“We need to have a different dialogue about non-profit organisations. South Africa needs to think innovatively. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” says Candice Potgieter, the young and passionate head of the KZN Science Centre (KZNSC).

Of course, she is referring to the dismal state of education which is becoming a rallying point for businesses’ Corporate Social Investment (CSI) initiatives. Despite being heavily criticised, a World Economic Forum report placed South Africa last out of 148 countries when it came to the quality of science and maths education last year. The retort from the Department of Basic Education was that this report was based on the perceptions of business executives and, at best, amounted to a satisfaction index. Point taken.

It all depends on how you package the poor standard of education that has been blamed on the apartheid government but has, disturbingly, declined steadily since 1994. Yes, it is good news that 97% of six and seven year olds are going to school – a number that is close to the 100% millennium goal. The rub comes with a dropout rate of 65% which means that not enough young people complete matric.

This is compounded by the fact that poor attendance, lack of equipment and facilities and poorly trained teachers result in below par performance. South Africa’s chronic shortage of engineers, scientists, doctors and other professionals is largely due to the fact that matriculants need a minimum of 60% to be accepted by tertiary institutions. Just 15% of those who sit down to write their final exams achieve this.

 The end result is that universities are turning out too few maths and science graduates and producing arts and social science graduates that are filling the ranks of the unemployed. 

As far back as 2013, President Jacob Zuma observed that government’s biggest challenge was to make maths and science exciting and popular at school level.

 Maths and science create a better future

 Candice believes that it is only through education that the poor stand a chance of rising above their problems – and it is only through a sound maths and science based education that students have a chance of attaining the high salaries that many dream about. Ultimately, this will help grow the economy for all, she says, pointing out that countries with more science and maths graduates tend to have higher gross domestic products.

 That’s well and good but, historically, maths and science have been the territory of the classroom geeks and hardly regarded as sexy or cool. 

 Clearly, Candice and the KZNSC team have their work cut out for them.

 We’re chatting at the Umhlanga Business Centre, temporary offices of the organisation since it vacated its spot at the nearby Gateway Mall almost a year ago. They’re waiting for an exciting new home, but Candice is not about to reveal the details just yet.

 The last 12 months have seen massive changes at the KZNSC – all largely driven by this determined young woman.  She has transformed the KZNSC from an edutainment centre in upmarket suburbia to a centre that reaches out to children who need help to achieve good educations the most – rural children.

 In little over three years, the number of KZNSC beneficiaries has rocketed from 40 000 to around 180 000 annually with 80% of all visitors coming from disadvantaged communities.

 Candice describes herself as a social entrepreneur – a term that she declares is the new buzz word but, sadly, a poorly understood concept. For her, the key is creating sustainable organisations that can stand on their own two feet fronted by leaders who run them as independent businesses.

 Sadly, she says, many non-profit organisations (NPOs) like the KZNSC are doing valuable work but are still living from hand to mouth in the shadows of sponsors trying to fill BEE scorecards rather than being the trailblazers they should be.

 “I know my product and I know that it’s good. I’m not going to beg,” she declares.

 This is not arrogant or haughty but rather a call for NPOs to become more confident in their abilities to make a difference and to be better equipped to do that. It’s about creating healthy, viable and sustainable organisations that have clear direction.

 “Everyone is trying to create a better world but changing it begins with them. To do this, NPOs need to be the best they can be. We have to be serious about what we are doing. I always say, make it work but make it work well. Even those of us who don’t have a lot to bring need to ask for the best deal and be smart about it. If you spend money, you will get money – but spend it wisely,” she says.

 For Candice, a NPO able to deliver on its mandate needs a strong brand, a clear target market and a vision and strategy with a clear implementation plan. Accountability at all levels coupled with sound corporate governance and regular audits complete the picture.

 She has given this to the KZNSC thanks to the knowledge of business development, financial management, communication and marketing that she has gleaned within a very short space of time. Yet, she started out as a science graduate.

 Candice’s story

Her own fascinating journey has seen her follow an upwardly mobile path of a different sort to the point where she has collected numerous awards. She was also one of 46 South Africans to participate in the inaugural Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) Washington Fellowship in 2014. This picked out young South African leaders making important contributions via entrepreneurship, public administration and community service. The six week programme at top US Universities culminated in a Washington conference hosted by President Obama.

 While she undoubtedly stands out as a role model for those falling within the age group that is officially most prejudiced by unemployment in South Africa (estimated to be more than 50%), she is both down-to-earth and pragmatic. It’s too late to deal with the problem when young people have left school. Organisations such as the KZNSC need to motivate changes when learners are in their early teens.

 Many of those to whom the KZNSC reaches out are of a similar age to what she was when she decided that she “wanted to do something on the science side”. She holds a post graduate degree in applied physics and applied mathematics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and was included in the University of Cape Town’s National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme.

 But, at the end of the day, she wanted to do something more, something that would not just include “looking through a telescope”, she says.

