NLN6: Identifying Your Why with Andy Perkins

Andy PerkinsThis is the Nonprofit Leaders Network Podcast Episode 6. Today we’re talking with Andy Perkins, Executive Director of BestWA.


We work in Liberia, West Africa which is one of the poorest countries in the world. We’re there to provide life opportunities for Liberian children who suffer from malnutrition. We’re building a birthing clinic that’s nearly finished and we’re working with the university there to have a School of Midwifery. We feed over nine hundred children a day. We’ve got over 500 of those in school. We provide for their healthcare. We’ve got nine university students on full scholarship. It sounds very complicated but really our program is simple. Just think of it this way. What would you provide a child? What would you provide your child? That’s your responsibility. You’d give him food, medical care, education and wealth. Well, that’s what we do – whatever should be provided for a child to have a future. It’s really pretty simple on that respect.

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Last year, we started working, as a board, on a mission statement. I came to realize that until you understand why you’re doing what you do, you can’t really have a good understanding of how to do it or what to do. It was a revelation to me and I read a book, trying to think the exact name of it, Getting to Why or The Importance of Why, something like that. That really helped me to understand and I realized that I did have a why all along – I just didn’t realize what it was.

My why was I would look after these kids, I’d go over there and I would look at these kids and I would think about the old George Bernard Shaw quote, some people look at these children and they would ask why? Why are they this way? And I would look at these children and see their future and say why not? So my why has always been these kids. I’ve grown to love them and they deserve an opportunity in life. I look at these kids and say, why not provide an opportunity for their future? We can do that. Why not do that? So my why is really a why not?


If you look at all our programs it can look complicated. You have this program and you have feeding program, you have education program, you have this health program, you have this birthing program. It just looks like a mishmash. So getting to the why made it easier for us to communicate what we’re doing. If you start talking about four or five or six different programs, it gets very complicated.

But if you just talk about why we are doing this – we’re doing this to give children who don’t have an opportunity an opportunity in life. How would you do that? By feeding, by making sure they have health, that they’re born alive, that they get fed, that they have healthcare and they have an education and somebody love them. The immediate effect has been to simplify our communications and get those communications in a way we think most people can understand what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re doing, instead of just looking at all these separate little programs.


It took a little while at first to really understand because the temptation is always to go back to what and how. What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? We stay at what and how most of the. The why was there all the time but it was very difficult to pull it out, explain it and have it be understandable.

When you really get to why, when you really understand… for us when we understood that we care about these children and the why is to provide them with the future that they would not otherwise have… I think that’s motivating and can really grip you – and then it opens you up to thinking about all the things that you can do for them. We’re always moving forward that goal of fulfilling our why of providing life opportunities for these children.


I think really understanding why keeps me from just seeing the black hole of needs. You can drive yourself crazy trying to start a program to meet this need, a program to meet that need. We had things we were doing for adults and we backed off all of that because our focus is basically birth to early 20’s and our focus is providing opportunity for these children because you can’t do everything. It would be nice but you can’t. It can really take up a lot of energy and funds doing work that’s not focused on your goals and on your why.


Most of our measurements up to now have been pretty anecdotal. We’re really in infancy of trying to put together benchmarks. We had left it up to the women who run our feeding program to decide what to feed these children and we see that the children are generally healthy. We get these kids, we put them in this program, there are some who are in such bad shape and after a few months, they’re running around playing and they have a glow. They just look healthy.

But now we’ve started to look at working more on making sure they get complete nutrition and benchmarking some of that. We’ve never had preventive healthcare, but now we have a group we’re partnering with that will do an individual assessment of every child every month. They will actually have height, weight, health assessment monthly of these children to see if they’re progressing. We’re at the baby stages of doing effective benchmarks and trying to make sure we are as effective as we can be instead of doing it in a more haphazard way.


If you’re going to provide opportunity for a child, some of the things are no brainers. When I say, what would you do if it were your child? Well, you might send them to school or make sure they had healthcare and that sort of thing. But with limited resources we need to know how best to use those resources to provide opportunity for as many as possible. We have 353 kids who have never been to school and who we don’t have the funds yet to send them to school. It’s not my favorite part of it quite honestly. But there are a lot of people out there who need help.


One exciting thing that happened in 2014 was that we had no children in our feeding (we have over 900 kids) program and not one of them died. Now just to give you some perspective. We started that program in May of 2008 and in the first eight months (from May to December of 2008) we had about 150 kids and 19 of them died. It was just devastating. So we worked out a program to take children to the clinic and assumed the feeding supervisors would send kids who were sick.

The next year we still lost a lot children and went back and assessed. It turned out that the people working in our feeding program were exceedingly poor people who have lived on way less than a dollar a day. They were of the mindset that you only take your child to a clinic if you think they’re going to die. Unfortunately, that’s often too late. So we taught them when to send a child to receive healthcare: if a child has a fever, is lethargic or doesn’t want to eat, etc.


Then we recognized that, on foot, you might be able to carry one and walk with two. But if he had six or seven kids needing the clinic, you’d take the worst ones and leave the rest of them. Well we get motor bikes for all of the feeding site supervisors and all of a sudden they could take all the kids to the clinic. They can make multiple trips, no big deal. Those little motorbikes are saving lives. We’ve gone 20 months without losing any children. That’s really exceptional in a country where the mortality rate from one month to five years is 23.8%, almost one in four.

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