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“It’s not the plan, it is the planning that will determine your success.”  The baritoned voice of the DeSoto City councilman growled at me.  This was early advice as Project HAND UP started down the path of being a real entity that existed in the world, and not merely a hyped up idea of an ambitious performing artist.

So we adjusted the plan.  The big picture is the same: Use puppetry to share ideas and facts that are generally uncomfortable or rarely spoken.  Address the toughest stuff.  Human sexuality, sexually transmitted disease, health.

Of course it is solid advice.  Change.  Be able to change.  The ability to pivot would decide whether the goal is reached.

But Christmas and Santa Claus? This was NOT in the original plan.  But here we are in January 2019 – (It’s almost February) and we are paying our bills with money earned during the holidays as Christmas entertainers in Nairobi area shopping malls. 

Why not? Kid’s are out of school anyway.  We have the equipment.  We are performers.  We do quality work.  We are prompt.  We are professional.  And, as it turns out, this is not just a recipe for good humanitarian and development work – it’s also the attributes of reliable contract labor for public relations and marketing teams in the sector of consumer capitalism.  At Christmas.

So for the first time since our original Rotary Foundation grant our puppeteers found themselves gainfully employed and making full-time wages.  We quadrupled our income – we were able to invest in more equipment and trained more people.

Friend, Donors, I was Santa Clause. Kyalo was Santa Clause. Michael (Gatonga) was Santa Claus. We hired a potter named Zed to be Santa Claus. Eight puppeteers performed Christmas carols and holiday comedy skits. We worked 16 days in December and made $13,000+. We were in the Sunday edition of the Daily Nation. Our first quarter of 2019 has all bills paid because of this weird pivot.

One of the goals for the organization was to eventually run it primarily with funds generated on it’s own. Donors are helpful, and we will depend on them for quite some time – but there is no reason why we can’t earn operating capital from working on behalf of local foundations, being sponsored by Kenyan companies, and simply making cash for services rendered.

During 2018 we spent the year building ourselves as performers. One of the real downsides to doing development work is that quality arises from learning from mistakes. But reporting mistakes might mean hurting future funding. The first attempt for any group of people working together for the first time will be rocky.

By jumping in an “accomplishing” what the grant specifies, getting the outcomes all lined up – well, let’s be honest how well can an initiative be implemented on it’s first try? We did well. At least on paper. We checked off our “targets” and “results” and “validated” our “modules” as directed by our “framework” and yadda yadda but how good were we four years ago? We received accolades. I won an award. But in hindsight – yeesh.

Well, 2018 we started doing a whole lot less of our main objectives and instead spent months and months just improving us. Kyalo, Esther, Victor, Veronica, Nzmi, Chule, Neema, Gatonga, Jose, Darren (me) – we all just got better at performing, leadership, speaking, finance – everything. We spent our time doing a lot of varied “gigs” – a huge variety of work. Then, in November we did our HIV and AIDS show in a fairly tricky environment; a community center. No teachers or parents. Just hundreds of students – upper primary. We hadn’t done this show, not in its entirety, all year.

It was the best presentation we have ever done.

We should have been rusty. It should have been tough. We were out of practice for that particular presentation. But our “culture” as a corporation had been more clearly defined. Our ability to capture an audience had increased several fold. Our ability to pivot during distractions was honed and practiced from doing mall shows. We were simply better at everything.

2019 will be interesting. We have attention from Nairobi area foundations. We have contracts for new content. I’ve been able to pass along more skills to a lot more team members – the depth of knowledge on creating content and producing presentations is increasing among the team.

The “plan” was to find so many donors that we could have 5 teams doing HIV and AIDS presentations, and then grow and grow and grow. We didn’t get those donors. We didn’t grow that quickly. We did NOT stay laser focused on one topic.

Had it gone according to plan – I *think* we may have just replicated the same small mistakes and grown those mis-steps to an unmanageable scale. The plan did not include growing our team into well-rounded performers and raising capital through corporate gigs. The “planning” did.

Now we have some wiggle room to grow the organization in creative ways because of our successful December. The happy result of our pivot.

So the future looks bright. And it also looks very different from the original plan. It looks, quite rightly so, like the “planning” has taken over the plan – and our ability to pivot is what is keeping us afloat.

Darren Collins
Project HAND UP -International Director

PS: The power has gone out in the building. Our Goal Zero solar battery/inverter system is running silently upstairs – running off the solar panels on our roof. Big thanks to our donors and The Rotary Foundation for making this post even possible by way of an excellent electricity back-up system.

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