James Donald of Tomorrow Trust: From CEO SleepOut cynic to convert who’ll be freezing on the 11th.

LONDON — Widely travelled, Harvard-educated James Donald is an unlikely candidate for the CEO post at an idealistic non profit. But listening to this interview you’ll quickly realise why he’s all-in at the Tomorrow Trust, which he joined in March as CEO. Simply inspirational. – Alec Hogg

Well, in this update of the CEO SleepOut™ I talk to James Donald who is the CEO of Tomorrow Trust. James, it’s good to have you on the line. What’s your relationship or association with the CEO SleepOut™?

Likewise, thanks Alec. Yes, Tomorrow Trust is an education trust so we help with scholarships for orphans, to go to university and schools. We’ve known about the SleepOut™ for a while and participate in different ways but IQbusiness, their CEO, Adam Cracker is one that regularly attends the CEO SleepOut™ and he invited me to go along as his guest. So I spend the night with him kind of getting to know a little bit more about what the other CEOs are working on. Then quite excitingly this year for the first time, Tomorrow’s Trust are formally part of the SleepOut™. So we’re part of what’s called the School SleepOut™. So there are about 40 schools doing SleepOut™’s on Mandela’s birthday, on the 18th, and they raise money and resources for underserved schools around the country and we help facilitate that. Then one of our schools, it’s called Thabisang Primary in Soweto. IQbusiness are actually doing their empathy SleepOut™ on the 18th at that school. So about 50 of their staff, around 50 community members from Orlando West and about 50 school kids will be sleeping out that night in Soweto. So, it’s quite fun to be part of this year in a more detailed way than in the past.

James Donald, CEO of The Tomorrow Trust.

It’s amazing stuff. Just what you’ve already shared – it gives me the chills and it gives me shivers down my spine on the impact that this is having. Let’s start unpacking it. Let’s start off with Adam Cracker who’s invited you to come along on the 11th. So that’s the first of them. That’s the big CEO SleepOut™. The relationship clearly between yourselves and IQbusiness is quite deep but how did you get involved in Tomorrow Trust?

Yes, it’s fascinating, so I’ve always been lucky enough to run on profit. I used to run something called Grassroots Soccer, it worked around Africa using football to do health, and before that, a thing called City Year, but I spent about 2 years in the States. I was lucky enough to get a Harvard SA scholarship 2 years ago. My family and I spent some time studying and my real interest was how do you get business governments and NGOs, and how do you solve this youth unemployment crisis we have in SA. What’s the right way to do it? As I was looking for a place to get involved again somebody approached me around Tomorrow Trust. It’s been running for about 15 years. Someone called Kim Feinberg started it, she tried to get vulnerable orphans into and through university. The more I found out about it, the more obsessed I became. So, I started about 3 months ago and around the world everywhere now, even though education is changing. We all know there’s this return to education that really if you don’t get a good university education your chances of earning more money than your parents is minuscule, even for middle class families, right, and for poor families’ university is almost the only real way out. So with free education and all the exciting things happening in SA – the Tomorrow Trust approach, we have psychologists that run our university programs so we kind of put the psychosocial support stuff first instead of second. I just think everyone is going to be wrestling with that problem. So really, it’s an honour to work for an organisation like this and them someone like Adam. They met a few years ago, him and his team were looking for some community projects. They put together an amazing camp. They take some of our best high school students, about a 100 of them, on this leadership camp once a year, and the IQ consultants themselves put this thing together, which was really fun. Yes, so Adam invited me and I’m really excited to see what it’s actually like and it’s at Liliesleaf too, which I’m really excited about.

Yes, it’s kind of the whole package isn’t it, this time around, but what you were explaining about the psychology or that process for these vulnerable children as they grow up. Just take us through that. Let me understand that a bit better.

Yes, look it caught my eyes. So Tomorrow Trust has around 250 graduates, so those are Alumni, and so students, university students that have our scholarships are three times more likely than the national average to finish university on time, which really blew my mind. Like something like 50% of university students never finish their degrees. Tomorrow Trust has a 2.5% dropout rate, something like 94% throughput. In other words, most kids finish on time and what’s amazing is, when they start on our program many of them aren’t even passing. The criteria to get onto our program is that you’re in university and that you’ve knocked down a bunch of doors to get there and that you’re in need. We don’t really look at your academics, we sort of look at your potential. Yet, almost to a person, once they get that adult support they thrive. I’m sure if you think back to your own, as you grew up and the struggles you went through – the right adult support at the right time, in our first jobs at university that’s sort of what makes us, right? That combination of pressure and support at the same time. Even in the States, I studied what makes universities so important and it turns out that it almost doesn’t matter what or where you study. It matters that you got work experience and that you had adults take interest in you, while you were studying. Those two things are a better predictor of how much money you’ll make than where you studied in the States, which is kind of surprising. So yes, I think Kim had a very humanist kind of approach when she founded it, she really put the psychosocial stuff first. They do gratitude workshops, they do a real, strong focus on facing your own fears. Even things like transcendental meditation. It’s not part of what Tomorrow Trust does specifically, but it’s that kind of approach to building yourself first that Tomorrow Trust started and I think you’re seeing that approach in everything now in business, in problem solving – all this Fourth Industrial Revolution stuff. It’s all about empathy, problem solving ability. Those are the things that future proof you and not stem-skills, funnily enough.

