Member Profile: Evelyn Boyd Simmons, Africare

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March 07, 2017

Member Profile: Evelyn Boyd Simmons, Africare

Africare's leadership team at a meeting in Tanzania in 2016.

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing InsideNGO

Our Member Profile blog series features InsideNGO members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. This month we feature Chief of External Relations and Partnerships Evelyn Boyd Simmons of Washington, DC-based Africare, in photo at right. Evelyn leads Africare’s initiatives to develop, maintain, and leverage relationships with governments, international associations, academia, industry, and other NGOs. Here she talks about her career path, the importance of personal and professional networks, and how to make inroads in public-private partnerships.

Q: You’ve had a career path that has focused on the intersection of the public, private, and non-profit sectors—and one that started with Africare and has come full circle. Tell us a little bit about that.

I began my career at Africare Senegal as a volunteer. I grew up in a large family in a small, rural community in Tennessee with landowners and farmers on both sides of my family. My maternal grandparents had a solid house—with no indoor plumbing. There was even the four-legged savings plan—my father sold livestock to help pay my college tuition. In many ways, African village life felt very familiar to me, and I loved being in Senegal. In fact, Africare Senegal made me a job offer. I decided to return to Washington instead to work in the U.S. Senate on foreign policy issues. I then moved to the U.S. Department of State and served as executive director of the U.S. delegation to the first International Telecommunications Union’s conference on telecommunications infrastructure in Africa. I took everything I learned from those experiences and joined the private sector, working for Motorola for 11 years first as a lobbyist then as director of international trade policy. All that time, I was still connected with Africare—persuading Motorola’s foundation to donate to the organization, and once, on a business trip to South Africa, talking my Motorola colleagues into visiting an Africare project with me there. I worked for Pfizer for four years as director of international relations. I stepped into this new job at Africare just about a year ago. Throughout my career, I have traveled extensively to Africa and other parts of the world, focusing on developing countries.

What does your day-to-day entail at Africare?

It varies widely—which is one of the things I like most about the job. My day begins with email from home while I am still in my pajamas—an old habit from my Motorola days when I supported business teams in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. I might have a series of meetings on the Hill; direct or review research on donors or prospective partners; field a request from a donor for support planning a visit to one of our projects; lead any one of a series of special projects; meet with an ambassador; draft sensitive communications for our president; strategize with a board member; moderate a panel; organize a DC itinerary for the head of one of our African partner organizations; coordinate special events held at Africare House; or draft a job description for a new hire. I just got handed responsibility for development, so I spent a good part of the day yesterday analyzing our 2016 and 2015 donor database for patterns in preparation for developing a strategy.

What are some of the operational challenges/issues you face in your organization?

There are never enough resources. Never. When I worked for corporations, it would have been inconceivable to ask people to do what we do and expect excellent outcomes without being adequately resourced.

It might sound counterintuitive, but a good way to get help is to be a resource to others.

Evelyn Boyd Simmons, Chief of External Relations and Partnerships

Africare

What strategies/tactics do you use to respond to these challenges?

Well, now I’ll be raising money! Africare is fortunate to have a great mission and lots of fans of the important work we do. We ask our board for help and advice but we also have friends.

In addition, I draw on a professional and personal network of expertise and relationships that is 30 years deep. It cuts across government, civic, corporate, and non-profit sectors. It might sound counterintuitive, but a good way to get help is to be a resource to others. I call in favors; I do favors. I get creative, and I look for partnership opportunities that leverage our strengths and fill our needs. Interns and volunteers are a good resource if there is specific need, a good match, and time to actually mentor and manage.  

Given the continuing challenges of funding development efforts in an increasingly resource-constrained environment, many NGOs have a great deal of interest in private-public partnerships. Yet we don’t really hear (or read) a lot of success stories about these kinds of ventures. Tell us about some of Africare’s successes.

Private-public partnerships can be tricky, but I must say it helps immensely to have seen private-public partnerships from all sides. First, how are they defined? Some NGOs say they want partners when all they really want is private funding sources for the work they do. Partnerships are not fee-for-service propositions, nor are they finding a need to service. They are not that transactional. They are engagements where two or more parties share rewards—AND risks. They are collaborations in which neither party would have fared as well without the other. They are the space where missions overlap substantially enough to make figuring out how to work together worthwhile and productive. If an area of competence is too essential, an organization is crippled without it and must bring it in-house. If it is too tangential, there is little chance there will be sufficient traction, and the partnership dies or is cast off when higher priorities beckon. A real partnership is a very different proposition. Construed this way, it is perhaps small wonder there are so few success stories.

Africare currently has a fantastic success story in Nigeria. We are working with funders ExxonMobil and the National Basketball Association (NBA) on a great youth empowerment program. There are other partners, such as the local government. There is a tendency to focus on who pays the bills which can devalue the non-monetary but nevertheless essential resources contributed by other key partners without whom this program could not work. It is a fine example of perhaps unexpected parties, like the NBA. (Watch a video about this program.) Another example would be work we have done with Chevron to combat malaria in communities in which Chevron works. I cannot take any credit for these as they were in place well before I joined Africare, but they are examples of what I would consider genuine partnerships. We would like to do more of these.

What kind of advice would you give to another NGO trying to make inroads in this area?

Do a rigorous self-assessment of your level of fitness and readiness for partnership. Get clear on what it is you really want, what you are able and willing to do, what you have the support of your staff, board, donors and stakeholders to do and not do and with whom. Research prospective partners and know what their imperatives are—not just your own. If you are exploring working with a corporation, respect that their prime directive is different from yours. Look for areas of overlapping interests and develop a value proposition based on as broad and as solid a base of overlapping interests as possible. Above all, determine if it is really a partner you want or merely funding. 

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