7 Things I learned working for an NGO in Cape town

I was working with a non-profit called “The League of Friends of the Blind”(LOFOB) over the summer in Cape Town, South Africa and these are my learnings.

1. You cannot know what you don’t know

We take using gmail, calendar, google suite and other basic things for granted. Now imagine, if you started using internet yesterday how do you even come across these services and learn them? The same was the case with the non-profit, where not knowing they could use the services for free was mind blowing & something they would have never known.

2. Accessibility is a serious issue

How many times have you got frustrated in the last month because your internet was working slowly? Now imagine, if you can’t see anything happening on the computer. How do you even gauge if the internet isn’t working?

Spending three hours to teach a visually impaired person with the help of screen reader how to send an email from gmail.com got me pretty frustrated. As a product person, it was the first time I realized, how important it can be when there is no alt text on an image. Just imagine, how much of the internet cannot be used by people with disabilities because accessibility isn’t considered seriously.

3. Technology is scary

Like learning languages new can be scary because you are afraid you will fail at it or what ever other reason you might have. Same goes with technology, if I move all your stuff from Facebook to Google+ you will spend days trying to navigate how these things work.

Now think how you manage change in technology when there are new design standards & technology standards coming every year. A social worker working to help blind people, get over their anxiety of being blind should not be bothered with learning Google Sheets again because theMaterial design was adopted and things are not in the same place anymore. As UX designers we must ensure that Technology is less scary than it already is, and that transitions are easy for a common person to handle.

4. Information literacy is imbalanced

Growing up in India, I thought my dad couldn’t use much technology because English was never his first language. That was a bad assumption. In South Africa, people who grew up with English as their first language, haven’t even used most of the technology that we are nerds use all the time.

There are 3.2 billion people on the internet at this point, of these 2 billion people are from developing countries. The places where not only English isn’t their first language, these folks didn’t grow up with technology & nobody ever taught them about it.

Companies have been doing great with having support for languages across the globe, having technology packages for non profits with intensive guides. But going to my first point, you never know what you don’t know.

5. Be Grateful

Now, knowing that you are probably in the 20% of the people in developed countries knowing how the technology works, changes. You must feel grateful for the ability to understand this constantly changing technology, the ability to navigate through it.

And when you get some time, teaching others in help how to tame this beast for getting some work done.

6. Plan for sustainability

This sounds fairly simple, but it can become hard to implement especially when you start working. The usual process is that there is a need and you make a solution/deliverable to address this need. For instance, LOFOB had an upcoming fund raising event and they needed designs for their mascots.

I made lots of deliverables for the event but missed the process of documenting or teaching them how to actually make these things because I was going to leave in 2 months. This forced me to become more structured in the work I do and ensured that taught them everything I create or document to make sure it is used later. Wherever we work, it is a good thought to have, that you might have to quit in a month. Keeping that in mind, let’s do work which can be easily taken up by someone else once we leave.

7. Teach them, instead of giving recommendations

One thing you must remember when working for a Non profit, that they lack expertise in a lot of domains related to tech & design. These roles are usually taken up by the marketing team, or the person in-charge of the project. For instance, the person responsible for all the fundraising, marketing, social media and IT infrastructure was the same guy. I could have definitely given him recommendations about how they should improve the system, and that would have probably worked.

The most efficient way was to teach him how to implement a strict social media strategy while doing it with him so that the learning is very practical and allows him to be more hands-on.

Similarly, we did workshops on Google Suite, taking them through Gmail, Calendar, Drive, etc. one thing a week and then being available to them for assistance.


I feel very grateful for being offered the opportunity to work in such an environment. As it has made me realize the importance of how there are people out there doing amazing work and that I could help them in some way.

Global Information Engagement Program is an internship program organized by the University of Michigan, School of Information which partners with non-profits to create positive social impact.