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Akili Dada is an international award-winning leadership incubator. A fifteen-year old organization based in Kenya, it supports leadership development of girls and young women through mentoring, training and financial support. For its mentoring model to succeed, an investment in the pathway of girls is required.

Through their participation in the FIRE program, starting in 2012, Akili Dada adopted a long-term vision for building greater financial strength and shared this with prospective donors.

Akili Dada became comfortable asking funders for what they needed, and relationships shifted from purely transactional and project-based, to transformational, and became grounded in an exchange of ideas and mutual learning. The team was able to build a strong financial position, resulting in a series of multi-year grants with few restrictions, healthy reserves and ownership of real estate.

They continued innovating, expanding their base of financial support and were able to pivot their programs into virtual engagements which allowed them to extend their reach to more African countries across the continent. The many alumni have the potential to further extend the financial resilience of the organization, by expanding the network and support via a Pan-African “giving circle”.

Learn more about their story by checking out this blog, video and infographic below. This Impact Story from Spring's Financial Innovation and Resilience (FIRE) program was created in May 2021.


Akili Dada: The Mission

Akili (noun)- intelligence, brain, savvy, woke

Dada (noun)- sisterhood, sister, an endearment term among friends

“The Swahili words “Akili” and “Dada” communicate Akili Dada’s commitment to a sisterhood that is dedicated to excellence and to addressing the barriers that face underserved African girls and young women.
Akili Dada’s mission is to nurture transformative leadership towards meeting a vision where African women leaders are actively participating in key decision-making processes across sectors. Akili Dada’s leadership development model creates the foundation upon which girls and young women chart their own leadership paths, build their skills and acquire the necessary qualifications needed to access key decision-making roles and leadership spaces. The model includes igniting self-discovery in girls and young women, activating their peer influence, and providing resources for them to positively influence their communities and emerge as leaders in their own right.

Organizational History – The Founder's Intent

Akili Dada was founded by Dr. Wanjiru Kamau- Rutenberg who was acutely aware of the limitations and restrictions for women leaders to succeed in Africa.

I started Akili Dada in 2005 as a way to pay it forward. From painful personal experience I have insight into African women’s challenges in the quest for education as well as the difference that thoughtfully structured scholarships, compassionate mentoring, and purposeful leadership training can make.” -  Dr. Wanjiru Kamau- Rutenberg, Founder

In its earliest days, the mandate of Akili Dada was solely to provide scholarships for girls, but soon more opportunities to support girls began to emerge. More than a decade later, Akili Dada is the realization of Wanjiru’s vision for an organization that enables young African women to pursue educational and leadership opportunities previously not available to them. Since 2005 until 2020, 162 scholarships have been awarded to girls from underserved backgrounds, and 100% of the scholars who attend high school go onto higher learning. An estimated 250,000 have been impacted by these leadership development programs and scholars’ social change initiatives.

FIRE: Clear and Ambitious Intentions

In 2006, Dr. Kamau-Rutenberg and her husband made an initial financial commitment enabling Akili Dada to take on its first beneficiaries.  Since then, the growth of Akili Dada has been supported by conscious investment decisions made to build a healthy financial foundation and growth strategy.

Akili Dada participated in FIRE programs in 2012-2013, in 2015 and in 2019. Purity Kagwiria was the second Executive Director and led the organization from 2014 to 2020: she first encountered the principles of FIRE in 2012 (then known as the Financial Sustainability Program). Akili Dada was one of the first organizations to experience this program, and at the time they were in a project-to-project cycle.

Purity quickly understood that a paradigm-shift was needed. If Akili Dada was going to take steps towards financial resilience, they needed to move from an organization that asked for project funding to one that asked for true partnerships with its funding organizations. The Akili Dada team embraced the goals of the FIRE program including developing reserve funds and finding multi-year donors. In 2017, with the support of the Ford Foundation’s multi-year BUILD grant, Akili Dada stepped up to a new level of engagement to further its feminist approach and mission which led to development of their 2018-2022 strategic plan. And in 2020, Sankara Caroline took over as Executive Director to take Akili Dada to the next level: the development of feminist leadership across Africa.

