I was fortunate enough to go on a TIE placement back in 2018, when air travel was possible (albeit still unpleasant) and the word ‘corona’ was still most associated with a light beer. I was in Recife, Brazil, helping educational NGO, Somos Professores, build a marketing plan. I spent a transformational month with the team on the ground, doing my best to exchange useful tips, techniques, and tools I’d picked up throughout my several year career in advertising.  On my return, I knew I wanted to continue applying my skills to social challenges, but as often happens with good intentions, life “gets in the way.”

Fast forward two years, when unpleasant air travel is yearned for and that light beer brand has a whole new branding challenge to face. The world may have shut down, but the world’s social challenges had only intensified. Being a TIE alumnus, I stayed close to what the organization was doing. As soon as I heard that they were testing a new remote placement opportunity, I knew I had to apply. Digital tools have allowed for seamless communications for years now, yet no organization had seen that as an opportunity to connect people from across the world to different NGOs and charities that may benefit from their skills.

I was put in touch with Debbie, who founded a social enterprise called African Bureau Stories in Accra, Ghana. African Bureau Stories publishes wonderful children’s books. They find and nurture writers and illustrators from across the continent, connecting children around the world with African stories that they’ll love to read. Debbie had built an amazing organization from scratch, winning various awards from the publishing industry and social enterprise sector. I was a little at a loss for how I could be of help to someone who was evidently so capable and accomplished, particularly seeing as I was holed up in my New York apartment. But all it took was one WhatsApp video call for us both to start bouncing ideas around for what the next chapter of African Bureau Stories’ journey could be…

Many founders, whether they are corporates or social enterprises, find immense value from an external perspective. Particularly when it comes to telling their brand story. They are so close to the intricacies of their organization, so impassioned by the work they do, that it can be a challenge to tell their story in a way which intrigues and inspires the wider world. Debbie had accomplished so much over the past decade, but she needed help in simplifying and sharpening the organization’s story. Positioning the African Bureau Stories brand in a way that connected potential funders as well as customers would help set a North Star for her and the rest of the organization.

As I’ve learned throughout my career in brand building, it takes a while to land on the clearest, most precise summation of a brand. I was a little worried about the ability to find that articulation over Whatsapp and Zoom calls; it’s a process that usually takes several workshops, interviews, and brainstorms – all in person. However, I completely underestimated the ability to collaborate through digital means.

Debbie and I chatted for about ninety minutes each week. Our conversations were wide ranging; they started off largely being about the business, how she came to establish it, and her aspirations for where she’d like to take it. But we also got sidetracked, discussing the importance of libraries to rural communities, exploring the variety of ways we could distribute books that didn’t involve bookshops or Amazon, and trying to understand how HR executives make decisions about what Christmas gifts to buy for their employees. These conversations, while less “spontaneous” than they would have been if I were in Accra, nevertheless led us to fascinating insights and conclusions. Over the three months working together, Debbie and I successfully cracked the African Bureau Stories brand narrative, and subsequently wrote a pitch deck for fundraising and some marketing materials for a Christmas sales drive.

For anyone undertaking a virtual TIE placement, or virtual work of any kind, there’s one attribute I’d ask both parties to strive for: trust. Trust to hold each other to deadlines that might initially seem easy to endlessly push back when you’re one the other side of a screen rather than a table and trust to take the other’s thoughts and opinions as ones that might take the organization to a new but exciting place. Digital and remote work is new to us all. It’s different from being there, on the ground, in the culture. But it can be just as powerful in helping connect great people, no matter where they live in the world. And when great people are connected, they can accomplish wonderful things.

–  Cameron Milne (TIE Advisor, 2020)

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