Written by: Arielle Brousse

Edited by: Danielle Mazzeo

CSIS Photography by: Eva Cruz

Traumaid Video & Photography provided by: Jenni Dawson

For over 10 years, Dr. Jennifer Dawson has flown to war-torn regions to help rebuild communities affected by large-scale disasters.

Jenni is the founder of TraumAid International, an organization delivering trauma mitigation services to communities in disaster zones, primarily in East and Central Africa. In the past decade with TraumAid, Jenni started Baraka Academy, a primary school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has provided nearly 2,000 students and their families with educational and health services. She also launched Live Again, a service connecting survivors of rape and war in Uganda with therapeutic and micro-credit resources.

Yet, even as Jenni worked with community leaders to tap into their resilience and abilities, she felt beaten down in her own work.

Jenni’s passion to address the effects of trauma was unwavering. But she found she was alone in doing the back-end work required to keep TraumAid afloat each year, such as fundraising, administration, and communication strategy. And her energy to continue the work on her own was flagging.

“I love the work in the field,” she says, “but actually running the structure that is needed around that, for finances, legalities with the government, I found really exhausting.”

Her frustration came to a head last year, when the minutiae of running the organization got to be too much—and she handed in her resignation.

“I was tired, I was overwhelmed, I couldn’t see a way forward,” she says.

Jenni received mixed responses from her board. Some accepted her resignation, others balked. But one board member urged her to reconsider.

She told Jenni that it would be a shame to give up the years of good work she’d done with TraumAid. Why not take a year off to get some clarity, and proceed from there?

 

Jenni was no novice in the world of social impact. But even with ten years of fieldwork under her belt, and thousands of people positively affected by her programs, she had come to a place where she felt unrooted and needed to ask for help. She decided to focus on continuing education.

Jenni found the Executive Program on Social Impact Strategy, and it sounded like a perfect fit. Not only could she participate in the course remotely from her home base in Sydney, Australia, but the program addressed all the issues she’d struggled with: governance, structure, fundraising, and—especially—sustainable business models.

Over the course of the program, Jenni completed her assignments each week by rooting her lessons in the real-world case study of TraumAid. When she turned in her assignments to the Executive Program teaching team, she also gave them to the members of her board, who were able to track what she was learning and assess where TraumAid had room for growth.

The fact that the curriculum was so relevant to her practice fueled Jenni’s drive over the eight months of coursework. “My priority was to learn skills to bring a business together that we already had,” she says. What she learned wasn’t just theoretical; it could be used for greater positive impact on the communities where she was already working.

“Every single assignment has been immediately translated into immediate effect,” she says. “The skills [I’ve learned] are not just good. I think they’re critical.”

With the help of the teaching team and her fellow students, Jenni used her hiatus to re-think her business model, and to set up processes that make TraumAid’s back-end work easier and more effective. She’s rejoined the organization as CEO, and feels re-energized and recommited. She’s already seeing growth in the organization and she feels more confident, and better equipped to go forward. Jenni says she is grateful for the collective, collaborative environment in which she was able to develop her new skills, and she feels confident about addressing problems as they arise: “Even the gaps I don’t know, there is that community of people to call on for help.”

The curriculum has not only benefited Jenni, but also the people she works with. TraumAid’s sustainability-focused model will have a greater long-term impact on the regions in which it works. Its program model involves working closely with community leaders on the ground, training them to identify and treat the effects of trauma on their own. But now that Jenni has a strong handle on business models, presentation, and pitching, she’s not just training community leaders on how to treat trauma; she’s training them to raise their own funds, to keep the work going.

“The need is incredible,” she says. “With a billion traumatized people in the world, we get invitations every month, almost, from a new community.”

Having these skills and this community ten years ago, at the start of her work with TraumAid, Jenni says, would have made things easier.

“But in hindsight, I’m sort of glad I didn’t,” she adds. She thinks that being without these resources for all this time made her more thankful for her lessons. “When you know how important they are, you actually take them in much more appreciatively.”

“I was about to give up my life’s work and passion,” she says. “What seemed exhausting at the end of last year now seems manageable… This course has been a gift.”

And as for her organization?

“I think the future of TraumAid is huge and amazing,” Jenni says. “And hopefully you’ll all get to know it.”

Learn More About TraumAid International

TraumAid International is a not-for-profit organization, that specializes in mitigating trauma and rebuilding communities in the aftermath of large-scale disaster.

Read more about TraumAid’s work and mission.

Learn More About the Executive Program

The Executive Program for Social Impact Strategy is an eight-month hybrid online and in-person program designed for emerging and experienced nonprofit and business professionals.

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