How One Woman Revived the Y…In Ethiopia!

As Americans, we treat the local YMCA as a given. The Young Men’s Christian Association plays host to all manner of sporting events, aerobics classes and teenage social gatherings – so many that few of us would ever question its existence. But elsewhere in the world, the Y is not such an established entity. When Melat Tekletsadik arrived to work at the YMCA’s female counterpart, the YWCA, in Ethiopia it had been closed for 21 years by the country’s communist regime. Through a combination of leadership prowess, nonprofit ingenuity and sheer tenacity, however, Melat was able to revive the Y, and turn it into the thriving center it is today!

Q: What do you find most rewarding about working in the nonprofit sector?

A: Being in a network of passionate, talented people who are drivers of change for the betterment of people’s lives is the most rewarding for me…and the fact that it is a sector which has less bureaucracy with room for flexibility to bring in new approaches and strategies to addressing social problems makes it appealing to me. It is also a sector that adapts to the changing environment faster than any other with innovative programs.

Q: What advice would you give a young woman visiting Ethiopia for work or pleasure? What common misconceptions do Westerners have about the non-Western world (or Ethiopia)?

A: I would tell a young woman visiting Ethiopia to rid her[self of] misconceptions about Ethiopia being [impoverished]. Rather, come open-minded, with an interest to learn about our 3,000 years of history and ancient civilizations. [Come with] an attitude that is appreciative of others’ cultures, and one global citizenship. I would tell her to go visit the women in the villages, [to] talk to girls in schools, and [to] talk to women in leadership positions so she is able to understand the socioeconomic challenges of young women in developing countries such as Ethiopia. This experience will not only make her aware of global issues, but it will also make her appreciate her life opportunities. I would tell her to establish contacts with a group of young women…one way of building partnerships, which countries such as Ethiopia need.

Q: What is your day-to-day work routine like?

A: Conducting focus group discussions with a group of young people in schools, administer[ing] surveys, analyzing data and report write-ups. On my own initiative, I research potential funding opportunities and share the information with consortium organizations in Ethiopia…so that they [can] apply [for funding]. I also send out a lot of emails to strengthen connections I made while in the USA, facilitate connections and partnerships with like-minded organizations and persons, set up meetings and send grant requests on behalf of Ethiopian nonprofits to help promote their work.

Q: Does working in the nonprofit sector ever feel like an uphill battle? If so, how do you get over those feelings?

A: I really liked working for the nonprofit sector; I couldn’t have imagined working for another sector at that point. What made it feel like an uphill battle was not the fact that it was a nonprofit, but [the fact that] the YWCA of Ethiopia…was reopening after being closed for 21 years by the communist regime in Ethiopia. This, coupled with the fact that I was an inexperienced young college graduate made it extremely difficult for me to assert myself as a leader and attract followers. I had to learn on the job a range of skills, such as leadership, management, non-profit finances, grant writing, resource mobilization, and, most of all, people skills.

Another huge challenge was building trust. Being a young woman puts one at a disadvantage at times – funders simply would not trust an organization led by a young woman. I therefore had to start with very small programs with [few] financial resources. Utility bills, rental and salaries were a constant battle with [so few] resources. There were days when I would simply weep because of these constant battles.

Q: How did you overcome the challenges that your age and gender presented?

A: I was able to get over these challenges by building my knowledge. I taught myself leadership, management and development. I kept working and nurturing partnership-building. This positioned the YWCA and me as leaders in the nonprofit circle. Through partnerships, our organization got many opportunities [to train] to build our skills and knowledge. These efforts, coupled with the track record we were able to build through small projects, enabled us to win trust among the donor community.

Through it all, I kept my passions alive. I understood the value of hard work, persevering through difficult times. I strongly believed that I must remain in the organization for some time for my efforts to pay off, regardless of the low compensation. I was open to learning and constantly looking for ways to improve. I was patient with myself and with people working with me. The YWCA has good role models, both locally and internationally. I look up to and talk to these women to get inspired. I sought the guidance of my family and people outside the organization. My social support system was extremely important.

Above all, I kept hopeful. Prayer helped me connect with my spiritual self. Leadership cannot be done with the mind alone – it requires a balance between the mind, the heart and the spirit. The YWCA triangle logo signifies harmony between the body, spirit and mind.

Q: What can women who want to make a difference do to help your causes? Do you have any immediate needs or ‘calls to action’?

A: Get connected. There are good initiatives in many places, with great women advocates in the different regions. I would like to be in their circle and share knowledge, ideas and practices with them.

Q: What are the greatest obstacles to the success of your causes?

A: In the 21st century of information technology, I think my biggest challenge would be the digital divide which continues to widen between developed and developing countries. The social media is connecting countries, transforming the globe into a smaller community. Fundraising, networking and advocacy are done through social media. Most discussions, meetings and international forums happen through e-forum, which alienates most of our Ethiopian leaders, especially women leaders and their constituents.

The gender gap between women and technology is even greater. I feel like we are missing out on timely global discourse. We are not there to negotiate on our people’s behalf when decisions are made because of our underdeveloped infrastructure and mobile technology. The rest of the world is moving ahead [too quickly] to catch up with. This also affects our ability to deliver programs with quality and effectiveness.

The second challenge is that the nonprofit sector does not have a strong support base of its citizens and business institutions. It is heavily donor dependent and [does] not look inward to its local resources of human capital and local businesses for sustainability.

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