Finding purpose in the world of philanthropy

Grace Maingi, executive director, Kenya Community Development Foundation , an organisation that promotes social justice and sustainable development of communities. PHOTO| LUCY WANJIKU

What you need to know:

  • Grace Maingi is the Executive director, Kenya Community Development Foundation
  • The organisation works to strengthen communities in the Western Region
  • Grace Maingi is a human rights lawyer and an advocate of the High Court 

At the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF)’s reception, an entire wall is devoted to portraits of the foundation’s founders and past directors. To an incoming executive, it can be intimidating or even terrifying. Those shoes, can you fit in them?

But Grace Maingi is not one to be ensnared by self-doubt. While acknowledging the foundation set by her predecessors, in whatever space she occupies, she brings in her own flair and ideals.

The human rights lawyer and advocate of the High Court previously worked as the executive director at Uraia Trust and the Federation of Women Lawyers - Kenya (Fida).

How did your upbringing influence your career choice?

I grew up watching court dramas and I liked the demeanour of the lawyers. They had great oratory and speaking skills. I also admired how they carried themselves in court. Because of that, I had a passion to see things go the right way. I went to the University of Leicester(England) for my undergraduate studies and pursued my Master’s programme at the University of London.

Twenty one years in governance and now in philanthropy, how is the transition?

It has been a learning curve. In governance, it was about teaching communities to speak up around their issues while in this sphere, the focus is on service delivery and livelihoods- the everyday problems that Kenyans face. Also, managing corporate partnerships because they are a big contributor to what we do.

Before the switch, I had started feeling an inadequacy in terms of the work I was doing. I wanted them to understand the laws and take part in, say, budget hearings but I would find myself mulling over these questions that I got asked often, “where will my children eat?” or “ Who will pay my rent if I don’t show up to work?”

Against this backdrop, I had lost my mother and I wanted to set up a foundation in her honour. I wanted to know how foundations work. One year now at KCDF, I have a good grasp of what we are doing and the clarity of vision; having many foundations as we can in Kenya and strengthening communities to tackle and take charge of their own social issues.

What is the power of an empowered household?

When a family is unable to provide for itself, it becomes a crisis. I steer a Foundation that is strengthening households in the Western region of Kenya (Bungoma, Siaya, Busia, Kakamega and Kisumu) through business grants, environmental conservation techniques and scholarship opportunities. I believe that when you empower a house, you give the children better prospects and reduce inequality.

How have these experiences changed your worldview?

It is recognising that sometimes, people are where they are because of pure fate. They want better for themselves but they are wind round by circumstances that will not let them prosper unless they get a helping hand. In May, we started a sanitary pad drive dubbed “Pamoja4TheChild” to ensure that young adolescent girls stay in school or don’t trade sex for pads (which happens, sometimes) because of financial constraints. With just Sh1, 000, you are able to support a girl with sanitary towels for one year. When you see the positive changes, something shifts in you. I have realised that no contribution is too small to give. From the first phase of the initiative, thanks to our corporate partners and individuals who give, we were able to reach over 1,100 girls with these dignity kits. Because of such kind gestures, these children are in a position to focus on their education and walk with confidence. Our target is to reach 38,000 girls.

Borrowing from your experiences at Fida, how does empowering a woman affect household dynamics?

When a woman has control over her financial capability, she transforms her family and reduces vulnerability. Empowerment comes with a high level of confidence, self-assurance and their level on matters concerning the community issues is elevated.

What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned and how has it proved invaluable?

You don’t have to be the smartest person in a room; have smart people around you. Also, tap into different skill sets and allow those around you to flourish in their talents. In the end, it will also make you look good.

Has working in the philanthropy world changed the way you give?

Yes and in a great way. I am more conscious of how much I set to give---monetary or in kind. Also, if I commit myself to contributing to a particular cause, I make sure that I fulfil it because the other partner is banking on my promise.

What is one thing that you’d like someone in their 20s to know?

This may sound like a cliché but listen to those who have gone ahead of you. They will save you from making some mistakes. Also, if you are 20, don’t try to mimic the life of someone who is in their 50s. Growth takes time. But, giving doesn’t so don’t wait until you are in your 40s or 50s to give.

What’s the best thing about being in your 40s?

Turning 40 was uncomfortable and scary. I felt like I wasn’t where I envisioned to be and yet it looked like time was running out. Now, at 45, I am at a great place. Through books and affirmations from my faith, I came to realise that as long as I am living a meaningful life that is enough. True joy in life is in contentment. I am content.