We had the good fortune of connecting with Kristy Hitchings and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kristy, do you have a favorite quote or affirmation?
“I can’t even explain how these businesses helped me, but what I can say is that everything I own in my life is because of Into Your Hands Africa projects and the donors that came alongside me. These days I hardly worry about my grandkids’ school fees, and I even installed solar lights in my house! Before, sometimes we would eat in the dark at night because we had no money to buy lamps or candles. (Today) my dream is to buy my own piece of land to construct a house, continue to expand my businesses, and plant a banana plantation. I’m so thankful for all services and programs that Into Your Hands Africa and its supporters have provided. They have given me a second chance at life. Who would have done all this for me but Into Your Hands Africa?”- Namutebi Uritah
These days when I’m sitting at my desk, and it’s 4:30 pm; and I have a mailbox full of unanswered emails, a grant proposal that is due in two days, and a new educational curriculum that requires my feedback; I think of Uritah sitting on the floor with her grandchildren in the dark because they didn’t have enough money to buy a candle. Knowing how far she has come since then; Uritah drives me to continue this important work.
I have always had a fondness for collecting quotes; or anything that I have found inspiring. This could be mantras, quotes, Bible verses, or exerts from books. When I was a teenager, I would write anything down that inspired me into a notebook and reflect on it whenever I needed additional inspiration. I was that kid, and while a decade or two has passed since I first began. I’m still a big believer in keeping something handy for inspiration. And these days, what’s inspiring me is a quote from Alexander the Great, who said, “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep, I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion” or a line by Dave Ramsey, who said, “Nothing moves unless its shoved.”
As a general rule of thumb, risk-taking in the nonprofit arena is frowned upon, even when it involves calculated risks. A more sensible approach is the tried and true because a project failure could mean your reputation, a significant financial hit, or even the loss of life. And those are things that I take very seriously. I also realize that I have stifled my creativity and sense of wonder in protecting every aspect of the organization. These risks could be anything from being rejected by a funder or possible partner. Or when I pour my heart and soul into a project and have it flat-lined. Or host an event where few show up. It’s anything that makes me feel vulnerable afterward. However, every time I’m not willing to put myself out there, a missed opportunity is had and fewer people like Uritah are supported.
Our partner communities in Kikinene village in Uganda are isolated, live in extreme poverty, and lack support systems. They have significant needs: unemployment is at 90%, survival largely depends on subsistence farming, and community members typically live on less than 49 cents per day. Moreover, educational access and achievement are limited: in secondary school alone, 24% of adolescents are currently enrolled and 62% remain unemployed after graduation.
The communities we serve have ongoing and substantial needs. To best support this vital work, I realize that to be an effective leader, I need to continue to put Into Your Hands Africa and myself out there rather than approaching every situation from a risk-management perspective. These days, I’m reimagining the possibilities and willing to struggle through the un-comfortableness to grow.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
In the past three years alone, Into Your Hands Africa’s efforts have increased female secondary students by 60%, and total high school enrollment has increased by 48%. 100% of our vocational college students who have graduated from our program are employed, with many financially supporting a sibling and parents. 56% of the women from our Women’s Enterprise Training Program have increased their income by 55% in just six months, and 90% of our farmers in our Community Development Association Program by a minimum of 42% since the first cohort launched.
For the first time ever, the Life Skills program has seen student pregnancies decrease, with 80% of girls saying that the Life Skills program helped them avoid unwanted pregnancies, with 70% of the girls saying that the program helped them avoid it early childhood marriage. The first Life Skills cohort graduated in 2019, with 100% of graduates continuing their education – a first in the school’s history!
These are the things that inspire me and keep me motivated to continue this work. When I read stories about women that have been able to leave abusive situations because they now have the skillset and sustained income to support themselves and their children, they inspire me. Or the secondary student in a remote Ugandan village who dreams of becoming Uganda’s First Lady and the Minister of Education and who takes steps towards making her dream a reality by working hard in school and saving for college through her student livestock business. She motivates me. Or a farmer who expanded his business to the point where he not only has all of his own children in school from the income earned from his business but has since adopted four orphans that are in school and thriving because he was able to invest in them (photo with man and children on a motorcycle). He drives me. This work is highly challenging, but every time I hear a story or read a report where this work has positively impacted someone’s life, it shows me that what I do and all of the time I dedicate to furthering this mission brings value.
I felt called to the global community; and I deliberately sought out positions where I could support global equity through entrepreneurship and education. Rather than staying in the education sector with a secure full-time job and benefits, I decided to take a risk by accepting my current role, which initially included the transition to a part-time position and over a 50% pay cut in my annual salary. From day one, I have never worked as hard as I have in any other role. It has been the most challenging and yet rewarding experience of my life. While I had worked for international nonprofits in the past, my job never included fundraising until now. I had to teach myself how to write grants, approach businesses, and develop structural processes.
