The End of the Young Champion Program – Was it all Worthwhile?

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By: Seth Cochran, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Seth Cochran, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. This is his final post about his experience as a Young Champion, and you can learn more about him, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

Here we are at the end of the Young Champions of Maternal Health (YCMH) program and it’s natural to ask a few questions.

Was it worthwhile? Would all the money invested in 15 individuals have had more of an impact if spread across 15 organizations? Would the nine months we all spent working on other projects have been better spent moving our own work forward? Will the mothers of the developing world consider the YCMH program a success ten years from today?

On the question of investing in individuals over organizations, strong arguments exist on either side of the debate. But our program invested in both. While the YCMH program supported individuals, it did so by supporting their work within organizations. In this way, each individual developed their understanding of organizations under the tutelage of the entrepreneurs who created these enterprises. This gave every Young Champion an up-close view of the best and worst practices within their given social enterprises.

In my placement, I saw how the economic downturn and resulting contraction in the stream of donor funding put pressure on the organization. We worked to introduce streams of sustainability into the EHAS program model by trying to monetize some program assets. But this kind of strategic change takes time, and with a primarily donor-driven model, the organization often broke into divisions between the people who do programs and the people who marshal resources.

In the context of my own vision for maternal health, this experience showed me how important it is to have a sustainable program. I have spent and am spending considerable time thinking about how my work can feed itself — how I can introduce business into an area of social need where it is very rarely present.

On the question of whether it was worth spending nine months working on another project instead of my own, I have to say that my experience was never so cut and dry. First, my mentor, Andres Martinez, very much encouraged me to keep pushing my project forward. In addition to that direct link to my project, I found relevance for my project in nearly everything I did for EHAS. I am not talking about how EHAS related to maternal health, but rather how the people within EHAS worked together to respond to challenges.

I conducted an organizational study for EHAS that by its very design aimed to elicit opinions from the staff on how EHAS is not working — on ways the organization needed to improve its response to challenges. While most people had lots of thoughts on what is not working, the takeaway for me as an analyst was that organizations are human organisms. Organizations are composed of people. How those people interrelate with each other and within the organization’s structure defines not only how much people can accomplish, but also how happy they are doing it. This includes every human stakeholder attached to the effort, from leadership to staff to volunteers. I had seen this before in my private sector experience, but dynamics differ in a heavily volunteer driven effort.

When I reflect on my experience as a Young Champion, I think the program has magnified my ability as a maternal health changemaker by giving me a stronger understanding of how an organization can attack a problem and what that organization needs to sustain and advance that effort.

As an individual, I now have a significantly enhanced ability to create and expand agency through organization. This has made the nine-month experience an empowering and invaluable one to me. If my colleagues and I continue to build on the momentum the YCMH program has created, the mothers of the developing world will surely consider this program a success in ten years.

So was it worth it? You bet it was. In fact, it was more than worth it.

I had no idea what was really in store for me over the nine months of the YCMH program. But between the structure Ashoka developed, the interaction with the other Young Champions, the work with EHAS, and the relationships I developed that also developed me, I cannot think of any better way I could have spent nine months.

This experience transformed me and now I’m ready to go out and transform the maternal health world!