The wisdom of dlalanathi: Reflections on organizational growth

A former colleague recently shared with me a report from dlalanathi (meaning “play with us” in isiZulu), an organization in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa that trains and mentors local community carers of children to use play to have meaningful conversations with children about death.

Founded in December 2000, dlalanathi has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. dlalanathi’s annual budget went from US$3,784.00 in 2000 to almost US$35,994.00 in 2010. Their staff went from 2 to 11 during this same time. Yet during this period, dlalanathi managed to never lose its sense of identity, remaining grounded in their locality while successfully navigating the ocean of development and philanthropic aid.

So how did they manage to do it?

In this report to their donor, dlalanathi reflected on this. Having worked with many children-focused, community-based organizations in southern Africa, I see dlalanathi as a great example of a former grassroots organization that has continued to evolve and deepen its work, increasing its relevance, reach, and impact in KwaZulu Natal and all over South Africa. And because I believe a deeper understanding of the organizational dynamics of local, community-based organizations is key to unleashing their potential (see my related paper on hii Dunia here), I share dlalanathi’s insights here in their own words…


Note: dlalanathi’s strategies are centered on play as children’s “work” and the way they make sense and meaning of their experiences in their world. dlalanathi’s training services and support groups strengthen children’s abilities to form relationships with consistent and caring caregivers after experiencing loss and grief, enabling them to develop a sense of belonging, agency, and resiliency. dlalanathi was formerly known as Rob Smetherham Family Bereavement Services. You can read more about dlalanathi’s work at

Report question: What do you look back on as critical elements in your organization’s development?

Faith – We are a faith-inspired organization and as I reflect on our journey it does feel like we serve out of a desire to connect with people in our mutual humanity and not with judgement. We work from the base of love and trust in those with whom we form partnerships. Although we are not connected to a particular denomination, each staff member serves out of a belief in a bigger purpose.  Who we are and how we treat others is greater than any material provision we could make. Our work is built on relationships first and seeking to understand those people we serve and the world they live in.

The personal story of a family coping with loss – The Smetherham family brought their experience of loss and the founder Liesl Jewitt, inspired by their gift, named the organization. Liesl says “The story of a mother and three children coping with the loss of their father shaped much of what we decided to do. Things like support in grief had to be personal, connected, have choice, and allow people to make sense of what was happening.”

The visionary leader – A fearless, gifted, determined visionary [who was] able to let go of the organization when her role of founding was complete.

Building a model – In our first vision session in 2002, I recall our chairperson said, “We want to be like meals on wheels. No one knows who started it but everyone does it because it is a good idea.” We did not want to build an empire but something that could give people enough to take it further in their own way. The model is like a map in a way and as it unfolded we got a chance to reflect on it, change it, see what actually happened in practice and learn by doing. The action learning cycle is an active process in our work.

A focus on delivery and process – Think and explore in the world of ideas. Live in the world of action. Delivery is about doing. Capacity building is about process.

An expansive plan – In 2004 we conducted an insane six-year strategic plan, guided by the title of a book by Peter Block, The Answer To How Is Yes. It poses the idea that when we ask how we are actually saying no. What we need to ask is ‘What is worth doing?’ Somehow when you ask that question, priorities become clearer and you find a way. Our six-year plan seemed impossible and now is, for the most part, a reality. We are equally as surprised and delighted by that because we can’t say exactly how it happened. We set the course and now we are here.

Key funding inputs – We had key funding inputs at key times that funded growth, i.e. expanding the community team in 2006; expanding the training team in 2007; and employing a development manager 2007-8. We were offered Organisational Development support by a group of consultants at a very key time, 2007-2010, which has really helped! These inputs were particularly useful as they allowed us to build capacity by employing more people, which is key. The funds actually bought capacity, not activities.

Growing management & programs – We can’t emphasize this enough. Good growth can only be achieved through growing management (people and systems) alongside programs.

Reflection & learning – Quite by accident, our continued use of reflection, learning and planning proved so valuable that these elements have helped us become a true learning organization.

Report question: What advice would you give to organizations on the brink of this kind of growth?

Your work:

Dream big and move towards the dream slowly over time. They say we overestimate what we can achieve in a year and underestimate what we can achieve in five years.

Focus on what it is you are trying to achieve. The activities are about how you get there—they are not the destination. Keep learning about what is working and why and what’s not and why? Seek to understand, not blame. Be willing to explore different ways to do things.

Stick to what you know you are good at and can do. Often we have gifts and a particular strength in an approach or area. It is always best to work from strengths and build those to excellence. Start always with what you have and what you can do—ask “what’s worth doing?” Add skills that complement what is in the organization. Recruit for roles and team attributes, not only an ability to do the tasks.

Everything is about relationships. Be real and mean it. How you do things is as important as what you do. Sometimes we rush into things without thinking them through, hurting ourselves and others in the process. Our work is all about people, and we need to work gently with genuine concern.

Deliver what you promise. It builds trust, and community trust is such a critical asset. Be sure you can do what you say you will and endeavor to do it. If you can’t, make sure you communicate and negotiate with respect and openness.


Grow management and leadership as the organization grows. We can be so eager to take on new projects and more initiatives, but this always takes more management. Get a good board and/or partner organizations that hold you accountable to your plans, but that also offer support in your development.

Don’t over promise to get the money. Try to make sure you can actually do it. Its shifts the focus from the outcome to the activity only and can cause you to lose sight of what you intend to achieve.

Work to make the administrative systems serve the work, not the other way round. Admin and financial management are important, but their key role is to support the work of others. Work on the ground is hard enough without adding cumbersome procedures that don’t work for the team doing the work. Develop workable systems that fit easily with what you do as a natural part of your work – or else you will drown in paper work.

Learn to acknowledge gaps. You seldom get what you need when you need it. So you may get money but not find people, or have people and no money or have both but no program or problems with implementation. This means there will often be things you want to do or need to do but for which you do not yet have the capacity. Acknowledge these gaps. Say, “We have a gap. There. How will we deal with it?” Otherwise your director or leader tries to fill all the gaps (which is impossible) and she or he can become defeated and burn out.

Your team:

Build the team. Develop, develop, develop people. Realize that diversity is strength and you need a range of different skills and gifts. Agree on values around how you work together. Your internal process and relationships affect your actual impact much more than you think.

Pay attention to the ‘burn-out’ levels. Sometimes faced with so much need, you can push yourself and others. This is ok for a season but can’t be the way you always work. Burn out is not good for your team or your work.

Reflect and learn together. Look at what’s working and what’s not. Trust your team to tell you the truth. Trust that you will find solutions. At one point, we did not reflect as a team for six months at a critical time of change, and the organization almost crashed. Build reflection into the way you work—it really helps.


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