Tea break with

fotoula theodoulou

Quality Assurance Director at Stepping Stones International

What kicks off your Monday morning?

Working where I work! I’ve witnessed the difference my workplace, Stepping Stones International (SSI) makes in people’s lives and over time, I have identified how my role within the organization contributes to the betterment of our beneficiaries’ lives. Even though my work is primarily “behind the scenes”,  I know that it contributes to SSI’s impact as it ensures that every child receives high quality services from us.

Monday morning my why and purpose in life is to mentor people and create quality in everything I do. That’s what gets me out of bed!

I also love to learn and collaborate with others. Every day, especially at the beginning of the week, I re-focus myself and take it as an opportunity to think about what deliverables I will work on in that given week and how I can collaborate with others in and through those deliverables. Exchanging ideas with my colleagues and working side by side I believe has greatly contributed to my fulfillment at Stepping Stones International over the past 6 years.

What inspires you to work in the Development sector?

I initially started working in the private sector as a Market Researcher after completing my studies in Bachelor of Business, Marketing and Tourism Management. It wasn’t until years later when I realized that I could re-direct my career towards the development sector. I then completed a Master of Social Science in International Development, and started to add value using the same skills I gained in the private sector.

I draw inspiration from the stories of lives being changed I hear from the field, and to know that the system I helped to design or implement allows us to track and capture high quality performance data and share success stories in an efficient manner.

When I started at Stepping Stones International, I was responsible for implementing a number of activities directly with youth. This helped me to understand the beneficiaries’ needs more as well as the challenges of working on the ground. After 1 year, I transitioned into using my skills behind the scenes as a Systems Technical Advisor. This included setting up Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL) systems, developing tools, frameworks, simple filling systems etc. and eventually progressed into the position I hold now as a Quality Assurance Director.

Being in a role that is “behind the scenes” requires me to look at numbers, conduct analysis and look at the technical aspects of projects (which I enjoy and is where my skills are best used). I draw inspiration from the stories I hear from the field. Stories of impact and of lives being changed and to know that the system I helped to design or implement allows us to track and capture high quality performance data and share success stories in an efficient manner. The data also influences and informs changes that need to be made in our programing so we can offer the most appropriate child centered service. This is highly rewarding to enable colleagues to advocate and celebrate the beneficiaries’ progress, as well as to inform decision-making through evidence and data.

This is highly rewarding to enable colleagues to advocate and celebrate the beneficiaries’ progress, as well as to inform decision-making through evidence and data.

I also find great fulfilment working with my colleagues in a mentoring capacity – passing on the private sector skills that I mentioned earlier. More and more, managing donors in the development sector requires a skill set that has historically been accessible in the private sector and in INGOs. So I see myself as a contributor in bridging the gap between the development and private sector through my contributions at Stepping Stones International, a local NGO in Botswana.

What is Quality Assurance and how does it relate to MEL?

Simply put, Quality Assurance (QA) is a system that outlines the standards which should be upheld when undertaking any and all tasks to achieve a common organizational goal, vision and mission. QA is a broad concept and applies to the whole organization (administrative through to project implementation, service and product delivery). In my role, I keep an eye on the quality throughout the organization; from assessing whether forms are filled out correctly to documenting feedback provided to our field workers as well as providing solutions to areas that need to improve in quality or creating as system to improve efficiency.

Quality Assurance is a system that outlines the standards which should be upheld when undertaking any and all tasks to achieve a common organizational goal, vision and mission.

Ultimately, implementation of QA activities is the whole organization’s responsibility. The organization and its employees are responsible for ensuring the work they do is aligned with the standards that have been agreed upon. Having said that, QA is heavily related to MEL; often resulting in MEL teams being the custodians of QA plans. MEL and QA are synonymous in that both focus on tracking performance through the use of data and evidence against set quality standards and indicators. It is not easy at first for people to understand quality control but once they do people understand its value.

Why is it (or should it be) important for NGOs?

Regardless of the sector you work in; be it public, private, development etc., delivery of the highest possible quality product / service that fulfills the customer’s / beneficiaries needs is one of the highest priorities.

Delivering the quality that was promised to the donor and beneficiaries is vital to long term sustainability of an NGO.

