In the dynamic domain of non-profit stewardship, where leaders shape the course of organizations, Grace Atkinson's five-year tenure as Jusoor's Executive Director stands as a testament to impactful leadership. As she concludes this chapter, this interview reflects on the transformative nature of her guidance, the strategic achievements realized, and the enduring legacy she imparts in furtherance of Jusoor's mission in education and empowerment.
When you first joined Jusoor 5 years ago — what was it like? What drew you to Jusoor?
I knew of Jusoor from my previous role with Kiron Open Higher Education, I’d had a couple of calls with board and team members and the previous Executive Director. When I saw the position was available, I remember reading the job description and thinking it’s a perfect match! Through the interview process I was energized talking to the different board members and when I was offered the position it was like a dream come true. Joining the organization, it was a small team, but the passion for our mission came through with every person I talked to. A couple of weeks into the role we held a board strategy retreat in Lebanon (coinciding with my thirtieth birthday!) and it was so exciting to dream big together and plan for the organization – and looking back I’m proud to say we accomplished almost everything we set out to do. What I love about Jusoor is that across the organization, we are not afraid to do things differently and be open to new ideas – although always with a focus on the big picture and how we can impact Syrian lives.
Jusoor focuses on education, entrepreneurship, and employment as means of empowerment. How do you think the needs of Syrian children have changed since the beginning of the war?
At the beginning of the war, we were thinking about how to adapt children and youth into temporary lives in their new host countries. No one knew what would happen in Syria, and some children were sitting the Syrian brevet and others the exam set by the opposition rather than the local equivalent of the high school leaving exam, which limited their options in the future. In the years since, as a sector, we have been gradually reconciling the needs of Syrian children to the local education sectors in order for them to gain recognized qualifications – in Lebanon for example a big win was allowing Syrian children the option to sit for the Brevet exam in Arabic. Now over a decade later, we are facing a prolonged crisis and an implication that donors and the the media are focusing on other crises. At the same time, we now have displaced Syrians who have ten-year-olds and younger children who are born in the host country and have essentially lived their whole lives as refugees – some having never left the camps. Yet their primary needs are for a safe space, to be cared for, and to be given the skills and opportunity to be able to build a successful future remain. Similarly, those going through our career and entrepreneurship program want to access the tools and opportunity to build a better life for themselves – they do not want to rely on an inefficient aid system – and that’s what Jusoor always aims to offer. For the youth I’ve talked to, it’s important for them to feel seen and heard and know that people believe in them, there is a risk with this generation of Syrians that they feel forgotten.
Throughout your tenure, Jusoor has likely encountered shifts in the global landscape. What were they, and how did you navigate and adapt the organization to meet evolving challenges and opportunities?
We definitely did, some larger than others! When planning, along with the leadership team, we considered that the situation on the ground changes quickly, and global geopolitical shifts along with natural events (e.g. earthquakes) and other disasters (e.g. pandemics) meant we had to stay flexible and adaptive. We addressed this by always centering on meeting the needs of Syrian children and youth in the long term and prioritizing how to ensure they could access the right education, and support to excel in life. Using the COVID19 pandemic as an example, we rapidly had to close all our in-person activities, including our refugee education centers. Suha, our Head of Refugee Education, and I brainstormed how we could continue to deliver education despite not being able to meet the children physically – Suha went away and worked with her team to design an education program which could be delivered via WhatsApp, which we called Azima, meaning determined in Arabic, because the teachers and children were determined to continue their education despite not being able to go to their classes. The program went on to be very successful, we were invited to pitch as part of the UNHCR EdTech Solutions Accelerator alongside being granted funding by the UK FCDO to work with the EdTech Hub to test and improve the program, and we also presented Azima at UNESCO mobile learning week. More importantly, the program reached hundreds of children who would have not had access to education otherwise – who were then able to smoothly transition back into in-person schooling once it was safe to re-open the centers. We then took what we had developed and our lessons learnt and pivoted the Azima concept to cater for even harder-to-reach out-of-school children, including those with unique learning needs and those working during the day, to ensure no child is left without education. This is just one example of many of how we faced challenges head on and kept the needs of Syria’s next generation at the core of our decision making.
