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Why charities should aim to make themselves redundant

1 July 2019 at 4:53 pm
Weh Yeoh
Social enterprise founder and TEDx speaker Weh Yeoh makes the case for charities having defined end points as opposed to continually perpetuating themselves and addressing symptoms.

Weh Yeoh | 1 July 2019 at 4:53 pm


Why charities should aim to make themselves redundant
1 July 2019 at 4:53 pm

Social enterprise founder and TEDx speaker Weh Yeoh makes the case for charities having defined end points as opposed to continually perpetuating themselves and addressing symptoms.

Never in the history of humankind has there been such potential to create social impact. There are more charities than ever, more people volunteering overseas, more interest in a globally connected world.

And yet, it seems that some problems are never truly solved, despite charities getting bigger and more ubiquitous. How can this be?

As a younger man, I studied physiotherapy at university. At the time, it seemed that the practice of physiotherapy was at a crossroads. 

Clients equated physios with glorified masseurs, and this meant that the profession wasn’t valued highly. Evidence was mounting that hands-on therapy – practices such as massage and joint mobilisations – only provided symptomatic relief.

There’s a difference between addressing symptoms and solving problems.

If physios really wanted to solve problems, if they really wanted the client to stop coming back, they had to give them exercises and advice.

These days the more progressive physiotherapists don’t even bother putting their hands on a client. They give the client the tools to heal themselves. And in doing so, they make themselves, as the clinician, redundant.

As a sector, can we look ourselves in the mirror and say we’re doing the same thing? How many charities are actively making themselves redundant? 

My goal today is not to diminish the great work that has already been done by charities worldwide. Some have changed entire communities, or even entire countries. There’s no doubt that a huge portion of the not-for-profit sector is a success.

But the time has come for us to redefine what we mean by that word – success.

Let’s look at how the typical charity measures success:

  • The number of children seen in a year.
  • The number of wells provided to communities.
  • The number of girls who had gone to school.

Is this addressing symptoms or solving problems? Is it really success if, like the physiotherapists of old, we keep the client coming back?

Let’s look at another way in which charities measure success:

  • We raised $85 million this year, up from $60 million last year.
  • We now have 25 country offices.
  • We have over 1,000 staff.

These metrics don’t measure success either. They measure growth. 

When I studied international development at university, there was a phrase I heard consistently: “working ourselves out of a job”. This is the promise that we sell to idealistic development studies students. 

By continuing to boast about how much we are growing, it doesn’t sound like we’re working ourselves out of a job. It simply sounds like we’re creating more and more jobs for ourselves.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

In March 2012, I met a 10-year-old Cambodian boy named Ling. Due to cerebral palsy, brain damage around the time of birth, Ling slurred his speech. Despite being 10, he had never been to school.

My colleagues knew that if his communication could be addressed, he might have a shot at a better life. And so, we trained one of them, Phearom, in basic speech therapy. After just a few months of hard work, I returned to the village to discover that, at the age of 12, Ling is going to school for the first time. A few months later, I heard even better news. He wasn’t just attending – he was excelling. Ling was coming second in his class.

But Ling was not alone. Despite one in 25 people needing speech therapy, there was not one single Cambodian speech therapist in the country. This meant that over half a million people could not communicate well with friends and family, perhaps even go to school or get work. An equal number, because of muscle weakness, couldn’t swallow safely. Food and liquid enters their lungs, they can get pneumonia, and they could die.

I knew we had to act, but as successful as we had been with Ling, if we continued this type of work, we’d simply be addressing symptoms.

The simple question was asked: What would have to exist in Cambodia for us to feel like we have made ourselves redundant? 

We needed university courses, demand, government ownership, evidence base and pilot programs.

We estimated that if the population of the country was to stay stable, we’d need over 7,000 speech therapists in the country. But given that we were at zero, that’s an exit point that would take more than my lifetime, and even my children’s children’s lifetimes to get to.

So we settled at a point where we felt comfortable knowing that if we’d created the right environment, the profession would grow by itself. 

Our charity’s exit point is incredibly clear: 100 university qualified Cambodian speech therapists integrated into the public sector. And we’ll do this by the year 2030. At this point, the charity will dissolve and leave the country. The profession will grow by itself, and it will be led by Cambodian people. We’ll have addressed the problem, not the symptom.

Once our exit strategy was defined, I also realised we needed to have a local Cambodian leader. And so, in 2017, I handed over leadership to a Cambodian woman, and moved back to Australia to support from afar. 

Our challenge is how to exist in a sector that requires short-term measures of success, often quantitative. We can’t tell our donors, for instance, that we’ve given 1,000 children access to speech therapy this year.

What we can do is tell them that we’re hitting milestones, one by one, until we get to 2030, when we’ll be finished.

And a significant milestone was hit recently. In March this year, the Cambodian Ministry of Education signed a Memorandum of Understanding to start the first ever course in speech therapy at a government university in Cambodia. That signature is the first recognition that over half a million people exist. It’s a significant step forward in making ourselves redundant. 

Now I know what you’re thinking. There’s no way that this model, as neat as it is, could apply to every form of charity. Maybe not. But maybe we start today, by changing how we define success.

Wouldn’t it be great if the next time a charity had to apply for funding – be it from a government, or a foundation, it measured the ability to solve a problem, not address a symptom? 

Imagine if on call for proposals, they asked three key questions:

  • How will you exit?
  • When will you exit?
  • And how does the work continue after you’re gone?

Because here’s the thing, there’s no need to fear redundancy. There are plenty more children like Ling in the world who need us.

Making yourself redundant simply means being able to shift resources elsewhere to do more good – somewhere with a greater need. Serving those in the world who need us the most. Isn’t this the purpose of our entire existence in the first place?


About the author: Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and lived, volunteered and worked in Asia for eight years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies. He has volunteered in Vietnam, interned in India, studied Mandarin in Beijing and milked yaks in Mongolia. He is the founder of OIC Cambodia, an initiative that aims to establish speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia and co-founder of Umbo, a social enterprise bridging the gap for rural children to access allied health services.

You can see his TEDx talk on this topic here.

Weh Yeoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Weh Yeoh is the CEO and co-founder of Umbo and the founder of OIC Cambodia.

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