My Recent Trip to Africa

A couple of months ago, I got an email from Nicci Wright, wildlife rehabilitation manager of FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation, in Johannesburg, South Africa. She said that the organization, which treats over 10,000 wild animals each year, has been in existence for 15 years. Yet, FreeMe was struggling to break out of its old ways of doing things and move toward the next level of excellence in both its wildlife care and its public education programs. However, they did not know how to start.

FreeMe had gotten my name from Dr. Andrew Rowan, the President of the Humane Society International, who recently stopped by to see FreeMe on one of his visits to South Africa. He said that I could help them move forward.   After a short exchange of emails, I was certainly ready to try.

I arrived in Johannesburg on the evening of Wednesday,  November 20, 2012, after a flight of about 17 hours. Following a good night’s sleep, I was ready to dive in.   I spent most of the next morning, just hanging out around FreeMe, watching how things were done, and making notes.   That afternoon, I got to go out on a release of leopard tortoises … about a dozen of them. These living dinosaurs were set free on a large farm, located in what is called “the cradle”… which is short for “the cradle of civilization” … the site from which some of the oldest human remains ever found had come. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.

On Friday, we dove into the hard work of charting a future for an organization which had a great deal of history … and a lot of momentum in one direction. The challenge was to change directions without losing the history. In the room were about 20 people:  board, staff, and volunteers.   For three days we worked, and worked hard.   I would present a concept and the group would discuss how it applied to FreeMe. Change is never easy. During the intensive three-day working session, there were some strong concerns about whether or not FreeMe could really build the future it truly wanted. However, the more I watched, the more determined the group was to strive for excellence. 

The hardest part of any such strategic planning session, especially for organizations which have never undergone such a process, is the articulation of  mission … the statement that explains why the organization exists.   It is specifically not a list of what the organization does; rather, a statement of the underlying motivation for doing it.   As the third day was winding down, the group was starting to get discouraged because there was no consensus about what that mission statement should be. However, as the discussion leader, I could see it starting to emerge.  

The struggle was between the tangible articulation of physical impacts and the more ethereal aspects of wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and release, what the animals’ stories do for the human spirit. Passions were running high as the semantics were debated and one after another phrase was rejected. Then, after several hours, as if high level of energy in the room gelled all at once, the statement came out:

“FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation—Conserving wildlife; Inspiring the world!”

The room literally fell silent as the group realized that they had done it. They had articulated why their organization existed, and defined what would propel them in to the future. 
The rest of our time together was easy; we quickly listed goals and objectives through which this mission would be advanced. However, the real product of three days of work was an eight-word phrase, the statement that has become the center of FreeMe’s universe. I am completely confident that this organization is on its way to achieving the excellence for which it is striving. It will become one of the leading facilities in Africa in the coming years … indeed a leader worldwide. 

At the end of four days of very hard work—teaching, advising, prodding, and mentoring—I was spent. However, on few occasions in my long career have I been more confident that my time had been well-spent. The wildlife—and the people—of South Africa will feel the positive impact FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation will have in the months and years ahead. I am so pleased the Wildlife Center of Virginia and I were able to have played a small part in this metamorphosis.

--Ed Clark, President