Ubuntu’s Big Vision: A Q&A with CEO Jacob Lief

Jacob Lief and co-founder Malizole “Banks” Gwaxula in Port Elizabeth townships in 2000.

Ubuntu Education Fund Founder and CEO Jacob Lief recently sat down with our NYC staff to talk about Ubuntu’s 18-year journey and the organization’s radical plan for expansion: Vision 2020.

Q1: How has your vision for Ubuntu changed in the last 18 years? What are some of the biggest lessons from this journey?

A: Our vision really has not changed at all. In the beginning, it was to take children — the most vulnerable children we could find — to university. Over the years, it has evolved to taking children into the world of work. Our North Star is “stable health, stable income.” Whether you’re a lawyer, a chartered accountant, or factory worker — if you’re healthy, a good citizen, bringing home an income, and supporting your family — that’s success to us.

We’ve learned some key lessons over the years; our strategy has evolved. We’ve created a culture of learning within Ubuntu where we take risks, we take chances, and we learn from our mistakes. I think one of the biggest lessons is if you don’t start early, you really can’t change a child’s life. For us, that means starting with pregnant mothers. We ensure a healthy birth and we work with you every day of your life, which brings us to another key lesson — there’s nothing more sustainable than investing in a child every day of his or her life

I think that those are 2 of our biggest lessons — stick with a child every day of their lives and start early.

Q2: Why Vision 2020, why now?

We’re in our 18th year at Ubuntu Education Fund, and we’ve gone from our “startup” phase to expanding our campus. In 2005, we set out on a five-year journey to build the Ubuntu Centre, which we opened in September 2010. The Centre embodies our entire philosophy at Ubuntu Education Fund — that access to great education and healthcare should be a child’s right, not a privilege. We are now at a point where it’s time to look at the next phase of Ubuntu Education Fund. Vision 2020 emerged from over a year spent analyzing our data, understanding where we have the most impact, and deciding which programs provide the most leverage.

Our plan for expansion: Vision 2020

At its essence, Vision 2020 is about expanding our campus and moving the Ubuntu Centre to the next phase. We’re taking the knowledge and experience of 18 years and packaging it in a way that will help others around the world have a greater impact. So, what does that actually mean?

It means doubling the size of early childhood programs. Ages 0–5 are crucial development years that provide a strong foundation for the rest of a child’s life. That’s why the first aspect of Vision 2020 is about expanding early childhood development. We’re also going to partner with a high-achieving primary school, providing 240 of our children with world-class education.

Next, we’ll build a vocational training centre that will prepare 750 students for employment. To share everything we’ve learned in this 18-year journey, we’re creating the Ubuntu Institute, which will provide leaders and developing community institutions with the tools they need to deliver sustainable change. Finally, we will establish an institutional stability fund to ensure long-term impact and our ability to remain innovative.

Q3: What do you think is the most important part of this plan?

Rather than dissecting Vision 2020 and highlighting one aspect of it, I’d say it’s about strengthening our cradle-to-career model — making sure every aspect of it gets better.

It’s not about reaching more children. Absolutely not. It’s about having a deeper impact on the children we reach.

We serve 2,000 children, and we’re doing a very good job with each child, but these children are dealing with daily hardships that most of us can never understand. And we must do more for each one of them. Vision 2020 — when you scrape away the fancy logo and the renderings of our construction — is really about providing more and doing a better job for each of the children we actually serve.

Q4: How much do we need to raise to make this vision come alive? Why should people invest in it?

To accomplish Vision 2020, we need to raise an additional $6 million USD over the next five years. That’s in addition to our core operating budget, which is between $5.5–6 million per year. This additional funding will allow us to renovate the Ubuntu Centre, build a new vocational training centre, as well as fund some additional core infrastructure and key salaries to hire new staff who will take Ubuntu to the next level.

Q5: What are our plans for expanding our staff?

Our entire model is about talent. It’s about investing in people. Our BUILD (Bertha-Ubuntu Internal Leadership Development) Program continues to pour over 3 million Rand per year into developing our team. Vision 2020 will ensure that we continue to invest in our people, continue to grow our team with some key hires, new educators, and new staff to help with the vocational training centre.

Q6: How many more clients will we be able to support? How will Vision 2020 change the townships of Port Elizabeth?

Vision 2020 is not about reaching more people; it’s about doing a better job with the children and the clients we currently reach. It will allow us to provide a higher quality of service.

It’s a statement to not just our communities, but to the larger philanthropic world that you need to go deep into one child’s life, go deep into one person’s life, one community, to actually make a change.

It’s about quality! The Ubuntu Centre stands for quality — it’s a center of excellence, it’s world class. People still to this day say “Isn’t your building extravagant? Isn’t that over the top?” Yet they’re happy to send their own children to $50,000 a year private schools. And we’re saying “No.” Just because you’re born poor in the townships of South Africa doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the same opportunities as a child born on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

Q7: We’re not trying to increase the number of people we serve but we’re trying to reach them better. What does that mean in terms of their exponential impact in their own community?
One of the key aspects of Vision 2020 is creating opportunities through our vocational training programs. Over the last two years, we’ve piloted an initiative that has built a pipeline of employable candidates to employers. It gives us the opportunity to work with young adults who are not going to university and say to them, “What are your dreams? What are you best at? What are your skills?” and help them access that world of work.

Raising children and helping individuals is deeply individualized. What works for one person might not work for another, and Vision 2020 continues to give us the flexibility to work with each client on a very individual basis.

Q8: What do you anticipate to be the biggest challenges for Vision 2020?

I think the greatest challenge continues to be recruiting and securing top talent. There’s a dearth of properly trained candidates in South Africa. While we continue to develop people — and that is a core aspect of what we do- — to grow our programming at the level we need, we must continue to bring in highly qualified people.

There is also the larger political and economic landscape of South Africa. We’re seeing disenfranchised communities taking to the streets — a sense of activism that we haven’t seen over the past twenty years since the end of Apartheid. I think this is healthy for the country and will be incredibly healthy in the long term, but it makes our situation more complex and incredibly difficult to navigate. But as you know, we are working in partnership with the community. We truly believe, at the end of the day, that Ubuntu Education Fund is a community institution.

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The Ubuntu Centre