What FIRE Made Possible:

The long-term intentional investment in financial resilience created significant growth in Akili Dada. Along the way of their FIRE journey, these are five key insights that led to moments of transformation:

#1 A Bold Fundraising Ask

In order to grow in programmatic and financial strength, Akili Dada shifted the conversation with their donors and became transparent about what they truly needed and wanted. The leaders realized the organization would only thrive if it had the money to pay for its core mission expenses, had savings for emergencies and the ability to make investments for growth.

“Non-profits often come into the fund-raising space with guilt. They believe funders have the power. And you don’t want to ask for too much in case the answer is ‘No’. The FIRE Program gave me the tools to be vulnerable to funders. To say - this is where I am, and this is what I need.” - Purity Kagwiria, former Executive Director

The team began to draft their proposals differently, clearly classifying all their costs, both indirect and direct. They included budget lines for communications and resource mobilization. Their grant proposals further evolved to include what they needed to sustain the entire, integrated organization:

  • 5% would increase the reserve fund (this is increasing to 10% in 2021 proposals)
  • 1 % would be invested directly in staff development

Not every funder gave them exactly what they asked for, but overall this strategy was very successful. Some funders even asked permission to share their proposal template with other organizations to show them how the same transparency could support similar requests.


#2 Building Reserve Funds for a Place for Girls

“At the beginning we didn’t have a reserve strategy. We figured out what it was and how to build it. We began to ask every donor for a portion for reserves in every grant proposal. And the majority did say yes.” - Purity Kagwiria, former Executive Director

Akili Dada took early learnings from FIRE about the importance of building a reserve fund. In 2012 and starting from nothing, the first $10K was set aside for this purpose. The team set a target to grow the fund to $300K. Understanding that goal for healthy operating reserves or LUNA (liquid unrestricted net assets) was a minimum of three months of average expenses, they had to continue to manage their reserve goals to align with their organizational growth. By year-end 2019, operating reserves were almost $500K, more than four months of average expenses.

One strategy of growing reserves was the capture of variances from converting currency from US dollars to Kenyan shillings. When there were extra monies created from a favorable exchange rate, Akili Dada asked donors if they could put the difference into their reserve funds, rather than returning it, and most donors would agree to this practice.

Akili Dada developed a policy to include an allocation for reserves in each grant proposal. However, even if donors decide not to agree to this, Akili Dada now has a goal of 10% of all annual revenue to go to reserve fund.

In 2018, Akili Dada was able to purchase their own office space, with available funds; no financing was required. This office space is now part of their capital assets. The Akili Dada office is a destination for girls, a feminist place for them to gather, support their studies. It is a place to meet mentors, for convenings, as well as being a library and a place for training.

“Owning office space - it’s something you can depend on. It’s safe for us. It’s safe for the girls.” 

- Sankara Caroline, Executive Director


#3 Long-Term Partnerships with Funders

The Akili Dada organization saw long-term funder relationships as key to their success: not only would these funders become stable sources of multi-year income, but they could also become champions.

“What kind of donor do we want? We want a funder to work with us for a decade. We need many multi-year grants. We want to take risks and be bold. This is not a five-year vision. Girls’ centeredness requires a lot of resources. We want to be able to get girls into positions that help women and girls. We want donors to visualize with us, who are passionate about leadership, girls, Africa and feminism!”  - Sankara Caroline, Executive Director

The team adopted a goal of pursuing larger multi-year grants with a growing number of funders. In 2013, they had four one-year funders, and established a goal of increasing revenue from these sources and adding new funders. By 2020 they had twelve funders, with the majority contracted to provide funding for at least three years, and they had achieved total income that was more than four times the income level of 2012. They were also able to avoid being overly dependent on a single donor:  in no year did a single donor contribute more than 26% of total income, and in most years, no single donor exceeded a 20% contribution.

Multi-year relationships with donors allowed Akili Dada to keep their long-term commitments to the girls they were supporting: helping them finish high school, go to university education and then realize opportunities for women leadership. The Akili Dada team made on-going engagement with their donors a priority and this meant creating active, strong relationships and communicating frequently: reaching out to share successes, reporting on time, and keeping each other visible in their activities. Akili Dada asked donors to host events, and donors asked the Akili Dada team to co-host, speak or sit on panels.

“We were very visible on-line and in events. We were able to catch the eye of new and existing funders.” Purity Kagwiria, former Executive Director

Akili Dada’s visibility with their donor partners made them more visible to other donors, which furthered fundraising efforts. Multi-year relationships later helped the organization through the pandemic, including a Covid response program and pivoting to on-line convening and mentoring.


