Molly Melching, Founder and Executive Director, Tostan

Molly Melching, Founder and Executive Director, Tostan

Molly Melching went to Senegal in 1974 as an American exchange student from the University of Illinois. She remained in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer in Dakar and stayed on through the 1980s, working with Senegalese cultural specialists to create a development and empowerment program that engaged communities in their own language and used traditional methods of learning. Those efforts eventually led Melching to found Tostan (which means "breakthrough" in the Wolof language) in 1991. In the years since, Tostan has implemented its three-year educational program in some 2,600 communities representing seventeen different ethnic groups and almost as many languages in nine African countries, including Senegal, Guinea, the Gambia, Mauritania, Somalia, Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Sudan. In 2007, Tostan was awarded the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Last month, PND caught up with Melching, who still lives and works in Senegal, on one of her infrequent visits to the United States.

Philanthropy News Digest: Most of us can only imagine what it's like to be nominated for, much less win, an award like the Hilton Humanitarian Prize. What was the experience like for Tostan?

Molly Melching: We were nominated for the prize three times by a Canadian journalist named Sally Armstrong before we actually won it. She first nominated us in 1999, after spending some time with us in Senegal and writing an article about our program. I was impressed that the prize jury didn't seem to care whether an organization was nominated by a president, an actor, or even someone not well-known. What they do look at is the organization's substance and content. We made it to the pre-selection round and then the final twelve in 1999 and were closely scrutinized by the Hilton prize staff, which spent a week in the field with us doing a thorough audit and evaluation, examining how we spent our money, the results of our efforts, and so on. They also talked to our partners, our donors, and, most importantly, to participants in our programs. At the time, we were a fairly isolated organization, working only in Senegal and with little awareness of other groups or movements in Africa. So we benefited immensely from the feedback we received from the first evaluation, and as a result of that feedback we learned how to present our organization much more effectively.

In 2005, Armstrong returned to Senegal to report on efforts by communities to abandon child marriage, and she nominated us again. The Hilton committee came for another visit, only this time they went to Guinea to see what happened when we extended our program to another country. She nominated us yet again in 2006, and we finally won in 2007. The prize committee told us it is common to be nominated several times before actually winning, and I have to say we really benefited from having the Hilton people as a resource from 1999 through 2007. They stayed in touch, pointing us to opportunities, contacts, and organizations that were doing similar things as Tostan but with different methodologies. They told others about Tostan, and as a result we received many requests for interviews and for information about our work.

PND: What has winning the prize meant to Tostan? And what have you been able to accomplish as a result?

MM: The prize money itself, $1.5 million, represented 33 percent of our budget for 2006-07. In 2009, our projected budget will be roughly $7 million, and that growth is a direct result of our winning the prize.

Beyond that, we have been able to expand our program to other countries as well as supporting projects in Senegal, including the Talibé, or Child-Begging, Project, and the Microcredit Project. We've been able to provide much-needed training for staff. And we've been able to upgrade our computer, financial, and management systems. Winning the prize also has been critical to our effort to replicate our programs in other countries. There are so many costs involved in that, things like setting up an office or transporting volunteers and materials to remote villages or microcredit, which is especially important for our constituents, most of whom are women. Typically, donors won't fund those kinds of things, and the prize money has allowed us to do many of them.

PND: Which countries have you targeted in your expansion?

MM: Thanks to the prize money, we've been able to contribute to the extension of our program within Senegal, as well as support unforeseen costs in the Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Djibouti, and Somalia. For example, in partnership with UNICEF, we were in forty villages in the Gambia, and now we're in eighty. We've also just started the program in thirty-nine communities in Guinea Bissau and are going into Mali. Of course, that kind of expansion requires added support to ensure more effective and efficient delivery of our services, both in terms of program and management at the country level and internationally.

That said, we have also used the prize money for prefinancing projects that have been approved for funding but for which disbursements are delayed. You can't imagine what small NGOs go through: You contract to start a project in January, but the funding might not arrive until June. The funder, however, expects you to produce results by the end of the year. It's tough.

PND: BRAC has just been announced as the 2008 winner of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Do you expect to maintain a relationship with the Hilton Foundation going forward?

MM: Absolutely. Tostan will remain connected to the foundation as one of the twelve Conrad N. Hilton Prize laureates. The laureates meet on a fairly regular basis to discuss how we can leverage our status as winners of the prize to bring about change in areas that are important to us. Next year it will be wonderful to have BRAC in those meetings because they're experienced activists, and they will help our group realize the potential it has to create impact in the developing world. If we come out with joint statements on critical issues, having BRAC's voice in the mix will be a plus.

All the laureates feel strongly that being awarded the Hilton Prize was a profound experience that gave new life and purpose to our respective organizations, and we want to do something in return. The staff of the Hilton Foundation has been very supportive as our group has found its own voice and direction, but if they see that we need a resource person, they'll quickly connect us with someone in their network.

PND: Beyond the financial gain, how else has Tostan benefited from winning the prize?

MM: It has given us both credibility and visibility. People are familiar with the Hilton Prize and respect what it represents. And since we won the prize, they've become more interested in what we do; they visit our Web site, they take the time to read about us, they invite us to present at gatherings and conferences. Beyond that, our donors were extremely proud when we won because it was validation of their trust and confidence in us over the years. And potential donors now are more willing to take a second look at us. Before we won the prize, it was easy to overlook us. Winning the prize was the catalyst both for new interest and new donors.

Another benefit is that other governments in Africa that are concerned about social norms now know about our work in this area and have invited us to replicate our programs. The Senegalese government, for example, just announced that our program will be the program for the abandonment of female genital cutting throughout the country. The government also invited governments in adjoining countries to consider adopting our approach to ending the practice, which favors the promotion and defense of human rights.

Winning the Hilton Humanitarian Prize gave us international recognition that encouraged others to look closely at our results. But, for us, just being a part of the whole process was a prize in itself. The support we've received from the Hilton Foundation has been amazing. I've always said we won the prize many times over.

Alice Garrard