The second feature in our International Development Leader Spotlight series: Jake Smith, Executive Director at Blood: Water.
Why did you pursue a career in international development? I began my career in fundraising and marketing for a large university athletic department. I was fortunate that two of my sisters chose to teach school in Africa. After a visit to Africa and 8 years in fundraising for college athletics, I decided that a career that would allow me the opportunity to work closely with those I had met in Africa would be a much more fulfilling vocation. I began my career in international development in 2010. I’ve historically held roles in the areas of development and marketing. In 2019, I became the Executive Director of Blood: Water, a role that I currently hold and love. The role now allows me the chance to speak into our program strategy, while also helping to raise funds and awareness to support our partners.
How does Blood: Water take an anti-colonial approach to international development? We are not implementers. We believe locally-led African organizations know what they need more than we ever could. We begin every potential partnership with the questions, "What Are You Doing and How Can We Help?" At Blood: Water, we don't put strict limitations on our funding commitments. Because we’re involved for at least eight years, we’re able to create lasting change in organizations that can then create a lasting impact. Our model includes an in-depth process for developing and measuring the growth of organizations. From finance to technology, and assisting organizations in developing their mission and vision, we work alongside our partners to strategize and develop their organizations.
How do you ensure Blood: Water’s beneficiaries are represented with dignity? There are a lot of organizations that want to make you the hero of the story. At no point will Blood: Water ever talk about American donors or funders being the heroes. From the pictures we present on our website and collateral to the way we talk about partner leaders, we always aim to make those doing the real work - our African partners - the heroes. When we tell someone’s story as he/she would want it to be heard, we honor the story. We are about inspiring people by sharing a humanized account of others, and therefore, being human to one another.
What is one project or movement that inspires you? The funding that Blood: Water provides for peer exchange visits in Africa always excites me because it removes the “top-down development” mentality and instead allows two of our African partners to learn from each other. One of our current partners, PaCT in Uganda, has an Excellence in Schools WASH program. We recently provided the opportunity for another one of our partners in Kenya, Beacon of Hope, the opportunity to visit with PaCT, to learn about this program and then bring this back to Kenya for work in their schools and communities. What is really exciting is that we’ve seen countless times that when the partner brings a project back to implement in their community, they undoubtedly make some small tweaks and improvements that in turn serve the original project partner. It’s a continuous cycle of learning and growth, all fueled by African partners.
For young professionals considering a career in international development, what is one piece of advice you would share? Just start. Find an organization that you can intern with or volunteer with in college that will allow you a chance to see all facets of an organization, from the programs team to the fundraising team. From there, you will be able to discern what path is best for you. One of our program team members, our Impact and Learning Manager, got her start first as a fundraising coordinator. It first helped her learn that she didn't want to do fundraising! But it also helped her get a foot in the door which has led to a very successful career that a diploma alone likely wouldn't have afforded.