Director at the Community Development Research Association (CDRA)

Nomvula has been an organisation development practitioner with the CDRA since 1st November 1995. Since coming into the organisation, she has had the opportunity and privilege to work with a vast number of organisations including small community-based organisations (CBOs), national non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and northern-based development organisations concerned with social development, poverty reduction and development funding. She has experience in facilitating organisational development, change and learning processes, conducting reviews/evaluations and designing action research processes in search of innovative organisational practices.

Nomvula’s professional background is in education and her early work history includes working for 10 years as a secondary school educator. Since then, she has spent the last 17 years in the civil society sector working as facilitator of organisational development, learning and change processes. What she enjoys and appreciates most about working for CDRA is being part of a learning organisation whose experience/expertise is grounded in the South African reality as well as in the challenges facing civil society organisations.

When not at work, she enjoys growing herbs, hiking, reading biographies and singing along while listening to music. She is also passionate about mentoring young people and is inspired by the courage and determination with which she sees them facing the world. It is her dream to one day venture into film making and she is currently learning about script writing and producing.

In her words

My work in 3 words: challenging, variety and satisfying.

From an early age my grandmother took us along on her many visits to sick and needy people in the community, as youngsters our chores were to take some food to some sick person or to go clean house or fetch water for some sick person whose children and grandchildren lived elsewhere. So, from a very young age visits to these different homes became part of our lives. As we grew older we graduated to church work, from preparing vegetables at the church bazaar to active involvement in the youth group and painting classrooms at the school was, in retrospect, part of my grounding.

Beyond this, as a teenager I became involved with the Council of Churches and this continued for the rest of my young adult life. Through my grandmother, the youth group of which I was a part and involvement in the Council of Churches, my yearning for this kind of work was stimulated – there was something noble about aligning oneself with those excluded, ignored, marginalised and unjustly treated.

Nineteen years ago when I moved from secondary school teaching to working as a fieldworker/trainer/facilitator in an education NGO, it became more than a temporary diversion. It was a conscious decision to pursue a social practice within civil society – through my former and present organisation I have been able to pursue my ideals of doing work that was in service of justice, freedom and equality – work that seeks to recognise and respect the humanity of others.

While I have worked in the education sector before, my experiences first in a private school and secondly in a community school have been different from the conventional government school environment. In both settings, I enjoyed the freedom to experiment with alternative learning and teaching approaches – the school environment in both instances nurtured creativity and experimentation instead of stifling them. I guess, to some extent, my experience in the only two schools where I taught had something to do with me craving for and having a deep belief in institutions or environments that strive for alternative ways of thinking and doing and that allow for the humanity of people to be enlarged and enhanced. This is the appeal the NGO sector held for me; an environment where the work allows for real human connection, defied structure and could be described as anti-establishment.

At the time I entered the NGO space, it was very vibrant and the sense of a sector was real. The work was innovative and experimental and the sector was a crucible for learning, for developing people, for creativity. Most NGOs had a strong social purpose and this was pursued with integrity and commitment. The strong relationships of solidarity through which NGOs were supported gave a real sense of being part of something bigger, a shared and common goal pursued in partnership with others.

In the last while these relationships of solidarity have been eroded, most NGOs have been catapulted into survival mode – it is now all about ensuring the survival of organisations than about the work. The pressure to become “business-like” weighs heavily on NGOs and a huge amount of the energy of the leaders of organisations is directed towards fundraising and working at securing the resources to sustain the work of our organisations. Not only do many of us find this exhausting, it is also diverting attention and energy away from the real work.

In a different funding climate, it was possible to be experimental and innovative; in the current context with everyone scrambling for limited resources, even the thinking and experimental capacity of organisations is being constrained and the transformative work that is a characteristic feature of civil society organisations is under threat. Slowly but surely, the NGO space is becoming a tough environment where ‘survival of the fittest’ prevails – the genuinely transformative work of the sector is disappearing and longer-term developmental work is being compromised for projects that can show quick yet shallow impact. The humane processes that enlarge the humanity of people are fading into the background while measurement and results are moving into the foreground.

One of the most significant changes for me is that the genuinely transformative work of our organisations is being compromised and undermined – the few of us who continue to hold a space for work that is developmental are being disadvantaged in terms of securing resources. Few donors remain committed to give resources for longer-term process work; even new donors are looking for quick fixes.

However, the challenging and ever-changing context also comes with opportunities; opportunities that for us to rethink our old approaches and practices. While NGOs have traditionally only worked within the civil society sector, the time is now for us to break out of our sector and work into and with the public and private sectors. Of course this would require that we make a genuine effort to understand the cultures and practices of these other sectors while being clear about our own purpose and contributions. The current context is one that demands of NGOs to clearly articulate their contribution and to bring it with courage and a clear sense of identity.

For anyone currently working in the sector, I suggest that you draw on the wealth of experience in the sector – this comes both in the form of experienced people and organisations. There are individuals who have a wealth of experience who can be drawn on and worked with as mentors. In addition, there are organisations, both old and new, doing exciting work – approach these and learn from their experiences and knowledge. While you are seeking out opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills, seek out personal development opportunities – through these you will learn more about yourself. In addition, attend seminars and dialogue sessions, they help to broaden your understanding and sharpen your own perspective.

Finally, without sounding like a market pitch, visit the Barefoot Guide website ( where you will find a myriad of resources that you can use in your work and practice.