Running a Nonprofit: Miss Ethiopia’s Story

Atti Worku, former Miss Ethiopia, is founder and executive director of Seeds of Africa, a non-profit organization working on educational development in Ethiopia through scholarships and exciting after school programs.Seeds of Africa is currently participating in Global Giving’s annual open challenge, a 30-day challenge to raise $4,000 from 50 different people to become a permanent member of Global Giving and to receive funding.I was recently given the opportunity to sit down with Atti and chat about how she manages to juggle- being an undergraduate at Columbia, part-time modeling, and running Seeds of Africa.

How do you feel that growing up in Ethiopia has influenced your work today?

When I grew up my experience in school was good because my parents were very supportive but I saw a lot of children whose parents did not have the means to support them.In my town, Adama, there are so many really smart talented people, especially children, who live there but just don’t have the opportunities to really do what they want to do.And if you grow up in that it changes how you do things.It made me think, in my teenage years, that something has to be done. The big NGO’s main focus is aid and disaster relief and I felt that if we don’t talk about the root cause of poverty, which I think is the lack of education, whatever else we are doing with aid we will just have to do other and other again; you are only providing a temporary solution to the problem.

Something I found very interesting in the context of what you do is that you spent many years modeling.A lot of people criticize the modeling industry for its lack of depth.How have you managed to reconcile taking part in an industry that both involves so much wealth and what deals with what you might see as opposite to your humanitarian work?

There were a lot of people who were very instrumental in getting Seeds off the ground who are in fashion. Yes, it is a very superficial industry but when you get to be in it, it is like any other industry it has all sorts of different kinds of people- there are people who are interested in other things but fashion and there are people who aren’t, so you associate with people who are similar to you.I first started to model in South Africa and I went to see these after school programs and I was fascinated- this was real and this can be done.Through modeling I realized that I am not a dreamer, that what I wanted to do was possible.I was so worried that I was thinking of something that could not be executed.

Modeling also allowed me to experience a lot of different culture and see that wherever you are from, your basic needs are the same: everyone wants to have a good life, everyone wants succeed in life, everyone wants the best for their children and you may have the luxuries that come from where you live but at the base of it all we are all the same.

Has modeling given you a platform?

The good thing is that it brings you out into a group of people that I never would have met if I wasn’t in that industry.There are some people who initially perceive you a certain way because you are in the fashion industry, but once they get to know you that changes. So there is both, but mostly with Seeds it has helped with fundraising and things of that sort.People in fashion are really interested in being involved so if you have the right avenue it helps.

Tell me a little bit about your role running “Seeds of Africa” and your thoughts on the organization.

At the beginning I was doing everything which involved a lot of learning- I had never run an NGO before.But over the last two years we have really started to streamline our organization and so now my main responsibilities involve fundraising and serving as a liaison between the board and the staff.

The idea of Seeds was born five years ago but we did not start implementing our programs until 2008. We first decided to do an after school program that works with children who are doing well in education but come from under-privileged families. During that time I got a group of my friends together, each who had unique skills to bring to the table, and told them what I wanted to do with Seeds and so we formed a volunteer staff set up in the US.We created a curriculum which was designed by my friend Sienna-Antonia who had studied early child education at NYU. We then talked to my mother and asked if she wanted to start the program and she said absolutely.For the first 6-8 months our program was run from her back yard and she helped us choose the student and get the teachers.She really got the pilot off the ground and within a year we went on to open our own space with the same sixteen students.We really wanted to develop the pilot to see if it was working because our idea is not on the quantity but the quality- how well are we teaching? What is the difference that we have on these kids every day? These children are not just numbers they are people who have a bright future.We started to see amazing results in the students’ grades and how they were performing in school and these children were becoming forces of change in their own community. It is exciting to see that given the resources anyone can go anywhere. So we decided to increase our total number of students to 50 and in March we will move into a newly renovated facility.

What have you found to have been the biggest challenges at the beginning and now?

