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Feb 22, 2024   |   Podcast

Cultivating Wellbeing: The VillageReach Story of Transforming Healthcare and Workplace Culture

Originally posted on The Business of Giving. 

Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.

Denver: And today we’ll be visiting team members of VillageReach. VillageReach works with the government to solve healthcare delivery challenges in low-resource communities. It is a global organization with offices in Seattle, Washington, Nairobi, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and DRC.

At the helm is President and CEO, Emily Bancroft. She, along with Abdul and Tafwirapo underscore VillageReach’s dedication to the wellbeing of every team member, a cornerstone of their workplace culture.

Emily: And so, we had also joined up actually interestingly with a group called The Wellbeing Project, who was doing a test around: How do you strengthen organizational wellbeing? How do you start to bring in concepts of wellbeing? What is that balance between sort of individual wellbeing and organizational wellbeing? And how do we think about building healthy organizations in a different way? So, we had started that work. We actually had started measuring for every year as part of our strategy, these various measures of wellbeing and belonging within the organization

Abdul: So, for me, I think the secret sauce for having employees engaged, for having employees to work on innovation, I think, for me, it’s the wellbeing because we start as human beings. Then, our outer shell is like professionally, you know. If I cater for my wellbeing, I’ll be an enthusiastic employee. I’ll come in the morning, greet everyone, and start doing my work. I’ll call to find out. So, I’ll be enthusiastic about it. So, that enthusiasm really sparks everything, sparks innovation, sparks communication, sparks everything. For me, if an organization doesn’t really care for that human being inside me, just the human being person, then everything is so hard. I tend to hate my work. I come to work. I don’t talk to people. So, for me, it’s really taking care of the human being part of me that really makes me want to come to work every day, really makes me want to develop.

Tafwirapo: So, basically, the wellbeing buddy is a go-to person for any issues that you experience when you’re traveling for conferences. Sometimes, the experiences of staff, traveling outside of their countries are different, among different staff, especially when it’s a group of staff that are traveling to a specific conference. So, you would want to support each and every staff according to their needs. For example, they have maybe issues with baggage, there are issues with maybe a hotel room, even issues to do with maybe have a bad encounter with a colleague or someone has not talked to you in a way that you are comfortable with. So, you would escalate these issues to the wellbeing buddy and the wellbeing buddy would see how best to resolve these issues or how best to help you.

The organization’s approach to hiring, celebrated by Freddy, focuses on inclusivity and diversity, making it a welcoming place for new talents. Godfrey particularly admires the well-structured system in place, ensuring smooth integration for newcomers.

Freddy: I was hired as a senior manager, advocacy, communication. And before joining VillageReach, I was working in the education sector. So, shifting from education sector to health sector, it was a big shift for me. But VillageReach considered diversity, we don’t only hire people skill in the health sector, supply chain sector, strengthening sector but we value all the skills people may bring on board. This is how I was hired and I do not know anything about health systems strengthening, supply chain, nothing at all. I’ve learned those knowledge, and competencies and skills at VillageReach. So, this for me, it’s like inclusion and diversity in practice. We don’t want only to hire people coming from the health sector only, but we value even people coming from different walks of life. And because of the contribution I was making, I was given the opportunity to be promoted as a country director

Godfrey: I like this one because VillageReach has its own way of how people can do things according to the organization’s policy. This means that even if when you were coming, you had nothing in mind of what does this organization does. But when you come in, because the company has its system. And so, when you come in, and you are being introduced with these, points of how the organization is run, you are easily smitten to the system that you don’t see it difficult to be incorporated in. And there is also professionalism in the organization that I cannot imagine

VillageReach’s commitment to its team extends to their professional development, as illustrated by Wema and Esselina’s experiences. This focus on growth and learning is a fundamental aspect of their operational philosophy.

Wema: But also, the organization has prioritized professional development, which is part of the organization key results, the OKRs. And in one of the performance reviews, I think the ones for quarter two, they are specifically dedicated to individual development. So, your supervisor asks you what are your plans to develop yourself, and then you put a plan in place and you get help to achieve that. So, I think that’s also something that is good here at VillageReach because you’re encouraged to learn.

Esselina: So, in the beginning I felt like am I the right person to be part of this team? But VillageReach engaging me, my supervisors, my coaches inside VillageReach. I like a lot this approach of VillageReach. We have supervisors, but also we have coaches that is not directly related with our programmatic work. And they allowed me to understand that I’m a [unintelligible] for this position and this empowered me as a woman, as a mother, as an elder worker. And I felt like I increased it, my network, outside Mozambique because I was used most to work with the Mozambique staff, but I increased it, my network, due this experience they had. And I felt confident when I engaged them because I knew it that this is result of my work, what I do. So, anything they ask, I know how I’m going to answer because I was the one involved in this approach. So, for me, this collaborative connection, this innovative culture that VillageReach has provided to the staff, at least for me, mental wellbeing, but also professional because I feel like I’m able to, any challenge that I will find in the future for my work

Freddy, along with Julia and Abdul, shed light on the unique elements that make VillageReach an exceptional workplace. They speak to the organization’s strengths in leadership, collaboration, and recognition, highlighting the importance of these features in creating a thriving work environment.

Freddy: But, another element with VillageReach culture is also, I will say, we have a very good leadership, which is very close to the staff, but also very close to the community where we work. On annual basis, our president and all our vice president, they visit each of core country office. Last January, our president, Emily; our vice president for impact and partnership, Claudia, they came in DRC. Not only they visit the staff in the capital city, but they travel in the villages to see the people, to see the communities, where we work, and to see the impact of the work we work and to relate all the report they’re heading and to see what we do exactly on the ground.

