Could You Graduate From Harvard With Just A Windup Computer?

Then why do you expect a child from Africa to be able to?

Could You Graduate From Harvard With Just A Windup Computer?
[Top photo: Juliya Shangarey via Shutterstock]

We construct a school in an impoverished, rural community, a place where hungry students crowd into a small building without electricity or running water to learn from a barely literate teacher. Few can read, even fewer can write. We then expect these same students, now equipped with a textbook and classroom, to graduate from high school, attend university, and lift their communities out of poverty. We are disappointed when this success is an exception rather than the rule; some of us even withdraw our support.


Yet, when it comes our own children’s university acceptance, we will spend thousands of dollars on a seemingly endless number of expenses—tuition for private pre-schools, dozens of extra-curricular activities, tutors, summer camps, volunteer trips abroad, doctor appointments, and counselors.

Flickr user Carla Gomez Monroy

This disconnect permeates every facet of my work within the nonprofit sector.

Take, for instance, a woman who refused to donate to a capital campaign that my South African organization, Ubuntu Education Fund, launched in 2006. We had outgrown our current space in Port Elizabeth’s townships and wanted to build a $7 million headquarters, containing a pediatric clinic, counseling spaces, classrooms, a theater, and gardens. She questioned our plans, asking me, “How dare you spend so much money on one community when there is so much poverty in the world?” Yet, her own children attended The Dalton School, a $40,000-per-year private school with infrastructure far more expensive than the Ubuntu Centre.

A few years later, a major donor lowered his pledge, because he was concerned with Ubuntu’s “high” cost per child (we spend an average $5,500 per client per year); just two months prior, he had thrown his son a $40,000 birthday party. Still another long-term supporter was infuriated that Ubuntu had “wasted money” on a pink graduation dress for a university student to wear on a day celebrating her years of resilience, hard work, and strength.

What frustrates me is not that we want to send our daughters to elite high schools or host lavish celebrations for our sons. I spoil my own kids rotten. Does my three-year-old need a five-foot tall stuffed giraffe or another Bob the Builder truck? No. Do I want him to get the best education that I can afford? Yes. Going to the end of the Earth for our children is a parental instinct that cuts across all social groups.

What does baffle me, however, is that we balk at the notion that children who live far below the poverty line would need the same investments as our own kids to lead healthy, prosperous lives.


Experiences within the philanthropic community never cease to surprise me. I walk into a meeting, convinced that the supporter and I are on the same page—that, as self-proclaimed social progressives, we ascribe to the same beliefs in universal equality and human rights. I leave, indignant and exasperated. Why should the 2,000 orphaned and vulnerable children that we work with in South Africa deserve any less than those living in Manhattan or San Francisco?

Not only is this perspective morally ambiguous, but it is also practically problematic. Philanthropists expect nonprofits to achieve impossible successes with insignificant funding: a reduction in maternal mortality after a few midwife trainings, sustainable access to clean water with a single well, or improved food security with the distribution of protein paste. Those in the industry know that these standards are ridiculous. A child orphaned by HIV living in a food-insecure, unstable aluminum shack will never make it to, let alone graduate, from Harvard with a cup of soup and a windup computer. Yet, because we are beholden to donors, program strategies change, the conversation shifts, and suddenly the entire industry champions outputs–how many computers have you provided kids–over outcomes.

Felix Lipov via Shutterstock

How do we reverse this trend? We need to rewrite the narrative.

Social change always comes slowly; it can be achieved neither through top-down strategies nor bottom-up campaigns alone. Instead, it must occur simultaneously and on multiple levels. The major players, the $100 million budget organizations that dictate the industry strategic agenda, must collectively step up. They must use their influence to shape discussions around development and gently lead their donors toward more sustained, significant investments. Smaller organizations, too, must make a stronger effort to be heard, to share what they have learned on the ground, and to be honest about what it really takes to eradicate poverty.

Shifting donor mindsets is not as daunting as it may seem. I have met countless philanthropists who already believe in and support comprehensive, sustained interventions and even more whose perspectives have shifted as they delved deeper into the development sector. Their voices are growing.

Still, though, there are many who will only fund short-term, output-oriented projects. Turning down this funding, no matter how large your nonprofit, is difficult and, in some cases, impossible. This is where donors share some responsibility. When you believe that you have found a nonprofit staffed with talented, hardworking, and visionary leaders, trust them and their expertise. Empower them to do their job and be patient when not all of their risks work out. Let them invest in people and infrastructure, because what does it matter if you pay for a measles vaccine if there isn’t a nurse to administer it? Most importantly judge them not by their overhead—the amount that they spend on administration, infrastructure, capacity building, and fundraising—but by what impact their investments yield.


If we all start to afford disadvantaged children the same dignity we afford our own, we’ll start to see a lot more Harvard graduates from these communities.

About the author

Jacob Lief is cofounder and CEO of Ubuntu Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that takes vulnerable children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa from cradle to career. Nuancing traditional development models, Ubuntu redefined the theory of “going to scale”; rather than expanding geographically, they focus on the depth rather than breadth of their programs within a community of 400,000 people.