It’s just like riding a bicycle

In my spare time I do a bit of sport, I enjoy swimming, riding my bike and the odd bit of running 😉 and so I thought the title of my next blog post might attract the attention of some of my triathlon friends.

I have often compared the work that I do and the relationships that I end up building with colleagues to that of riding a bike. The project managers, community organisers and activists that move things forward for us within organisations like Equal Education are the ones who are doing the pedaling – there job is to constantly push and pedal forwards ensuring that we move. As an operations manager handling the administration and finance – me and my team are there to apply the brakes!

We wouldn’t be able to ride without each other… if there wasn’t a group of people or an individual who was constantly pedaling forward we would never go anywhere and never achieve anything but without any form of system, process, planning or administration (the brakes) we would have long ago gone crashing into something or ridden straight off a cliff and into the sea!

I find that this analogy becomes particularly relevant during times of high stress which for Equal Education happens when we are preparing for and running big events. Be it a large march for 15 000 people, a small March for 2 000, a National Congress, a Summit for Quality Education, a picket outside a courthouse, a camp or even a mass meeting for our larger membership; the ‘pedal-break’ phenomenon seems to come into play with vigorous amounts of pedaling and equally stringent breaking being necessary to make the event happen. What becomes important during these times of chaotic cycling is to communicate and continue working together to ensure that nobody goes flying over the front of the handlebars.

EE has just shown its National strength for the first time. On Monday the 17th of June 2013 we marched to Parliament in Cape Town with 1500 learners from various township and some suburban schools across the Western Cape plus partners and friends. Simultaneously we marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria with 1500 youth from areas around Tembisa and Kwa Thema and partners and friends in and around Gauteng. On Tuesday there was a picket outside the High Court in Bisho in the Eastern Cape.

3 events in 2 days in 3 different provinces

Quite a feat and quite a logistical and administrative nightmare (with some interesting aftermath that I will save for another blog)

And yes… we were all pedaling and breaking with furious intensity!

The question I found myself asking this time around, now having had 4 years of experience in these types of events was how to make the ride a little smoother. Perhaps again it is worthwhile comparing it to a triathlon. I have recently completed my first full Ironman event. The training in the lead up to race day has to be slow, meticulous, planned out and very disciplined. You need to stick to your training plan, make sure that you eat properly and get enough sleep. The more you follow the correct process the more prepared you will be for the day of the race. However, when race day comes you have one shot to give it all you’ve got and on those days you have to trust your mind and body to know what do, to use what it has learnt during the training so that you can let go.

Building organisations and systems have to follow the same kind of discipline in the early stages and that discipline needs to flow throughout your team, from the very top right out and through to your membership. Everyone must be taught how the system works and given opportunity to practice it. During the months of preparations it is vital that we adhere to the policies that have been set out because as ‘race day’ approaches and you start to panic, running out of time to do your training and stick to your routine we are going to have to let go a little bit and trust in the preparation that has been done and the foundation that we laid before.

This is particularly pertinent when it comes to budgeting and spending. Inevitably as the event gets nearer unplanned expenses start to creep in and the closer we get to ‘race day’ the more unavoidable those expenses become. If something happens to your bicycle right before a race that you have spent 6 months training and preparing for, you are going to spend whatever money and time it takes to fix it and make sure that it is ready for you on the day. Likewise, in the final week before an event it is too late to be saying ‘no’ to additional expenses because often that decision will end up hampering the success of the day, the budget has to allow for contingencies so that these kinds of crises – which WILL come up – are less of a stress on the whole process.

I don’t want this to be an ultra-distance blog post so I think I may leave it here for today. I hope that those reading this will continue to ride their bikes, whether they are braking or pedaling or fulfilling some other vital role in their own organisations I guess the message I want to give is as follows:

Work together. Train people on the processes and policies that you have in place, make sure they understand them. Invest this time in the very early stages of the event planning – not at the peak crisis points, it is too late and ends up being more of a ‘fight’ than a learning opportunity.

1. Plan

2. Plan for a crisis

3. Plan some more!

Make sure to learn from your mistakes so that you can move on and continue to perform at your peak. Evaluate.

For most of us, it isn’t about winning Ironman but about crossing that line in one piece. Don’t let the week before ruin your base and all of your hard work, let go and trust in your preparations so that you make it down that red carpet at the end with some tears of joy on your face.

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The Early Days

So, I am up early on a Thursday morning preparing for my day and feeling like I really need to take advantage of this quiet time and write another post – I have been told that if you wait too long people will lose interest!

