What is the right way to do charity? It is a strange thought. Surely all charity is good, right? But not necessarily. Often, we can do more harm than good when we give without thinking about what people need. When we listen to communities first, and help to support them in creating the solutions they ask for, change can become sustainable and truly meaningful.
Here is the incredible story of Sarah Brook, the inspirational founder of The Sparkle Foundation, and her journey of learning about how to do charity right.
I’m Sarah Brook, CEO and funder of The Sparkle Foundation. Spent the last 10 years in between Malawi, Dubai and London.
My story started with a near-death experience in Malawi aged 18 and then started my journey of wanting to make a difference in at least one child’s life. Through a series of hellish issues, it has been a real journey over the last decade to found the organisation it is today. Which as it stands is the 6th largest charity in the UK for Malawi.
Tell us about your first attempt in the field and your near-death experience?
I decided to go on a gap year and travel the world aged 18. I closed my eyes, pointed at a map and my finger landed on Malawi. I found a friend and we decided to go together.
Once we got there, we separated, and I went off to a village to stay with a lovely lady. After 6 weeks of eating too much local food, I ended up with a twist in my bowel. Unconscious, I was rushed to a local hospital where they said we need to operate but there is a 96% chance of contracting HIV. They had no sterile equipment and only 1 doctor, who had never performed this surgery before.
My friend asked what the other choices were? They said to go to a private hospital, which is 3 hours away, but she might die on route. My friend made the decision, and we went to the hospital. I spent 3 weeks there.
While I was recovering, my friend came to see me and said that while we were at that local hospital, there were over 300 people waiting in the queue to see that one doctor. When they saw you, probably because of the colour of your skin, they allowed you to be seen first. You were with that doctor for over 2 hours, and when you came out, some of the people in the queue who were children had died.
That moment single handily changed my entire life forever. I made a commitment there and then to do something about this and make a difference in at least one child’s life.
I got home, went back to university, and raised money here and there. Out of responsibility to the people who had helped me, I wanted to go back to Malawi. I went back with my mum and came across a group of people who said they were in desperate need of help. I said I could help them and build a new nursery school. I thought I could do it.
At the end of university, I built the nursery school, worked with some of the local builders, paid for everything, bought the land, then handed it back to the community. Essentially said thank you very much, see you later.
Truthfully, I walked away at 21 thinking I had done my bit for charity now and I can live the rest of my life knowing I have done more than most.
I ended up going back a year later and finding everything had been taken. Only the foundations were left- no sheets, to toys, no children. I was devastated because the people who had given me the money to build it in the first place were family friends.
They had trusted me to really do this, and I had made a very upsetting call home to my family to tell them. They said it’s Africa, its corruption, we could have told you this was going to happen. Just come home.
I don’t know what happened, but I said no. This isn’t Africa, this isn’t corruption. This is an example of me going down the whole white saviour route, coming into a village with no experience, building something they didn’t even ask for, I just assumed that was what they needed. Building it, then just walking away with no regard to sustainability.
I realised then that I had to learn, and fast because I had made a mistake. And I owed it to the community. I then decided to volunteer with organisations around the world to learn best practices within the charity sector.
That got me to a point where I knew the issue with the sector, and I wanted to do something different. I strongly felt that people were just following the money rather than the needs.
I tried to get some jobs, but, heard nothing back. I thought that if I wanted to do this, I have to do it myself. So I went to the UK government and told them what I was thinking. And they said… it is never going to happen.
The reason why charities do one thing, and one thing well, is because if you do lots of different programmes it ends up becoming a minefield and it doesn’t work.
I thought I have to give this a go. I have let a lot of people down and made a big mistake once, and I won’t do it twice.
I moved it to Dubai because the tax-free salary meant I could send half of my wages to Malawi, as at 24, there was nowhere I would be able to make this run anywhere else. I was sending money over every month, and we began to grow and grow.
What initially started as an education programme, we realised our children were falling asleep at 11 am because they were hungry. So, we thought, OK, we need a feeding programme. We then realised were losing a child once a month from preventable disease, so we need to bring in a medical programme.
That is the way our programmes evolved.
Then we realised when the children went home, the parents didn’t value education, so we added an adult literacy programme. Then we had the 4 programmes.
And underlying all of this was sustainability. This project was reliant on me, and in 2017, I ended up having a bad head injury and fell into a coma. Because of that, everything stopped. From a charity perspective, there was no money coming in, I wasn’t able to fundraise, and it was a big wake up call that we had to thought about sustainability.
