ADDRESSING SOUTH AFRICA’S YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT CRISIS

Here is an alarming statistic: youth unemployment in South Africa today stands at over 45%; the highest since this cohort was first measured in 2008. Is there a solution?

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Yes, insists Marc Lubner, CEO of Afrika Tikkun. This is something he has been passionate about since his family first started Afrika Tikkun in 1994. Under his guidance, the organisation has undergone several transformations, and he is about to lead it through its most significant change yet—to shift from a development organisation that serves the needs they believe are suited to the community, to one that marries the needs of the community with the needs of their donors.

It’s a change he believes is entirely necessary, given today’s economic climate. “Afrika Tikkun’s primary goal has always been to try to address the issue of youth unemployment,” he explains, adding that the organisation adopted a unique Cradle-to-Career model to help it do just this.

As the strategy suggests, the organisation’s first involvement with beneficiaries starts when they are very young, at community-based Early Childhood Development centres. From there, children are encouraged to continue with Afrika Tikkun every day after school where they are developed as leaders, to fulfil their potential in every aspect of their lives. After school, if they are not successful in gaining access to tertiary education, Afrika Tikkun offers skills development courses, which, crucially, equip them not only with technical skills but also social insights. “This is the real point of differentiation,” says Lubner. “We’re aware that it’s one thing to help a graduate secure a job, but it’s quite another to ensure they keep it and add value to the organisation,” he adds.

The problem here is that while many graduates of skills development programmes have the same technical proficiency as their peers raised in more privileged suburbs, they lack the nous that helps them get to grips with the basics of workplace culture. This is where Afrika Tikkun’s proposition has always been at its most compelling: equipping township graduates with vital social skills.

The organisation’s support doesn’t end there, however. Cognisant of the growing pressure facing corporates in terms of transformation, it set up the Afrika Tikkun Investment Trust as a vehicle for BEE ownership transactions. The funds generated through these transactions are used in the development of skills programmes in the charity arm of Afrika Tikkun—and in this way, the Trust helps with another aspect of transformation—to create a pool of skilled graduates, which will boost employment equity figures. The activity of placing graduates into jobs is implemented by the third arm of Afrika Tikkun—Afrika Tikkun Services, an enterprise development entity specialising in skills development and placement.

It’s a closed loop that makes a lot of sense—so why the change in approach to their donors? “We identified the need to listen more attentively to our clients; to find out what they really need in terms of staffing,” Lubner says. He notes that the NPO environment is becoming increasingly challenging: at a time when many corporates are trying to prevent job losses, donations to charities are compromised, no matter how worthy the cause. What’s more, the future of our township graduates can hardly be guaranteed in this economic climate. “Our model was effective in a context of economic growth. It is less well-suited to our current market of zero or low economic growth,” Lubner observes.

He adds that the NPOs that will survive these difficult circumstances are those that prove they’re able to do more than simply provide a feel-good glow and a few extras for beneficiaries. Successful NGOs will have to offer tangible benefits to corporate clients, which will ensure their sustainability—hence the decision to implement a structure which is noticeably more corporate in nature.

Central to this, according to Lubner, is the alignment of the management of all three Afrika Tikkun operations, so that they are united according to a common goal and purpose. This has been bolstered by the appointment of key senior executives, whose expertise lies in instilling corporate disciplines in the organisation. This change is being supported by Chief Financial Officer, Jevin Cassel and Chief Operations Officer, Birgit Vijverberg.

Appointed in 2017, Cassel brings with him 15 years’ experience in audit, financial management, project management and management consulting. Cassel has made a mark at several of the world’s leading financial institutions, including JP Morgan Chase and BNP Paribas in London. Moving back to South Africa in 2009, he worked as Head of Decision Support: Project Management Office at Standard Bank before moving on to the CAF Group, where he was appointed Financial Director.

Afrika Tikkun’s newly-appointed Chief Operations Officer, Birgit Vijverberg, brings a unique blend of skills honed in the development sphere. Her involvement at the Umsobomvu Youth Development Agency, working first as a Programme Manager of several initiatives and then as Manager: Skills Development, dovetails perfectly with Afrika Tikkun’s mandate to create a workplace-ready pool of youth.

These individuals will add further competence to the already experienced executive team; including Onyi Nwaneri, a Human Rights Lawyer, and an operating team in the townships of highly-qualified general managers; Sipho Mamize, Patricia Ledwaba, Manny Mhlanga, Nehwoh Belinda Geh and Lizo Madinga. Together, these General Managers manage a staff of close to 550 individuals, the majority of whom are recruited from their communities for their grassroots expertise. They are professionalised and developed in an ongoing way to create a uniquely empowered workforce with a strong sense of ownership and investment.

This powerhouse staff ensures that Afrika Tikkun is able to operate on a fresh footing, says Lubner: “In our new guise, Afrika Tikkun is not about persuading corporates to donate to skills development because it’s a nice-to-have. Rather, we are thinking and operating as a commercially-minded entity, competing with any other HR provider consulting to a corporate client whilst still performing as a non-for profit motivated by getting youth employed.” The emphasis, therefore, is on understanding a client’s precise needs in terms of recruitment and ensuring these needs are answered down to the last detail.

This process has already started: the new structure was decided on after much research and deliberation, which included asking corporate clients what their HR and BBBEE needs are. The organisation built on this by hosting internal strategy meetings as well as a workshop, attended by board members and donors, to ensure that a spectrum of stakeholder views are included in the new organisational structure. “It’s all about becoming more customer-focused. We have realised the need to operate as any other business; at all times aware that we have to service customer needs,” he explains.

Lubner’s understanding of the necessity of this new focus has been built by his grasp of another dynamic: the fact that in corporate South Africa, growth is readily applauded. This is no major revelation, but what is interesting is that NPOs that achieve the same growth are perceived as too-well funded and frowned upon. “It seems that there are different criteria in place for judging the successes of NPOs and corporates,” Lubner points out. He likens the double standard, which applies to flourishing charities to “tall poppy syndrome”.

“It’s as if stakeholders believe that there is a limit on the funds which may be accrued by a charity. “Once they have exceeded this amount, there’s a suspicion that ‘extra’ funds are being used inefficiently,” he says. In reality, he notes that there is no such thing as “sufficient” funds. “The truth is that there is a huge and growing number of people who require developmental support. Moreover, their needs are growing, too,” he explains. Add to this the difficulty created by strapped corporates reluctant to give donations, and it’s easy to see why Lubner opted to take his organisation in a new direction, generating enterprise development fees, and dividend income.

By repositioning Afrika Tikkun, Lubner is looking forward to seeing the organisation judged according to the same criteria used to evaluate the success of commercial enterprises. It’s nothing more than common sense, he says: “Ultimately, we’re all after the same thing: we need to create a tangible difference in our communities. A corporate might achieve this by selling more product in order to make better profits; we also want to grow, as growth gives us the security of knowing we can cover our operating costs and ensure we are able to better serve beneficiaries—and more of them.” The best tool in terms of evaluating the organisation’s prowess, he continues, is the success of individuals placed within corporate clients.

“Our message is this: there is nothing to safeguard charities from the change that is sweeping through our environments. Corporates have adapted to a new way of doing business; one that is more accountable and responsive. And we cannot afford to be any different. We’re simply making the change of mindset now,” Lubner concludes. 

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