 On returning home after finishing her studies at the age of just 22, she found herself in a real world that dictated that she had to park idealism in favour of finding a job. She applied for the position of education manager with Old Mutual Properties which had owned the Science Centre for a number of years. It was located in the Gateway Mall.

 She remembers that, during her first interview, the director commented that she did not have sufficient experience. “But he said he would take a chance on me and employed me for six months on a contract.”

Having a big company like Old Mutual Properties give her an opportunity to do something that she really wanted to do was all the incentive she needed. Her six month stint extended to three years – until the Science Centre reached an important crossroads.

The director, who had realised the Science Centre was on a steep downward curve, decided to leave. It was facing significant financial difficulties with debt totalling a whopping R8 million.

Candice believes much of this had to do with the fact that it was essentially a retail value ad and was not making money. People saw the Science Centre as a form of edutainment and would simply drop off their kids, hoping they would be kept busy and learn a little along the way.

 She was informed that they would not appoint a replacement director and told to take charge, retrench staff and close the doors.

 But Candice was not prepared to give up without a fight. She recalls going to bed at night, thinking about the Science Centre’s bank balance and wondering how to keep it alive.

The scenario wasn’t encouraging, she tells me. Because its home was the Gateway Mall, it was paying astronomical rents. The Science Centre was 10 years old and its equipment had aged with it. The technology was largely redundant.

 Against advice, in 2010, she took a massive step and decided to restructure the organisation. “For me, it was not about banking on a job. If it didn’t work, I could move on,” she explains. What she needed was not rocket science as much as business science.

 Branding to make a difference

She started with renaming and rebranding the Science Centre. Key to this has been the creation of a website and an online presence. If people are donating money and doing good work, they want to get noticed, they want people to listen, she observes.

 Candice was also intent on creating a strong, confident brand. “No one funds a distressed brand, they fund a successful one,” she points out.

 The same applies to a brand without a vision and a clearly defined target audience. Its Gateway location positioned what was now the KZNSC as an upmarket educational NPO when it should have been aimed at those in need. Add to that the fact that, by the time the KZNSC moved out of Gateway, it was paying R2,2-million in rent. For a non-profit organisation, she felt this was completely unacceptable and inappropriate.

In addition to wanting a vibrant KZNSC that learners and educationalists could visit, she also believed it was important to go beyond a static location and find a way to go out to schools and communities who were simply too far away or unable to travel to Durban. She began approaching businesses to fund mobile laboratories and equipment as well as salaries for employees.

 But this brought her up against an even bigger problem. She was employing the wrong people. At the time, Candice was the only one with a science qualification. Sadly, she says, after putting a better structure in place, she had to retrench staff to re-employ more suitable ones for the positions created. Today, the KZNSC has five permanent and 57 contract staff – all have science degrees, are experienced and understand the mandate of the organisation.

 Also as part of the restructuring, she set about assembling a more influential board. “I tried to network as much as possible to ensure that this was about science awareness and a future for everyone. We needed to have the right people on our side and we needed people to talk about us. Ultimately, people started trusting us more,” she remembers.

 She also continued to focus on funding. Apart from exploiting tax rebates in lieu of sponsorships to bring donors on board, she also looked at ways for the KZNSC itself to bring in money and be self-sufficient. The KZNSC began selling laboratory equipment and its kits either to schools or to companies wishing to contribute towards equipping schools.

 At the same time, the innovative Candice addressed one of her key concerns. Instead of one off donations that were either abused or fell into disuse, she approached potential funders, offering to match them with the right schools and then suggesting that the KZNSC acted as a middle manager to ensure the efficacy and longevity of each project.

 “We could then provide the training, actually teaching teachers how to use the equipment,” she explains. This was in addition to actually overseeing the installation and renovation of laboratories in the first place. “Once we renovate, we come back to train people to use it. They are the ones that give back to our children.”

The KZNSC also began to more aggressively court government support and involvement so that, with the back up the Department of Education, the facilities installed were relevant to the curriculum and would improve standards and marks at schools. Candice ultimately became and executive member of the Advisory Committee for Career Support and Guidance to the MEC of Education.

The Department of Science and Technology and the Afrisun Community Development Trust

also began paying the KZNSC to return to schools four times a year to retrain educators, monitor progress and make sure that laboratories and equipment were maintained.

 Candice’s concern is that it is not only important to persuade learners to select science and maths as subjects and excel in them in order to follow related careers, but also to ensure that they have futures. Education needs to be applied and employed and the KZNSC, through the companies with which it works, needs to feed a talent pipeline.

She says that CSI initiatives and sponsorship need to transcend the ‘do good’ phase with companies assessing their own future needs to ensure that their initiatives meet their own talent and skills development needs through job creation and even the provision of bursaries.

 Looking back over the sometimes difficult but definitely rewarding transformation of the KZNSC, Candice is confident that the organisation is resilient and will survive even during tough times.

 Now, she’d like to share the skills and lessons learnt along the way with other NPOs. “You can then teach someone who is passionate about what they do to do it in the right way. Sometimes people just need a push,” she smiles.