

Home was not the safe, secure, supporting haven many assume it is. Parents with life-challenging, life-threatening illnesses reverse the role of caretakers — the child assumes a heavy responsibility often not recognised by official services.

I noticed these children would turn up to school with poor personal hygiene. They struggled with homework, finances and feeding themselves. They are often targeted by other children who would see their tiredness and mistake it for weakness. They would become isolated, would fail to achieve their potential, and would often match this with behavioural and social issues within the school, which should have been their sanctuary.

I understood these children were not at risk, unhappy or abused. Instead, they were struggling to support those they loved. They were not equipped to fight their battles and needed support to meet their challenges — to meet their potential and to flourish again.

Taking on the task of working with these children outside of school, I realised some of their needs were simple and could be easily achieved. I offered my own time and resources to help with cleaning, decluttering, ironing — all offered on a non-judgmental, no cost basis.

Often, I found some of the parents were too embarrassed. My offer to help was declined because I was a teacher and that was not what they believed a teacher should be doing. My thinking was different. I believed I needed to do more outside of the classroom. In order to do my job as a teacher, the lives of those I taught needed to be cleared so a pathway was available to them. Without some order being restored to their chaos, it was impossible to achieve their full potential.

As my offers were being declined, I set out to find a charity or support organisation I could work alongside to meet this need. None existed. Then and there, I had my own moment of clarity — if none existed, I would have to be that innovator. My aim was simple — to provide an intervention support service for children who were working as unseen carers who were holding their own dreams and potential back because of their love for their parents. I was determined to find a way of supporting these heroes and giving them their smiles back. This is the inspiration behind Grant A Smile.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

Grant A Smile aims to give tangible, personalised support to parents, children and carers of those fighting a difficult battle. From a free-of-charge home clean to helping with dreams and wishes, we have an amazingly simple mission — to put the smiles back where they belong. Without the preventative intervention that Grant A Smile provides, I would imagine the impact of these traumatic experiences (Adverse Child Experiences) would almost certainly have a long-lasting and far-reaching impact on their mental health, and consequently their physical health as they continue to grow and develop.

Living in an environment of pain, uncertainty, mental and physical challenge should not define a child or an adult. We want to be the hand that reaches out to offer a completely non-judgmental support service where it is most needed. By arranging practical home support, we aim to improve the quality of life for those who struggle. The impact we make is mind blowing and goes to show that when your home is in order, then your life is truly in order. We have recorded improved attendance at school, happier, healthier children and parents who are less stressed. With less conflicts at home, parents can spend more time with their children and worry less about the chores, thereby focusing on improving their emotional and mental well-being and ultimately fewer hospital visits as a result of improved wellness.

Mental health issues in children is a national issue and as a community, we ought to support children in need by providing the right intervention at home and outside the home before it’s too late. Most children we support are emotional and psychologically scarred by the daily crisis and trauma they watch their parents go through and this is bound to affect their confidence, view of life, trigger behavioural issues and deadly emotional conditions later on in life. Our training events are designed to break the chain of low aspiration, increase self-worth and motivate and redirect our children before it’s too late.

To tackle deprivation, mental health issues in children, vagrants on our streets, self-harm and child suicide, we must first address the root cause of these problems and offer an intervention support to these families and their children before it’s too late.

Most of these kids don’t understand the chronic illness their parents battle and can become very resentful towards their parents and the world. These training sessions are designed to educate, empower, inspire and protect these children.

Grant A Smile believe we can be the “right time, right place” organisation to offer the “sunlight through the clouds” moment — when it’s needed most to the people who need it most. We support Social Services to help families stay together by finding a way to grow their own abilities. We can be hands on, a listening ear, or simply provide a couple of hours of cleaning just to get back on top of the mountain again. We understand that sometimes it’s the little things that give you a chance to breathe once more.

We have recently extended our support on an international basis seeking out those who need us and making our services available to as many as possible. We are currently operating in Myanmar and Nigeria where we work with families in poverty, supporting them with basic food, health supplies and sponsoring learning opportunities for education.

We are a socially aware organisation that offers a variety of life-enabling services to the most vulnerable families in communities where we aim to enable our targeted children by running life skills workshops, self — confidence events so that they can reclaim their own hopes and dreams — their own future.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

A friend told this client about our organisation and she decided to contact us despite her initial reservations. She was once a house-proud mother and wife before life turned upside down. This client had chronic anxiety towards letting anyone into her home and had accumulated many items due to depression and the death of her husband. She was best described as a hoarder. She was also diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, chronic depression and rheumatoid arthritis, so doing the house chores was an impossible task.

She lived on social benefits and couldn’t afford a cleaner. She automatically qualified for our support because she lived alone with her three kids, ages 8, 11 and 13 years old. She lost her husband to colon cancer a few years ago which made things extraordinarily difficult for the family. Since we started offering our weekly support, life is a lot better, the house feels fresh, and they are happier as a family. With each home visit, we literally do anything that needs to be done, so in effect; we offer an all-round support — from helping the children with their homework, shopping, listening — not just cleaning, gardening and ironing. With each visit, there is hope for this family and that serves as a great motivation to touch more lives.