#4 A Community That Pays It Forward

What I have really learned from FIRE is the aspect of generosity. We have been able to create a new culture around partnerships and generosity and what it means to thrive.” - Purity Kagwiria, former Executive Director

The FIRE program teaches principles of collaboration and sharing of information with the goal of strengthening movements, rather than viewing fundraising in terms of organizations competing for limited resources. When an organization adopts a mindset of abundance, then more creative ways to support the mission can emerge. Akili Dada saw this bear out with many of their partners including donors, staff and alumni.

Akili Dada decided not to apply for grants of less than $10K, so that newer organizations could apply for them, and also supported smaller groups.  These examples helped foster a culture of generosity and exchange: the Akili Dada team introduced groups to their own existing funders, and these funders in return introduced Akili Dada to new funders.

The culture of generosity is also manifest in Akili Dada’s staff contributions to programs. Each staff member contributes four days of salary a year to the organization.

“What we are doing means that members of staff are supporters of our work. This makes our mission a movement. Our staff is willing, and many contribute even more than this.” - Sankara Caroline, Executive Director

And, in the near future, the organization will formally launch Alumni Giving Circles - a formalised individual donor program - as part of the 15th year anniversary celebration of Akili Dada. Giving Circles were launched by girls who had been supported by Akili Dada and now have the means to give back. The alumni network has already helped grow Akili Dada, by contributing resources, acting as interns, and broadening the reach and influence of the organization by opening doors in university communities.

“We have an amazing group in our alumni. We want to formalize how they plug into Akili Dada. We want their help in mobilizing resources, as well as mobilizing for engagement. Because our scholars learned to build their own capacities – they understand this is what’s needed to support women leaders.” - Sankara Caroline, Executive Director


#5 Powerful Leadership Successions

 Akili Dada has been able to evolve their leadership to carry on and build the work of the organization. Three successful leadership transitions have occurred, each time expanding and evolving the strategy while simultaneously building greater financial resilience and strength.

 Their founder and first executive director, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, began the organization in 2005, built its foundation, articulated the mission and attracted their first funders. Wanjiru, together with Kavinaya Makau, led Akili Dada until 2014. From there, the leadership of Purity Kagwiria transformed the organization to one that occupied the thought leadership space as an African feminist organization based in Kenya. And Sankara Caroline, who started in 2020 is creating a new vision to share Akili Dada’s influence all across the African continent while strengthening its financial model by creating a pan-African supporter base.

 Transitions are at the core what Akili Dada does: to be able to have students transition from high school to university to community leaders, from school girls to independent women leaders. Therefore, Akili Dada lived their mission and ensured a thoughtful leadership transition in its own organization. Leadership succession was mapped out as part of their strategic planning, and the organization set aside the appropriate funds for leadership transition and training.

 I am lucky. Women ahead of me worked tirelessly and did a lot of fundraising. I am stepping into big shoes. But I am very excited and want to be part of the future.” - Sankara Caroline, Executive Director



Going Forward

Akili Dada has articulated important future priorities. The organization wants to strengthen its programs and measure their impact by understanding what happens to their scholars five to ten years after their university and mentoring programs.

The future of Akili Dada includes being a leader in research: asking critical questions and publishing findings. The organization has evolved into a leading feminist organization and future plans include expanding its reach from Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, to reaching girls all across the African continent.

“The overarching vision is to make Akili Dada a feminist institute. We want to reach girls across the continent. In five years, we want to become a formal institute and have accredited relationships with universities in Africa, Europe and Asia. It will take a lot of planning and thought leadership, but we want to be the feminist hub for young women and girls in Africa” - Sankara Caroline, Executive Director




The Ford Foundation created a program called BUILD: Building Institutions and Networks to support the long-term capacity and sustainability of social justice organizations and movements around the world.

The FIRE program (Financial Innovation and Resilience) is an internationally renowned program that teaches the fundamentals of financial resilience. It includes the latest approaches in innovative financing models, transformative partnerships with funders, changing funding and investment landscape, resource development and diversification, strategic finance, external communications and leadership practice.

This is one of several multi-media FIRE Impact Stories. The FIRE Impact Stories describe and illustrate key moments of transformation that took place during the FIRE program journeys of selected organizations.