That’s so interesting. Taddy Blecher with CIDA University. I know Taddy brought transcendental meditation into that program as well, which if you were to go to a traditional university, like Harvard. If you have asked them at Harvard, ‘let’s do a little bit of TM before we do our studies.’ You’re probably not going to get a very warm response.

Yes that’s the idea but at Harvard one thing that was amazing for me was how much effort they put into the psychological support. So they kind of make that very explicit from the beginning that this is going to be really tough and reach out for support in these ways. I think the reality is that you just don’t know how to do that. Even on SA campuses – there is lots of support but the uptake is really low. Students just don’t know how to ask for that help. Again, if you think about your friends, and other people – kids go to university. First year at university a lot of people take a big knock. Most of us come through it. At worst, you put on a bit of weight or get too drunk. At worst you actually fail a lot of classes, get into serious trouble, take a big knock to your self confidence and that happens to wealthy kids who have been to great schools. Kids that really haven’t had those experiences – I think university is an amazing place but I think it’s really overwhelming too, so putting just the fact that someone is going to phone you after your exams and ask you how it went. I interviewed some at Alumni, who are doctors now and they were saying to me in hindsight what made Tomorrow Trust was that they weren’t just a number. They knew their coordinator was going to call them and ask why they failed an exam? It wouldn’t be an accusatory thing. It would be a genuine ‘what went wrong’ and ‘how can we fix this?’ And that just has a huge impact.

You are now talking about a vulnerable child, who’s a doctor. Just give us that pathway?

Yes, this guy’s story is pretty amazing and kind of similar to many. He was from Alexandra, and he had this interesting experience. He was living with an aunt when he was about 13, and she worked at, I think, Sandton Clinic, and she took him with to work one day and he just had this view of these amazing people in their scrubs and this experience of a hospital, and it kind of stuck with him. Then he ended up leaving Alex. He was sent to the rural Eastern Cape somewhere – he kind of bounced around from family to family, and then luckily, he managed to come back to Alex to finish high school. He was at one of those Alex High Schools, I think the one that used to be a Chinese School. Just obviously a smart kid, hard working, his marks weren’t bad, miraculously and he applied for medicine, just completely out of the blue. He took this crazy chance. He was the only kid in his class that applied to Wits and he got in. I suppose it was at a time when they were looking for strong black candidates and he got in. Funnily enough, it’s really hard to get bursaries for medicine, which I hadn’t realised. So he was at Wits, failing his first year actually. He heard about the Tomorrow Trust through word of mouth and applied to us for money. Then we got to know his story, he met our criteria. He then finished his university degree on time and he’s really thriving. He’s doing his community service now and he’s really quiet an incredible young man. You kind of think about his peers, these rock star, wealthier kids from the best schools that have dreamed of being doctors since they were 13. They go to Wits when they’re 19 and they just have a different sense of themselves, a different set of support – everything is different for them. He said he felt spectacularly lonely the first year. He felt like a fish out of water. It just wasn’t his kinds of people, or anything like that. Then Tomorrow Trust sort of made him feel important, connected, that he was an equal to those kinds of kids for different reasons.

What are your criteria?

We take quite a human approach, and a lot of the other big scholarship programs, like Allan Gray Orbis and this new Jakes Gerwel one they have quite complex algorithms that they use to select kids based on potential, and some of them are put through selection camps. We basically have an application form that asks you to write a letter, sort of a motivation for yourself, get someone to write you a reference, and then we ask a bunch of questions about your home circumstances and we ask for your results. Then we basically look for signs of, what Americans call grits, a combination of passion and perseverance. How much evidence can we see that you really want to do what you’re doing and how much evidence can we see that you’ve really gone through hell to be even where you are? It doesn’t matter with us too much if you’re failing first year. For example, I met one of our Alumni who’s at Rand Merchant Bank and he did math BSC because he was the worst kind of maths kid in his Soweto school. He failed miserably first year. He got like less than 30%. Then he ended up finishing his third-year subjects with distinctions and got onto the RMB graduate program. So we try and make it pretty human. There is obviously a range of how do you define someone who’s an orphan or vulnerable children. We have got some people whose parents are still alive or some who live with their grandmother for example – we try and be kind and human about it. But the intention is to try and find people who don’t have the adult support that the average kid has. So we look for high need, plus high-potential.