In the beginning the biggest challenge was deciding what we were going to do because there is so much that needs to be done.It had to come down to what can realistically be achieved and how can we make the most impact.Now the biggest challenge is growing the organization to best support the program. Right now we don’t have an office, we have a virtual office so how do we get to being able to have funds for this admin and to hire people. During fundraising people are less interested in funding the administrative costs and it is much easier to raise money for the program itself. But the two cannot exist without each other, especially at the beginning when your administrative costs are going to outweigh your program costs.We don’t have anybody paid in the US so when you think of the next steps that is the biggest challenge, but I am optimistic and hopeful that we will figure it out somehow.If you really believe in something it may take you longer but you will get there in the end.

What are your fundraising strategies?How do you set yourself apart from the more mainstream and larger charities?

I think that one of the ways we have tried to set ourselves apart is that we are a different program from most NGO’s and we don’t give out aid.This is both good and challenging because a lot of people focus more on disasters than on building up for the future but you attract a certain group of people who are interested in the future. So our strategy has been to really use our current network to grow our support base.We have a lot of support from people who have been to Ethiopia or people who are, in some way, related to Ethiopia, people who are interested in Africa and this idea that our world today is not so separated, and we find support from people who find our philanthropy interesting and see that this is a good model that could work elsewhere.

Our main fundraising in the past has been from events but we are now looking to grants, things like the Global Giving challenge, and also using our website as an income generator. The most challenging thing is that since we are new and small, nobody really knows us.So it is a question of how do you get your name out? You have to try and get into as many avenues as possible so we started doing events in collaboration with other people to get our name out there. That’s what takes the most time is building your name and building your reputation.We don’t have the capacity to do a big marketing campaign so we have to figure out how we can stand out with the least cost.You try different things and what helps with our fundraising is that because a dollar goes a long way and it is easy to show what a difference just $20 can make.The first years are always the hardest for any organization but when you have a good program after a while you program speaks for itself. We work on a lot of smaller events which allows us to build up and strengthen our relationships with people and helps them understand our organization better. The people we know personally and have the relationships with are the ones who give the most- 40% of our funds are from big gifts and the rest is from events.But eventually this will change the more you get known the more people will give.

Tell us a bit about your “Global Giving” challenge.How is it going?

Global Giving gives us a big platform for fundraising and an opportunity to raise funds for specific efforts.We wanted to raise $20K so that we can equip our new center with technology.We always try to find free or cheap things so that whatever money we get through fundraising we can maximize on the program itself. And this technology will allow us to do a lot more things such as set up connections with US based schools (such as web chatting) and to build up our library.One of our biggest programs is our literacy reading program and we want to be able to offer our kids more.The easiest and cheapest way to build up a library is virtually.Currently, for the challenge, we have to raise another $8,000 and we have only 18 people so we need 32 more people to donate.The most interesting thing is that if people twitter about it or put it on their Facebook page we get points for that.The response has been amazing I didn’t think we would raise this much this quickly.

Do you still model?

Yes I do occasionally but I am also an undergraduate at Columbia.I need to catch up on my work so that I can do this to the best of my ability. I love school and being in school confirms for me why I love Seeds- I love learning, I am such a geek like that.

Do you see yourself going back to Ethiopia in the future?

I want to go back at some point.I really do. I am very connected to what it has done for me as an individual and I see how much I can do there.I always feel like you have to make your mark in the world somehow and you are not here to watch the world go by.I think that whether it is small or big everyone has the opportunity to make a mark and it is not for your benefit it is for the continuation of what is supposed to happen.For me, I am here because of a lot of different things, a lot of different people who supported me and gave me a chance and really shaped me to be the way I am, and I think you have to give that back to other people. I see a lot of potential in Ethiopia and I see that it is growing and we can make a lot changes and I want to contribute to that.

The Global Giving challenge started on 1st April and ends 30th April.Click on the link below for Seeds of Africa’s Global Giving page and donate today.

Seeds of Africa’s homepage:


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