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Alumni Profile Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, Executive Director for South African Youth Education for Sustainability (SA-YES) and 2007 graduate of University of Roehampton’s BA Education programme shares her story and some key approaches in sustaining a successful charitable organisation.

Posted: 9 July 2012

image for news story Alumni Profile Michelle Potter
Michelle Potter and SA-YES

I left school in England at the age of 16. By the time I reached my mid-30s, I’d had a string of fun jobs, mostly in the music industry. Although I had travelled and worked with all sorts of interesting and creative people, I had never focused on building a lasting career. At 37, I went back to school to study education at the University of Roehampton in London.

While studying I volunteered to coach soccer to children living on the streets in South Africa. I am really passionate about sports, having played league football myself and having passed the very challenging (and very male dominated) FA Coaching Certificate. Coming to South Africa, and working with the children, changed me. My dissertation became focused on children in care, specifically comparing the situation in the UK and South Africa. While there were many similarities, I saw one major difference that was striking – in South Africa young people had to leave care when they are officially adults. At this point the funding stops and there is very little by way of support (financial or otherwise) for this crucial transition. This inspired me to come to South Africa to pilot a programme for young people coming out of care.

I founded South African Youth Education for Sustainability (SA-YES) in 2008 to provide much needed support for marginalised children and young people in South Africa as they make the transition from living in Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCCs; formerly known as children’s homes) to living responsibly and independently. The goal is to provide each individual with guidance and mentorship to enable them to develop their skills, further their education and become self-sustainable. We source scholarships, bursaries and employment opportunities with corporate partners while at the same time facilitating and supporting the young people through one-to-one, person-centered mentorship during their transition.

Until recently the full-time staff compliment of SA-YES was just me! Fortunately our volunteer mentors (and of course the young mentees) have been terrific and a real pleasure to work with. A typical day involves working closely with our partner homes and our mentors. When time allows, I network with other organisations. We are continually learning from our successes and just as importantly our failures, and so our programme has necessarily developed in a very organic manner. Each day we have two basic questions in mind. First, does our content meet the full range of needs as expressed by those affected, as well by what the experts are telling us is crucial for healthy development (and does it do so without creating new dependencies). Second, is our programme sustainable at its present scale? We have also implemented a system to log each person and activity in order to allow for monitoring and evaluation.

My advice to graduates considering working in the civil society sector is to work under somebody else’s umbrella. If you set up your own organisation you will have to spend far more time managing it then you expected and far less time ‘on the ground’ as you may have hoped.

South Africa’s major centres are all filled with civil society organisations that need help in many areas including development and fundraising. Many people involved in these organisations have no business background so there are excellent opportunities for graduates to come in and consult, and if they know where to look there are also good funding opportunities for interventions and research.

Select your board wisely based on their knowledge, experience, fundraising capacity and commitment.

Although there have been numerous challenges along the way, spending time with the people involved with SA-YES, the mentees, mentors and our partners, the Child and Youth Care Centres feed and uplift me. I am very fortunate in that my job is never monotonous.

For more information on SA-YES visit: www.sa-yes.com

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