Power in Pivoting with Jacob Lief of Ubuntu Education Fund

Akash Ghai

The Ubuntu Education Fund (Ubuntu) story begins with Nelson Mandela. Jacob Lief, a native New Yorker, moved to London in the 1990s and became very aware of Mandela’s fight to end apartheid and for freedom in South Africa. As a young student, he volunteered with the Free Mandela Movement and understood that as a young person living in the “developed” world, many people took democracy for granted (something that still happens today).

It was this realization that led Jacob to try and leverage his academic teachers to send him to South Africa, so that he could experience the situation himself. He first went to the country in 1994 to observe the country’s transition into democracy. Being young and naive, Jacob met with many people in South Africa. He recalls the time he met an old woman casting her vote for the first time, in the country’s first-ever election.

“The woman had been waiting for 30 hours to cast her vote, and I asked her why did you wait for so long to cast your vote?” She responded, “I’ve been waiting 85 years to be able to do this.” I learned about how important democracy is.”

Jacob’s university studies took him back to South Africa in 1997. Through a series of events he found himself in Port Elizabeth. As South Africa opened its doors to Nelson Mandela and later as he assumed the presidency, the country began to embrace big philanthropy. Public and private donors began pouring their money into the country to address issues around health, education, women’s rights and youth.

Children posing in front of the Ubuntu Centre in Port Elizabeth.
Children posing in front of the Ubuntu Centre in Port Elizabeth.

Knowing the money was available, Jacob set up Ubuntu in 1999. The aim of the nonprofit organization was to help parent-less or abused youths to get a university education. To secure money being churned into the country, Jacob knew he needed to reach large numbers of youths. Through direct and indirect interventions, Ubuntu reached 40,000 vulnerable children, by building computer centers or arranging HIV-community events. Big philanthropist organizations began to notice and Ubuntu benefited from large donations. Jacob was given numerous awards from institutions like the World Economic Forum and CGI.

“We had just finished a poetry club session, it was pouring down with rain. I drove one of the young boys home. He directed me to to this shack. The shack was covered in sheet metal, and the rain was seeping in. On the cold, hard ground was a soiled mattress. I asked the boy: “Where’s your mom? Your family?” He said he didn’t know. He told me he lived there alone.”

All the awards and acclaim quickly washed away from Jacob’s mind. The perceived impact meant nothing. He pivoted the organization’s approach and pushed focus towards the most vulnerable children. Astonishingly, he pulled the organization away from relying on philanthropic funding. Ubuntu was to stand on its own and be fully committed to helping its youth beneficiaries. Instead of making a passing impact on youth, Ubuntu now helps HIV-positive women in their first trimester of pregnancy. Following birth, they then work with these children every day of their lives, providing them with medical, educational, and psycho-social services. They stabilize their homes and as they approach age 18, they split them into two tracks–university and vocational training. For Ubuntu, the end goal is the same for each child regardless of their track–stable health, stable home.

Township of Port Elizabeth where the Ubuntu Centre is located.
Township of Port Elizabeth where the Ubuntu Centre is located.

Evidently the shift from reliance on grant philanthropy to unrestricted funding means increased sovereignty and strengthened impact. In assessing the international development funding landscape, Jacob asks:

“Does the amount of money you raise equal success? Why can’t nonprofits and NGOs be given unrestricted capital, be allowed to make mistakes, learn from them and deliver impact without worrying whether they will be in business or not the next year?”

Currently Ubuntu has a six million dollar annual budget and employs 70 people both in the field and in their US and UK fundraising offices. On these facts, if Ubuntu was a for-profit organization it looks like a well-oiled machine churning out results and delivering impact. But as an international public benefit organization the perception is not the same. Scrutiny surrounds public benefit organizations, which often lead to lost sight of goals and ambitions going forward.


  1. UNDERSTAND THE ENVIRONMENT: The rules in the nonprofit environment differ greatly from those in the for-profit environment. Setting up a public benefit organization requires a lot of management time to raise capital, that is, time taken away from building your organization and making an impact at the scale you envision. Too often, an NGO’s best talent is focused on raising money instead of solving complex social problems. Know the impact you hope to create in order to help facilitate raising funds.
  2. FOLLOW THE MONEY BUT KEEP THE RULES IN MIND: When starting out, sourcing funds for your organization is crucial however as Jacob’s story demonstrates when funds do come in, it’s important to not lose sight of who you are helping. You can receive all the accolades, awards and respect within the public benefit community but if you aren’t truly helping those who need it – they become meaningless.
  3. STRATEGIZE TO DO MORE WITH LESS: Social impact demands innovative thinking. This not only means developing something new, but also in how you structure your organization and ways to fund-raise and deliver impact for your beneficiaries. Get into the mindset of doing more with less from the beginning.  This will ensure that when your organization grows you remain in control.

Jacob Lief

Connect with Jacob on Twitter

Find out more about Ubuntu Education Fund

Check out Jacob’s book I Am Because You Are – about Ubuntu as an organization and a model for development.

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Akash Written by:

Akash has worked with small and mid-sized NGOs and social enterprises from around the world and specializes in assessing operations and management alongside creating growth opportunities for such organizations. He established Development Three (D3) a firm that delivers on this premise. Based on his experiences with NGO/NPO founders, he conceptualized and established the Founding Stories project.

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