Establishing a Foundation in South Africa is no easy feat. When South Africa’s most popular comedian, Trevor Noah, founded the Trevor Noah Foundation (TNF) in 2018, he was clear on the vision. A world where education enables youth to dream, see and build the impossible.
Although, he did consider what niche he would carve for himself in the philanthropic landscape, in the country of his birth, facing many challenges. He knew he wanted to positively impact education, which is the TNF’s sole focus.
Trevor knew he had to establish an experienced, passionate and committed team. Leading that team as the Executive Director is Shalane Yuen, a Hawaiian native with a background in Economics and Sociology, a Master’s degree in Non-profit Management, and extensive non-profit and public sector experience, having worked in Rwanda, Namibia, Thailand and New York. Leading up to her appointment to TNF, Shalane was a strategic consultant on entrepreneurship and cross-sector partnerships in South Africa. She speaks articulately on how the TNF was established.
‘Trevor knew he wanted to give to the country of his birth and was determined to do it right. For him, education is key.’
He acknowledges that an excellent education – and a strong mother –helped get him to where he is today. He attended Maryvale College, a private primary and secondary school in Gauteng. Trevor is passionate about all children having access to quality education.
‘Once we knew education would be our focus, we still had to figure out a lot – what aspect of education, where, how and with whom?’
In early 2017, the team embarked on a major research mission, uncovering a sea of data on education-related challenges and potential opportunities for the TNF. The research findings reaffirmed Trevor’s commitment to education. Primary and secondary school education would be the focus. To achieve equitable education, the TNF decided to focus on schools in marginalised communities.
The TNF was formally launched in April 2018 in Johannesburg. The launch was attended by Sello Hatang, the Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, renowned anchor Derek Watts, Brad Smith, President of Microsoft and many more.
‘Education is more than academics. It’s about creating inspiring learning environments and cultivating a sense of community.’
As a pilot initiative, the Khulani Schools Programme partnered with one school: New Nation, a public school catering for children with special education needs. New Nation had been maintaining high academic marks for several years. Building on the zeal of its principal and teachers, the TNF offered intensive psychosocial support, digital skills development and career guidance to learners in Grades 9 to 12 to ensure that no one was left behind in the transition from school to further education.
‘We have found that to make a real impact, you have to offer more than academic support.’
‘We find, for example, that many children have really challenging circumstances at home, with no one to talk to. Kids have to figure out huge emotional issues on their own – too much for a young person. It’s here that our in-depth research really paid off.’ In addition to psychologists, the TNF worked with social workers to unpack some of the family and documentation issues affecting children’s lives.
‘We learned that lack of documentation is a critical countrywide challenge and a systemic barrier to accessing education. Using the data and outcomes from the pilot, in 2020, the TNF partnered with three other non-fee-paying schools in Gauteng. The schools located in Ivory Park, Eldorado Park, and Braamfischerville, were hand-picked because of their dedication to excellence. As a learning organisation, the TNF focuses on adressing potential pitfalls when scaling.
‘Key to our approach is that we lead with ACCCT, or accountability, communication, consistency, commitment, and transparency. That’s the code of conduct we model within the organisation that we similarly encourage our schools to model within their environments.
‘A primary lesson we learned was achieving a balanced partnership with a school. It is critical to clearly outline expectations and include Principals in every aspect of intervention to ensure our interventions are sustained.
We are building a culture of accountability, communication, consistency, commitment and transparency.
Through clear, mutually understood, and agreed-upon plans, we are closer to realising a joint vision for the school.’
‘Lastly, we’re not there to take authority away from school leaders. We provide support with the clear intention to empower. That’s why we work with Principals and school management teams who demonstrate a can-do attitude and strive for strong educational outcomes. We simply amplify what leaders are already able to offer.’
The TNF further empowers educators through the Education Changemakers (ECM) initiative hosted in partnership with the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Through YALI, 50 young leaders representing 13 Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries engaged in various aspects of education at the 2020 launch.
The ECM comprises four weeks of intensive training for young leaders, followed by pitching of ideas for improving educational outcomes in schools and communities across SSA.
Experts appraise the ideas, and the top 10 receive modest grants and business development coaching to support implementation. Testimonials from the alumni speak to the initiative’s positive impact on their careers.
‘As a long-time activist, the Education Changemakers Programme made me realise that I can be an entrepreneur too,’ says alum Kabelo Mahlobogwane and founder of the Marking App. ‘While fighting for justice, one can also bring about much-needed solutions.’
At the Trevor Noah Foundation we are imbued with our founder’s youthful energy and spirit. One solution we are particularly proud of is how we collaborate with young people to address challenges at schools in their communities.
‘We want people to think about what needs to be done and find ways to do it. Our work in solving some of the infrastructural problems in schools has given rise to the Faranani Infrastructure Project in partnership with YouthBuild South Africa. We trained 100 youth in construction skills, which include from fixing roofs to plumbing, electrical work, painting, etc. Some of these youth are ex-pupils of the schools we are involved in. They’re learning to solve problems.’
In each school they work with, the TNF now either partners with Faranani trainees or trains residents in simple skills that will provide short-term employment. At the end of the full Faranani programme, graduates receive a toolkit and certificates accredited by the Construction Education and Training Authority (CETA).
‘Kids of today are being told to be the leaders of tomorrow, but they’re not given the tools,’ says Trevor on his website. The TNF demonstrates that it is possible to make a sustained difference with energy and enthusiasm, commitment, baseline research and the right team.