Interview – Lizzie Zobel

Alliance magazine

The Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation, established in 2001, aims to improve literacy and instill a love of reading among primary school students in the Philippines. However, it’s not only the children who are learning. All those who run and implement the reading programme, from vice-president and founder Lizzie Zobel to the teachers involved, soon realized that they were learners, too.

Its continuing success, Zobel explains to Caroline Hartnell, depends on constant self-questioning and a willingness to learn about the needs of its beneficiaries and to ‘re-engineer’ itself to meet them. This attitude, she believes, is one that donors would do well to imitate.

The initial idea of what you wanted to achieve emerged from the reading campaign. How has the programme evolved subsequently?

First, the programme has evolved as we have come to understand our partner agencies, specifically the Department of Education. But maybe the most important insight we had was that we needed to focus on the teachers not just on the students, because the teachers are the multipliers, and also the ones who need us the most. Often, the teachers are poorly trained. When we tested their comprehension levels and reading skills, we realized they lacked the skills they needed to be able to do their job properly and that more of our investment had to go into retraining them, so we’ve developed a very strong teacher training component. Many of the schools have no books to foster reading, so we had to develop and increase our investment in books too.

One of the support mechanisms that we’ve developed for teachers is a magazine, which is a cross between a teacher manual and, for want of a better example, a sort of Cosmopolitan magazine. Most of our conferences not only deal with their teaching of reading but also with issues like how to manage time, how to manage finances, and how to manage relationships with principals, their different supervisors and other colleagues so that they can do their work more effectively. We even talk about their psychology, management skills, etc.

How did you come to understand all these things? What is the process by which the experience of the programme feeds into its change of direction?

From the start of our teacher training workshops, we used an evaluation instrument to allow the teachers to discuss what they had learned from our workshops and what they felt their needs were. Looking at the results, we understood that they needed some help to develop their teaching and reading skills.

So we adopted a participatory monitoring and evaluation framework. We ask the project monitors to feed us daily information on particular schools; we get information from the principals; we ask for evaluations from the teachers themselves during implementation and after and we look at their lesson plans. We even analyse the books that the children use during the reading programme to discuss the stories they read. And from all these things, we’ve been able to understand that the bigger question is who is teaching who.

So from a reading programme we found ourselves developing more broadly into a teacher training organization with a reading programme.

Was there ever a problem about getting really honest feedback from the evaluations? How do you encourage that?

At the start, we used different survey companies to evaluate the programme’s implementation and impact. The results were extremely favourable, but when we looked at them carefully, we began to question them. We asked, for example, the question: ‘If given 20 pesos would you buy food or would you buy a book?’ Most children in the public school system live on two meals a day, yet 68 per cent were saying they would buy books. It’s impossible to believe that. The survey company had not taken account of the cultural context. Filipinos want to please, they tend to answer what they think you want to hear. So we have to get the questions right.

We’ve always believed that every peso we take from a limited pool of donors might have gone to some other project that could have made a larger impact. So from the very beginning we’ve had a culture of responsibility and therefore of questioning ourselves constantly. Are we doing what we say we do? Can we be more effective? We’re just starting to develop a relationship with a poverty action lab to see if our monitoring and evaluation strategy can be refined and instruments that are more culturally sensitive developed, so that we get real answers, not those that people want us to hear.

When you started the foundation, did you have an explicit theory about how the change that you wanted to see would come about?

We had a vision that we would build slowly but surely a nation of readers. We thought that if we could get to the students we could create a love of reading and a habit of reading, and then we could create a nation of readers. We thought that that would involve the teachers as implementers. Now we understand that they need to be the beneficiaries, too.

Were these assumptions explicit things that you worked out for yourselves at the beginning that you then explicitly changed?

At the beginning, I don’t think we understood completely the social, political and cultural context in which we were working. For one thing, the way we assumed the Department of Education worked was completely different from the way it actually functioned. So our assumptions had to change, and that has made us more effective in our implementation. We’ve become listening partners with the Department of Education, our implementers, our schools, and our learning communities.

The article by Jenny Hyatt and Allan Kaplan talks about being a learning organization with a culture of reflecting on what sort of an organization you are, and your position in the world, rather than just learning by measuring your external results. Do you feel that that’s the sort of culture you have in the foundation?

I do believe that. We’ve not only used participatory monitoring and evaluation strategies to harvest information from ourselves about how we are implementing, but we’re continuously questioning whether these reading programmes are having the impact that we want on the children. So our continuing struggle is to re-engineer ourselves to make sure that what we do produces better students and better learners.

Are there any things that you see as a barrier to learning?

I think that we have, almost to a fault, a self-questioning culture. Some of the people who work with us are amused at our levels of self-criticism. But it all comes from a sense of responsibility, partly to our donors but mostly to our beneficiaries. I think that the constant questioning of our methods, our limitations and our results makes us a learning organization, because it gives us a sort of motor to constantly redefine ourselves to be more effective.

Are there structures and processes in which this continual self-questioning occurs, or is it constant informal conversations, or is it a bit of both?

We have informal conversations that come about as part of our evaluation process. But also we hold discussion groups with those we consider to be our stakeholders. These include the teachers, the principals, Department of Education officials and some members of our organization. Our facilitators include cultural anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. From those discussion groups, we arrive at some very interesting conclusions that we’ve incorporated into our operation manuals. We hold discussion groups before we implement a new programme, and often we hold them a couple of months after in an effort to make sure that we are being as effective as possible.

Do you think it’s ever hard for people in these groups to say what they really think?