Can you share some key milestones or accomplishments that you are particularly proud of achieving during your five years of leadership at Jusoor?
I’m proud of how Jusoor has grown and transformed during the five years of my leadership, with the same relentless focus on impact but with more programs. The number of people we have reached has grown on average 20% per year, yet we have consistently prioritized delivering quality programming over impressive numbers. In order to grow these programs, the size of our budget has also been growing, and we have had to work hard to raise the funds to meet our program needs – over the past five years our income has grown on average 37% per year. A key achievement for me was stewarding the transformational MacKenzie Scott gift, which enabled the organization to think big and make some bold moves. One of the most exciting projects we were able to implement during my tenure was opening the high school program in Lebanon, which has supported almost 500 Syrian children to date to complete their secondary education. A second was partnering with three schools and an education center in Lebanon to stop them having to close their doors due to a lack of funds, keeping a thousand additional Syrian children in education. In addition, we relaunched a career development program, initially through a pilot having Syrian youth work online for a San Francisco based AI company, and also ran a cohort benefiting from a series of coaching sessions with a San Francisco career advisor. Our entrepreneurship program has been improving year on year, and we have very recently received the exciting news that the program has been awarded with EOCCS accreditation - the first NGO ever to receive this prestigious recognition, placing it amongst some of the top business schools in the world! Reaching every milestone has been an accomplishment, and one only possible by the amazing group of individuals coming together and working towards Jusoor’s mission.
Looking back, what did working with Jusoor teach you/impress upon you? are there specific lessons or insights you gained from your time at Jusoor that you believe will shape your future professional endeavors?
Absolutely, I have learned so much in this role. Here are a few key points I’m happy to share;
- Practice direct feedback (delivered with care) – this is something we have been working on across the organisation and it’s amazing to see the benefits of it!
- Ask the right questions – make sure you’re getting the right information by asking the right questions – and that’s to all the stakeholders; donors, beneficiaries, team members, board members – and to keep talking to each of the key stakeholder groups – and ask the big questions. Is this program having the impact we wanted? How could we support you better? What would happen if we stopped X program tomorrow? Can you triple the size of your gift this year? How we reach 10 times the number of children? 100?
- Don’t be afraid to ask for advice – gather your best people around you and share your thinking with them, and get their feedback, advice and guidance.
- But don’t easily dismiss your gut instinct – if you feel that a certain route feels right, I’ve learned that’s likely because it is, so keep listening to your instincts.
- As a leader, you need to make sure you’re prioritizing your mental health, to be on top form for your team, and also to set an example and the tone across the organisation
- Finally, an empty seat is better than a bad hire – if you don’t find the right fit on the first round, keep going! It will pay off in the long run.
What do you think is next for Jusoor? As Jusoor moves into its next chapter, what insights or hopes would you share with our next ED in advancing and growing Jusoor's mission?
Jusoor should keep innovating on how best to serve the needs of Syria’s children and youth – I imagine that will be an exciting mix of scaling our existing activities, launching some new projects and retiring some of the activities which have less return on investment than the other projects. This will involve some difficult decisions, and I encourage the next Executive Director to lean into these. Which leads me to my next point, during their tenure the next Executive Director is likely to face some tough times, and I’d iterate to them that these are the times you grow as a leader. I’d also encourage them to think about the 80/20 principle especially with regards to our donors and impact, and allocate how they are spending their time according to the areas where it is really making a difference. It’s easy to get caught in the day-to-day and lose sight of the bigger picture, so make sure to carve out time to focus on that and ensure you’re steering Jusoor in the right direction. Finally, in my humble opinion, it’s the community which makes Jusoor special, from the founding board members to our powerful team, to our inspirational donors and to all of the hardworking scholars and alumni, entrepreneurs, teachers, and students, there is a touch of magic in every interaction – so treasure the people element of the role – and good luck!