Dr Maureen Van Wyk, the executive director of HIV and AIDS networking organisation, NACOSA, recently celebrated 10 years at the helm. In the years since she joined the Cape Town-based organisation, the national AIDS response and funding environment have changed dramatically. Maureen shares her observations, challenges and learnings from a decade leading a non profit network.
Seeing the Difference
When Maureen joined NACOSA in 2005, it was a small operation with a handful of staff operating on a limited budget within the Western Cape. Under her leadership, NACOSA has grown into a major player in the HIV/AIDS and TB field (it is a principle recipient for the Global Fund and partners with USAID and PEPFAR and government), with a national network of 1,500 organisations, over 70 staff and channels resources to deliver services on the ground in all nine provinces.
"I’ve worked in government and I’ve worked at a university and I’ve chosen to work in civil society because of the dynamic nature of it, the engagement and interaction with issues,” says Maureen when asked why she has chosen to work within civil society for so long. “Unlike in government, there is not much bureaucracy and one can really make a difference and actually see the difference that one makes."
Van Wyk, who has a PhD in Social Development from the University of Pretoria, has noticed a sea change in the sector over the last ten years: "It has become more professional and more accountable because donors expect to see value for their money. In the past, many organisations were funded without clear deliverables but now the scenario has changed. Many NGOs have gone under but others have grown."
"The HIV response has grown tremendously. Ten years ago was just the beginning of treatment in South Africa and today we have the largest treatment programme in the world. The knowledge and information we had back then was very limited whereas today we have a fantastic multi-sectoral HIV response in the country in terms of prevention, treatment, care and human rights."
The fruits of this coordinated response are being realised with declining incidence rates, increased life expectancy and a dramatic reduction in mother-to-child HIV transmission. The burgeoning HIV response is mirrored by NACOSA’s own growth. "I think my greatest achievement is building NACOSA from a small Western Cape-focused organisation to an organisation that significantly participates and impacts on the HIV response in the country,” Van Wyk reflects. “We now work in all provinces and thousands of people at grassroots level benefit from the funding that we manage."
As Principal Recipient for the Global Fund alone, NACOSA has channelled over $60 million to community organisations across the country, achieving an A1 rating (the highest) for the duration of Phase I of the grant.
But growth and success hasn’t come without its challenges, the biggest of which has been accessing sustainable and consistent funding from local donors. "If you look at the funding scenario right now, you will find that the HIV response is largely funded by international donors. We would have liked more funding to come from local donors and government."
Funding and resource issues are by far the biggest challenge facing NACOSA member organisations at the moment. The majority of respondents in a recent member survey reported lack of funding (63%), staffing or human resource shortages (44%), unreliable or inconsistent funding (41%) and access to information about funding and other opportunities (30%) as major challenges. Lack of technical skills was listed by 20% of respondents and staff retention, funding for salaries, lack of equipment and office space and “lack of local political will” were also reported by some members.
"I would like to see a better, more committed government response in terms of funding for civil society in South Africa,” says Van Wyk. “We work in at grassroots level, where government cannot reach, and we need a more sustainable funding streams from local government as well as provincial government.”
The current trend towards the pooling of corporate social investment funding for health and education is further eroding access to funding by small, grassroots organisations. Despite her wish for more meaningful engagement with local donors, Dr Van Wyk cautions: “It is vital that international funding also stays consistent to maintain our current HIV response."
Women in Leadership
"What is challenging women in South Africa is the old, outdated, patriarchal way of thinking about gender roles and what is expected and what is not expected of a woman,” notes Van Wyk who, having worked in the heavily gendered HIV field for ten years, also acknowledges: “Honestly, this also affects the men because gender stereotyping prevents people, both males and females, from being the person they could be and want to be."
"Women in management positions, particularly in civil society, face many challenges: fundraising, managing a diverse staff as well as running all their programs. Unlike in other institutions where you have a lot of support functions, in the NGO sector, the leader has to be multi-skilled. Luckily for me, NACOSA has more support systems in place and we’ve got fantastic staff."
An informed, skilled and committed board has also been a great support to Dr Van Wyk over the years.
As for her advice to other women – or men – in civil society leadership roles: "It is important to keep your strategic focus, even through difficult times, to see the bigger picture.”
“We have many strong examples of women leading NGOs in South Africa,” she concludes. “My advice is to remain focused, passionate and always keep your integrity. It is important to find a balance between the work that needs to be done and making sure that your staff works in an environment where they feel respected."