So, we’re social beings and people, I guess, are being socialised. People who haven’t had those opportunities are being socialised by the interests that you’re taking them.

Yes completely. At the end of the day, we expect them to give back as well so they have to do at least 10 hours of community service in our high school programs, while they’re studying. Then they have to give 10% of their income for the first 2 years when they start working.

Do they like that? Do they enjoy that?

The volunteer service, for sure. They all give much more than 10 hours. Actually, paying your service pay cheque, that’s tricky, because many of them are the first people to earn serious money in their families and they have lots of pressures. But we’ve had more than R1 million come into the Trust directly from the Alumni already. It’s not quite that 10% of what they’ve earned but I keep telling our staff, ‘don’t worry about that, it will come.’ When they’re 30 and 40 they’ll come back to us and give us money. That’s when people donate so just keep the relationship now.

It’s an extraordinary story that you’ve told us. Before we finish off, what are you expecting to get out of the CEO SleepOut™, given the environment that you work in every day?

I’ll be honest, my first kind of reaction when the SleepOut™ people approached us and when Adam spoke to me, I was a little bit sceptical. I don’t necessarily like the idea of charity for charity sake. Then a few things that changed my mind. One was the fact that it was at Liliesleaf – I think it’s going to be a really special place and a special kind of moment and Dr Mandela will be there. The other one was just my own thought. It’s kind of like Lent – people give up whatever it is for Lent, cigarettes, or alcohol, or whatever, and no one has said ‘how’s that’s changed the world?’ Because it’s a personal thing, right. You’re putting yourself into a little bit of discomfort to try and make a statement to yourself about the world. I guess, in a way, the CEO SleepOut™ is the same. These CEOs, we’re asking them to get a bit uncomfortable and we’re connecting them to each other and I think that’s actually quite special. So I sort of silenced the cynic in me a little bit and I’m really looking forward to it, because people do want to make a difference. People do want to give back so why not set a high bar and expect them to put their money where their mouth is and create a really special experience because the SleepOut™ clearly does create a very professional high-quality experience too, and I don’t think they should apologise for that, that’s a good thing.

 

It’s interesting. It’s a little bit like the kids that you pick up at university. They’ve somehow got to be different if they’ve managed to get there, the resilience and the grit that you talk about. CEOs who sign-up for the SleepOut™, I guess and maybe it would be interesting to get your insights. Perhaps they’ve also got to be thinking a little differently because you’re putting yourself out there. You’ve got snipers everywhere, you’ve certainly got the snakes everywhere. They’re looking at… We see anything that some people, some reporters, can throw at it. They’ll say, ‘yes, they arrive in their fancy cars and it’s one night and they’re trying to show off, etc.’ Whereas, there’s no showing off in this. It’s from what you’re saying to me. These are guys who maybe they’re the more progressive of the CEOs. Maybe they’re the CEOs who say, ‘okay, I’m not going to get anything out of it but let me go and sleep under the stars and get a little feel for what the homeless people are like and perhaps I’ll grow some empathy.’ In other words, I’m not going to get anything professionally, or financially, or materially out of it but it could make me a better human being.

Yes exactly, and I think even if someone goes for the ‘wrong reasons’ I’m pretty sure, like you said, it’s going to touch their heartstrings and make them see things differently, and even if they do go for their own incentives – there’s nothing wrong with aligning incentives, if the outcomes are good. That’s why business works. You’re solving problems, and you’re making money, and it’s kind of government’s and the rest of our jobs to make sure you don’t have the Guptas, like you said earlier. I think we should think of ways for people to act in their own best interests but collectively for that, to make a difference, and the CEO SleepOut™ is a good example of that, I think.

Well, James Donald is the CEO of Tomorrow Trust. If you didn’t find that discussion inspiring well, then I really don’t know what you will. James has travelled widely. He’s been all over the world. He’s studied at Harvard. He’s worked in international organisations. He’s back in SA and doing good, investing where things are really necessary. Tomorrow Trust is involved in the CEO SleepOut™ and in fact, James will be there as a guest of Adam Cracker of IQbusiness Group on Wednesday evening. Until the next time, cheerio.