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Let's Talk Human Rights

Lessons from a Grassroots Development Nonprofit

By Rebecca Westphal '22

In July of 2019, I found myself embarking on a journey to a small and unfamiliar, but  special corner of the world. As the third Human Rights Center’s Malawi Graduate Fellow, I had the unique opportunity to travel to northern Malawi and gain field experience working as a program officer for Determined to Develop NGO (D2D). The thought of traveling thousands of miles from home was stressful and exciting, fear invoking, yet empowering. I knew I would face challenges in the months to come, but was eager to embrace all what the program had to offer.

At the time, what I did not expect was an early return home - after a short eight months - as UD suspended all international programs in response to uncertainties of the global pandemic. Despite this abrupt end, my time in Malawi was incredibly influential, impacting how I view the world and my role in it. I have been challenged to grow both personally and professionally, questioning my values, actions, and capacity as a global citizen. I came to understand not only the intricacies of grassroots development work but also the organizational development of a small nonprofit, from its humble beginnings to the high-impact organization we see today. As I continue to unpack this experience, this is a short reflection on my work with D2D, and what I have learned about international development and nonprofit spaces. 

My position as program officer encompassed media and donor outreach, as well as assisting with project implementation in the areas of female empowerment and extended learning opportunities for youth. The position was dynamic and offered me opportunities to work in various activities of the organization, such as raising awareness through multiple social media platforms or supporting fundraising efforts. As a grassroots organization, D2D uses a bottom-up approach that emphasizes community participation in every aspect of its development initiatives, from problem identification to program implementation. D2D’s local collaborations span across local schools, community groups, and local government, harnessing the power of networks as a means of building capacity. 

What struck me about D2D’s commitment to the community was their tireless efforts to connect with its beneficiaries in a genuine way. D2D staff members cultivate role model relationships with sponsored youth and meet with families regularly to ensure the academic success of each student. As a result, many of D2D’s graduate sponsored youth return to its campus to contribute and support ongoing efforts. This approach underscores the spirit of community, enabling D2D to create and sustain a measurable impact in the Chilumba area. Through its local presence and U.S connections, D2D has also contributed to a larger community both in Malawi and across the globe. Through its partnerships and open-source approach with universities and nonprofits such as the University of Dayton and Rotary International, D2D is actively contributing to shifting the landscape of international development work.  

As time passed and the seasons changed from hot and dry to cool and rainy, I gained a deeper understanding of D2D’s history and programming. It became apparent that D2D was founded on a generative culture focused on learning. A known virtue of nonprofits is their ability to adapt and respond to unseen circumstances. As many small nonprofits like D2D are held up by individual donors or operate in areas where resources are scarce, adaptability and growth are essential. To maintain a learning culture, D2D staff and board members ask questions such as: What is our impact on the community? Is it the kind of impact we want? How can we do better? What challenges lie ahead? Are our actions aligned with our mission and values? These questions help to guide organizational decision making and are supported through constant monitoring and evaluation (M&E). D2D staff continuously collect both quantitative and qualitative data related to each program’s defined goals and intended impact, which is then used to track progress, guide strategic planning, and inform proper implementation of its programs. It’s M&E methodology is based in consistent data collection and reporting, which sustains its ability to effectively identify and respond to challenges. 

Since its inception, D2D has continuously pushed for quality improvement across all aspects of its organization, including revised programming and internal operations. D2D was established in response to community need, and offered wide ranging programming such as school tuition sponsorship, women’s income-generating groups, and feeding programs. But as time progressed, the impact of school tuition sponsorship and the need for access to quality education far surpassed that of the other programs, causing D2D to move its focus entirely to education and related programming. 

By conducting community needs assessments and utilizing research from the Malawi Research Practicum, D2D created a new set of programming to best serve its beneficiaries. For example, D2D developed the Girls Empowerment Program in response to high rates of girls’ school dropout in the Chilumba area. Under this program, D2D offers Girls’ Clubs, a Female Mentorship Program, and a Girls Income-Generating Activity to support female youth in life-skills and educational development. These programs were produced together with local experts, and following student Practicum research. To date, this research has encompassed factors contributing to school dropout and absenteeism, exploring best practices for girls’ economic empowerment, and an assessment of the effectiveness of current Girls Club programming. By employing a learning culture, D2D has grown its adaptive capacity and ability to implement high-impact programs that significantly contribute to the local development of its part of Malawi. 

These principles of collaboration, resilience, and growth are ones that I regularly leaned on in my role as program officer and as a community member. This independent role encouraged me to make time for learning as I navigated how to engage D2D’s supporters through new and interesting media posts, and communicate strategically  with its partners. But most importantly, my experience with D2D taught me the importance of resilience, and to view change as an opportunity. 

Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, Malawi is facing a time of hardship due to the pandemic, among other challenges. D2D has made the difficult decision of putting its programs on hold, in addition to making financial cuts. Nonprofit organizations around the globe are finding themselves facing new challenges, though they remain more adaptable than ever. During these uncertain times, we can all benefit from the lessons I’ve learned from D2D. These lessons of centering community, learning, and development are more critical than ever. 


Rebecca Westphal is a recent graduate from the University of Dayton, where she received degrees in Human Rights Studies and Spanish. She returns to UD this Fall as a graduate assistant for the Human Rights Center after spending a year in Malawi working with Determined to Develop as a program officer. Rebecca is passionate about international development, and in the future hopes to support girls’ empowerment internationally through access to quality education.

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