I had also never been an Executive Director before. During my first few months, I would Google, ‘What does an executive director do?’ Or ‘how does an effective executive director spend their time?’ I would read blog posts by Joan Garry and connect with any other Executive Director willing to meet with me at the Posner Center for International Development, Nonprofit Leadership Lab, or anywhere else that I could find them. It was all so new to me, and the learning curve was significant. There were many days during the first year that I would cry almost daily because I was so overwhelmed. I remember thinking that if I can make it to six months, then I could quit. Or, if I could make it to a year, I would leave and go back to something much more stable. While I’ve always believed in the mission of this work and that entrepreneurship combined with education is the way to bring about long-term, sustainable solutions. It’s not always an easy sell. Other organizations have that cute little boy or girl with that smiling face on their website asking for financial support; who wouldn’t want to help that sweet child? I’ve donated funds to projects such as these before. While we also support education, we believe that education alone will not solve issues of poverty and, at times, can give a false sense of success. That sweet boy graduated, then what? He can now recite the periodic table of elements, but then what? How does that help him build a life for himself in the middle of a rural Ugandan village with no electricity and no job prospects? Sometimes you think that receiving a formal education or providing a water well is the catch-all for all of the world’s most significant problems; it’s not. It’s only part of the blueprint.
Into Your Hands Africa’s programs don’t always provide immediate results. Poverty is a complex issue and must be addressed as such. It is not one input or program that will change the trajectory of someone’s life but rather a multi-dimensional approach that works with different people within a family unit.
It’s about skill-building so that farmers can earn more money while increasing their food security. It’s about giving women and girls opportunities to have a voice and agency over their lives and bodies. It’s about sending kids to schools to read and write and providing them a safe place to go while also preparing them for their future through the income provided through their livestock project and the skills attained. While many organizations depend on an influx of foreign workers and investment, we know that communities want to create value and improve their own circumstances – we help them start that journey. We’ve found the magic formula: education and enterprise linked together and driven from the inside-out produces change. Success and sustainability come from working with communities to develop and support local leaders. You need sustainable income generation. You need to be able to allow people to plan for their future.
These days I’m still learning a lot. I’m learning to take more risks. I’m learning that I need to guard my time. When I first started, I would meet with anyone to talk about Into Your Hands Africa. These days, I’m much more selective. At that same time, I’ve also learned to give my time more freely. To spend time investing in people who are just starting in this field. To share my experience and resources freely; because not that long ago, I was that person; and I’m thankful for all of the people that chose to invest in me. I’ve been more deliberate about measuring the results of how I spend my time. It doesn’t matter if I spent those last few hours checking projects off of my to-do list if the tasks themselves won’t further the work’s mission.
There is no proven blueprint for growing an organization such as Into Your Hands Africa, and I think about that a lot. I hope to one day help support small organizations such as us by creating a roadmap on how to grow, how to effectively spend your time, how to find self-care amongst the chaos, and how to lead teams and sustainable program. A nonprofit 101 of sorts for small organizations that are looking for a guide.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I like the rare finds that may look a little rough around the edges but have surprising results. Places like Mr. Egg in Denver. I enjoy the mom-and-pop shops that embody a slower pace and good food. I look for places that I can show up and be myself without feeling that I need to go home and change first. I like environments where I can sit and catch up with an old friend without feeling rushed, restaurants that offer limitless thick and hearty coffee, real syrup, and a corner booth in the back. I’m also a big fan of Tibet Kitchen in Boulder. A restaurant with only four or so tables, but I love its quaint demeanor, and the food is delicious.
When I’m looking to grab a drink or provide my two-year-old with something fun to do indoors, I’m a big fan of Urban Putt. Their cocktails are delicious, and it’s a fun, kid-friendly environment. My husband also works there, so always a good place to visit him.
Most of my friends have kids, so if I’m looking for a place to be outdoors while letting the kids run wild, I really enjoy local parks that offer the opportunity for a picnic under a shaded tree. Anything shaded or a garden with a water pad are always big hits for our family. Places like the Orchard mall’s outdoor play area or Carpenter Park always make for a pleasant and relaxing evening.