In her own words: “When I first called the Grant A Smile office, Janet Smith, the office manager, was very understanding, helpful and professional and that helped with the anxiety I was feeling about asking for help. The first time I had my home decluttered and deep cleaned, I cried my eyes out because I knew this was the start of the new beginning I wanted for my family. This was the kind of practical support I wish I had for over 11 years now. My kids have suffered so much as a result of my poor health, and I often wish they had a break to function as kids should. They do everything for me — especially my oldest son. We are so grateful to Joyce for having the initiative to start this life-changing mission. In my quiet moment, I still cannot believe what these guys are offering to families in my position. If I was rich and famous, this is the mission all my money would go to because the kind of support they provide to people like me is priceless. This service goes beyond just providing the gift of a clean and a germ free home to families.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

When we don’t address the root of our problem as a society, we are merely chasing circles. I believe our leaders are well aware of this, but for various selfish reasons they have decided to turn a blind eye and left the responsibility of supporting vulnerable families to grass root organisations to find a solution to a much larger problem such as mental health, family breakdown and suicide. We received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Organisation in 2020 and have won 16 prestigious awards for the impact we make in our community. However, when it comes to getting the funding support needed to become sustainable and to grow our mission to a wider reach, we are turned down because of budget cuts or not meeting the funding criteria specified by the board. So, to answer your question about how people can support us, any of the support listed below would be most appreciated:

1. Helping us raise awareness of the work we do on your various platforms.

2. As part of your social responsibility and goodwill, individuals and corporate businesses can help by sponsoring our work: https://www.grantasmile.org.uk/partner-with-us/, donating via our website (https://www.grantasmile.org.uk/donate/) or organise fundraising events.https://www.grantasmile.org.uk/fundraise/

3. Join the mission by working for us here https://www.grantasmile.org.uk/become-a-smile-hero/

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Without good leadership, everything falls apart. It’s like a band with no director — everyone is playing their own song, and together, it’s just noise instead of beautiful chords of music.

By definition, a leader is someone in a position of authority with the responsibility to guide a group. They inspire people, they solve problems, and they build teams. They’re responsible for planning, organizing and directing a group so goals are reached in a timely fashion.

Good leadership helps everyone understand what the impact goals is, makes sure they have what they need to do their job, provides encouragement and monitors progress as the team moves forward. If your team were in a rowing race, the leader points out the finish line, makes sure everyone has a paddle and knows how to use it, shouts out encouragement as the race starts and not only keeps an eye on the competition, but keeps everyone rowing together for maximum speed.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non-profit”. Please share a story or example for each.

While having a business plan, mission statement and directors are necessary, those aren’t the most important things you need when embarking on the non -profit journey. These are:

1. Believe and just do it: When you embark on this unknown journey, all you have is a mere idea. You might find that people won’t take you seriously and won’t support. This is because many people do not believe a non-profit can make lasting impact or change the world. If your ‘why’ is strong enough, don’t let anyone stop you, but do not expect anyone to support you either.

2. Start with total brutal honesty. Are you really in to change the world or are you in to make profits? Will it create a real impact? Do you have something unique? Could you help another organisation who it better? Think about these vital questions (with 100% honesty) before starting your organisation, and you’ll be better off later. “Everybody deludes themselves in some way — and in groups it can often be easiest to delude each other. But the more honestly you can see the world, the better your decisions will be.”

3. Keep it moving: At various stages, the future of your non-profit will be unclear, but you mustn’t think it’s the end of the road. Simply trust the process and keep it moving! When you hit a roadblock, breathe, do some more research and re-evaluate. Don’t be afraid to change what is working. You will make mistakes — learn from your mistakes, accept all the craziness, fail better and see your failures as feedback to do better.

4. Narrow down your offerings
Rather than offering your services on a national level, start at the regional level and scale up as you grow. That way, you won’t burn out and won’t be biting more than you can chew and losing the motivation you need to keep going.

While it’s true that there are so many amazing projects you can come up with and jumpstart (otherwise there wouldn’t be approximately 168,000 registered charities in England and Wales as of 2018), you must realise at an early stage that you just can’t do everything. Do a few things excellently. “You need to focus on doing a very small number of things really well, and that means saying no to a thousand other things. This is harder than you think, and far more powerful than you can imagine.”

5. Know your why
Your organisation must focus on giving value to people. Think hard about the value you are offering. When it comes to picking people, pick people who are passionate about the mission, remain agile and don’t get stuck in a rut. Do what actually serves your mission, not what you feel locked in to doing. If you are focused on addressing the needs of the world the free market is avoiding, you are on to something big. Don’t lose sight of your why and ensure you are relevant and utterly irresistible.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

The one person that inspires me is Oprah Winfrey. I would relish the opportunity to talk to her.

Can you share your favourite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

“Be nice to people… maybe it’ll be unappreciated, unreciprocated, or ignored, but spread the love anyway. We rise by lifting others.” This quote is by Germany Kent and it is relevant to me because people call me the ‘Smile Queen’ and I give the gift of a smile anywhere I go. I get a thrill from helping the vulnerable and it feels amazing!

My life is a testimony and I feel so blessed dedicating my time to serving others in need. I have risen from grass to grace as a result of my decision to be kind and show practical demonstration on love wherever possible. Two years ago, I was awarded the British Citizen Award (BCA). After the Lockdown, I received a letter from Boris Johnson’s Cabinet Office to join the Queen’s 2021 Honours List as one of the lucky recipients of this year’s British Empire Medal (BEM). This was due to our commitment to the vulnerable families during the lockdown. It is incredible that we can support the families that we can reach and it is great to be recognised for it.

How can our readers follow you online?

Visibility is vital when you run a non- profit organisation and over the years, I have made huge efforts to engage with people on major social media platforms. You can follow me on any of these:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joyce.obaseki

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/joyceobaseki/

Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/joyce-obaseki-bem-bca-78a09b150

Twitter: @grantasmile

Email: joyce.obaseki@grantasmile.org.uk

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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