You could say that an NGO’s integrity hinges on a number of principles such as, quality, accountability, reliability and transparency among others. Delivering the quality that was promised to the donor and beneficiaries is vital to long term sustainability of an NGO. I’ve noticed that establishing a reputation where you are known for quality often results in an NGO standing above its competitors and increases their ability to attract funding, from both public and private sectors. At Stepping Stones International, one of our key focuses is diversification of funding as a way to secure our financial longevity.

One of the reasons we have been able to diversify our sources of funding, is because we are able to showcase that we provide quality services whilst also managing our organization and resources to a high standard and programs / services are implemented with fidelity.

I’ve noticed that establishing a reputation where you are known for quality often results in an NGO standing above its competitors and increases their ability to attract funding, from both public and private sectors.

Designing and being able to demonstrate that a QA system is being implemented I believe provides a level of re-assurance to donors that, despite the circumstances (e.g., COVID), an NGO has the required infrastructure in place to continue delivering to the same standard.

cultural contribution

Which easy steps could NGOs take to introduce or improve their Quality Assurance process?

First and foremost, establishing a QA team that will spearhead the QA process is vital.

Secondly, developing a QA plan collaboratively with representatives from departments across the organization to ensure inclusion and increase ownership. QA needs to be embedded in everything you do – It has to be part of the strategic direction the organization wishes to take.

Thirdly, for QA plans to be successful, there needs to be a shift of thinking in an organization. At Stepping Stones International, MEL and high quality services have always been at the center of what we pride ourselves on; but it wasn’t until approximately mid 2019 when a strategic decision was made to officially introduce the Quality Assurance Director position in the organization.

Now one of the biggest challenges is, how do you get the colleagues who are so focused on being in field to shift and add QA to their ‘list of things to do’?

The focus in the development sector is of course ultimately to make a difference in peoples’ and communities’ lives. From my experience working in Development, I’ve noticed that individuals are drawn into the sector primarily for that reason (especially from the outset). Colleagues want to get out, meet with clients, deliver services and “be where the action is”. There is a feel good aspect and a fulfilment one experiences when in the field directly making a difference in someone’s life. The seemingly mundane tasks, “the numbers”, the report writing, following procedures / standards closely don’t tend to be first on the priority list for such colleagues. Now one of the biggest challenges is, how do you get the colleagues who are so focused on being in the field to shift and add QA to their ‘list of things to do’? to ensure that whilst implementing, all set standards are being upheld and documented as prescribed in the QA plan.

It is important that all colleagues recognize that QA is part and parcel of their everyday work.

I believe recognizing the importance of QA in the organization is critical. Decisions need to be made around allocation of adequate resources to build the MEL team and invest in a longer term plan to bring colleagues on board. Successful QA requires behavior change. A shift in thinking, not only in theory, but also in practice. It is important that all colleagues recognize that QA is part and parcel of their everyday work – and more often than not, they are already doing the work in field. Now the added requirement is setting time aside for documentation, data cleaning, following SOPs / standards and a plethora of other tasks typically viewed as MEL’s responsibility only.

start strong

Which organizations inspire you in that sense?

I would say corporations who use human centered design. IDEO developed this theory and trains others on how to apply it in a company. Human centered design means including your client / beneficiary in the process of design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of your projects. Ultimately, by using this methodology, it is your client / beneficiary that determines whether your offer is of high quality or not. It is a creative approach to problem solving, involving the client / beneficiary. Some corporates who use this are IBM, Apple, Colgate and Fitbit.

Ultimately, by using human centered design, it is your beneficiary that determines whether your offer is of high quality or not.

I also appreciate INGOs who also value the position of Quality Assurance, although I might be a bit biased because this is my specific area of interest. One example is Save the Children. I see that they post for a Program Development and Quality Director whose mandate is monitor quality and monitor changes needed in programs to create lasting changes for children. The position also ensures that the programs are designed in accordance with the country strategy, the partners and the individuals they serve, which incorporates the human design I mentioned earlier. World Vision is another organization currently advertising a similar position.

Fotoula Theodoulou

Fotoula Theodoulou

Quality Assurance Director at Stepping Stones International

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Have you ever wondered whether you had more in common with your peers than just your passion for making a difference? Through informal interviews, we explore the ultimate drives of fundraising professionals, donors and association’s leaders, as well as their secrets for successful Mondays and their insights about the NGO and fundraising sector. Grab a cup and read on!

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