Finally, I also want to quickly note some of the businesses that have come alongside Into Your Hands Africa over these past few years. These are businesses that have little personal gain in supporting to Into Your Hands Africa but rather support the vital work because they care about our programs and the investment in people. A few of our business partners, include DCB Construction, Kiovsky/DuWaldt LLC, Scott Rath with Rath, Walling and Associates, Flood and Peterson, Craters and Freighters Shipping Company. While I probably wouldn’t take a friend to visit these businesses unless they needed help with their finances, employee challenges, shipping, or business construction, I think it says a lot about the character of people running businesses such as these. They choose to invest in our programs because they care about people half a world away and that speaks to me. Social responsibility is a big thing these days and I look personally look for and try to support businesses that give back so I’m appreciative of those that chose to invest in Into Your Hands Africa.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have a photo of a Ugandan woman named Namutebi Uritah (photo of a woman holding a pig) holding a pig sitting on my desk. I first met Uritah at her home while I was in Uganda. Her smile was warm, and her eyes sparkled when she spoke to you. She’s the type of mom and grandmother that everyone wishes they had. Ugandans tend to be more reserved from a cultural perspective when first meeting someone new, not Uritah. She ran up to me, gave me a big hug, and held my hand throughout our entire conversation. Uritah is a 60-year-old widow with six grown children and four grandchildren who live with her. Before joining Into Your Hands Africa, she supported herself by managing a few local pigs and chickens. Her children would send her small sums of money when they could, though it was never sufficient to meet all of the family’s needs. Uritah worked in her garden every day to provide her family with something to eat and sold the little left over to try to buy soap and other basic necessities. Uritah always felt that she had a lot of potential but lacked the knowledge and training necessary to grow her business and better support her family.
Then, Uritah joined Into Your Hands Africa in 2015 and received one piglet (photo included) through a program that aims to increase parents’ income to facilitate paying for their children’s school fees. Seeing Uritah’s diligence and commitment through this project, IYHA gave her a second project with three additional piglets a year later. Since then, her pig business has grown to nearly 100 pigs. Selling these pigs for income, Uritah has earned over $1,709! She was able to pay for her daughter’s surgery and medications, finance and construct the pigsty and chicken house, and pay her grandchildren’s school fees, all while still saving money for the future. Into Your Hands Africa partnered again with Uritah in 2017, providing her with the seeds of poultry and mango tree businesses. Although she received just 10 chickens initially, Uritah used a local hatching method learned through an Into Your Hands Africa workshop and has expanded her business to 45 chickens (and expects her first mango harvest in December!). Uritah went on to join Into Your Hands Africa’s Community Development Associations (CDA) program in 2018, learning improved agricultural methods such as crop production, livestock and business planning, and management, and was able to increase her crops using a method of intercropping she learned in the program.
When COVID-19 devastated her family, along with so many others, Uritah was forced to sell all of her chickens. However, she recently received a business startup kit from Into Your Hands Africa’s Women’s Enterprise Training Program that she recently graduated from and has put that towards purchasing 100 new chickens to rebuild her business. On difficult days, I look at Uritah’s smiling face because she demonstrates what’s possible. Her story and warm personality encourage me. And she is now motivating her entire community as a keynote speaker in our Women’s Enterprise Training Program and a presenter at our annual gatherings in Uganda. Her fellow peers come and visit her farm for inspiration while she mentors young women on the side. Uritah has been able to overcome so much in her life. She encourages me to continue this work in order to be able to come alongside even people who are similar to Uritah that are just trying to better themselves and their families.
Our supporters. Being in my fifth year as the executive director of Into Your Hands Africa, I feel very fortunate to have a solid support base made up of people who are not only willing to contribute financially but also willing to volunteer at our events, host house parties on our behalf, travel over to Uganda on one of our Insight Trips, volunteer as board or committee members; or to have me over for lunch while stuffing envelopes for an upcoming newsletter. I’m honored to say that many of the people I’ve had the privilege of getting to know have transitioned from a donor to a friend. When Covid first hit Uganda, we were able to come alongside 920 people and provided aid packages in the form of food and income stipends to support people and animals because our supporters chose to step in while the pandemic was still devastating many people here. Our Into Your Hands Africa family is extraordinarily, and I’m ever so grateful as I know that none of this work would be possible without their support.
My network. There is this tendency to see other organizations as your compensation in certain circles in the nonprofit arena. It’s living from a scarcity mentality. Such as, if I help you, then I lose out. This is typically referring to fundraising. When you live in this mindset, you’re constantly reinventing the wheel and alone in work. You’re that kid in elementary school who puts up three folders to ‘protect’ the answers on your test. When I first became a nonprofit Executive Director, I also bought into that lie. I’m thankful that I’ve learned a better way since then. Many nonprofits still function this way, and the sad reality is that the people who are most impacted are those you are trying to serve. We’re all just trying to make the world a little better, so why should I consider someone in this field as my competition? When, in reality, they are my greatest advocate, educator, friend, and collaborator.
Finally, I’d like to thank my husband, Aaron, who is an ever-supportive presence in my life. He’s my first soundboard, first volunteer, first social media sharer, and the first person to hug me after a long day. He’s the person who sees who I want to be and considers me already there. He’s also the person who allows me to dream big dreams and always supports me in going for them. Whether they include moving to India to work for a nonprofit organization or living a minimalist lifestyle. He’s the absolute best.
Other: Life Skills Educational Program Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6_Tn99Xy6I&t=74s Women’s Enterprise Training Program Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6_Tn99Xy6I&t=74s Community Development Association Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRNz7-Q0JFs&t=3s
Christopher Moore, Gadabout Media LLC.