Strong Systems: An organization needs to have strong systems to be able to evaluate impact, transparently allocate resources, and build a culture where individual growth can flourish. Having strong systems seems obvious to creating an effective nonprofit but because of the way donor funding models are structured, finding resources to build robust administrative and evaluations processes can be challenging.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders and leaders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Kelty, CEO, Amref Health Africa in the USA.

Robert (Bob) Kelty joined Amref Health Africa as CEO of the USA office in August 2014. Bob has over 25 years of experience working with impoverished communities both domestically and internationally in South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Kenya, and India. Before joining Amref Health Africa, he held leadership roles at Action Against Hunger, International Medical Corps, and Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and while at the Gere Foundation, launched a $100M HIV/AIDS communications program in India. Prior to his non-profit career, Bob spent five years working in the real estate and commodities industries. Bob holds a B.S. in Business Administration from San Diego State University and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from NYU’s Wagner School.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

I had just graduated from college with a finance degree and the intention of taking a job as a financial analyst come the fall. Before entering the banking world, I decided to have a last hurrah and ride my bicycle–one of my great passions– from Los Angeles to Maine. On the third day, I ran into a group of riders taking the same route through Death Valley, and for safety reasons, decided to ride with them until we exited the desert. The group was raising funds for Bike-Aid, a nonprofit supporting micro-finance projects in Central America. I had spent the last four years with a group of people who dreamed of becoming the next great investment banker à la Michael Milken, and now I was with a group of people who sang “If I had a hammer” around a campfire. While I grew up in a family with a strong commitment to community service, I hadn’t participated regularly since elementary school, when my mom took me to work at a food pantry. I joined the Bike-Aid riders, who stopped every week or so to do volunteer work in the communities where they were being hosted. In Little Rock we worked and stayed at a family homeless shelter. One night I was awakened by a fellow rider seeking advice for a young woman having a seizure. She woke me because she knew I had epilepsy. The young woman was named Alice, and she lived in the shelter with her young daughter, Mary. I learned that Alice started having seizures after her ex-boyfriend hit her in the head with a wrench. I also learned that if the staff discovered her seizures, Alice and her child would be ejected from the shelter. The idea that a single mother who had escaped domestic violence would lose housing because of a seizure disorder shocked me. And in that moment, I realized how incredibly lucky I was for my support system. Tenacious by nature, I convinced Alice to go to the emergency room to get refills of her medications. The doctors warned that even with the correct medications, she was likely to have additional seizures. Alice needed a support system. She was estranged from her parents, but I was eventually able to connect her with her sister, who brought Alice and Mary to live with her in Dallas. This was the moment my finance career–and dreams of wealth–died. I then spent the early days of my career as a housing advocate. I also made my mom very happy.

Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

Good Instincts: My first job immediately following my bike trip was working on the Housing Now march for national affordable housing in Washington D.C, organized by the Center for Creative Nonviolence. I knew it was an opportunity even though it was unlikely I would be paid, I had nowhere to live, and only had biking clothes to wear. How did I know this was an opportunity, an experience that would lead to something more? Because I knew this was work I wanted to be doing, and that these were the kind of people I wanted to work with. The colleagues I worked with at Housing Now have continued to be friends and mentors throughout my career.

Being Relationship-Oriented: A significant part of my job at Amref is raising funds for our programs, which can be very slow work. Engaging potential donors takes time and should be value-driven not transactional. Early in my career I met a potential donor who was interested in many of the issues I was working on, but it took 28 years to find the right programmatic fit. We developed a relationship that was not transactional but based on similar values.

Being Proactive: One of the first actions I took when I joined Amref was to create an annual signature event to build our brand. ArtBall was conceived to drive the connection between African Culture and philanthropy and celebrate and highlight the talents of the continent. ArtBall features a Contemporary African and Black Art Auction. It has grown from 300 guests to nearly 800, with most attendees coming from the African diaspora. This year ArtBall will be on February 25th in Brooklyn, NY, and will be honoring Contemporary artist and MacArthur Fellow Julie Mehretu.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

The most interesting discovery I have made since joining Amref Health Africa (Amref) is how differently an international nonprofit based in the region can serve their communities, versus an international nonprofit that is not based in the region. Amref is an organization that is African led, with over 90% of the staff coming from the communities in which we work.