Julia: So, one of the things that’s really great about VillageReach is even though we’re a global organization based all over the world, we really focus and encourage collaboration across teams. When you get to work with so many different people, it’s a really great experience and one of the best parts about working here.

Abdul: So, I think recognition in organization, having or deciding to recognize the employees in the website or the internet, it really shows that they really care about what people are doing. And when people do extraordinary work, they share, that means they really cherish that. So, I think recognition is something that I’ve seen in VillageReach. I’ve also worked with NGOs for my past 20 years. And, within VillageReach, I see that there’s recognition. And I’ve opted to do that internally in my team where I see that there’s a need to recognize. This organization, there’s a culture of recognizing employees globally. So, I really need to embrace this culture and replicate it down. And so, I have personally, kind of used that within my team and just recognizing them openly either on the Monday meetings or on other platforms. So, I think the wellbeing, you know, a platform for recognition, that is something that I really cherish

In a global organization like VillageReach, effective communication, emphasized by Freddy, Wema, and Godfrey, is not just vital but a key strength, especially when operating across diverse regions from Seattle to Mozambique.

Freddy: I can say one thing and to be complemented. I think communication, collaboration is part of our organization values. So, there is an emphasis on communication and collaboration. And this is encouraged at all level, from the senior management all the way to the management to the country, but also to our external partners. We want really to improve communication and collaboration and there have been so many training provided to staff to improve communication.

WEMA: And then in our Teams platform for communication, they have introduced a channel where people can post their problems, their challenges, their suggestion, the management team responds there. So, I think, maybe people don’t want to talk openly, but there’s another way of, you know, sharing their concerns through Teams. So, I think that is an innovation, but also a way of connecting the staff and the management team together.

GODFREY: I feel like the secret sauce is on the creativity of our leadership in different levels within the organization. And there is also good communication. I feel like the communication system is just perfect.

Another distinctive aspect of VillageReach, as explained by Emily and Tafwirapo, is their emphasis on ‘transitioning well’. This approach sets them apart from other NGOs, focusing on the sustainability and long-term impact of their initiatives.

Emily: So, one of the things I always say is that what I love about VillageReach is we put as much thought and attention on what it takes to sustain this work as we do on the development of the innovation itself, and we’re very deliberate about it. We actually start from the beginning anytime we’re implementing something new or starting out a new piece of work. We’ve now built in a system where we start to think about: How are we actually defining what we’re doing, and how are we actually documenting what we’re doing, and how are we having conversations with our partners, the government, other large technical partners about what are the actual components that make this work, and how do we understand those over time? And it evolves sometimes, where we may start with something, and it will evolve, but then: Who’s doing what now? And who should be doing that in the future?

Tafwirapo: So, I will talk about something that sets VillageReach as an organization apart. This is what we call Transitioning Well. When we do all what we do, all the innovations that we can innovate, all the collaborations that happen, it happens for the sole purpose of ensuring that the solution, the innovation that we have, we transition it, most especially to the government, so that the government can take, can sustain, that solution. And it continues to bring impact to the people. So, having that, we have a toolkit for it. We have our Transition Well ambassadors, champions, we call them. But at the end of the day, I feel like having that Transitioning Well approach, where our solutions, they don’t just end at innovation. We just don’t innovate to keep, but we innovate to transition so that impact is sustained. So, that’s what I love and that’s what I see as something that sets VillageReach apart.

Esselina brings to light VillageReach’s identity as a learning organization, showcasing their commitment to continuous improvement and growth through a specific example.

Esselina: And I would like to share with you something that I never saw in any other organization, is the community of practice groups inside the organization. We have like community of practice from Mozambique. That is demand meetings that Abdul shared here. But we also have like specific, like digital solution, supply chain, evidence, and advocacy and evidence. So, those community of practice meetings that happen regularly, this allows each of us to share learning that we have, to share some new things the people catch according the events they’re participating or activities they’re doing. And for people that are not inside, don’t have, let’s say, skills focused on this area, we capture in those meetings, things so relevant that allow us to brainstorm in the type of work that we are providing and create a very, very strategic and focused plan to ensure that in the organization but even outside the organization.

Finally, Julia and Wema highlight staying connected and mutual support as fundamental elements of VillageReach’s culture, underlining the organization’s ethos of teamwork and collaborative spirit.

Julia: And I’m really happy to say that I think the hybrid work at VillageReach done how well it is, you’ll never feel isolated. The first thing you do when you go to VillageReach, when you log into the day, at least when I log into the day, is I turn on Teams, I turn on my “I’m in, I’m available”. And then I just kind of wait and see who else is online and check my messages, check my emails, and I guarantee you, after 20 minutes, I have someone popping in to either say, “hey, good morning,” or ask about a kind of project we’re working on, something that maybe we were confused about or questions for me. So, what I really love about VillageReach is we use technology like Teams, like Zoom, for example, or like Microsoft 360, we use all of those to connect. And even when you’re not in the office itself, you don’t feel that sense of isolation, which is great because, not only do I feel connected to the office in Seattle where I’m working, I also feel connected to the different country offices and our virtual, teams who work across the globe

Wema: So, I think the culture that VillageReach promotes within the organization to support each other should be maintained because people from different teams support each other. Even if a person is not involved in that project, he or she is willing to support another person, so that the work can be done successfully.

I want to thank Fundi Yuba, Benedictus Mwenda, and Hilary Hanbidge for all their help with this piece and to all those who participated in it. Julia Owens, Wema Kamuzora, Freddy Nkosi, Godfrey Dzoole, Esselina Brito, Abdul Cassamo, and Tafwirapo Chihana.

To learn more about the organization go visit their website at the VillageReach.org or listen to my earlier interview with Emily Bancroft, the President and CEO of VillageReach.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook. 

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