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Spotlight on Annabelle Chauncy

7 lessons on leadership.

Few young adults have had a journey as challenging as that of Annabelle Chauncy, involving passion, sensitivity, determination and having to deal with the odd spot of government corruption.

It all started in Africa for the CEO/co-founder of School for Life Foundation, a charity dedicated to providing sustainable change and development in Uganda. She met Dave Everett while they were both working as volunteers in Kenya, and together they launched the grassroots organisation in 2008. They shared a conviction that education is “the only real way” to mobilise a community and create a positive and sustainable future.

Since then, School for Life has been able to provide high-quality education to more than 400 Ugandan primary students and vocational training to more than 100 adults, as well as clean drinking water, electricity, community outreach and medical treatment to surrounding communities.

“Our vision and mission has always been to create sustainable change and development in Uganda, and we are now into the part of the journey where sustainability is starting to come into play,” Chauncy tells Third Sector.

“Up until now we have obviously focussed very strongly on quality education, but now we need to start generating revenue to put back into our school on the ground in Uganda. Where possible, we are really trying to create systems that will be self-supporting in the future.”

Chauncy and the School of Life team, which has grown to five in Australia over the past 12 months, aim to achieve at least 50 per cent sustainability before continuing to scale and replicate the model.

“Investment in sustainability is the next phase of development,” she says, describing a plan that includes a 50ha farm, subsistence farming, a piggery and bio-digesters that convert methane to gas for cooking.

“There is no point for us in growing and scaling so big if we are completely Western-side dependent. We will just end up like other organisations if there is GFC or major donors pull out their money and the schools stop running.”

This is why Chauncy has grown the team in Australia, hiring for marketing and communications, finance and fundraising.

“It is an exciting time for School For Life and for me personally. I have learnt so much over the past 12 months because we are really moving out of that start-up phase and into a much more strong and solid organisation.

“I have always been so used to just doing, doing, doing. Now it is becoming more about actually delegating and getting the best out of people.”

Having moved from law graduate to charity co-founder in a short time, Chauncy has had many lessons she says helped define the business leader she is today. Here she shares seven…

Lesson 1: Run your charity like a business

When it comes down to it, a charity is a business.

“We are under so much scrutiny to make sure we are running at zero per cent administration, but what business runs at zero per cent or even 10 per cent administration? What small business runs like that?” asks Chauncy.

“I try to get every single dollar to Uganda, but I guess over the past 12 months I realised that the whole responsibility, 100 per cent of the fundraising, was on my shoulders, and the organisation could not grow unless I brought more people into it.”

Lesson 2: Really listen

Chauncy believes one of her biggest lessons was learning to “really listen”.

“We would not be where we are today in Uganda if we hadn’t actually sat and listened to what the community wanted and needed, and how we were best going to work together. I put a lot of School of Life success down to that.

“Just being community-led and really focussed on making long-lasting solutions is so important. Unfortunately, you do see a lot of Western organisations run in and say, ‘Well you need this and you need that’. But if the community is not buying into it, it is never going to last.”

Lesson 3: Don’t be scared to change the dynamics

For the past eight years, School of Life has run an annual black-tie ball. The first three, says Chauncy, were  “a fun night out” as opposed to being fundraisers.

“My co-founders and I were both 21 at the time, and the easy way to make money was to put on a big party with all our mates,” she says. “Now we are running on a $2 million budget, and $100,000 from an event of that size is no longer worth it. I had to change the dynamic, and I guess now it is seen to be a real fundraising event.

“I still think it is a fun night out, but I suppose when people attend they know they will be expected to put their hand in their pocket.”

Lesson 4: Build a “tribe”

The power of purpose-driven people should not be underestimated, says Chauncy. It was an important step for her to find such people for her staff, and harnessing their passion to build what she would call a tribe.

“You need people around you who are bought in like you. You will find you just hit goals because you are all working in the same direction.”

It has not been all smooth sailing, and the organisation has had some turnover in the past 12 months. It was a huge test for the self-confessed “sensitive soul”.

“As hard as I can be on the outside, I also take things really personally, and I have had to turnover a few staff members where we just weren’t rowing in the same direction. You really feel it in a small team. You really feel who is in and who is not.

“You can really groom anyone into what you need them to be through training – if they have the right value set, I believe. It’s so amazing to see what you can achieve with a connected team.”

Lesson 5: Take it slowly

Overcommitment leads to dropping the ball, and there is nothing worse, says Chauncy.

“I am an overcommitter. I mean that in the sense of the business as much as myself. One thing I learnt this financial year particularly was that I overcommitted my team. There are only five of us in our team, but to me that meant we could do five times as much as I could do on my own. And you just can’t.

“You have to just focus in on a few things and do them well. Saying yes to everything is not necessarily the best idea. You do need to be measured in your decisions and be really honest about the amount of resources you have internally.

“Because I am a real visionary, I am very passionate. I am the sort of person who might walk into the office and say we are all going on the Kokoda Trail next year as a fundraiser. My team would respond, ‘Annabelle, we are climbing Kilimanjaro in six weeks’ time. Let’s just get through this first’.”

Lesson 6: Invest in the right systems

Chauncy admits to running a “relatively unsystematic” business up until a year ago. Complementing a strong team, she says, should be strong systems.

“We are now really starting to invest in systems. While they are frustrating and laborious for someone like me who loves to go out and talk to people, but they hold your business tight and keep things clean and concise.”

Data is one area NFPs cannot afford to get wrong, she says. “Data is worth more than anything. It is one of the most valuable tools you can have in a company and you need to hold on to that like it is liquid gold,” Chauncy says.

“I didn’t recognise the importance of data until probably about 12 months ago. Now I’m worrying that millions of spreadsheets and email addresses are just flying everywhere and not being put into CRM databases.”

It was only when Chauncy brought in a strategic fundraising strategist to do a three-year plan that she started to realise the true value of data.

“Fundraising is just a minefield. When you look at what the big guys are doing, it’s just so far from anything I could ever wrap my head around. Now I understand the science behind a lot of it. It’s so data driven and involves really understanding what is new in the market and how best to tap into it so you can stay innovative and dynamic.”

Lesson 7: Tech is not scary

A six-minute virtual-reality film Walk With Me made its debut at the School for Life Foundation’s Gala Fundraiser Ball this year. Guests were invited to put on VR headsets and listen as a 12-year-old girl walked them through her life growing up in a village in rural Uganda.

“It is a powerful emotional piece. I’ve tried to keep it not salesy … it really is like one of those things you would see at a short-film festival. It is not about cramming the charity down people’s throats. It’s a non-judgemental piece that gives you basically a walk in the shoes of a child living in Uganda.

“VR is such a powerful technology, but it just hasn’t been tapped into in Australia. I have been really surprised by the whole thing.

“We are charities, but we need to act like businesses and we need to be dynamic like businesses because this is a fast-moving world and we have to keep up.”

Chauncy will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Third Sector Live event in Melbourne on September 7 and 8. Visit ThirdSector.Live for more information.

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