I think the key thing is the manner in which we conduct them. We treasure our relationship with the Department of Education and we try to be sensitive to the culture that has developed within the Department. In fact we were told by the Secretary of Education that we were the longest-standing partner and sub-contractor that the Department has worked with. That surprised us, because we’ve only been around for six years. One of the reasons seems to be that other partners find a lot of the structures within the agency to be very frustrating. In our case, we try to work with the system, so as not to be locked out of it.

Do you find your donors are interested in the things you learn and make use of them to adjust their own programmes?

We do work to get our donors to come to terms with what the educational system really needs. A lot of them don’t understand who the beneficiaries should be or what their needs are as they have not worked within the system. We try to explain the realities of the public education system, but we realize that our donors also have very specific projects in mind. We depend on their funding, so we try and find common ground between the two. Once they understand where we are coming from and what the realities of the system are, a lot of them come round and understand where the need lies, and how they can best invest in the educational system.

Why does this problem arise? Do you feel your donors come with preconceived ideas of what they want to achieve?

Exactly. They have preconceived ideas of what the educational system needs. And I don’t blame them, because a lot of these ideas were the ones we held ourselves before we started, and we came to understand the really important lesson – that the most important thing is to meet the needs of teachers, and the effect of doing this will trickle down to the students in a multiplying way.

A lot of them think the children need books, but if you don’t have a teacher who can create a reading environment for the student, the book will stay on the shelf. One donor we work with had a long-established book donation programme for the Philippines. We asked them what had happened to the books they donated and who had benefited from them. When they investigated, they realized that many of the books had been lost or stolen or simply locked up in warehouses. Now we’ve set up a partnership with them. We run the reading programme, and they come in after us and donate the books to the learning communities that we work with. They’ve realized that if there’s no reading readiness, you’re just donating paper.

Do you bring your donors into your discussion groups?

No, we don’t. The discussions we hold with our donors are of a different nature because we’re trying to understand their needs, and we’re trying to help them understand the beneficiaries’ needs. The people that we have in our discussion groups are usually people that we bring in because we want to re-engineer and re-tool our programme and we are interested in their inputs to better our approach.

One would assume that if donors want to support reading in the Philippines, they would want to do it in the way that’s most effective. You at the Foundation are constantly thinking about the needs of the beneficiaries and how they can best be met, so where does this ‘need’ of the donors come from?

A lot of our donors are from the private sector and they want ownership of the programme. They don’t want to do the same thing that everybody else is doing. They want to brand programmes so that they seem unique to them, because in some cases their corporate social responsibility is part of their external affairs. For example, we had one donor that wanted to have a competition to find the most innovative and creative reading programme. In the event, most of the entries were not really innovative. The conclusion we drew from this was that we couldn’t jump into trying to make innovators and creators out of teachers whose skills were rudimentary. It then became clear to the donor that the investment had to be in the very basic skills of the teachers.

So if you wanted to give a message from your experience of working with donors, what would it be?

There is so much desire to do good and so much desire to participate in social development. Everybody in the Philippines is involved in some kind of social development project. I always say that I’d love to make a movie called ‘A day in the Philippines without NGOs’, because I think the whole country would fall apart. There are so many small and medium-sized NGOs that are doing so much to plug the great holes that government services do not fill, that are trying to understand the system and its needs. If donors could grasp that and realize that these groups have experience, then we could perhaps overcome their constant desire to make things their own and so get better support.

We respect donors’ needs, and we’ve created a reputation for ourselves. The strategic relationship we have with the Department of Education has put us in a very good position with donors because by being a part of what we’re doing, they are able to contribute to the educational system. So we’re very grateful to our donors, and we try to see how we can tweak and brand things in such a way that they feel their desire for distinctiveness is met.

Do you think, in dealing with your donors, that being part of the Ayala family helps? Does it mean you can talk to your donors as peers, and they will recognize you as such? Or is it irrelevant?

It’s actually been detrimental because a lot of the people we approach for funding believe that the family and their foundation should be supporting my project. But the reason that I do this independently is that I respect the fact that each foundation has its own vision and mission and maintaining that is actually a large part of its success. In our case, it is tempting to get involved in so many things related to reading, like writing books for children. But we focus on the reading programme because that’s what we’re about, that’s what we believe in. We have our core competencies, and by sticking to them we believe we can be more effective than we could by spreading ourselves too thinly. And the Ayala Foundation, too, has its own core competencies and its own vision.

In any case, I like to see myself as independent. I don’t want a family foundation to feel it has to fund me just because I’m a family member. We have been very lucky to be associated with some great companies that believe in what we’re doing, and so I haven’t thought to knock on the Ayala Foundation’s door.

I’d just add that, being associated with a donor family and with the business world – I had my own company for many years – I understand what the private sector is looking for, and the kind of transparency, business discipline, results and return on investment that they’re expecting. At the same time, I’ve come to understand the structures and the strategic relationships that put certain limitations on that.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Eder Zobel is an entrepreneur and socio-civic leader in the Philippines. She is co-founder, vice president and treasurer of Sa Aklat Sisikat. Among other things, she is also a founding board member of Museo Pambata, an interactive museum for Filipino children. She is married to Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, President and CEO of the Ayala Corporation and Vice Chairman of the Ayala Foundation.


The Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation

The Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation evolved from a city-wide campaign to create awareness of the importance of reading and reading skills in Manila in 1999. Its basic activity is a 31-day reading programme in primary schools. SAS runs the projects itself, training the teachers and creating the necessary relationships with local government units, department of education officials and school principals. The programme’s main funder is Petron, which is the largest oil company in the Philippines. Petron covers a substantial part of the foundation’s administrative expenses and part of its programmes. Other parts of the programme are funded by other corporations, including Citibank, Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, UBS Warburg, and Jolibee, which is a fastfood chain.


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