We talked to Elena Bonometti of Tostan on how non-formal education program puts rural communities in charge of their own future and this is what she had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Elena Bonometti: Thankfully, both my own family here in Dakar and our broader Tostan family are doing OK. We feel deeply fortunate on so many levels. We are hoping 2021 will bring better circumstances for our world.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Tostan.
Elena Bonometti: I am an Italian national with 20 years of professional experience in Africa. You could say I am most specialized in the field-based management of development programs, specifically focusing on community health and economic empowerment and with a deep belief in the importance of empowering girls and women. I was fortunate to take over as CEO at Tostan in 2017, succeeding our inspiring founder Molly Melching. I discovered an organization with fantastic staff, successful programs, and a stable network of support. Hence, as I joined, I have focused on sharpening our strategy and clarifying our approach to scale. I am also a co-founder of Catalyst2030, a collaborative movement of joint action for systems change to achieve the SDGs.
How does Tostan innovate?
Elena Bonometti: At Tostan, we innovate a lot, both in our education programs and organizations. In terms of our programs, we have been innovating since the testing of the very first program. In our direct partnerships with communities, we are organized around a program rather than projects — meaning that we test new ideas and then integrate effective ones into our existing curriculum. The how of this is about listening carefully, not starting with what other people might be doing in a given topic, but taking the time to explore what an issue or challenge means for the people you seek to help, then building around that. One example of that would be our new programs to support better collaboration between community leaders and their local government resources and inspire innovation for the future of our work that emerged through careful design at the local level. In terms of our organization, we have had to innovate to find new ways to reach the scale of community wellbeing that we seek. It is about fostering a willingness to explore new ideas, seeking guidance, and engaging in dialog both across our organization and externally. A good example is our exploration of sharing, training, and replication, and how we can support the scale of wellbeing through partnerships to share our expertise. In innovating in this way, we are exploring significant new opportunities in Nigeria and elsewhere.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your organization, and how are you coping?
Elena Bonometti: Like all nonprofits, we have had significant disruptions due to COVID-19 and its immediate consequences. We did experience lockdowns in most countries and had to suspend our programs for several months. I am proud to say that we could bring our best in a year of unprecedented challenges. We prioritized safety across our stakeholders and mobilized around vital work to support communities in preventing COVID. The employees and volunteers of Tostan, their families, and so many others in our networks stepped up. They made it possible for the organization to not only survive but continue forward so that the communities we work for could find a partner when it mattered most. We were lucky to have great supporters that made it possible for us to navigate without major layoffs and now have relaunched programs, with some modifications, however.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Elena Bonometti: In one sense, of course, we did have to make some tough decisions this year. I think we made the right decisions and did that together as a leadership team, which was important. In another sense, the decisions and choices were straightforward to make, thanks to the clarity we created at the beginning of the process, ensuring everyone knew which priorities came first. In addition to being proactive, group-oriented, and transparent up-front, the lessons we learned this year were about our potential — what we were capable of as a team and what ways we can work together. I’m glad that we have been able to try new ways of meeting that allowed more people to attend and participate: we learned we can do a fantastic amount virtually even if we still feel in-person is best.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Tostan in the future?
Elena Bonometti: Being at the head of an organization can always be a source of stress, but thanks to the competent and engaged staff, we have navigated well. In 2019 launched a Well-being Agenda within the organization, which has been a vital resource this year. It allows people to work together, encourage their colleagues and themselves to take breaks, take their vacation, and manage their wellbeing.
Looking ahead, I feel Tostan has a tremendous opportunity in 2021 to build upon our unity and take action together to make a significant contribution to community wellbeing while also reinforcing our organizational wellbeing. A colleague from Mali recently shared with me a proverb: Kabèn Ka ko kè! — that means in Bamanankan, “Let’s unite and take action!”. It feels appropriate for Tostan and our world in these unique and challenging times.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Elena Bonometti: Increasingly, Tostan isn’t asking who our competitors are but with who we can collaborate. That’s because, honestly, we have not yet found another organization that is running the kind of model we do in the places where we work. We address this rare space — preparing communities across entire regions and districts, especially girls and women but also men and boys, to lead their development and address a range of crucial issues. That’s our strength, and it is very complementary to the many specialized actors out there.
In terms of staying in the game, I feel that the challenges we face today in the social sector are changing rapidly, are systemic, and undoubtedly multifaceted. To address the SDGs and our global challenges, we must find new ways to collaborate whenever possible, embrace the complexity, and use the community intelligence to make the most of our shared contributions. It is one of the reasons I co-founded Catalyst2030 and why Tostan is a member and also moving so quickly to explore collaborative scale. It will not be enough to talk about what isn’t working but to start innovating and testing new collaborative development systems.
Your final thoughts?
Elena Bonometti: It was nice to see the startup.info website and read some of the articles. We are a long ways from a startup — Tostan is turning 30 years old in 2021! We keep a startup spirit because we train and work with hundreds of small startup community organizations each year through our programs. I think that Tostan has found success in recent years by keeping a startup spirit: using flexibility, innovation, iteration, and a willingness to try new things. Thanks for inviting us to share!
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