End-of-year reflection for 2018

By Marcus Coetzee, 10 December 2018.

The end of another year is approaching. It has been a challenging year, filled with meaningful work, many lessons and lots of opportunity. There has also been too little time to do everything I’d intended to do.

I believe strongly in the value of reflection and always do a formal debriefing at the end of each year.

Here are some of my thoughts on 2018 before I take leave on Friday 14th December to enjoy a much-needed break. It sheds some light into my work with non-profit organizations and social enterprises in South Africa, and things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Favourite books this year

I read extensively on my Kindle – at least 1 book per week on average. The most notable non-fiction books read in 2018 are as follows:

2. Favourite podcasts this year

I always listen to podcasts when travelling to/from clients. This gives me between 1-2 hours per day of listening to insightful conversations and learning how to do things better. My favourite business podcasts this year have been:

3. Visiting other countries

I had the opportunity to visit Angola as part of setting up a foundation for a large commercial bank to help children. Memories that stand out from my visit are: the damage that corruption causes; the informal nature of Angola’s non-profit sector; people’s reliance on social capital to survive; the severity of social problems compared with South Africa, despite the wealth of Angola; and the hope that citizens were putting in the new leader.

I also visited Turkey for 3 weeks on holiday in September, where I enjoyed local food, swam a lot in the sea, read and visited historical sites. The people were incredibly hospitable and welcoming.

Both these visits reminded me that people are very much the same, regardless of where we’re from.

4. Working in partnership has become essential

I do very little work by myself anymore. Almost anything of complexity requires that I work with colleagues and other experts.

I’ve worked especially closely with Imani Development on the bigger strategy- and economic-development projects. I’ve also been spending a lot of time with Citizen Surveys, a research company that does large-scale surveys on social issues in South Africa.

Nicole Copley from NGO Law SA and I tend to collaborate closely as we share several clients, and because strategy and legal issues frequently overlap.

5. Focus on content marketing

I’ve spent much more time working on this website. This is a shift from previous years, where I’ve tended to spend my surplus time networking. I feel that writing is an extremely effective method of clarifying my thinking on a subject and reaching more people. I’m grateful for the positive feedback I’ve received on my articles throughout the year.

Looking back through my articles, I’ve focused my writings on the business side of non-profits and social enterprises, in contrast to previous years where I’ve written a lot about legal forms and tax.

My Social Enterprise Glossary is an ongoing project. Over 110 terms have been defined in order to help people to think and talk clearly about strategy.

My three favourite articles I’ve written in 2018 include:

6. Learning about the value of systems

I’ve been learning to adopt a meta-view of organizations – to see them as consisting of systems and sub-systems that can be identified, re-designed and fine-tuned. Apart from the obvious efficiencies, it is the only way we can get organizations to run without our constant involvement. It’s also the only way to build an organization that can be safely handed over to a successor.

I wrote about this in “Reduce overwhelm by fine-tuning your organization’s systems.”

I’ve started working towards an international certification in project management to supplement my existing qualifications. Projects are part of my life and those of my clients. While I have managed many large projects over my career, some exceeding R20 million in value, I’ve never subscribed to a specific methodology. Rather I’ve tended to use my judgement and a mix of project management tools. This seems the be the normal approach wherever I look. However, I’ve become unsatisfied with this approach and wish to deepen my understanding of how projects should be run, and how organizations should design their systems to run projects successfully.

7. Unpacking the business side of non-profit organizations

I spent much of 2018 helping non-profit organizations and social enterprises to make sense of their business side. This has involved looking at their cost structure, exploring the feasibility and viability of business models and ideas, and developing income-generation and revenue strategies.

These organizations have struggled to adopt a business mindset and realize that just because a project or business idea is virtuous, it does not automatically mean that it is financially viable. My colleagues constantly remind me not assume that everyone has a business background.

I’ve also consistently noticed the tendency of people to fixate on legal structures, investor pitches and complex strategies and business models, before they’ve got their basics working properly.

8. Striving to be productive and stay on the top of overwhelm

Like most management consultants, I’ve struggled to stay on top of all the projects I’m involved in while maintaining some resemblance of work-life balance. In order to cope and prevent burnout, I’m implemented some drastic steps, including:

  • Adopting the GTD productivity methodology and using the Nozbe app for task management;
  • Setting an absolute cut off time in the day – I start at 6.30am and log off and head to the gym at 4pm;
  • Not working on weekends;
  • Keeping my smartphone on airplane mode (and in my bag) for much of the day;
  • Only meeting with paying clients (except for business development on large projects);
  • Learning how to say “no” frequently;
  • Delegating work wherever possible;
  • Scheduling blocks of time in my calendar for certain tasks (e.g. Skype consultations, admin, creativity).

I also did a “time study”, which I wrote about in “A month in a consultant’s life: how I spent my time”

These tactics have all helped, but I’ve still got more fine-tuning to do.

9. Support policy work, but not directly involved

Efforts to grow the social economy in South Africa have continued.

The survey report “Social Enterprises in South Africa” was released in May 2018. I led the Bertha Centre’s involvement in this survey. Although it firmly establishes social enterprises as a feature of our economy, it nevertheless shows that social enterprises are in their infancy and tend to be small. For example, 80% of respondents reported an annual income of under R500,000.

This echoes my belief that a vast number of non-profit organizations (and businesses) are still on their Journey to Social Enterprise. In other words, interest in social enterprise is still on the uptake – a belief that is confirmed by the Social Enterprise Academy, which has reported a growing demand for their programmes. I’ve also noticed an ever-increasing number of corporates, donors and investors deciding to launch social entrepreneurship programmes, funds or incubators. This bodes well for the sector.

A lot is also being done by the International Labour Organization, Government of Flanders, Economic Development Department, universities, and other role-players, to develop a social economy strategy for South Africa. I was granted the opportunity to contribute my insights to the authors of several position papers on this topic. I’m very curious to see what comes of this process.

10. Working with fewer, larger projects

I’ve been becoming much more selective about the work I do since I’ve been operating at maximum capacity for a while.

I’ve deliberately chosen to work on fewer, more complex and challenging projects, where I can immerse myself and really make a difference in the world. These projects have required a team approach and primarily involved the development of income-generation and revenue strategies, as I mentioned earlier.


This has been a very busy year! Although I’m very much looking forward to my break, the year was too short to do everything I planned.

Next year I’m going to focus on coaching social entrepreneurs while also working with a handful of larger non-profit organizations that are trying to incorporate social enterprise thinking into how they operate.

I’m intending to be much more deliberate about how I work in 2019. I want to be able to allocate sufficient time for what’s important, rather than have my attention stretched in too many directions at once.

I expect to see the non-profit sector continuing to embrace business thinking. I’m hoping that some of the much larger and more established non-profit organizations can make this shift, and demonstrate to the others how it can be done. I look forward to helping them with this in the new year.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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