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Add your voice to the conversation

Margie Smith, CEO of TAFTA (The Association for the Aged) in Durban

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TAFTA was established 58 years ago. MARGIE SMITH, CEO of TAFTA (The Association for the Aged) in Durban, joined the organisation back in 1983 as a community liaison worker, supposedly for a few months as an interim project. It’s now 2016, 33 years later, and she has been the CEO since 2002.

Life doesn’t always go according to our original plans! She has led the organisation through a turn around from being an organisation that was failing financially to one that is hugely successful and a leader in the country in terms of aged care. She is of the opinion that she has done what needed to be done and is thinking about retirement now (Margie is 68 years of age). She has facilitated the development of their 2020 Strategy and ensured that good funding models are in place. She has also ensured TAFTA have good staff in place – they need to grow and are growing. So in terms of succession planning Margie has a firm plan in place. However, some staff members who were earmarked for movement in the organisation, have changed direction. Her strategy is that when they lack a skill they outsource the position – it is not a cheap option but it is flexible and they pay for what they need. So TAFTA has outsourced their CFO position, so they have someone who can do audits, prepare numbers for projects, on an ad hoc basis, and they have outsourced their marketing and income development head, who has helped them with re-branding and a new image for TAFTA.

Margie attributes TAFTA’s success to its people, and the people they have associated with, who have trusted them enough. TAFTA has built up a good reputation over the years of being an organisation that does what they say they will do; this credibility runs from board level to the newest member of staff and volunteers.

TAFTA’s strength Margie feels, has been their focus on the job. They haven’t diversified. They have stayed true to their vision, yet they have been adaptable. An example is that in the late 1990’s they took grandchildren in with the grandparents in their village in Inanda. They responded to a special need. TAFTA always respond positively where they can.

TAFTA’s greatest challenge is not to grow at such a pace that they lose their focus, and not to create great wealth for some while forgetting to expand and grow. At present they only reach 12% of older people in KZN. Margie believes we need to do this together – to reach out to more older people. She believes the sector is very fragmented, that there is huge duplication of effort. She imagines the fruits in terms of collaboration if the NGO sector worked as a Bidvest! Imagine if we had an NGOvest! We are all being challenged to change the model of care, do it in a better way, make care more affordable but still have rewards in terms of outcomes.

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TAFTA has been collaborating with groups in respect of lobbying the Department of Social Development for improved financing. However, Margie acknowledges that it is very costly for an organisation to free up a staff member to enable them to contribute to and get involved in collaborative networks. Few organisations can afford it, particularly involvement in global networks, but TAFTA has sent a couple of staff members to different international meetings. Margie maintains that TAFTA has reached out to a number of organisations to collaborate but it is not easy with separate boards and separate staffing issues, as well as a different ethos – these are barriers to collaboration. Her suggestion is that it will take an outsider to the sector to come in and break down barriers and talk to organisations about how it could work.

Margie Smith asks “why do we need a CFO in every organisation?” There is a fear of sharing. It could do so much for the greater good if the process of collaboration was trusted – it could mean serving a greater percentage of need. But this process cannot be forced on people. She recalled their Inanda project in the early days. They were invited to go in and share and help – they did not force themselves on the community. But organisations must be open to requests for help and be happy to get involved and make a contribution – respond positively but do not impose your values. The success rate would be small for the first few years, but in time many small initiatives would accumulate to a huge impact.

When asked about her own leadership, Margie says she has always been unafraid of allowing all her staff to learn even beyond what she knows. Margie has her Masters in Education but has managed with the support of her board and staff to be the leader in line with what the organisation required at a particular time.

Some organisations might need a strong leader to rescue it in a business sense but she was needed to change the organisation’s core policies. A leader needs to be flexible enough to do what is necessary but not be afraid of getting in someone with a different skills set that is needed at the time.

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For Margie as a leader, she needs to have purpose every day, bringing her team along with her. The leader cannot be a loner. In our sector, working alone doesn’t work. In TAFTA’s Strategy 2020 they have gone to every single staff member to get buy in. She believes she is superfluous to their need – her team can operate without her. She is working towards her exit – her successor is planned.

Who inspires Margie Smith? Some of the older people who have changed their lives by adapting a new idea, making huge efforts themselves. The older generation stayed within rules and regulations – the baby boomers are more flexible and ready to try new things. This is inspirational. It’s also inspiring to see staff being open to developing themselves. Mentoring and training has been important within TAFTA.

Thinking of the broad sector, the darkness is the total reliance of some organisations on subsidisation from government, the tsunami of the aged numbers and the sector not being prepared for these growing numbers of clientele. The cloud, not necessarily a dark one, is those developers building complexes only for the wealthy, without considering those who are less wealthy (not necessarily poor). In these retirement villages we have huge sectors of society divorced from the rest of society whereas in a true village there would be all sorts of people.

The legislation in our country is good but the implementation is disastrous. The light in our sector is the wonderful groups of people all wanting something to change, wanting to do better with better support. We have said these things for years but we have not implemented the change because of different income streams. If TAFTA can change from an organisation that was failing, so can others. Why can’t organisations help each other? Barriers still exist that need to be broken down – trust needs to be developed.

Margie Smith, granny to 3 grandsons, loves walking in the mountains, and does lots of cycling. Cycling tours are her favourite, with several tours done through Europe with her daughter. She also does pilates and focuses on keeping reasonably healthy. Dynamite comes in small packages and this lady has sure lit TAFTA’s fire brightly in the several decades she has served the organisation. Margie, your contribution to TAFTA and to our sector has been admirable and inspiring – thank you!