What’s it like to swap an advertising job for a role at a non-profit education programme in Africa? Hanne Haugen tells her story
Originally posted at The Guardian. Available here.

By Hanne Haugen
27th March 2014

children in uganda

Children participating in the Kasiisi education programme in Uganda. Photograph: Hanne Haugen

In October I found myself in an unexpected place: rural Uganda. I am normally at an adverting agency in Shoreditch called Wieden + Kennedy.

The opportunity to go to Uganda arose at work. You could apply do a placement with an NGO, through a programme called the International Exchange (TIE). TIE pairs the expertise of communications professionals with the needs of non-profit/NGOs to create sustainable change – contributing skills that these organisations need but rarely have the resources to pay for.

To be considered you needed to articulate your motivations. It felt like the right time in my career to take a risk and, on a personal level, I wanted to gain a different perspective on what I do, on the world and on myself.

Before I was fortunate enough to get picked, I knew that I wanted to go to Africa. It felt like the furthest removed from normal life and I knew it would challenge some of my preconceptions about the continent.

I looked into a few Africa-based projects, but The Kasiisi Project stood out for its focus and what it wanted from me. They work to improve the poor educational opportunities available to children in the areas surrounding the Kibale National Forest – east Africa’s largest primate habitat. Through a range of educational programmes in local schools, the project supports the community as well as instilling in it an understanding of the importance of its natural environment. The project helps children stay in school, opening up opportunities for them beyond subsistence farming.

kasisi education project founders in uganda
Hanne Haugen with the members of the Kasiisi Project. Photograph: Hanne Haugen

Close to 100% of The Kasiisi Project’s funding is from abroad but its long-term ambition is to become self-sustainable, with income-generating initiatives to support the school programmes they run. My brief was to create a business and communications strategy to this end.

The assignment was in and of itself a meaty challenge. I’m involved in strategy in my role at work, but rarely tasked to do it on my own. Add to that a foreign culture, a complex issue and board of directors comprised of local academics, who had to vet and agree to anything I proposed. There was a lot to contend with.

Some of the biggest contrasts to my life back home were practical. Power and internet connections were, if not quite luxuries, then unreliable at best. Particularly during the rainy season power-outages were frequent. The heavy rain also meant that the roads – and I use the term loosely – were so bad that a journey of a few miles could easily take hours. I learned to work around, even embrace this. There’s something wonderful about letting life happen and not try to control it all.

Professionally, what felt like the biggest revelation was the change in my perception of the advertising industry and the skills I’ve developed as a result of being a part of it.

I’ve always enjoyed working in advertising and taken pride in what I do, but to some extent I’ve been guilty of seeing the industry as a bubble, divorced from the real world. Most people are inherently distrustful of ‘ “big business'”, and ofsee advertising agencies as their henchmen. There are also misconceptions around what an agency actually does – as the general public only see the output of a long process, involving months, sometimes years, of insights work, big strategic and creative debates, problem-solving, hard work, sweat and tears.

What I saw through my TIE placement is that the skills we develop from this process are hugely beneficial for an NGO. Budget and resource constraints require innovative approaches to solving problems. Complex problems require the ability to understand underlying issues, finding the pertinent insight and drilling down to a workable solution. And the crux of what we do – making sure a message is clearly articulated and heard by the right people – will have a big impact on an organisation’s development, which in turn drives social change.

At the Kasiisi Project I was not met with scepticism. Rather, a new way of thinking was welcomed. There was no lack of understanding of the importance of communications and the need for a clear strategy – the problem was not having the resources to develop it. My experience from advertising gave me licence to present some challenging ideas to the board. The work I did gave them a clear idea how to move from being an NGO operating within a community, to being more of a community-based social enterprise.

Advertising’s ability to help affect social change may become more explicit as time passes. The more people who benefit from an experience such as TIE, the more likely this is to happen.

By Hanne Haugen, account director, W+K London.



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