The Hard Work of Transforming an African Orphanage into a Sustainable Powerhouse

Halley Sutton

Creating a real positive change in the world, or even in one corner of it, is no easy feat. Non-governmental organizations, typically nonprofit entities acting separately from governmental influence, are one route to making that impact. While a traditional nonprofit must rely on donations, NGOs can function much like a business, making the money they need to fund their positive work. On paper it seems like a business-savvy solution, but doing good is hard work and doing good as an NGO can be even harder.

Enter Small Steps for Compassion, a US-based nonprofit and recognized NGO in Tanzania, founded by married couple Shannin and Paul Pickle. After learning about the abuse of human rights for children in some African communities, the couple decided to build an orphanage that could not only provide a safe haven for children, but could empower a great untapped resource in the area: girls. Small Steps for Compassion grew into a powerhouse that now provides financial opportunities for the surrounding community, sets Arusha’s young women up for success, and largely exists sustainably.

But along the way, the couple have faced the same challenges many NGOs face: struggles to find funding, complications from local laws, and growth that can be frustratingly slow.

Tackling sustainability on two fronts

Founded in 2009, the couple originally purchased 11-acres to build a community well and provide safe, clean drinking water for Arusha. Not long after, Small Steps for Compassion was founded to provide an orphanage for 25 girls on the land. Today, the vision has grown to encompass a school and plans to expand in the next five years to include a medical facility. Since the beginning, the couple have also looked for ways to support the local community, either by providing jobs directly—such as offering management and caretaking positions at the orphanage and surrounding lands—or by creating new businesses that would financially bolster both the local workforce and the mission of Small Steps for Compassion.

It became clear early on that Small Steps for Compassion needed to be financially secure on its own terms to ensure the continued success of the organization. “Sustainability has to come through business,” Shannin Pickle says. Although Small Steps for Compassion is a charitable organization, and is partially sustained through donations, to succeed, the group would need money coming in regularly, even when donations were low.

To start, the couple knew they had to ensure the basic needs of the children were met. On the land that Pickle and her husband purchased for the organization, they also house chickens, goats, and fish in a pond. The eggs from the chicken help feed the girls who live in the orphanage, as well as the caretakers, and are even sold at a discount to local residents. The income goes toward expenses at the orphanage. Likewise, the fish serve as both a food source for the girls as well as the building blocks for vermicompost that becomes plant food for the crops housed on the land.

“We put things in place [immediately] that would generate some income and even feed the girls,” Shannin Pickle says.

But to really help as many people as possible, the couple knew they’d need to think bigger. Through collaboration, an idea for a coffee plantation was born, Pickle says, with financial resources from the Small Steps for Compassion coffer backing an entrepreneurial plan that couple put together with the aid of community members. The coffee plantation employs Arusha community members, pays their salary, and reinvests any leftover earnings back into the Small Steps for Compassion finances to help fund and launch other entrepreneurial ventures put forth by the community.

And they’re not stopping there. Recently, members of the community proposed building a community bakery, using grain and other ingredients grown on the Small Steps for Compassion compound. The Pickles greenlit the project and the bakery has been a financial success for the community, she says.

Helping generations to come

Sustainability and longevity have been built into the vision for the organization from day one. “My goal [for Small Steps for Compassion] is that in 50 years, after I’m gone, we’re self-sustaining—that the community is still growing and thriving, and that these students have gone on to make great impact and change in the world,” says Shannin Pickle.

By opening a school on the grounds, the group has been able to provide an entrepreneurial-focused education for the more than 300 boys and girls (including but not limited to the students living in the orphanage) who attend.

At the STEPS Academy, students receive the Tanzanian national curriculum they’ll need to be able to continue on to higher education from both local Arusha and globally recruited teachers. The school has also added additional courses focused on business, entrepreneurship, and the financial know-how students will need to sustain themselves and their future families.

Shannin Pickle says the goal of the school is to identify the needs of the community, then help students who attend the STEPS Academy prepare for careers that meet those needs, helping the community for generations to come.

Investing in the needs of young women is reinvesting in community

Both the school and Small Steps for Compassion overall have always put an emphasis on helping to empower local young women—and for good reason. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Better use of the world’s female population could increase economic growth, reduce poverty, enhance societal well-being, and help ensure sustainable development in all countries.” Small Steps for Compassion’s focus on helping young women in the Arusha company will hopefully pay off down the line in helping to revitalize the area, Pickle says.

But the organization has faced obstacles in this goal. Two of the girls at the school became pregnant last year, she says, which means they’re expelled from school by Tanzania law and not allowed to return. It was a blow for the group but inspired the couple’s daughter to work on a solution. Pickle’s daughter is completing her master’s degree in sustainable business and is working to develop a business model that employs mothers in the community who didn’t finish school.

The STEPS Academy also learned early that it had to tackle a major issue that was keeping its students from completing high school: Girls in Arusha were dropping out because they had to stay home once a month during menstruation due to lack of access to feminine hygiene products. (That’s not just a problem in Arusha—a UNESCO report found that approximately one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during menstruation.) “If you don’t have supplies, you can’t go to school,” Pickle says. So, Small Steps for Compassion partnered with the Kenya-based organization, HEART, which can supply one girl with menstrual supplies for a year for a $5.50 donation. Pickle says that simple move, along with bringing in sex education specialists, has made a difference both in preventing the girls from dropping out, and helping to empower a different attitude about their own bodies.

Despite facing many of the challenges NGOs face, Small Steps for Compassion has grown into a force of good in the last decade, but real change takes time to take root. How an organization does good may be as important in the long run as what that organization is doing to change the world—and whether or not your efforts survive the passing of time.