We realised this has to be community-driven and we need broader fundraising, this cant all hang on me. So we worked really hard with the team to build local funding and support and create sustainability around this. Partnerships, local and international.
That was the missing cog in this model that made it what it is today. It was really trial and error. It was also a learning curve for me to understand that what people believe is charity is not often the right way of doing it and we need to change that.
Money drives everything. I have turned down over 1 million in funding because I won’t be dictated to by where money should be spent. This is a community project that is driven by the community themselves. They are not ready to grow at the pace that some want them to.
What are the stories of success that is happening right about Sparkle today?
Our accountability is key. Every charity says this, but for the size we are, we can ensure that for every penny put into our account, we can give a live update for how that was spent.
A challenge for the charity sector is that as you grow naturally, you become more and more removed from the local impact. We love that organic feel that you are only one person away from the Malawi team. This is not a UK charity dictating what happens in Malawi. We have volunteers around the world who get involved, and we worked hard over the last 6 years to get to where we are now.
For us, success looks like we now have a manual for how to create our model.
We have just been backed by one of the biggest legal firms in the world, Clifford Chance.
The data speaks for itself when it comes to the impact of a child who goes to Sparkle compared to one that doesn’t. We have built a reporting framework to see the difference through stats. We want to prioritise quality, not growth and quantity.
What can the sector learn from Sparkle?
From COVID, our model has risen. Over 40% of small charities are expected to close by the end of the year due to a lack of funds from COVID. Collaboration is key.
The Sparkle Foundation is an umbrella charity with experts in specific sectors, and we bring them all together, showing we are not in competition. We are working together.
Also, in the current environment, there is no choice, it’s sink or swim.
There are too many charities working in isolation. The world does not need another charity. Let’s come together as we all share the same mission. To make a difference. We just do it in very different ways. We can set the example and drive that change forwards.
How do you break the donor-driven model?
Education is key. I spend 50% of my time educating donors about the right way to give.
Also, look at the operating model as to who you want to be funded. At The Sparkle Foundation, we did a full report of all overheads, from operating to admin costs, and went to a corporate company that does that- insurance, legal, marketing. And rather than giving us money, give us your services for free, which means that our overheads were extremely low, and the majority of funds were going to services in Malawi.
Donors are saying they have £1000 to give. We want it to go towards this…We go back to them and say this is the reality of the need on the ground, and this is what the money works best for. If you look at other charities, no one was doing COVID programmes. Suddenly, grants become available for COVID, and everyone shifts and starts delivering those and seem to forget about their original programmes.
That donor drive needs to change from the input of donors from education.
What have you found the most difficult part of the learning process and journey?
There was a range of issues. For example, not being taken seriously in the early days, being mistaken for the PA. I was very young for my role, and when I went to big investment companies to talk about these issues, they would ask me when the CEO was arriving?
I had to overcome these personal challenges. The majority of people in my field were double my age and didn’t initially take me seriously. Overcoming that was very difficult personally.
From an organisational perspective, we have never had anyone say to us this is going to work. We had to believe as a team that we could do it. We had 6 years of people doubting us saying it was never going to happen. A lot of people coming and going, other organisations not taking us seriously, and getting to the point we are now where people come to us as this ‘blueprint’ for small charities is an amazing testament to the team.
Also, culturally we work in two very different places. We also had to rely on volunteers in the early years due to budgets, who come and go. Often with very different skill sets. Naturally, there has been corruption along the way, but we do everything we can to minimise this. There will always be that 0.1% issue.
But fundamentally, getting people to buy into our model, even if the team on the ground believed it. Malawi has always been a very hand to mouth place and getting to the point of real long-term sustainability was a huge challenge. Getting that within a year was not realistic, and managing expectations was a huge part of the process.
We failed miserably at so many different projects, and the easy option would have been to say, ok, this isn’t working let’s move on.
Your personal message to anyone who hears this?
For anyone who wants to build a better future, you have to do your research.
Not only personal research, but also ask people in the field.
This position has really restored my faith in humanity. There are so many wonderful people on the ground who are a wealth of knowledge who can help and guide you.
Also, understand the why. There are so many people who have great ideas, but if you don’t get the why, it won’t be sustainable. The why makes all the difference. As long as you stick by that and have a core set of values, then you can’t go wrong. People are chasing 000’s, but we also need to redefine what success look likes.
At The Sparkle Foundation, success doesn’t look like the amount of money we raise, it’s about the number of lives that we change. That must be at the centre of the why.