Our work to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is founded on the understanding that lasting and sustainable change in the eradication of FGM must come from, and be led by, the communities themselves. When we began working with FGM, we knew that we must work with communities instead of against them. Our understanding of the cultural significance of upholding rites of passage has enabled communities to take up an Amref-created Alternative Rite of Passage which retains all the cultural celebrations surrounding a girl’s transition to womanhood but without FGM and early marriage. The Alternative Rite of Passage ceremony is marked by three days of lessons on community values and traditions, sexuality and sexual health issues, and life skills. So instead of one individual, I share with you the more 16,000 girls in the Maasai and Samburu communities in Kenya and Tanzania have gone through the Alternative Rites of Passage program instead of FGM.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

As a local African NGO since 1957, we make a significant social impact because we understand and are involved in the social, political, civil, and traditional structures that are in place in the countries we work in. In 2021, Amref implemented 195 projects reaching 20.1 million beneficiaries directly and 48.2 million indirectly. I believe only locally based NGOs can provide lasting social impact on the continent of Africa.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

The commitment of the community health workers, nurses, midwives, and doctors in the communities we partner with to create lasting health change.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

Give back to and advocate for African- based NGOs, and stay current on news from the continent.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

Have a mission that can stand the test of time: Amref Health Africa was established in Kenya 65 years ago with the objective of increasing sustainable health access to communities in Africa through solutions in human resources for health. Our mission today in 2023 has not changed. Amref was the first African based health non-profit with a model that was founded on community partnerships not missionary benevolence.

Community-Driven Approach: A major reason I wanted to work for Amref Health Africa is the community-based approach. One example of this approach are the Amref-trained Community Health Workers. CHWs are frequently the only link to healthcare for people in rural communities. They provide much-needed health information and services, including health education on topics such as maternal and newborn child health and nutrition, clean water and sanitation, and management of childhood illnesses. They also provide support to mothers and pregnant women, aid in the collection of community health data, assist in carrying out the primary health care facilities’ actions, as well conduct household visits and offer limited care services such as identifying malnutrition in children.

Stay True to Who You Are: Many nonprofits do not continue to be high impact because they drift from their original mission. One cause of mission drift is chasing donor funding trends which are short-term and forever changing. An effective nonprofit should be committed to the community for the long term and not the donor funding cycle. Mission drift is typically unintentional, and the changes usually happen when there isn’t stakeholder involvement. One way for an organization to avoid mission drift is to think first in terms of social value then in terms of financial sustainability. A non-profit’s reason to exist is to provide social value efficiently and effectively.

Strong Systems: An organization needs to have strong systems to be able to evaluate impact, transparently allocate resources, and build a culture where individual growth can flourish. Having strong systems seems obvious to creating an effective nonprofit but because of the way donor funding models are structured, finding resources to build robust administrative and evaluations processes can be challenging.

Both Serve and Advocate: The “Stanford Social Innovation Review” researched non-profits and found high-impact organizations bridge the divide between service and advocacy. And the more they serve and advocate, the more impact they achieve. Earlier in my career I worked almost exclusively for advocacy nonprofits. I learned that advocacy-only organizations tend to have an incomplete understanding of the communities they want to change. I highly recommend reading “Creating High Impact Non-profits” by Heather McLeod Grant & Leslie R. Crutchfield to learn more on how to create and sustain a successful and effective nonprofit.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic didn’t change my definition of success for Amref, but it did change how I think about leading the non-profit in achieving that success. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family and Presidential Candidate Al Smith, “The Happy Warrior,” was often invoked. To paraphrase his credo, you need to take care of your family first, and then you can take care of the wider community. Non-profits have a sad history of not taking care of their staff, by demanding long hours for low pay and limited benefits, with the view that “the work is the payment.” To survive the pandemic, we needed to change how we did business internally. Before the pandemic we were in line with industry standards, but to flourish in the new environment, and long into the future, we needed to increase support for our team. We improved benefits and dramatically changed how we structured the way we work. The results are three straight years of significant growth in programming.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

I remind myself what Nelson Mandela told me when I was 27 years old. Shortly after his release from Robben Island prison, Mr. Mandela toured the US. His health was fragile, and the trip was grueling. While his inner circle debated loudly and passionately in his hotel room about whether he should proceed to a Boston rally of an expected crowd of 300,000, Mr. Mandela slipped out quietly, unnoticed. As a volunteer tasked with getting the Mandelas to and from local events, Mr. Mandela approached me, calling me by name, and asked me to take him to the rally. I was shocked he knew my name. He then asked how old I was. I told him I was 27. He called me a young pup and, and with a smile, reminded me he had spent a stretch of 27 years in prison. I blurted out “How are you not bitter?” He looked back at me and asked, “What good would it do?” Twenty-seven years imprisoned and no rancor is my inspiration.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

It is so hard to choose! But you can’t go wrong with Oprah Winfrey as a supporter.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

You can read all about our work through our website — You can also follow up on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and LinkedIN : @amrefusa

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.