As HIV/AIDS ravages country after country in Africa and leaves millions of children orphaned in its wake, nonprofits such as REPSSI struggle to provide the support needed to meet the growing demand.
REPSSI, which became a non-governmental organization in 2005, works to palliate the psychosocial impact of HIV/AIDS on children and youth in 13 African countries. They have pledged to increase the number of children they work with from 500,000 to 5 million by 2011. With this level of growth comes the necessity for a defined infrastructure as well as managerial, negotiation, communication and project management skills. But REPSSI didn’t have the resources or the tools to develop these abilities in its employees.
“They’re really qualified in delivering the supports, but growing an organization was a big challenge for them,” said Frank Waltmann, head of learning at Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company. “Most companies provide materials to needy organizations, [but] we said, ‘How can we add value, how can we improve the organization and really make it happen?’ They need know-how and experience.”
Thus, an unusual relationship between Novartis and REPSSI developed. Novartis’ corporate learning department surveyed its training partners, consultants and vendors to find those who would be interested in helping to create unique learning content for REPSSI that would meet their growth challenges, help manage the organization across cultural boundaries and provide employees with the necessary leadership skills to succeed.
Novartis then selected the instructors for REPSSI’s training initiative from those who were interested, and the faculty headed to South Africa to conduct interviews with REPSSI employees.
“They tried to dig deeper into the training [and] development needs of this organization,” Waltmann said. “And to be open, it was quite tough on REPSSI because they had to [really] think about the issues. Of course, the faculty had to learn from it, but REPSSI also learned about the issues they have to address, so it was quite a powerful process.”
Based on the interviews, Novartis Corporate Learning and the faculty designed the training programs specially customized for REPSSI.
“Of course, we took some elements from existing courses. For example, in the project management course, we have a module on how to manage in a matrixed organization, so we put that in [the training initiative],” Waltmann said. “We could take some elements but really had to customize it to southern Africa and change the language, some content and refer more to the NGO topics than to commercial company topics.”
REPSSI has completed the training programs, and now Novartis is discussing the second phase of training.
“The first phase was successfully delivered,” Waltmann said. “But now it doesn’t stop. Training has to take place every year, more or less. The topics are changing, the people are changing and the quality of leadership is changing. What we really trained were the basics of leadership skills. Now we have to become more and more targeted on specific issues.”
But so far, the initial training seems to have paid off.
“When you enter a growth phase, there’s so much focus on growth, sometimes you forget to build a foundation for growth,” Waltmann said. “And what we heard from REPSSI is that we have built the foundation for long-term success. They have the basics right. If they don’t have the basics right in leadership, project management, finance and accounting, they wouldn’t have been able to grow as they’re growing right now.”