I have been keeping a post-it note next to my bed so that if I have ideas about things to write about in the middle of the night I can keep track; one of the items on my list was ‘The Early Days’. For a bit of inspiration I decided to go back through my old emails and try and see if I can remember how I got started way back in 2009 when I arrived at Equal Education.

It has been fun so far, looking through old messages, remembering how things were back then. (I also learnt how to use a function in outlook which allows you to create a search folder! Amazing how you can learn new things every day and even teach them to yourself).

Equal Education started in 2008 so by the time I arrived in January 2009 the organisation was nearly 1. At that stage there were a small number of full time staff – maybe 7 people, all working in the same room out of an office in the Shawco Centre in Khayelitsha. We were together all of the time, if you wanted to have a staff meeting you could basically just stand up from your desk and make an announcement and other people could just turn their heads to face you – times have definitely changed!

My computer was stolen within the first few months of being in Cape Town (Valuable lesson 1: back up your laptop!) so I only have emails dating back to April 2009 but from those messages it is clear that the following were urgent priorities to get set up when I arrived:

  1. Contracts: at this point nobody had a letter of appointment, there was no proper payroll or payslips and we also needed to start making deductions for tax and payments to SARS for PAYE and UIF which was not done in 2008.
  2. Our finances: There was a file of receipts and invoices from the previous year but a lot of transactions were being done in cash with no paper trail. A set of forms had to be created to use for taxi trips, taxi drivers, food and other petty cash items (essentially there was no petty cash system so it was urgent that a process and some strict controls be put in place.) Processes also needed to be put in place for making payments, signing off on them, working to a budget etc.
  3. Policies and Procedures: from the basic stuff like leave, petrol and phone policies to discipline and grievances. It was urgent to produce a policy and start implementing it so that decisions were fair and consistent.

These are basic things to create and implement. These days with the help of the internet which has a million templates to choose from and articles and blogs to review, it is easy enough to get started on your own. Valuable lesson no.2 is that Google is your best friend. Use the search engine to help you answer some of the questions you have when getting started. It is also important to set up some contacts in both the HR and general operations field so that you can bounce your ideas off someone who has a bit of experience. I think with these tools it is fairly easy to put this stuff together yourself in the early stages and then as you grow and develop you can seek more solid legal and financial advice. Using consultants is helpful if you do not have specific HR or financial expertise and for some of the more tricky items but sometimes outsiders do not have a true understanding of the day-to-day operations so my sense is to get as much advice (for free ;)) as you can and then do it yourself.

I really feel like these items listed above are the basic building blocks to your operations for any organisation and are vitally important.

Interestingly enough as I sit here writing this in May 2013, a full 4 years later, these items, in slightly different forms, are still the top 3 things on my to-do-list. They have to be consistently worked at in order to keep up with the growth of your organisation. You cannot set policies in your first year when you have a staff of 7 and expect them to continue to be applicable 4 years later when you have a staff of 70. Likewise with a financial system that is created to manage and process an annual budget of R1 million to one which needs to track and account for R15 million worth of expenditure in a year.

Speaking of to-do-lists it is time for me to get cracking on mine. I need to work on our petty cash policy!

More to come soon… 

Getting Started

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As part of my social media course that I am currently doing we were required to start a blog… so… here I am.

All of us have different facets to our lives and different components that make up who we are – originally from Johannesburg and in my 30th year I could have chosen many things to write about but what seemed the most appropriate was to blog about my work, my life at Equal Education, what brought me here, what I do day to day and perhaps there will be some lessons I can share.

I have been working at Equal Education for 4 and a half years now, as the operations manager. I have learnt a huge amount during that time and thought that this would be a good platform to document some of that learning and share it with anyone else who may be interested.

This blog will be about operations and administration in grass roots activist organisations, based on experience from Equal Education. Most NGO’s have capacity shortages and often do not have the funding to pay for specialised skills in these areas. Financial and HR professionals demand high salaries and therefore many of us make do with what we have and use external consultants to assist where we can afford it. This puts a strain on our administrative capacity making it difficult to practice good governance and also threatening our sustainabiliy. Admin and operations are also very different in these types of organisations than they would be in the corporate sector or even in other NGO’s. Activist organisations have to move fast, be responsive to changes in the environment and do it immediately. This does not always allow for great planning or budgeting!

I look forward to writing more and learning about how this tool can work for me. More to come soon!